How the inevitable giving and receiving of pain in loving relationships connects us to the Atonement of Christ.
I had a painful revelation yesterday in the temple. I was pondering a relationship I cherish, but that has brought me a lot of pain. In fact, I went praying for peace and the ability to both forgive and move on.
I got a different answer than I intended, but one that was very powerful.
As I sat there I remembered something very early in my relationship with my wife, before we were even married. I responded to something she did in a way that seemed right at the time, but knowing her as I do now, I can see just how much that particular response must have hurt her. Thinking of that is exquisitely, terribly painful for me! It took my breath away, in fact.
Here's the thing: I didn't lose my temper, I wasn't acting out of selfish motives or anything like that. In fact, I truly thought I was handling the situation well. An outside observer probably would hear the details and think, "Hmm, that's not really that big of a deal."
But yesterday I saw just how much pain I must have given her. That thought haunted me. Seeing with clarity the pain you have given to another person, especially one you love, is uniquely painful.
As we talked on the way home, she said something like, "Yes, but I gave you a lot of pain too."
And she is right.
With the best of intentions, with true and deep love, with a commitment to make each other happy, we have both done things that hurt the other over the years.
I'm not talking about abuse or truly egregious things. Rather, these are the sorts of things we stumble into, the mistakes we make from blind spots and inexperience, the times where our flaws and weaknesses manifest themselves in the way we treat those we love. These are not always small or minor things in terms of their impact, but they are present in relationships, and the closer and longer-term the relationship, the more easily they can proliferate.
The giving and receiving of pain in otherwise loving relationships seems inevitable, and while I don't like it, I must conclude that it's an avoidable part of the Plan of Happiness, whether by design or simply as an unavoidable by-product of mortality.
If a relationship--any kind of close relationships--is to truly be a union of minds and hearts, a sealing that will endure all time and span through eternity, some hurts are inevitable.
We simply can't be that close to another person, be as one, without inflicting some pain over time. Being that much of a person's life means walking in very tender places, having access to feelings and thoughts, it means living among their insecurities, and the hurts and wounds they had previously.
This life is about progress, getting better. It's about gaining knowledge, refining our feelings, and growing in our ability to act in such a way that our actions align with that growing knowledge and those refined feelings.
But this takes time. And the work of parenting, the work of being a spouse or a sibling or a friend--all of these are ongoing. Our growth is line upon line, but our responsibilities and relationships unfold far more quickly, far less gradually, and often demand us to respond to very emotionally charged situations.
Thus, in our human weakness, we inflict pain upon those we love.
The answer has to be the Atonement of Jesus Christ. The promise is that his grace can overcome all conditions and wounds or mortality. Through his grace we can get balm for the wounds others give us and others can get balm for the wounds we give them.
Elder James Rasband spoke about this in April conference: "As natural men and women, we all bump, or sometimes crash, into each other and cause harm. As any parent can testify, the pain associated with our mistakes is not simply the fear of our own punishment but the fear that we may have limited our children’s joy or in some way hindered them from seeing and understanding the truth. The glorious promise of the Savior’s atoning sacrifice is that as far as our mistakes as parents are concerned, He holds our children blameless and promises healing for them" ("Ensuring a Righteous Judgement" April 2020)
I think this perhaps explains a scripture that I have found hard-sounding at times: "Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin. I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men" (D&C 64:9).
*Again, I'm not talking about abuse or long-term mistreatment. I want to make that clear.
I think I understand this verse better than I once did. I have hurt my wife. My wife has hurt me. I have no doubt hurt my kids--as they have and will no doubt hurt others.
All of us, however, have hurt God. All of us, very literally, caused him pain, a pain so intense that it made him "tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink" (D&C 19:18).
I do not know, but I assume that at some point any reckoning of our lives must include an understanding of this, and I imagine it will be humbling beyond what we can imagine.
There's a poignant irony. Our balm from the pain others give us comes because he bore the pain we give others. The sum of all this was incalculable.
This is why I suspect that the commandment to forgive is so important. All of us caused Jesus pain. He bore the penalty for all of us, and he offers ultimate healing for all those who suffer from what others have done.
If he is paying the price for the way I have hurt others, how must it sound to him when I don't forgive others for the way they have hurt me?
If someone is paying the entire check, it must be baffling or even deeply offensive for the guests to quibble over whose order cost more.
