Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Value of a Forgiving Heart

I was recently asked to speak at church on the subject of forgiveness. I had two weeks to prepare this talk. During the course of this preparation I was struck by the story of Joseph the son of Jacob, he who was  sold into slavery by jealous brothers.

Joseph being Sold into Egypt by Ted HenningerHis story, as most of your probably know, goes like this. After being purchased by Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, he was eventually made the overseer of Potiphar’s household. At some point in time Potiphar’s wife made advances toward Joseph which he continually rejected until such time as he was forced to flee her presence. Afterwards she falsely accused him of trying to take advantage of her and had him thrown into prison.

While in prison he once again rose in favor and was eventually put in charge of all the other prisoners. Then through an interesting series of events he became 2nd only to Pharaoh in power and authority.

About 23 years after he was sold into slavery by his brothers they came to purchase food in Egypt during a time of famine. Although he recognized them they did not recognize him. After multiple encounters  he revealed himself to them and said the following (Gen 43:4-5, 7, 10-11):

And Joseph said unto his brethren, Come near to me, I pray you. And they came near. And he said, I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt.

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 …

And thou shalt dwell in the land of Goshen, and thou shalt be near unto me, thou, and thy children, and thy children’s children, and thy flocks, and thy herds, and all that thou hast:

And there will I nourish thee; for yet there are five years of famine; lest thou, and thy household, and all that thou hast, come to poverty

These are not the words of a man embittered by what his brothers did to him. Rather they show someone who can see clearly the hand of God in his life and freely forgave those who thought to take his life, but then sold him into slavery so that they could make a profit from him.

I don’t think a man filled with anger and bitterness towards those who wronged him would be able see the hand of God in his life and then care for those who initially wronged him. He rose above the circumstances he was put in because he looked ahead not behind. This forgiving heart is perhaps the reason he was able to rise to the levels he did as a household slave and prisoner.

I don’t know how long he might have harbored resentment (it took him about 14 years to rise from a slave to the 2nd most powerful person in Egypt). He could very well have sulked for some time in Potiphar’s home before rising up and fulfilling his potential.  But, it is clear to me that he was able to overcome these feelings.

Another story that I was reminded of as I prepared for my talk on forgiveness was one told by Elder Boyd K. Packer during a session of the  October 1977 General Conference. For some reason this has stayed with me over the years. It illustrates again what can become of someone who is able to let life’s perceived unfairness remain in the past.

Many years ago I was taught a lesson by a man I admired very much. He was as saintly a man as I have ever known. He was steady and serene, with a deep spiritual strength that many drew upon.

He knew just how to minister to others who were suffering. On a number of occasions I was present when he gave blessings to those who were sick or otherwise afflicted.

His life had been a life of service, both in the Church and in the community.

He had presided over one of the missions of the Church and looked forward to the annual missionary reunion. When he was older he was not able to drive at night, and I offered to take him to the reunions.

This modest gesture was repaid a thousand fold.

On one occasion when we were alone and the spirit was right, he gave me a lesson for my life from an experience in his. Although I thought I had known him, he told me things I would not have supposed.

He grew up in a little community. Somehow in his youth he had a desire to make something of himself and struggled successfully to get an education.

He married a lovely young woman, and presently everything in his life was just right. He was well employed, with a bright future. They were deeply in love, and she was expecting their first child.

The night the baby was to be born there were complications. The only doctor was somewhere in the countryside tending to the sick. They were not able to find him. After many hours of labor the condition of the mother-to-be became desperate.

Finally the doctor arrived. He sensed the emergency, acted quickly, and soon had things in order. The baby was born and the crisis, it appeared, was over.

Some days later the young mother died from the very infection that the doctor had been treating at the other home that night.

My friend’s world was shattered. Everything was not right now; everything was all wrong. He had lost his wife, his sweetheart. He had no way to take care of a tiny baby and at once tend to his work.

As the weeks wore on his grief festered. “That doctor should not be allowed to practice,” he would say. “He brought that infection to my wife; if he had been careful she would be alive today.” He thought of little else, and in his bitterness he became threatening.

Then one night a knock came at his door. A little youngster said, simply, “Daddy wants you to come over. He wants to talk to you.”

“Daddy” was the stake president. A grieving, heartbroken young man went to see his spiritual leader. This spiritual shepherd had been watching his flock and had something to say to him.

The counsel from this wise servant was simply: “John, leave it alone. Nothing you do about it will bring her back. Anything you do will make it worse. John, leave it alone.”

My friend told me then that this had been his trial, his Gethsemane.

How could he leave it alone? Right was right! A terrible wrong had been committed, and somebody must pay for it.

He struggled in agony to get hold of himself. It did not happen at once. Finally he determined that whatever else the issues were, he should be obedient.

Obedience is a powerful spiritual medicine. It comes close to being a cure-all.

He determined to follow the counsel of that wise spiritual leader. He would leave it alone.

Then he told me, “I was an old man before I finally understood. It was not until I was an old man that I could finally see a poor country doctor—over-worked, underpaid, run ragged from patient to patient, with little proper medicine, no hospital, few instruments. He struggled to save lives, and succeeded for the most part.

“He had come in a moment of crisis when two lives hung in the balance and had acted without delay.

“I was an old man,” he repeated, “before finally I understood. I would have ruined my life,” he said, “and the lives of others.”

Many times he had thanked the Lord on his knees for a wise spiritual leader who counseled simply, “John, leave it alone.”

Here again is someone who served his community and faith after a difficult start in life journey. It could have left him stuck on the shoals of hatred and bitterness. However, he was able to gain control of his feelings and release the anger. Perhaps that initial experience is what enabled him to effectively minister to others who were suffering later in his life.

Elder Packer again shared this story in a talk during the April 2011 General Conference. He concluded his remarks with this statement, which I commend to everyone.

If you are carrying some burden, forget it, let it alone. Do a lot of forgiving and a little repenting, and you will be visited by the Spirit of the Holy Ghost and confirmed by the testimony that you did not know existed. You will be watched over and blessed—you and yours.

I’ve experienced both the darkness associated with seemingly justified long-term anger towards another person and the light, joy and peace that comes with letting it go. Take it from me, no matter how deserving another is of the negative feelings we might have towards them, those feelings hurt us many times more than our intended victim. The anger clouds our judgment, blurs our vision and prevents us from reaching our full potential.

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