Sunday, December 24, 2017

Repentance / Forgiveness

A key moment in my spiritual journey came during a sacrament meeting talk in my ward given by a visiting high councilman. It was probably the second or third Sunday attending my LDS ward after about 19 years away from the Church. I had returned in response to a prompting from the Spirit, but I was still feeling very conflicted about my relationship with the Church.

The high councilman gave a talk on forgiveness, and by the end of the talk, tears were streaming down my face. The Spirit had not only testified of the truthfulness of what he was saying, but had also told me the specifics of how I needed to apply the principles of his talk in my life. I needed to forgive the Church.

In the years leading up to my near suicide in 1986 I was harmed by teachings about homosexuality that have since been recognized as wrong and have been disavowed by Church leaders. I was harmed by Church leaders who had counseled me and and disciplined me without knowledge. I was harmed by family and friends who didn't stand by me, some who had turned against me, when they should have listened to me and tried to understand. As a result of the harm I experienced, but for the grace of God, I might not have survived to tell this story. Many haven't survived the harm. And no one in a position of authority in the Church has ever formally acknowledged the harm, much less apologized for it.

The idea that I could forgive the Church was revolutionary for me. Part of the revelation was my realization that forgiveness was much more about the one doing the forgiving than it was about the one being forgiven. Forgiving would allow me to become whole. It allowed me to let go of a burden of anger I had bowed under for far too long. It also opened up possibilities of receiving and being transformed by forgiveness for the wrongs I had committed in my life. (Forgiveness is a two-way street: Until I could forgive, it would be impossible for me to truly believe there were situations where I might need to be forgiven or that forgiveness of my sins might be possible.) I didn't need to wait for a formal apology to benefit from the gift of forgiveness. The tears flowing down my face in that Sacrament meeting were tears of relief and joy. I let that burden go. I left it at the Savior's feet and I have never looked back.

What I also realized in that moment, thanks to the teaching power of the Holy Spirit, is that forgiveness is an ever-flowing fountain. I realized that I could forgive not only past transgressions, but all future ones as well. I could choose never to take offense at wrong, but instead to focus on creating a zone of understanding and connection. I trusted that future knowledge would create future repentance and repentance could heal every harm, past, present and future. That realization has transformed my whole life.

Some Church members reading this might be offended at the notion that the Church is something that could ever need forgiveness from anyone. I guess there are different ways of defining "the Church." If we look at the Church as the teaching and practice of the pure and unsoiled Gospel of Jesus Christ, then of course the Church could never be "forgiven." The pure Gospel is itself a call to repentance (and forgiveness). But if the Church is also its mortal, imperfect members and leaders feeling their way forward the best they can, then forgiveness will of necessity be part of the path of becoming a Zion people.

In this Christmas season I ask forgiveness of some of my fellow LGBT Mormons and ex-Mormons. Many have felt invalidated by me. I don't always talk about every aspect of my spiritual journey, including the part of my spiritual journey that included a recognition of wrongs committed in the name of Christ and under the authority of the priesthood that might require a process of repentance and forgiveness. Your anger is not only understandable, but maybe even righteous. The harm and your need for healing deserve recognition.

Never let any aspect of my story be used to make you feel like you are the ones somehow in the wrong. In the matter of the ways in which a combination of bad science and bad doctrine have led to misunderstanding and mistreatment, sometimes by those who were most under an obligation to try to listen and understand, there's no excuse.

And you are entitled to forgive when you are ready, when your path of healing from the trauma you have experienced allows it. You are not wrong and I somehow right in this matter. Our paths are individual and unique and equally God-led toward ends that God only knows.

I am grateful for my many, many friends in the Church who have experienced a bright light coming on in the darkness around LGBT issues, shining understanding on sins of commission and sins of omission. Many of you have conscientiously began to work, in both open as well as quiet, behind-the-scenes ways to right wrongs and heal hurts. Please keep up the good work.

In this season when so many hearts in the world pray for peace, I add my prayers to theirs, and I pray for the gift of forgiveness that makes peace possible.

In Jesus' holy name, Amen.


Anonymous said...

I've been abused both sexually and spiritually in my past. There's a huge gulf between forgiveness and submitting oneself to future abuse. I've forgiven my abusers both sexual and spiritual. But I'd never allow myself to be placed in the same vulnerable position to be abused again. You seem to be equating forgiveness with allowing an ongoing relationship. I have no need to forgive future abuse because a healthy forgiveness does not equate positioning myself to be a victim once again. There are plenty of other avenues for spiritual fulfillment than a former abuser.

LCannon said...

I love your eloquent words. Thank you for sharing

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Anonymous: It breaks my heart to hear stories of sexual or spiritual abuse. I am so sorry that you have gone through that. I have never experienced sexual abuse. I can't imagine how painful that must be, and I simply don't know what it's like to try to heal from something like that. I have friends who have been sexually abused, and I know that most don't have any kind of relationship at all with their former abusers. I would certainly never advise or encourage them to enter into a relationship with their former abusers.

I would never advocate putting oneself in a position to be abused. I don't equate forgiveness with allowing an ongoing abusive relationship. I don't think I've said either of those things. I believe that if there is going to be a meaningful relationship between a former abused and a former abuser, at least two things have to have happened. First, the abused has to have healed and achieved autonomy so that they are not vulnerable and not in a position to be abused again. Second, the abuser has to recognize the abuse and stop trying to engage in it. I agree that nothing requires a relationship between a former abused and former abuser.

I have experienced what I would describe as "spiritual abuse." I can only speak of my situation, not of the situations of others. In my case, most of those engaging in patterns of abusive behavior didn't know that they were being abusive. They were just doing what somebody had taught them was morally right. They were trying to be good people, but they were ignorant. When abuse is the product of ignorance, once people learn, once they become aware, they generally abandon the abusive behavior and seek to make restoration. In those cases, experiencing a new kind of relationship with someone that is based on love, understanding and respect is powerful. There are few things more powerful.

In order for a person to be victimized by spiritual abuse, you have to believe in your own lack of worth. Once you stop believing that you lack worth, people's power to abuse you spiritually evaporates. This is a major difference between spiritual abuse and sexual or physical abuse. In the case of the latter kinds of abuse, belief in oneself doesn't negate the power of a sexual or physical abuser to hurt you. That's why physical separation is urgent in those situations. I would never suggest otherwise.

Jamie said...

John, we have interacted on social media, but I want to say again how grateful I am for your voice. On the surface it would seem we have nothing in common as I appear to be, for all intents and purposes, a "cookie cutter Mormon." But my life experience has not been cookie cutter and my heart is constantly in search of truth and rejecting falsehoods, even those accepted by my tribe.I have been blessed to have several beloved gay friends and family members in my life who have taught me that there is nothing in the true gospel of Jesus Christ that precludes me from fully loving and accepting ALL of my brothers and sisters. I know this is not an easy truth to know. Gosh, sometimes I wish I could be judgy and closed minded and cut myself off from the suffering around me. But that's not my row to hoe. In a weird way, I feel like you and I know the same truth, and that there is more truth to be revealed as we welcome it. Your voice makes me feel less alone, though we move in separate orbits. Thank you for existing and speaking.