Some choices in life are easy to make, like whether to have dessert or get punched in the face. Other decisions are far more difficult, like choosing to forgive the person who has hurt you, or choosing to harbor resentment, anger, and outrage against that person. What may feel like the instinctive thing to do isn’t always the right or the best thing to do. Forgiveness, though sometimes very difficult to do, is ultimately a choice we must make then find the strength to do. It is not usually an easy thing to do. The more personal the perceived injury, the more difficult it is to accomplish.

An Old Testament example

In the Old Testament, Joseph was hated by his brothers because of his favored status by their father. So they conspired against him, threw him to the bottom of a well and left him there until they sold him into slavery. They then went home with a story about how Joseph had been torn apart by a lion, and they used the object of their jealousy, Joseph’s coat of many colors, to prove their story by shredding it and dipping it in blood to make their story look real.

Fast forwarding a number of years look at what happened to the two parties involved in this quarrel. The brother’s standing with their father had not improved any just because Joseph was out of the picture. If anything, they had to deal with not only the guilt for what they had done to their own brother, but they had to deal with their father’s mourning and sorrow for his loss that had lasted all these years. It was a constant reminder of what they had done.

Joseph, on the other hand had become a slave of Potiphar. Potiphar knew quality when he saw it, and promoted Joseph to be the keeper of all that he had. He trusted Joseph with everything in his life. When Potiphar’s wife tried to be unfaithful with Joseph and he chose to remain clean by running away from her, she complained to her husband, and Joseph ended up in prison. Now he had a prison record and prison time to add to his reputation.

But Joseph was faithful to the Lord and served in prison to the best of his abilities and ended up being a leader among those in prison. He was trusted to run the King’s entire prison. Eventually he even interpreted the dreams of a couple of the King’s servants. When the King had a dream he couldn’t interpret, he was told of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams and Joseph was brought before Pharaoh himself.

When Joseph correctly gave the meaning of the king’s dream, Pharaoh made Joseph the second in command in all of Egypt. Because of Joseph’s devotion to God, and God’s blessings that prospered all that Joseph did, the land of Egypt was ready when the seven years of famine struck. People from all over the area came to Egypt, because that was the only place that had any food. Whole countries paid dearly for the food they bought from Egypt. This prosperity was told to Jacob, Joseph’s father, and he sent his sons to Egypt to buy grain for the family.

None of them knew what had become of Joseph. In Egypt he was known by another name, and he had grown up and was now married with children. Many years had passed since he had been betrayed by his brethren. Even when the brothers saw him and spoke with him, since he used an interpreter to speak with them, they did not recognize that it was him.

Now comes the point of this story. Joseph had been betrayed, sold into slavery. He had been taken from the father and family of his youth and had spent years in confinement and imprisonment. He had been taken to a strange land among a strange people, and had to learn a new language. After all of his own trials and hardships he had risen to become second in command in all of Egypt, the most powerful country in the world. Now his betraying brothers had come begging food for their families.

This was the moment that would define Joseph. Would he exact his vengeance for the wrongs done him by those betrayers? Would he make them pay? Would he lord it over them that even after all they did to him, look what he had accomplished? What would Joseph do that would define him as a person?

He tested them to see if they were sorry for their past wrongs. Even in the testing of his brothers, his love for them was such that he had to flee the room to go elsewhere in the house to weep and sob that he was at last with his family again. It is true that he tested them to see if they were any different than they had been when they sold him into slavery, but there was no malice in his heart when he did it.

When he revealed himself to his brothers this is what he said to them: (Genesis 45:5 – 7, 8)

Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.

And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance.

So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.

Lessons learned

Joseph had plenty of reasons to hate his brothers. He had years to nurse a grudge against those who had betrayed him and ruined his life. He had plenty of opportunity to become spiteful and petty, but he didn’t. He forgave his brothers and moved on with his life. The Lord was able to bless and prosper Joseph, and use him to become second in command in Egypt, where he was able to save the lives of many thousands of people, including those of his own family.

