Monday, January 25, 2010

Your Sins Are Forgiven You

Yesterday as part of ward conference, a member of the Stake Presidency spoke to a combined priesthood session. He started by asking us to discuss the various struggles in our lives, or in the lives of friends, and then he discussed the tools that could help us in dealing with these struggles. Among the points that came up in the discussion he included "Work," "Prayer," and "Faithfulness" as some of things that can help us. But as the session came to a close, he offered one final tool that can help us. He said, "Brethren, we need to let go of our anger."

I was particularly startled by this. It's not what you'd typically find on a "to do" list in most LDS Priesthood or Sunday School lessons. As Brother S. elaborated on what he meant by this, I began to understand better what he was driving at. "To let go of anger" is actually a negative way to understand the positive virtue of patience. To give in to anger is to literally lose patience. If you substituted "patience" for "letting go of anger" on his list virtues that can help us deal with struggles in our lives, it looks much more like the standard list of LDS "to do's": Work, Prayer, Faithfulness and Patience.

Why did Bro. S. do this? Why did he prefer to state that last virtue in negative rather than positive terms? Knowing the way the Spirit typically works in such teaching situations, I wouldn't be surprised if his choice of words was in response to specific needs of someone -- known or unknown -- in the room at that time. But certainly, if I had to rank one virtue more highly than all the others when faced with struggles or adversity, patience would be the one. And Bro. S. was teaching us patience not simply by tagging it in a list of platitudes, but by speaking frankly to us about how concretely to cultivate it: letting go anger.

I felt an incredible, peaceful spirit about that teaching all afternoon. And this morning, as I awoke, that peacefulness continued to envelope me, and the phrase "Your sins are forgiven you" came to mind. One of the most powerful experiences I had with anger was connected with when I first began to pray regularly again in January 2006. As I began to make the attempt to pray, I realized that there was a huge obstacle blocking me, and it was my anger at God and at the Church. I had a choice; I had to decide what was more urgent for me: to pray, or to hold on to my anger. The moment I let go the anger, the prayer began to flow and the Spirit was present, and I was enveloped with the most indescribable, pure, intense experience of love. And forgiveness. "Your sins are forgiven you." I wept; the tears flowed freely down my cheeks, wetting my folded hands. I had never in my life before experienced greater joy or more perfect contentment. And my anger, every last trace of it, melted away in those tears.

I understood exactly how the anger was gone too. Not just gone, but evaporated. Obliterated. I had been angry all those many years because I had felt rejected by the Church and by God. And now I had experienced the most perfect and the most undeniable witness of God's perfect love and acceptance of me. All I had to do was let go my anger and do my best to love and serve others, and God's acceptance of me was pure and complete. If God loved me in this way, whatever rejection I may have felt at the hands of others had to be the result of a terrible mistake, a terrible misunderstanding. If God did not reject me, there was no reason for them to reject me, and certainly no reason for me to reject them. And so out of God's forgiveness I found welling up in my heart -- unbidden and unexpected -- the most delightful, bottomless reserve of love and forgiveness of others. I'm OK, you're OK -- even if you don't realize it yet.

In that moment, my sense of this was more perfect and powerful than it is every moment of every day. Anger has still been something I have to wrestle with from time to time. But on that night in January 2006, anger as a force dominating and driving my life was broken. All it has ever taken me ever since to deal with unbidden anger is an act of remembrance. To remember that night, and to remember other similar spiritual experiences I've had since then.

That experience granted me another insight into the nature of forgiveness and its relationship to anger. "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." I realized that my lack of interest in judging or holding on to my anger against others was the flip side of the coin of having experienced complete and total forgiveness. To be truly forgiven -- and to know of one's forgiveness -- is lose the least bit of desire to judge others.

In fact, it is to desire the opposite, to feel a tremendous, overwhelming, powerful desire for all others to experience the perfect love and forgiveness that you have experienced. Judgment of others is simply not a sentiment it is possible to feel if you feel completely forgiven yourself, so the act of judging others is merely to confirm that you yourself remain judged and unforgiven -- in your own heart if not in the heart of God. But forgiveness in the heart of God does us no good if we do not receive it. That is why benefiting from the atonement requires an act of faith. An act of acceptance, letting the forgiveness flow into our hearts, teaching us the true nature of love and forgiveness. So to judge is to be unforgiven, really and truly unforgiven.

To be forgiven, on the other hand, is also to accept a new life, new ways of thinking, new ways of behaving that are better than before. So every step in our journey is a process of repentance and forgiveness, letting go the old so that something new can take its place. That is what Christ meant when he told the woman taken in adultery, "Your sins are forgiven you. Now go and sin no more." "Go and sin no more" did not mean Christ expected the forgiven one to be perfect immediately. Only that she learn from that mistake, that that moment of forgiveness be the beginning of a transformed life. There's beautiful significance in the fact that the woman to whom Christ said that had almost been stoned to death. He literally gave her a new life, both physically and spiritually.

This way forward -- and I believe it is the only way forward -- is particularly difficult for gay men and lesbians, because our understanding of the true nature of sin has been perverted by the culture we live in. We've been told, in so many words, that we are sin in our very natures. We've been judged as sinful not for our acts, not even for our desires (because so many of us did not desire this! we desired anything but!), but for the instinct that's rooted in our flesh. So as we came to understand how absurd this was and -- rightly! -- rejected it, we are still likely to experience a kind of confusion when we hear the word "sin" spoken over a pulpit.

So much of our journey has been about reconstructing a positive image of ourselves. We've had to fight hard to believe in ourselves; to construct an identity that is good. So the act of letting go the self, the act of acknowledging the need for forgiveness can be that much more painful. It can feel like giving up the one thing of value we finally managed to grab a hold of after we lost everything else.

But this isn't uniquely our predicament. The fact that we live in a world where we constantly face so much judgment, hostility and anger; where the reality of our lives is so eagerly and willfully distorted by people who like to call themselves Saints and Christians; that tells us something about the need for forgiveness in this world. It boils down to deciding what we more urgently need: our anger, or the patience and love that will enable us to face and eventually overcome our adversity.

4 comments:

Quiet Song said...

I like this post.

marriedtoamoho said...

Humility to let go of the anger. I struggle deeply with that. I hold on to the anger fiercely because, as you say, it is the one thing I have left.

J G-W said...

QS and married - thanks.

Constance said...

John:
You know what you are doing. I hope that you re-consider what you are doing. Gay sex will keep you from your Heavenly Father. You are leading others down the wrong path with your false words, empty promises, and false hope. Sin is sin. Nothing you can say or do changes this.