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28 August 2017

If Thy Brother Offend Thee

Living in families and communities can be tough. People don't always do what we wish they would do, things don't always get communicated clearly, and even when everybody is trying hard to do right, sometimes things get tense. People get hurt. It just goes with the territory in this life. Happily, the scriptures teach us how to handle this sort of thing gracefully, with attention to both justice and mercy. A recent misunderstanding has left me wanting to make sure that I thoroughly understand the Lord's standards and methods for conflict resolution.

My starting place has long been this:

And if thy brother or sister offend thee, thou shalt take him or her between him or her and thee alone; and if he or she confess thou shalt be reconciled. 
-Doctrine and Covenants 42:88

In rereading this verse, I was reminded that it's part of a much more comprehensive passage instructing us about what to do when conflicts arise:

And if thy brother or sister offend thee, thou shalt take him or her between him or her and thee alone; and if he or she confess thou shalt be reconciled. And if he or she confess not thou shalt deliver him or her up unto the church, not to the members, but to the elders. And it shall be done in a meeting, and that not before the world.
And if thy brother or sister offend many, he or she shall be chastened before many. And if any one offend openly, he or she shall be rebuked openly, that he or she may be ashamed. And if he or she confess not, he or she shall be delivered up unto the law of God.
And if any shall offend in secret, he or she shall be rebuked in secret, that he or she may have opportunity to confess in secret to him or her whom he or she has offended, and to God, that the church may not speak reproachfully of him or her.
And thus shall ye conduct in all things.
-Doctrine and Covenants 42:88-93

The Lord's prescription when there is a conflict is simple and straightforward: First, talk it over, and try to work it out, just the two of you. Don't go running to the Bishop or other authority right off the bat: the first conversation should be with the person you are irritated with. Only if you can't work it out on your own should you start looking for a mediator-- and that quietly and discretely. Apologies should take place at the same level of public that the offense took place at. This is part of the process of growth and reconciliation. 

President Kimball expanded on this passage's counsel:

It frequently happens that offenses are committed when the offender is not aware of it. Something he has said or done is misconstrued or misunderstood. The offended one treasures in his heart the offense, adding to it such other things as might give fuel to the fire and justify his conclusions. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Lord requires that the offended one should make the overtures toward peace. He says:
And if thy brother or sister offend thee, thou shalt take him or her between him or her and thee alone; and if he or she confess thou shalt be reconciled  
D&C 42:88
To the Nephites the Lord said:
. . . if ... thy brother hath aught against thee—
Go thy way unto thy brother, and first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I will receive you  
3 Ne. 12:23-24
And to the disciples in Judea he said:
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
Leave there thy gift before the altar and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift  
Matt. 5:23-24
Do we follow that commandment or do we sulk in our bitterness, waiting for our offender to learn of it and to kneel to us in remorse?...
Brothers and sisters and friends, if we will sue for peace taking the initiative in settling differences—if we can forgive and forget with all our hearts—if we can cleanse our own souls of sin, accusations, bitterness, and guilt before we cast a stone at others—if we forgive all real or fancied offenses before we ask forgiveness for our own sins—if we pay our own debts, large or small, before we press our debtors—if we manage to clear our own eyes of the blinding beams before we magnify the motes in the eyes of others—what a glorious world this would be!
-Elder Spencer W. Kimball, Except Ye Repent

I think that it's important to acknowledge that it does sometimes happen that the person who is wrong, even when you go to them privately, refuses to reconcile. This makes things more difficult, but the same high standards of forgiveness apply, perhaps even more so: seeking help from the Lord to achieve forgiveness in this case will protect us from bitterness and anger. It is possible that, when the other person refuses to reconcile that finding forgiveness anyway may be even more important to our own spiritual health: it's been said that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick. We need to forgive.

"Forgiveness requires us to consider the other side of the Atonement—a side that we don’t think about as often but that is equally critical. That side is the Atonement’s power to satisfy our demands of justice against others, to fulfill our rights to restitution and being made whole. We often don’t quite see how the Atonement satisfies our own demands for justice. Yet it does so. It heals us not only from the guilt we suffer when we sin, but it also heals us from the sins and hurts of others."
-Brother James R. Rasband, Faith to Forgive Grevious Harms

Most member of the Church will be familiar with the story of Thomas B. Marsh, how he had been ordained the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, but then fell away, and swore out an affidavit that contributed in no small part to the circumstances that culminated in the Missouri Extermination Order, and the violent expulsion of the members from Missouri and the suffering of that period. He was excommunicated and remained outside the Church for almost 20 years, but eventually did return, apologized to the people, and was received back into the Church in full fellowship -- not an insignificant act of forgiveness on the part of the families of those who had died as a result of his actions.