Hurt in this life comes to all of us. It cannot be avoided. Sometimes the hurt is accidental, sometimes we just think it was on purpose, and sometimes it really is on purpose. But the source of the pain or reason for the pain is immaterial, because the point is how we deal with the hurt. I had a counselor ask me once, “If a person tries to get past you in a row of theater seats and accidentally steps on your toe, does claiming he didn’t mean to do it erase the pain?” The answer, of course, is no. The toe hurts just as much whether it was an accident or if it was done on purpose.

Does it matter then how I react to the hurt caused me by someone else? What are my choices, and what happens to me when pain and sorrow enter my life?

The “natural” choice

The natural man, the fallen man, the creature of the flesh, the person who sees this life as being one’s only existence, becomes angry, resentful, vindictive, and seeks to punish and hurt in return. When one of our children gets hurt by another child and our child’s reaction is to hit that child in return, what is the direction we give to our child? Don’t we tell them to stop it? So who is available to tell us to stop it?

When someone spreads lies about you at work, in the community, or even in the ward, when someone says something hurtful that brings embarrassment or shame, whether in private or in public, when someone gossips about you or hurts your loved ones either physically or emotionally, what is the natural thing we feel?

The natural feeling when such things happen to us is to be hurt, angry, and often at a loss for how to respond, because we are in a state of disbelief that someone could be so mean and hurtful, for whatever reason. These feelings are natural. They come to us unbidden, unrequested, and sometimes by complete surprise. But it is what we do with these feelings once they come that makes all the difference in the world.

The first choice when these feelings come is to turn our hearts inward. We put up emotional barriers and walls to protect ourselves from further hurt. We isolate ourselves and retreat from the love of others who could help, because we want to nurse our feelings and justify ourselves to prove to others why such behavior by the one that hurt us was unjustified. We begin to think of ways to teach them how painful their behavior was by hurting them as much as they hurt us.

This choice is destructive. It separates us from other people. It creates divisions and requires people to take sides in the conflict. Seeking harm, vengeance or hurt to another person usually ends up only blackening our own soul. Just like the person in the theater who stepped on your toe, your rage against the unjustness of the pain doesn’t hurt them, it only hurts you.

The most dangerous part about being unforgiving is that the act of harboring a hurt or grudge turns us inward and makes us selfish and self centered. It prevents us from seeing someone else’s perspective or letting go of the hurt. To let the hurt go we need to replace it with something better. As long as we are only looking at our own pain we have no replacement for the pain.

The other choice

Our Savior has given us an alternative to the natural response to hurt and anger. They are strong words, and hard to do. They are found in Matthew 5:38-44.

38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

These are bold words to one who is wallowing in self pity or stewing in anger over a hurt. These are painful words, because when we are in the throws of feeling the hurt, we often feel like giving it up and walking away from such overwhelming feelings will be like giving up something vital to our souls. It would be like throwing away a piece of ourselves.

So why does the Lord want us to give up our hurt and walk away from our pain that others cause? To what end? The answer is found in the last verse of the chapter. Matthew 5:48

48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

To be perfect is to be made whole, complete, to be totally functional. Why does the Lord give us commandments? Commandments are laws of happiness. When we keep them they heal us and help to make us whole or perfect. They bring peace and joy into our lives. Men are that they might have joy. (2 Nephi 2:25)

The Lord said in Doctrine and Covenants 64:10, “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” The Lord would not require us to walk away from the insults and hurts caused by others if it did not bless our lives to do so. He, and He alone is the judge of all. If we nurse a grudge and harbor hurt we make ourselves judge and jury which is an offense to the Lord. He alone has that right and that responsibility.

President Hinckley, speaking of forgiveness said, “I think it may be the greatest virtue on earth, and certainly the most needed. … There is so great a need for repentance and forgiveness.” Over and over again we are told that those who do not forgive need to repent for being unforgiving. Forgiveness cleanses the soul. It heals our wounds. Yes, oddly enough, our healing doesn’t come from turning inward and nursing our hurt, healing only comes from turning outward and extending love and forgiveness.

Forgiveness is something we achieve by taking our pain to the Lord and letting Him lift our burden and ease our anguish. It is the Lord who will whisper words of love and strength, and who will take away the hurt caused by others. Forgiveness is not easy. It is not for the faint of heart, but forgiveness is also the only path to peace within our own souls.

High Council talk given by Kelly Merrill May 24, 2015 in Laie, Hawaii.

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Forgiveness Brings Us Peace