“Helping Others Forgive: A Therapist’s Perspective,” Ensign, June 2019
During His Crucifixion, as He hung upon the cross in unspeakable agony, the Savior spoke to the Father on behalf of those who had flogged Him, spat upon Him, mocked Him, and in all manner abused Him: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
This moment of mercy is one of the greatest examples—if not the greatest example—of forgiveness ever demonstrated. For many who have been the victims of abuse, the example of Jesus Christ is awe-inspiring but also daunting. This is something I have learned from nearly 35 years of working as a professional counselor with clients who have suffered deep emotional wounds and who struggle with forgiving those who abused them.
Most of my clients are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who care deeply about forgiving. But for many of them, healing takes time. As a result, sacrament talks or Sunday School lessons on the subject of forgiveness can stir up feelings of guilt because the abused have not fully overcome their hard feelings. For these people the subject of forgiveness has become especially difficult to consider.
In his general conference address in October 2018, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gave exactly the counsel, encouragement, and doctrine my clients needed. His words and testimony empowered my life and have helped me bless the lives of many others. It’s a message I have yearned to hear for many years.
Elder Holland taught: “Surely each of us could cite an endless array of old scars and sorrows and painful memories that this very moment still corrode the peace in someone’s heart or family or neighborhood. Whether we have caused that pain or been the recipient of the pain, those wounds need to be healed so that life can be as rewarding as God intended it to be.”1
The statement above includes at least two important things of great help to my clients:
Old wounds are common. Every family and neighborhood has them. They come in an “endless array.” That array would logically include “painful memories” extending from minor to severe.
“Those wounds need to be healed.” Most of us deal with the mild to moderate variety of emotional wounds. The people I help are the ones who deal with severe wounds. They often feel guilty for having incurred the painful scars. It’s difficult for them to talk about their wounds, not just because of the original pain but also because they have not yet healed. For them, healing comes gradually, so they feel both guilty and judged. I hear this pain in their voices after Church meetings where forgiveness is discussed. Imagine how healing it is for people carrying this guilt to hear that their hard feelings are understood and accepted and that their healing is important.
Elder Holland continued: “It is … important for some of you living in real anguish to note what [Jesus] did not say. He did not say, ‘You are not allowed to feel true pain or real sorrow from the shattering experiences you have had at the hand of another.’”2
The italics are on not. Elder Holland was adding emphasis to his words to make a point, a very healing point. People who have had “shattering experiences” often hear in messages to forgive that they should not feel “true pain or real sorrow.” With the clarification that they are allowed such feelings, many, for the first time, can now feel that their wounded feelings are acceptable. This is powerful for them.
I began using Elder Holland’s words immediately. I had a couple come in to see me who had not been able to talk about the emotional wounds in their marriage because of the shame they felt. The wife felt ashamed for having hard feelings. The husband felt ashamed for causing her hard feelings. Because of their inability to discuss these feelings, the scars continued to build until they became incapacitating. Their marriage was in jeopardy.
Elder Holland talked about the need for healing, whether you are on the giving or receiving end of forgiveness. I helped the husband work through his shame. He felt genuine relief and was tearfully grateful. He could face his wife’s feelings about his behavior. He also yearned for the reconciliation with his wife that open discussion could bring (see 3 Nephi 12:24).
The wife was understandably wary. Her husband resented her unwillingness to talk to him, but he had been so defensive when she did that she just felt worse. Both husband and wife came from families that were unable to discuss emotional abuse. It was no wonder that this couple was stuck.
The understanding and insightful way Elder Holland talked about healing emotional wounds and finding reconciliation helped to bring down the wall between them. They were hearing from an Apostle of the Lord that wounds were common, that they needed to be healed, that the hard feelings built up on both sides did not make them evil, and that Christ would help them in the “ministry of reconciliation.” It was as if it was no longer forbidden and shameful to talk openly about the problem of emotional wounds in their relationship.
Elder Holland also taught, “Nor did [Jesus] say, ‘In order to forgive fully, you have to reenter a toxic relationship or return to an abusive, destructive circumstance.’”3
These words helped the wife of the couple feel reassured that if she forgave her husband, it did not mean she was committing to endure forever the same hurtful patterns. She had often felt she had to either stay married to her husband and tolerate his behavior or divorce him to be free of it. Telling him openly that she wanted to be married to him and that she would not put up with the same treatment had always seemed just beyond her capacity. By applying Elder Holland’s teachings, this couple was able to reduce the anger, defensiveness, and shame in their relationship and have a much more open and frank discussion.
I counseled with a childhood-abuse victim who was earnestly trying to discover how to love a parent who had abused her. She had tried to let her parent come closer, only to be repetitively hurt. Instead of love and closeness, she experienced pain. She then felt guilty about her hard feelings. She was trapped in a vicious cycle.
I shared with this woman the same passages from Elder Holland’s talk.
We talked about how her pain was the barometer she would have to use to achieve the best possible relationship with her parent. When she hurt, she would need to invite her parent to change behavior. If the woman and her parent successfully negotiated a change, then the pain would subside and the relationship could heal. However, if negotiations were unsuccessful, the woman could still extend full forgiveness but it would have to come at a safe distance. She would have to set a limit not to put herself in “an abusive, destructive circumstance.” With better protection would come less pain and ultimately more love for the parent.
This principle has been taught before in general conference. President Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918) said that he loved the enemies of the Church but would not let them close to himself or his family. He clarified that forgiveness in such cases is not trust or closeness but an absence of “malice” and the presence of love at a safe distance.4
Elder Holland’s teachings helped this woman see what she needed to do to break the cycle and feel more love for her parent. I was excited for her.
At the heart of Elder Holland’s message is the knowledge that Jesus will help us heal emotional wounds: “Notwithstanding even the most terrible offenses that might come to us, we can rise above our pain only when we put our feet onto the path of true healing. That path is the forgiving one walked by Jesus of Nazareth, who calls out to each of us, ‘Come, follow me’ [Luke 18:22].”5
Elder Holland also called Jesus Christ “the Healer of every wound.”6
Because those with significant emotional wounds often feel guilty, they do not think they are deserving of the Lord’s help. Elder Holland taught that the Lord is on the same team as the struggling forgiver; He too has felt emotional wounds: “The Prince of Peace … knows everything about being ‘wounded in the house of [His] friends’ [Zechariah 13:6] but … still found the strength to forgive and forget—and to heal—and be happy.”7
The Savior’s example of perfect forgiveness inspires each of us to seek reconciliation in our own lives and to extend compassion to those still struggling to forgive.