“My Journey to Forgiving,” Ensign, Feb. 1997, 40
My peaceful 18-year marriage slammed into an almost impossible barrier late one night when my husband, Sam,* confessed to me a long series of moral offenses. I was caught completely by surprise.
The next day we visited the stake president, and then we visited the bishop. Within two weeks, my husband was excommunicated. Overnight, predictability and contentment left me to be replaced by deep sorrow, rage, and confusion. I had lost my best friend suddenly and violently. He was still physically beside me but had become a stranger. He had thrown our beautiful marriage and all our dreams away like rubbish.
I had never been seriously wronged before by anyone, and in fact I felt that because I was a good person, I was somehow protected from being hurt. I had obeyed the principles of the gospel as best I could throughout my life. I had married a returned missionary in the temple, we had several children, and both Sam and I held responsible Church callings. I thought we would therefore have a relatively trouble-free life. But I had misunderstood the realities of being an imperfect person on an earth with other imperfect people and complex problems. No one has a guarantee against pain and injury.
Sam took a huge, courageous step when he confessed, and it was absolutely the right thing to do. It was also the beginning of a terrible time. Although the Church court was handled with great love, we were, of course, thrown into emotional turmoil.
I immediately set about trying to forgive Sam. I knew it was what I needed to do, and I wanted to do it, but somehow I seemed incompetent to do the thing that simply had to be done and had to be done by me. I felt competent in many areas, but forgiving seemed impossible. I could not make my heart change. I felt helpless and desperate.
My struggle to forgive Sam when he broke his covenants was the greatest challenge I have faced in my life. Perhaps sharing my journey to forgiving him might help others.
Several influences contributed to my finally being able to forgive, including maintaining basic ideals and standards. I was so shaken by the abrupt change in my life that I had to take time to reaffirm my basic beliefs, commitments, and values. Having lofty values is painful when they seem impossible to attain, and during this time my dearest goals were the most frustrating. I reaffirmed my belief in love and happy marriages. I strengthened my desire to attend the temple.
Right after Sam’s confession, I began attending the temple each week, trying to find comfort and answers. There was some relief there, but sometimes those hours spent within the temple were painful. All the reminders of covenants that had been broken broke my heart. But I determined that I would keep going, and often, because I didn’t want to give up my righteous goals and ideals.
I pored over the scriptures, searching for direction, comfort, and answers. I memorized D&C 58:2–5 and committed to qualify as one who “keepeth the commandments.”
Support from others helped me keep trying to forgive. Sam and I both had solid support: two stake presidents and three bishops who advised and mourned with us, and parents, brothers, sisters, and friends who listened, prayed for us, and stuck by us.
Another great influence was our counselor. Our stake president had advised us to get regular counseling, and we found a therapist who shared our values and understood our beliefs in a loving Heavenly Father and our desire to work on saving our marriage. I found myself just barely hanging on emotionally each week until we could meet and talk through the emotional stress Sam and I were experiencing.
Initially, I wanted our counselor to explain what had gone wrong so that everything then would be clear—Sam would be “cured” and the horror would be over. I wanted the counselor to take charge of my life, create forgiveness, and insert it into my heart. I learned over the next several years that it is not that easy. I had to be in charge of my own life, no matter how unmanageable it seemed to be.
Our counselor took a common-sense approach to helping us. We discussed psychological causes and reasons for sin, but we also discussed accountability. We talked about the Atonement and the miracle it can work. We discussed scriptures and characters from the scriptures. He asked about our children and talked to them once or twice. He asked about employment (Sam had been fired as a result of his confession) and other concerns. He challenged Sam several times to continue to take responsibility for what he had done. He spent hours helping me face the reality of what had happened. He also encouraged me to be a responsible mother and to continue to support my children emotionally through this upheaval.
The counselor sympathized with my misery but didn’t let me indulge in self-pity without pointing out that that was what I was doing. At times I went home upset or angry, but often I went home with a new story or idea in my head to mull over.
I had several dreams during this period that I believe were from God and were meaningful and powerful. They helped me discover some truths and clarify my understanding of the forces at work in my life, helping untie some emotional knots.
Good medical care helped me survive. At one point I took antidepression medication for a few months. The doctor warned me that the medication was to keep me from sinking too deeply into depression and that it could not solve my problems. He reminded me that there were real causes for my sadness and that I had to keep working on making sense of my life in order to be truly happy again. Medication alone could not do it.
My Church responsibilities helped stabilize my life. I had dear friends who worked with me in my calling and cared about what I was going through. I found myself in training meetings and other special settings listening with a hungry soul and drinking in the spiritual refreshment I needed. In addition, my responsibilities forced me to keep some order and social connections in place.
My bishop had a gift for wise counsel and for empathizing with my misery. He didn’t relax his expectations of me but acknowledged my deep hurt and honored it. He also gave me several priesthood blessings.
