Forbearance to Inflict Harm: Practical Mercy

[ 18 ] Comments

by Ray DeGraw

[On Sundays this year we are publishing a series from Ray that focuses on the Sermon on the Mount, analyzing each characteristic of godliness found in Matthew 5-7. Essay 1Essay 2Essay 3Essay 4Essay 5Essay 6Essay 7Essay 8Essay 9, Essay 10.]

GavelBeing merciful might be categorized initially as being willing to forgive, but I think it is more fundamental than forgiving. Remember, one of the core definitions of mercy is “forbearance to inflict harm when one has the power to do so,” and I think there is a fundamental difference between forgiving and not harming. I think that we often focus so much on the first one (forgiving) that we sometimes forget about the second one (not harming), and forbearance to inflict harm must occur BEFORE true and total forgiveness can take place.This is because forgiveness is focused on the offending person and is, as all who have been offended understand, a process that can vary radically in length, from nearly instantaneous to a lifetime.

In order to forgive, one must first be harmed in some way, but, more fundamentally, one must recognize that one has been harmed. Someone can harm me (and do so to a great degree), but if I am not aware of it (like instances of libel or slander that do not come to my attention) I cannot forgive. Forgiving requires an understanding of harm, and requires an extension of mercy, by not demanding punishment that would constitute justice. In other words, if I am unable to extend mercy by forbearing to inflict harm when it is in my power to do so (even when it is justified), I will be unable to forgive. This, in turn, will make me a bitter person, which will compel me to continue to judge and withhold mercy, which usually, if not always, will be done unrighteously (not in accordance with God’s understanding and will), which will, therefore, place me outside God’s own mercy for my own transgressions. Only if I offer mercy to others will I be able to obtain mercy from God.

Forgiving what someone does to me requires that I proactively do something for them, extend the hand of mercy and not strike back. I have never considered “turning the other cheek” as an application of mercy, but this defines it squarely as a merciful act. This puts a new and compelling twist on the scripture I have read many times in my life but never had seen quite this way:

For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still. (Isaiah 5:25)

I have read compassion in this verse (and others that use the same statement), but I have never framed it in terms of mercy. Each instance describes a case when the people of Israel have done things to reject their Lord, and each instance mentions the anger of the Lord at this rejection and the just result of that rejection. However, each verse ends by saying that His “hand is stretched out still.

The footnotes to Isaiah 9:12 (which contains the same phrase) provide the following additional clarification:

IE in spite of all, the Lord is available if they will turn to him.

This is mercy at its most basic level.

In the grand scheme of things, being merciful might be the clearest, most practical way to define and understand forgiveness. If you truly have forgiven, you will not seek or do anything to inflict harm, either physical, financial, emotional or spiritual. You will, in a very real and figurative sense, “turn the other cheek,” even in situations where legal consequences must unfold.  You must forbear to inflict whatever harm lies within your own power to cause.

Little Daddy Hugging Baby Doll

PS. This also points out something I have said often – that we cannot forgive someone who has not harmed us. It is demeaning to the person who truly has been harmed for me to claim to forgive the person who caused the harm if I was not harmed by that person. It is cheap or easy forgiveness, and it is destructive, specifically because it mocks the suffering of the harmed and makes her difficulty to extend mercy and forgiveness seem like something that should not be so difficult. Claiming to forgive someone who has not harmed me is like claiming authority to absolve a criminal without the power of one who has been given the authority to administer mercy or justice. In a very real sense, it is a form of taking the Lord’s name in vain, as it assumes His title as Judge without the actual authority of judicial assignment.

One of the cruelest things possible to utter to a victim of any harm is:

“I forgave the perpetrator.  Why can’t you?”

About Ray DeGraw

I am the husband of my high school sweetheart and father of six children. I basically have no life outside of family, work and church - except blogging, which I have been doing actively, to put it mildly, for the past 5 years. I have lived in almost every section of the United States and currently reside in Carson City, NV. I have written at Things of My Soul, Mormon Matters, Times & Seasons and StayLDS.com - and commented more than occasionally at various sites in the Bloggernacle.

