One day the apostle Peter came to Jesus asking, "Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21,22).
The scriptures continually remind us that we must forgive people for the things they have done against us and we strive to do that because it is a commandment from God but why must we forgive others? Of course it's not necessary to know why God asks us to do anything. Our responsibility is to trust in the Lord and obey Him, but when we understand why we must do that then it makes it easier to be obedient
For example, a parent will tell a small child not to go out into the street but since the child doesn't really understand the danger of being hit by a car, the parent simply tells them what they must not do rather than try to explain the reason for the rule. But, as adults, we do understand the danger and because of that understanding we don't need for someone to tell us to be careful when going out into a street. We do it willingly because we want to.
In the same way, many times we keep the commandments of God, not because we fully understand them but simply because God tells us to, but when we come to realize why it's important to keep them then we tend to do what God tells us because we want to, rather than out of blind faith. If that is true then why does God require us to forgive others?
There are a number of reasons. The first is that when we determine not to forgive someone we are passing judgment on them. We have made a decision that since they have wronged us in some way they are therefore worthy of being held in contempt by us and looked at with scorn. With such an attitude, it is not uncommon for the offended person to go around letting others know of the sin that the offender has committed. When this is the case it's the modern-day equivalent of the 17th century humiliating practice of putting a criminal in stocks in the public square for everyone to see.
But only God can judge righteously because only He can see what is in a person's heart and knows the motives for their actions. Since we don't have the ability to truly know why someone did what they did, it then becomes impossible for us to make a righteous judgment.
In a court of law, a jury will hear testimony from a number of witnesses from both the prosecution and the defense and then they must render a verdict, yet many times the evidence doesn't clearly prove the defendant's guilt or innocence. In that case the jury has no other choice but to make the best judgment they can based on inconclusive evidence. For that reason it is not unheard of for an innocent man to be found guilty and a guilty man to be found innocent.
But even when the evidence is overwhelming one way or the other, at least there was a trial where both sides of the issue are fully presented. When we set ourselves up to judge another person, we only want to see one side of the argument and very rarely do we want to see or even admit all of the evidence that is relevant to the case.
When someone offends us, we are the one bringing an accusation against another but when we decide that someone is not worthy of our forgiveness then we are acting as both the prosecution and the judge. In a situation like that there can be no justice. That would be like if you went to court accused of a crime and discovered that the judge is a close relative of the person who is your accuser. In a situation like that you would hardly expect the judge to render a fair verdict.
Therefore, when we are offended there has to be a third, disinterested person to be the judge if justice is to be served. And the reason why that Person has to be God is because He alone has seen and knows all the evidence and, more importantly, knows all the extenuating circumstances.
But being a judge requires more than just hearing all the evidence. A judge is someone who not only knows the law but has been trained to apply the law in a just and fair manner. A lawyer knows the law but when they are in a courtroom they are applying the law to either prosecuting or defending someone. For that reason they cannot properly apply the law to deciding the guilt or innocence of the accused.
We refer to God as our heavenly Father because we are His children. When someone offends us it's like two children getting into a squabble with one another. If left to themselves, the two children will continue to bicker and fight among themselves but it is the wisdom of the parent who determine which child has done wrong and which one hasn't. That's why, when one child had done something offensive to one of their siblings, the offended child will many times say, "I'm going to tell daddy on you." Even children understand that "daddy" is the person who can make a just and righteous judgment. But as adults, we tend to lose sight of the fact that we are children of God and when someone offends us we are not always willing to let "daddy" decide.
In a court of law there are three lawyers to a case. There is the defending attorney, the prosecuting attorney, and the judge. All three know the law but, even when there is a jury, it is the judge alone who determines the punishment. When someone is found guilty, the prosecuting attorney may recommend what they think that punishment should be, while the defending attorney has the same right to plead for a lesser sentence but in the end, it is the judge who decides what the appropriate penalty will be.
When we set ourselves up as both the prosecutor and the judge it is almost impossible for us to make a righteous decision because we become blinded by our own prejudices and distortions of the truth. And should we make an unrighteous decision in judging another then we ourselves become guilty of violating the law. In that case we go from being the accuser to being the accused and justice then demands that we reap what we have sown. That is why Jesus said "with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to your again" (Matthew 7:2).