This explains the need for us to have a broken heart and a contrite spirit. If seeing the way we have hurt others bring pain, then surely understanding one day the cost our actions imposed on an innocent Jesus will be stunning to us. A broken heart now will perhaps allow us to endure that better, and knowing we have forgiven those who hurt us will put us in a better place to endure the inevitable moment when we see just what he has endured and borne for us.
This, I think, is why he wants us to leave the motes in other people's eyes alone. It must be so deeply offensive to him when I focus on what others have done to me, when he is busy reparing the hurt I've given to others. This is why I think he wants us to focus on our internal state of being, to repent of our own sins and leave unnoticed the flaws of others.
We are prone to focus on the intent behind our actions, but Jesus sees the impact, both because he felt it himself and must work to heal it in others.
It is why he wants us to simply pray, "O Lord, forgive my unworthiness, and remember my brethren in mercy—yea, acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times" (Alma 38:14).
It may be that my cry for relief from pain someone has given me comes to God's ears at the same time others are crying for relief from pain I inflicted. And if those I love have sometimes hurt me, then I am walking a short way along the path Jesus walked, doing what he did. But the striking thing is that there are others on that walk--those to whom I also gave pain. He heals them as he heals me.
Of what, then, can I ever have to boast? And if I truly see this, how can my heart be anything but broken and contrite? And how can I possibly withhold from another the forgiveness which I need so deeply, so completely, and continually myself?
Eating Freely of Every Tree in the Garden: The Restoration's Expansive, Generous Picture of God vs. the Narrow, Pinched, Stern Tradition
I have been pondering something for a long time, because it's had a significant impact on my life. For years, it was a deeply negative impact. More recently, it's been a potent--and growing--source of joy. I don't think I'm the only LDS to whom this applies, so I'm writing about it in hopes it may help someone else.
It has to do with what we really, deep down, believe about the nature of God, and how we perceive his character, and, consequently, the ways in which we try to emulate and please him.
We are familiar with one of God's earliest commandments, the time he warned Adam: "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Moses 3:17).
This commandment is very clear. It consists of a rule and a clearly-stated penalty.
If this is the starting point for our relationship with God, then we might come to believe that the main or major characteristic of God and our relationship to him is obedience: he commands and we obey. We please him if we obey, we displease him if we disobey.
That's not exactly wrong. There are bits of truth in that. God does ask us to obey. Jesus said that if we loved him we would keep his commandments (John 14:15). Obedience is important, critical--the first law of heaven, according to Presidents Tanner, Benson and Elders Wirthlin at least.
I am not arguing with any of that.
However, there's a way in which good-hearted, faithful people can become so focused on obedience that it becomes an end, rather than a means. If it defines the relationship with God, if that is the main and only aspect, then it also narrows that relationship. And, I believe, it causes us to misunderstand who God is and why he wants us to obey him.
While we speak often of the strict commandment God gave Adam, what I think we don't remember or speak of as often is that it is actually part of a much larger instruction: "And I, the Lord God, commanded the man, saying: Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat..." (Moses 3:16). And this part comes after the Lord described planting a garden filled with "every tree, naturally, that is pleasant to the sight of man..." (Moses 3:9).
In other words, that more strict commandment is true, but in context, it's a modifier for a much more expansive, generous, gentle statement.
In very simple terms, what was the ratio of encouragement to prohibition? How many more trees did God allow--even encourage--Adam to eat than he forbade?
There are two ways to look at God, based on these verses. One focuses on the strictness of God's commands as his primary characteristic. The other focuses on his generosity and goodness, but includes his hope for obedience. If we focus only one the commandment we are fast-forwarding, freeze-framing, and focusing on a fragment.
The entire point of the Restoration was that it was to bring us the whole picture again, to unfold and unfurl the truly infinite and eternal plan of happiness. If the plan is broad and unlimited, how can we imagine the planner to be any less expansive or dimensional. How can God be narrow when the fullness of his work is infinite?
The beautiful thing about the Restoration is that it allows all the pieces to fit. A god who is expansive and generous can still ask for obedience. In fact, a fully dimensional view explains exactly why he wants us to obey: because he loves us! But in this view, obedience is a means, not the end. It is an important part of the relationship, but not the primary, defining element: love is. And from that love flows many things, including his request that we obey him and our willing compliance. Obedience binds us to him and creates a pipeline through which blessings and love and knowledge flow, but no one mistakes a pipe for the life-giving water it brings, or a fiber-optic cable for the data it transmits.
This post is too long already, so I will come back to this later. Part 2 to follow soon! If you don't want to miss it, you might consider subscribing to this blog or, following it on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.