18 Responses to Forbearance to Inflict Harm: Practical Mercy

  1. Jeanna says:

    I agree in forbearing to inflict harm, but I think we must also be careful to consider what is truly harmful. For example, take the case of someone who has committed a violent crime like assault or rape. On the surface of it, it may seem like mercy means that we don’t prosecute or try to bring legal consequences on them. But honestly, in my opinion, that would inflict harm–allowing a person to commit such a crime without suffering consequences and giving them opportunity to make up for what they did.

    In essence, extending mercy does not mean that you don’t also extend consequences. It does mean, however, that you do it for merciful reasons rather than vengeance.

    • Bonnie says:

      You might enjoy his previous essays in the series Jeanna, where he addresses those issues.

      • Jeanna says:

        Oh, whoops. I missed that. Sorry. :) Although actually I don’t think it hurts to mention it quite explicitly here again for anyone else like me who missed the others. So, not sorry! :)

    • Ray DeGraw says:

      Jeanna, I agree with you completely. That is why I mentioned “situations where legal consequences must unfold.” Legal consequences are in the hands of judges, and I believe one of the worst movements in our legal system is allowing victims and their families to speak at the sentencing phase of trials. People should be punished for their own sins, not for others’ ability or inability to fotgive. I believe in equality under the law.

      I hope nobody reads these posts and thinks I am advocating for no punishment ever.

      • Jeanna says:

        No, I didn’t think you were. I just wanted to point out the difficulties of reading “no harm” on just a surface level. (Not so much to you, just in general.) Thanks for the post!

  2. Ray says:

    To add a bit to my last comment:

    Speaking at the sentencing phase of a trial, in and of itself, isn’t horrible. It is what it does to those who have been harmed, particularly the families and close friends of the victims.

    Those who have forgiven the perpetrator can express that through the lawyer representing the victim – and through media – and in any other way available to them. They can request the minimum sentence possible without doing so in the courtroom, personally, directly to the judge. Thus, speaking at the sentencing phase does nothing to further their forgiveness.

    Those who have NOT forgiven the perpetrator, however, look forward to “their day in court” and the opportunity to demand the maximum penalty possible. They focus on their grief and plan the best way to hurt someone else – to express why the most extreme punishment is deserved and just, and, in doing so, they wallow in anger and bitterness – extending their rage and losing valuable time to come to terms with what happened, begin to heal, learn to work toward forgiveness, etc. It encourages them to be judge and jury – or, at least, to want to be judge and jury.

    Anger and bitterness are not “wrong” in all cases; often they are necessary steps toward healing. However, they are inherently cancerous if allowed to grow – and, like physical cancer, they can spread so quickly if left untreated that they end up killing the persons they inhabit.

    Some trials take a long, long time (especially the ones that naturally cause the most pain, anger, bitterness, etc.), and encouraging people to embrace and actually nurture hate and anger for that long is unhealthy. That is what speaking at a the sentencing phase of a trial does to those who cannot forgive relatively quickly. It is inherently destructive, and the consequences often last FAR longer than would be without the systematized motivation to hold on to hate.

    Mercy, meekness, charity, etc. – None of these are present in such a situation.

  3. SilverRain says:

    I have struggled to understand forgiveness. I think have forgiven someone who has hurt me deeply, but I still feel distrustful of him. He wants to be friends with me, so he says to everyone but me, but I don’t want him anywhere in my life that is not strictly necessary. Yet, I wish him no harm. I wish him no harm, yet I expect him to carry out his financial and emotional responsibilities towards his children, which he sees as wishing him harm. I live a life of emotional warfare, with my children as the unwitting victims. I try my hardest not to attack back, but when I must, I am forced to explain to them the tactics he uses so they might have what they need to protect themselves in the future.

    Is this forgiveness? I don’t know. The word doesn’t seen to have much meaning any more. I know only that I wish it would stop. I’m so tired of it. But there is no hope of it ever stopping in this life, so what can I do? Showing him the arm of mercy would only invite more aggression. I know because I have done it. Turning the other cheek would only show him where to take off my head, and then I would not be there for my children any more, to fulfill my responsibilities to them.

    Anyway, sorry for letting all that out here. It just is so frustrating sometimes.