But the real danger in not forgiving someone is not so much that we just fail to overlook the offense, it's that we harbor resentment and that leads to us wanting to have "justice" done, as we define that word. When we refuse to forgive someone else it's because we are bothered by the fact that they got away with doing something we don't like and we want to see them suffer for what they have done to us. If that desire for retribution is not there then there is no reason to be unforgiving.
For example, if a thief steals money from someone we don't know it doesn't bother us. In that case there is nothing for us to forgive the thief for. But when we are the person a thief has stolen from then it bothers us and it's that attitude that causes us to hold a grudge against the person who has offended us. To forgive someone means that we no longer hold a grudge because what they did no longer bothers us. But as long as we hold a grudge we have the desire to have the other person get what's coming to them.
However, if God is the judge then He is the one who determines what the appropriate punishment will be. Perhaps the person who offended us will face consequences for their action that we may never see and because we don't know that justice has been meted out, we can continue harboring resentment long after the punishment has been given. But, more importantly, God will deal with each of us as He feels is best and sometimes what we think is best is far from it.
Saul of Tarsus went about persecuting the Saints, even to the point of asking for authority to arrest and throw into prison anyone caught following the teachings of Jesus from Galilee. There were many Christians who feared him and for good reason and so it would seemed reasonable to ask God to do to him what he did to others. But God knew Saul's heart and despite what he was doing, God knew what Saul could become. Therefore it would have been wrong for a Christian to hold a grudge against Saul because God was about to work a miracle through him that would affect the spread of Christianity throughout the centuries.
But that doesn't mean Paul didn't pay a penalty for his actions. For a long time after his conversion he was not very welcomed in the Christian community and all of his life he regretted what he had done. He also suffered humiliation and scorn from some of the not so righteous members of Christ's church and, in the end, he too was thrown into prison and eventually put to death for being a Christian, just as he had once done to others.
And that leads to another reason why we must forgive. As stated earlier, we do not have the wisdom that our Father in heaven has to make righteous judgments but someday we shall judge the world and someday we hope to become as He is, including having eternal children of our own. Just as a child learns from the experiences he has growing up at home under the tutelage of their parent, that helps them to someday become a wise parent themselves, so we too are learning from the experiences that we and others have that will help us to become wiser eternal fathers and mothers.
As we read the scriptures and read of the experiences of others when it comes to forgiveness and as we have our own experiences, both good and bad, and observe the experiences of others around us, we gain wisdom, a little here and a little, there until one day we are able to judge as righteously and as wisely as our Father in heaven now does. Therefore, learning to forgive others allows us to gain wisdom without having to learn it the hard way. It saves us a lot of regret and having to discover wisdom by suffering the consequences of our own unrighteous judgments.
However, as valid as all these reasons are, they are minor when viewed from a grander eternal perspective. The Lord explained that "no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned" (D&C 121:41). The priesthood is a power and that power is only effective when we are gentle, meek, and our love for others is genuine.
The reason why our Father in heaven is God is because of the power of His priesthood. It is true that the priesthood can be conferred upon anyone but whenever a person uses their priesthood "to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men in any degree of unrighteousness, behold the heavens withdraw themselves… and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man" (D&C 121:37).
The only way that our Father in heaven can remain as God and exercise any kind of control over others is through the power of His priesthood and the only way He can maintain that power is by being righteous. If he was unrighteous, even in the least degree, His priesthood would lose its power and if that were to happen He would lose His ability to influence and exert any control over the souls of his children. When we fail to forgive someone, it is impossible for us to show love to them and without love the power of our priesthood is weakened.
To become like God we must learn to love as He does. No matter what any of us do in this life, God will always love us. There is nothing we can do that will take us away from God's love. Even if we fight against him and are cast into outer darkness, God will still, always love us. That doesn't mean we will be spared from having restored to us what we deserve because God's love will not take away justice but neither will the penalty of our sins prevent God from loving us.