At one of our meetings the bishop told me that it might take me several years to heal from my hurt and feel that I’d fully forgiven my husband. I felt tired just thinking of a long-term struggle, but I also felt relieved that I didn’t have to do it all overnight. As it turned out, that process required several years of my utmost commitment, extended effort, and acceptance of the realities of my situation.
Strengthened by the Spirit, I was gradually able to rely less on my bishop and counselor and more on the scriptures, prayer, and on the Lord. More than at any other time of my life, I began to find answers and counsel in the scriptures. I was surprised at how I was given very specific and pointed guidance. One particular selection in the scriptures guided me past an especially confusing conflict. Heavenly Father can indeed speak to us through the scriptures. I was taught (see Isa. 30:20–21); I was lovingly strengthened and guided (see Isa. 41:10, 13–14); I found courage (see Job 23:10–12). I knew I was going through a refiner’s fire, but I was not going alone and unassisted.
Sam’s repentance was not a smooth process; there were so many setbacks that after two years, we divorced. It was the most difficult decision of my life, but feeling it was right, I went ahead confidently, although worn out emotionally. At this point some support from family and friends crumbled, so having inner, spiritual support was very important to me.
Our divorce, however, did not release me from the obligation to forgive. I truly wanted to do it, but it was as if I had been commanded to do something of which I was simply incapable. This made me even more angry at Sam for putting me in a position to come under God’s censure when I hadn’t broken my covenants.
I tried and tried. I knew the doctrine: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10; emphasis added). I felt guilty and miserable. But as I looked honestly into my heart, I knew very well that full-grown forgiveness was not there. What more could I do? Was I going to lose my own soul to this horrible mess?
Again, some advice from my bishop proved crucial. As we discussed the struggle to forgive one day, he said, “Well, keep a place in your heart for forgiveness, and when it comes, welcome it in.” That seemed like weak advice in a way, but the Spirit etched it into my memory, and it became a golden rule to me. On bad days when I was angry, I could at least say to myself, “I want to forgive, and I will hang on to that as a goal and desire it and welcome it when it comes.”
It is difficult to define what happened to me spiritually through these many months. Some things are too personal to share, but one thing I learned was to pray with all my heart, no pretenses, no self-righteousness, honestly admitting my anger, my fears, my hurt, and my sins. I had to acknowledge that Sam’s sins were great, but really they weren’t my problem. My problem was my sins and my seeming inability to forgive.
Although I always prayed morning and night, sometimes I could feel meanness or depression building up in my heart over several days, and when I reached a certain level of misery I would get on my knees and tell Heavenly Father all I felt, pleading for help. Acknowledging in prayer my lack of control actually gave me peace. I don’t understand it, exactly, but after a real bottom-of-the-heart prayer, I could wipe my eyes, cook dinner, and go on more sanely for three or four days.
As I look back, I realize that it was during those long, prayerful moments that I tapped into a life-giving source of comfort from my loving Heavenly Father. I sense that he was not standing by glaring at me for not having accomplished forgiveness yet; rather he was sorrowing with me as I wept. He loved me. He loved Sam. He loved our children and shared our grief through those dark days.
In the final analysis, what happened in my heart is for me an amazing and miraculous evidence of the Atonement of Christ. I had always viewed the Atonement as a means of making repentance work for the sinner. I had not realized that it also makes it possible for the one sinned against to receive into his or her heart the sweet peace of forgiving.
For me, forgiving is a miracle we cannot create for ourselves. It is a gift of God to the injured party as well as to the sinner. What sweet relief when the spirit of forgiveness comes. It finally came to me. After a long period of struggle with help and comfort from Heavenly Father, the full richness of being able to completely forgive Sam came into my heart.
Recently my counselor and I got together to discuss the process of forgiving. As we talked, I realized I could not really define what forgiving is. He explained that when we are unforgiving, we are judging the guilty person and we are anxious and concerned about justice being done and about being repaid for our losses. But when we’ve forgiven, we no longer judge or expect repayment. We give up our tiresome wrestle with the issue and decide to walk away and do something else with our time and energy. In a figurative sense, we wrap up all our frenzied emotions, confusion, anger, and sadness and drop that burden at the feet of the Savior, at his request—in fact, at his command. We trust him completely to handle the whole thing in his perfect wisdom. We cease to be victims of someone’s sin or error, and we go on with other duties and joys of life, not looking back, not concerned anymore. This is what happened to me.
Sam eventually fully repented, and his repentance added to the joy I felt in having forgiven him. For me, the struggle to forgive was recompensed with rich knowledge. I learned along the way that Heavenly Father lives, that the Atonement is a reality for me, for Sam, for our children, and for all of Heavenly Father’s children.