March Young Women Lesson: Why do I need to forgive others?
In the spirit of our International Women’s Day series and Mormonism’s #metoo movement (#Mormonmetoo), this March Young Women lesson on forgiveness works to help young women identify what engaging in a process of forgiveness may be like when they or someone they know has experienced abuse or assault of any kind. (You may want to explain that abuse can range from physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and sexual and that assault can range from physical to sexual.)
Start the lesson by asking the class what comes to mind when they think of the word “forgiveness.”
Write their answers on the board.
Throughout the lesson refer to their answers from the board to determine together whether their initial associations to “forgiveness” square with what they are learning in the lesson.
It’s likely that the word “forget” or “forgetting” came up during this exercise. Explain that while in the scriptures the Lord says He will “remember [our] sins no more” when we repent (D&C 58:42), that it is not humanly possible nor required of us as human beings to forget or trust someone who has harmed us. Forgiving is not forgetting for important reasons, nor does it require not holding someone accountable for their behavior. But working toward forgiveness of others in safe circumstances can be a valuable process.
Strongly emphasize that not every hurt or offense is healthy or wise to “forgive.”
For instance, if someone is abused by a parent or an intimate partner, it may be impossible or ill-advised to require oneself to forgive that person and remain in relationship with them. There are many reasons for this, which include protecting yourself or those you love from a perpetrator, or to preserve your physical, emotional, spiritual, and/or mental health. Tell the class that anger is an emotion that helps us separate. And that they should give space for their anger if they experience abuse or assault in any form for as long as they need to help keep themselves and others they may be responsible for safe.
Next I would tell this story:
A mother was talking to her elementary-school-aged daughter about her grandparents when the daughter asked why their family didn’t visit with or web cam with a particular grandfather as they did with her other grandparents. The mother explained that while she loves this grandfather very much, that “Grandpa is unable to treat others appropriately enough for us to be close to him. He doesn’t want to hurt people he loves, but he does. And as your mother it’s my responsibility to protect you from those who I know would hurt you.” The mother then explained to her daughter that we can hold love in our hearts for people while choosing to not interact with them to keep ourselves safe from those who would do us harm.
Ask the young women what they think about this story. Ask them if they think the mother in this story is forgiving of the grandfather. Why or why not?
Ask them if they have experienced being hurt by someone enough to need to separate themselves from them, or to consider separating themselves from them.
Then ask them if they feel comfortable sharing their experience and what considering forgiveness has been like for them in those cases.
If an experience is shared that may be traumatizing for members of the class to hear, tell the young woman how important it was for her to share it and tell her you want to talk to her more about it after class. And then be sure to follow up with her.
If you feel a member of the class is in need of immediate comfort given what she shared, follow the Spirit and your instincts in how best to respond so she feels heard, believed, and validated. And be sure to verbalize that the abuse or assault is not her fault and that she is not to blame for what happened to her. No matter what.
If the young woman reports that the abuse or assault is on-going, in a private conversation after class inquire about her level of safety and if there is an adult she trusts in her life that she feels comfortable talking to who could help her. If the abuse is physical or sexual in nature and is being perpetrated by a parent or guardian, all states in the U.S. have a child services department that you can contact and make a report, even anonymously, and the state is required to investigate the report and determine whether the child is safe to remain in the home. You may also consider reporting the abuse or assault to the police, if you feel the young woman has not already done so and is not safe, or if the perpetrator is likely to harm others. If you do any of the above, if possible it is best to first get the consent of the young woman before contacting government authorities.
Forgiveness is multi-faceted and is not something perpetrators of abuse or assault will be given by God without their repentance.
The lesson manual points out a nuance to forgiveness: whereas we are commanded in the scriptures to forgive everyone (D&C 64:10), which includes ourselves, only God “can decide whether or not a person should be forgiven.” I think this means that God loves everyone unconditionally no matter what, but that God will still hold people accountable if they haven’t repented or changed their hurtful behavior.
Point out again that whereas we are asked to forgive all, that as Latter-day Saints we believe we can continue to grow and progress in the after-life, so that we need not require perfection of ourselves in achieving forgiveness in every case in this life. Remind the young women that their Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father know their struggles and their pain. I would add that I believe that only our Heavenly Parents can judge us and that I believe Their grace and mercy covers cases where our best efforts to let go of negative feelings did not achieve forgiveness in this life.
Tell the class clearly that if a crime has been committed against us, we are entitled to justice in a court of law. And that working to ensure that a perpetrator isn’t able to abuse or assault others by being put in prison can bring survivors of abuse and assault a measure of peace. I would add that reporting a crime against us to the police is a personal decision and that we shouldn’t judge others or ourselves if we don’t. And that it’s never too late to report abuse/assault or to speak our truth, even if it doesn’t result in the outcome we would wish for. There is something called the court of public opinion and that making others aware of someone’s history of harming others if they are likely to reoffend may be an important part of our healing—no matter how many days, months, or years have passed since the abuse or crime was committed.
In the right circumstances, forgiveness offers a significant benefit to the one who has been hurt.
Forgiveness is not a one-time event. More often, it is a lifelong process. You may feel that you have forgiven someone but may find yourself feeling angry, hurt, or sad periodically throughout your life, especially when something triggers memories of past incidents. This is normal and in no way means that you haven’t made progress toward resolving your valid, negative feelings—nor does it means that you have failed at forgiving.
Engaging in psychotherapy or other professional counseling services or support can be an important part of healing from abuse or assault. Trained professionals can help you navigate a healing process that prioritizes your safety while balancing self-care, boundaries, holding the perpetrator accountable, and eventually finding a measure of peace so you can embrace your bright future.
Working through feelings of anger, resentment, and maybe even a desire for revenge is a process that often takes a lot of time in cases of abuse and assault. But efforts to let go of feelings that are no longer constructive can help us avoid being held hostage by them so we can move on with our lives.
Where possible, ultimately forgiveness can be a gift you give yourself.