Just as a righteous father in this life still loves a child of his who is wayward and ends up in jail, so too our Father in heaven will always love us even though He may not be pleased with some of the decisions we make. Therefore, to help us learn how to make wise decisions, God gives us commandments and that is especially true of the commandment to forgive others.
But forgiving others is more than just making a wise decision. Forgiveness is an act of love and only by learning to love as God does can we inherit all that He has. God loves, not so much because He wants to (which He does) but because, in order for His priesthood to have the power He needs to govern, His love has to be total, complete, and unfeigned. Without that kind of love the heavens would withdraw themselves and our Father would cease to be God.
When we refuse to forgive someone who has offended us we are engaging in an unrighteous act and when that happens we disqualify ourselves from receiving eternal life because unrighteousness cannot exist in heaven. That's why the Lord has said, "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" (D&C 64).
As explained earlier, in order for us to refuse to forgive someone there has to exist within us some degree of hatred towards the person who has offended us and hate is the opposite of love. Therefore, when we refuse to forgive others, we are aligning our feelings and attitude with those of Satan which then makes us vulnerable to his influence. As we continue to harbor resentment in our heart we become weaker spiritually and become more susceptible to Satan's enticing encouragement to give into our anger, and when that happens we drift further from God and become less qualified to live with Him in the Celestial kingdom.
The reason why it is so important to learn how to forgive is because love, truth, and righteousness have power over evil in the same way that light has power over darkness. No matter how strong the darkness, it can never over power light. Even in the darkest night, one small lit candle will cause the darkness to shrink and fall back but darkness can never prevent light from shining. And the stronger the light the more darkness recedes from it. That's why love is always more powerful than hate.
The Lord explained it this way: "That which is of God is light and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God receiveth more light; and that light growth brighter and brighter until the perfect day. And again, verily I say unto you, and I say it that ye may know the truth, that you may chase darkness from among you… Wherefore, he is possessor of all things; for all things are subject unto him, both in heaven and on earth…. For no man is possessor of all things except he be purified and cleansed from all sin" (D&C 50:24,25,27,28, emphasis added).
God commands us to forgive others because forgiveness is an act of selfless love and it is in learning to forgive that we learn how to love more completely. And the more we learn to love, especially under difficult circumstances, our light and righteousness grows brighter and stronger which then gives us greater power and strength over darkness and evil. And as we continue to do as God commands, we become worthy to possess all things and when that happens all things then become subject unto us because we will have become purified and cleansed from all of our sins.
Yet the opposite is just as true. The more we give into feelings of resentment, bitterness, hatred, and anger we are snuffing out the light of Christ within us and as our light grows dimmer the darkness of evil begins to gather closer around us. Unless we repent of these feelings and turn back to living as God commands we will not "become purified and cleansed from all sins." And if that happens then Satan will have cheated our souls out of possessing all that we might have had.
But learning how to forgive and love others completely is a process. It's a skill that has to develop. It's like chopping wood. An axe has the power to split wood but its ability to do that comes from the sharpness of its blade. Therefore, if the person wielding the axe wants their tool to work properly they must make sure that the blade is sharp. But, as they use the axe, it develops tiny nicks in the blade and unless the user of the axe occasionally sharpens the blade it will eventually become too dull to do the job it was designed to perform.
In the same way, the power of the priesthood comes from the righteousness of its user and the more righteous that person is the greater the power there is to their priesthood. But as we go through life, confronting the problems that beset us on a daily basis, it's easy for our personal righteousness to get nicked, scratched and dulled, therefore we have to learn how to keep our spiritual edge sharp despite the blows that might blunt our eternal progression, and nothing will dull our spiritual power more than holding a grudge against someone.
Forgiveness is not something that is optional on our part or on God's. To not forgive is like inflicting a mortal wound on our spirit. It's like cancer in that, if not eradicated, it will eventually kill the body. Resentment, bitterness, hatred, and anger are all soul destroying and unless completely eliminated from our heart it will destroy us spiritually, and it is these kinds of feelings and attitudes that are present when we are unable to forgive others. Even though God can forgive sin, He cannot allow us to become possessors of all things if we have not learned how to love as He does. That's why, he who does not forgive his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin.
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