What is interesting to me, in contemplating this situation, is that forgiveness, reconciliation, and consequences from the Lord all seem to be individual matters. When Brother Marsh was rebaptized his sins, as all new members' sins are, were washed away, and he was clean again. I greatly admire the courage that it took to return, to face the people that he had betrayed, and to live his final years among them. Brigham Young let him speak to the Church, and then had a show of hands from the congregation to see if they could receive him in full fellowship, following his apology and other remarks about his apostasy and return, which they did, "not a hand was raised" when Brother Brigham called for objections.

He was never reinstated to the Apostleship; that privilege was gone. Permanently.

Hopefully, we will never experience the type of betrayal that the early Saints received from Brother Marsh, but I think it is instructive to look at the pattern for the Lord's dealings here when we experience an offense at the hand of an unrepentant sinner: friendship is a position of trust, and the Lord does not always restore those who return to the positions of trust that they previously held. If we, in counsel with the Lord, choose to hold those who have injured us to a less intimate, less trusted position in our lives than what they previously held, it is not necessarily a symptom of a lack of forgiveness. Enforcing strict boundaries with those who are toxic in our lives is not a sin: it's a safety measure. He does not ask us to be doormats, but we are expected, commanded, required to forgive: "until seventy times seven." If we do not, the Lord categorically stated greater sin is in us... not them. Regardless of the sin under discussion.

Our very salvation depends upon us being willing to forgive others. As Christ taught:
For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:
But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. [Matthew 6:14–15]
That our own forgiveness should be conditioned on forgiving others can be a hard doctrine, particularly if the sin against us is horribly wrong and out of all proportion to any harm we’ve ever committed. Even harder, the Lord has indicated in modern revelation that “he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin” (D&C 64:9). This is a very strong statement: if we refuse to forgive, there remaineth in us the greater sin.
-Brother James R. Rasband, Faith to Forgive Grevious Harms (emphasis original)

 Hopefully, offenses will be few and reconciliation will be possible. But regardless, forgiveness, trust in the Lord's ability to handle it, to heal us of the pain we have experienced, is a must.


Anne Chovies said...

Elder Marvin J Ashton spoke to the subject of offenses and misjudging the actions of others in April Conference 1983: "The Savior admonished, “Have peace one with another.” (Mark 8:50) Peace must first come from within. It flows from the individual to the home, to the community, to the nations, and to the world. This peace can only come as we resist the damaging pastime of passing judgment. In the scriptures we are warned to judge not, that we be not judged. Somehow there seems to be something enticing and intriguing about being a self-appointed judge.
"Many years ago I heard a story which I’ve always remembered. Perhaps I heard it when I was running around as a young barefoot boy.
"A poor, old French woman was walking along the banks of the Seine River. On her stooped shoulders was draped a threadbare shawl. Suddenly she stopped, leaned down, picked up something that sparkled brightly in the sunlight, and put it under her shawl. A policeman observed her actions and hurried over to her. In a very gruff voice he said, “Let me see what you are hiding under your shawl!” The old woman drew out from the folds in the shawl a broken piece of glass, saying, “It is only a sharp piece of broken glass. I picked it up so some barefoot boy might not step on it and cut his foot.”
"The policeman was doing his duty, but he was more than willing to convict the woman of a misdeed before he could learn that she had acted with the nobility of a caring soul.
"Yes, erroneous judgments of the actions of our fellowmen may be responsible for our delay in straightway heeding the call of our Savior."
It's so easy to misinterpret the motivations behind the actions of others and then take offense. I've always figured that since we will eventually have to forgive all offenses there's no point in holding grudges, the sooner we can forgive the sooner we can be at peace. There's great peace in leaving judgment to Him who does not misunderstand.

Ritsumei said...

I agree, the holding of grudges is toxic, indeed: swallowing poison and expecting the other guy to die. And it leaves a greater stain on us than the original offense caused in the first place. That's a great story about the glass.

But I don't believe that the Lord intended us to be doormats, either. Later in that same chapter He said, "by their fruits you will know them", and before that it was, "give not that which is holy to dogs," and both of those things require judgements. I don't think that there is sound scriptural justification for a blanket refusal to judge; "judge not that ye be not judged" is probably the most often quoted verse on judging, but you can't find Correct Action based on that alone; it's got to be understood in context and in tandem with all the other scriptural passages that deal with judgement, and there are some cases where it's required: parents selecting (or not selecting) a baby sitter, deciding who you will or will not date, determining which voices you're going to listen to as you made decisions guiding your actions and beliefs... all these things are judgment calls. And we need to make them; we are not justified in shying away from them in the name of non-judgementalism or tolerance. My favorite example pushes it to the extreme: a pedophile is obviously a bad choice of babysitter -- but that's a judgement, every bit as much as choosing this teen over that teen. Sometimes we are required to judge. Sometimes the requirement to make a judgement AND to forgive exists in the same situation. Judgements have to happen.

I love the name the "Standard Works" for the scriptures, i.e., the standard by which we judge things. We have to know the scriptures and the Lord well enough to do it correctly.


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