    • Brenda says:

      Section 98 of D&C helped me understand how seriously the Lord takes unrepentant aggressors and the laws that are in place to compensate the victim who bears it patiently. Maxine Murdock also addresses the issue of forgiveness and emotional abuse by a family member in the I Have a Question section of the Ensign, June 1994, 60–61. She makes it cleat that “victims of abuse must protect themselves from family members and others who freely choose to mistreat them.” She also said “Forgiveness does not require acceptance of abuse or acceptance of an abusive person. But when hurt has healed, when victims have realized that the abuse is not something they caused or deserved, when they have tried sincerely to understand the offender, and when they have prayed for charity and spiritual guidance, then peace of mind and true forgiveness will come.” Throughout she emphasizes that this can take many years in cases of deep hurt and ongoing situations.

      Both of these writings have been a comfort and helped me understand what to do with some ongoing sibling issues. Hang in there, the Lord knows of your efforts and He loves you.

  4. Ray says:

    Silver Rain, you hit on something that I feel is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of forgiveness. When I try to explain it, I focus on the case of a friend of mine who was convicted of and served time for sexually abusing a child – and the generic case of alcoholics.

    I love my friend, and he has been forgiven by most of those whom he hurt the most. He also has served time in jail for what he did. He has turned his life around and seems to be truly and completely repentant, and he now holds a temple recommend I believe he deserves to have. However . . .

    There is no way I would ask him to babysit any children the age of the ones he abused, just as there is no way I would ask an alcoholic to meet me in a bar. There is a HUGE difference between forgiveness and stupidity – and placing someone in a position where they face real, intense temptation. My friend would never ask to be placed in the situation I described, and alcoholics understand that part of their continued sobriety (their own repentance) is avoiding alcohol as much as possible.

    Being merciful (including turning the other cheek) is different than putting yourself in situations where you are likely to be struck repeatedly. Forbearance to inflict harm includes harm to yourself, and, sometimes, removing “fellowship” is the only way to accomplish that.

    • SilverRain says:

      Thank you, Ray and Jeanne.

      I know in my head that what you say is true. It’s how I set those boundaries to begin with. But it’s hard to FEEL it when I keep getting hurt again and again, when I can’t seem to heal no matter how hard I try, and when he tells the people I love that he only wants to be my friend, thus making me the bad one who won’t mend bridges.

      It really doesn’t feel like forgiveness. It just feels like misery. And sometimes it makes me question myself, if I’m overreacting or holding onto grudges that he’s repented of and moved on from. It must be that way, if I’m still paying the price and he is not.

      They say that you know you have forgiven when you don’t feel the pain any more, when you have healed. They say that pain is about you letting go, not about their actions. You should be able to forgive and heal no matter what THEY do. But if that is so, then I have no hope of ever accomplishing it.

      I have “healed” so many times, let go of countless pain only for more to eventually well up in its stead. And yet, I’m the one who will never be able to connect and trust someone again, who will never marry, who loses sleep at night, who can’t seem to keep friends in her life because I hurt too much and it eventually shows. I am the one who can’t attend the temple without renewed pain in lieu of peace because it only reminds me of the broken covenants and personal failures, who goes anyways because I’m supposed to and it was once the only place I felt at home, who struggles with going to church because the promises of everything working out “all right in the end” ring hollow and just inflict more pain because I can’t believe it. Every time I heal and think I’ve forgiven and moved on, something more happens and it all comes back as though my efforts have been for nothing.

      What’s worse, what I am going through is so infinitesimal compared to what others must deal with in life!

      Again, I’m sorry. But if I feel it, I’m certain others do too with more reason. Once, I hoped that forgiveness was met if I wished the person no harm. But I believe you. I believe that forgiveness cannot be accomplished if it still hurts so much, if lack of desire to inflict harm—which I have always had—is merely a precursor. Particularly when it doesn’t matter, when your lack of return aggression is interpreted by the aggressor as striking back anyways, providing the excuse for more harm. Or when you must take legal action to protect others, which is also interpreted as striking back….

      There must be an answer to all this, somewhere. I’ve just failed to find it yet.

      • Ray DeGraw says:

        “They say that you know you have forgiven when you don’t feel the pain any more, when you have healed.”

        Sometimes, the generic “they” are wrong. Sometimes, the consequences of inflicted harm cause pain that won’t go away, and that continued pain has nothing to do with forgiveness.

