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June 15, 2013

Father’s Day and Forgiveness

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Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. – Micah 7:18-19

Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin. I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men. And ye ought to say in your hearts—let God judge between me and thee, and reward thee according to thy deeds. – Doctrine and Covenants 64:9-11

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I’ll be speaking in church this Sunday, which will be a Father’s Day with a special meaning for me and my lovely pregnant wife. The prospect of becoming a father in three months, after years of wondering whether life had fatherhood in store for me, has focused my mind on the things that really count.   

After meeting with several congregants who have come to me for help with various problems, I am more convinced than ever that giving and receiving forgiveness is essential for all of us. This is especially true when close family members are involved. Life is hard enough when we are surrounded with family and friends who can support us, encourage us, and comfort us when necessary. It becomes unimaginably difficult when no one has got your back. Of course, reconciliation with those who have loved – and hurt – us the most is never easy, though it can be a life-changing process.

For Mormons, it is necessary for us to forgive everyone – whether or not they ask for our forgiveness -- and to seek forgiveness from those we have harmed before seeking God’s forgiveness. In this we differ somewhat from rabbinic concepts of forgiveness, which I have always found fascinating.

Like LDS Christianity, Rabbinic Judaism does embrace the concept of teshuva, or repentance, which involves elements that are familiar to Mormons: recognition of sin, confession of sin, restitution (where possible), feeling remorse for sin, and abandonment of sin. However, rabbis teach that God can only forgive sins that we commit against Him; He cannot forgive those that we commit against other people. In order for people to forgive each other, the offender has to seek the forgiveness of the person he has wronged. If the latter sees that the offender is truly sorry and has taken steps to correct the wrong done, then he is obligated to allow the offender to ask for and receive his forgiveness. However, if the person who is offended does not feel that the offender is serious about his repentance, he is under no obligation to forgive him.          

According to LDS teachings, God can choose whether to forgive us. He is omniscient, knows our thoughts and desires, and can render a perfectly just judgment of our actions here on earth. Since we are not omniscient and cannot judge another person’s intentions and thoughts with certainty, we are obligated to give him the benefit of the doubt by granting him our forgiveness. Even if people do not seek our forgiveness, we are obligated to grant it. There is nothing in our scriptures that requires us to forgive immediately, but forgive we must. Needless to say, Sunday School lessons on this topic are among the most interesting ones in the church.

In contrast to rabbinic tradition, our prophets teach that God is able to forgive sins that we commit against Him and against other people. In practice, when a Mormon offends another person, the two concepts are combined: he must seek her forgiveness before seeking God’s.

In my experience, people who are quick to forgive are usually the most pious and devoted members of their faith communities. As I prepare my Father’s Day sermon in my capacity as the “father of the ward [congregation],” I can’t help but think that increasing our capacity to forgive each other would be especially pleasing to our common Father.

Happy Father’s Day to all men who are worthy of the title.

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