        Perhaps the best example is someone who is crippled permanently by a drunk driver in such a way that pain in permanent – or when someone is killed and loved ones must continue life without that person. Forgiveness is possible even when pain is constant and unrelenting, but forgiveness is harder when the consequences are more far reaching and/or pain is more intense.

  5. Rocket says:

    It should be remembered that Christ’s instance of forgiving while on the cross was miraculously extraordinary. For most of us there is no capacity to heal while the knife is still in our backs. The situation you describe makes it clear that the abuse is perpetual and continuing. Your priority is to protect you and yours, and it sounds like that is what you are doing.

    It’s normal to feel pangs towards forgiveness, but just as likely that you are being guilt-tripped into those feelings by your abuser. Along with self-respect, I would consider the respect issue between you and your children in the future. They may not be able to discern it now, but they will eventually recognize your refusal to subject them and yourself to further abuse in your home, and that will be meaningful later when/if they marry. But meaningful forgiveness at this point is really a non-issue that need not be on your radar unless clearly directed by the spirit. You are completely justified in taking care of your kids and healing from PTSD (if present) first.

    • Ray DeGraw says:

      Amen, Rocket. Perfectly said.

      Forgiveness is impossible while pain is being inflicted actively. Self-protection and elimination of the pain is a pre-requisite to eventual forgiveness. Until the infliction ceases, forbearance to inflict pain (to the extent possible, not always completely) is all that can be asked – and it still isn’t easy.

  6. h_nu says:

    Dear SR,
    I hope, FWIW, that you find more peace. I hope you don’t view me as an enemy but as someone who hopes you can find more peace.

  7. SilverRain says:

    Thank you, Ray, Rocket, and h_nu for the support.

    I guess it boils down to this: is forgiveness possible without healing?

    Perhaps it is true that some must forgive to heal. But even when the harm is still being caused, it must be possible to forgive. After thinking about it, I just can’t believe otherwise. Pain is just pain. Especially emotional pain and fear. I can survive that. But I can’t accept that the forgiveness I have given isn’t real, just because I still hurt. Forgiveness may be necessary to heal, but it does not guarantee healing.

    Does true forgiveness require that I no longer feel pain? Or does it only require that I wish no harm to come to that person, require nothing from them? That I leave retribution or lack thereof up to the Lord and do not concern myself with justice?

  8. Ray says:

    “But I can’t accept that the forgiveness I have given isn’t real, just because I still hurt.”

    Amen. Forgiveness can be real even with continuing pain. Sometimes, pain simply won’t stop regardless of what we do.

    “Forgiveness may be necessary to heal, but it does not guarantee healing.”

    Amen – if we are talking about spiritual healing – and if we distinguish between “healing” and “forgetting”. Pain can be forgotten without full healing, and healing can occur without pain being forgotten. Healing, to some extent and in some ways, can even occur without forgiveness. Further, sometimes, trauma cannot be forgotten – and sometimes trauma cannot end with complete healing of every kind. We confuse the issue of forgiveness when we conflate it with forgetting, and the same is true of healing.

    “Does true forgiveness require that I no longer feel pain?”

    Absolutely not. Anyone who believes otherwise simply has never experienced pain that cannot end despite true forgiveness.

    “Or does it only require that I wish no harm to come to that person, require nothing from them? That I leave retribution or lack thereof up to the Lord and do not concern myself with justice?”

    Yes, that is the heart of it all. Self-protection, legal testimony to establish consequences, recognition of reasonable restriction, etc. all can continue after forgiveness has been granted. Forbearance to inflict unnecessary harm sometimes is all that can be asked, so sometimes it is all that is required.

  9. Ray says:

    “Or does it only require that I wish no harm to come to that person?”

    Let me clarify:

    What is required is that I wish no undue, unnecessary, excessive, etc. harm to come to the person – that I be satisfied with whatever consequences are necessary without causing irreparable harm – if possible.

    For example, if someone murders my wife or child, I can accept life without parole as an unavoidable consequence without wishing for the person also to be beaten regularly in prison. Forgiveness is involved with what I personally can inflict and my personal forbearance to inflict what need not be inflicted. Forgiving would be like being willing to accept a sentence of 25 years in prison as opposed to insisting on life, if the statute allowed for a sentence of 15 years to life. It means being willing to say, “Not my will, but thine be done,” to the person who has the power to make the decision.

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