Guest Post: Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability Part 5: The “Greater Sin”/ Sane Repentance & Forgiveness

[This is the fourth in a series of guest posts on Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability. The first three installments are available here: Part 1:”Exceeding Sorrowful, Even Unto Death” (Mark 14:34)Part 2: Causes and (Mis)Attributions, Part 3: Fractured Images of God, Self, and Others, and Part 4: Accommodations in LDS Activities and Meetings]

Now knowing a portion of my background, you can probably guess I’ve had opportunity to give a fair amount of consideration to the concepts of personal responsibility, repentance, and forgiveness. Please take this post as exactly that, my own considerations on these topics, long thought out, studied, prayed about, discussed, and applied, but still open to question/ suggestion/ correction/ reinterpretation. This is also about individual, rather than institutional forgiveness, though I’d love to hear insights from any who have served/ are serving as church leaders where their judgments about people are required in their church work.

We’ve talked a bit about accountability in relation to mental illness. I want to start by saying I don’t think repentance and forgiveness are necessary where there is no accountability for error. Learning, yes. And sometimes even apology and explanation. But repentance, no.

While acknowledging that someone who has hurt or offended us did not or may not have intended nor be aware of the harm done can allow us to keep moving forward without getting wrapped up in judgment or a desire for vindication, it is not the same as forgiving. When we forgive, we refrain from judging or retaliating against an individual, refuse to lose hope in the Savior as a result of what they have done, and hope and pray for them ESPECIALLY when their wrong or hurtful behavior is or seems intentional, malicious, or unchanging.

Love may be blind, but forgiveness is not. Forgiveness requires at least some recognition and acknowledgement that a particular action or behavior is spiritually destructive–how it differentiates or separates us from each other and from God. It’s not saying something that is hurtful is not (woe unto those who call evil good and good evil). But even further, forgiveness recognizes that even those who knowingly sin (that means all of us in some ways) have been atoned for, conditional on our individual repentance.

Forgiveness perceives that mercy does not, cannot, and will not rob justice. Everyone who reaps an eternal reward will have been changed from a carnal, sensual, and devilish self to a glorified, righteous, and benevolent being. This knowledge gives us confidence that God’s judgments are just (as well as merciful) and that we can have full confidence in God (rather than having to “fix” things–or anyone else–ourselves).

Forgiveness is not manipulative or pitiful. It is not about changing or reforming anyone but ourselves, nor about assuming that anyone else CAN’T change. Forgiveness completely respects the free will of both the offender and the offended.

Forgiveness is also not contingent on, nor does it always require reconciliation with the offending party (though reconciliation is often contingent on forgiveness). The scriptures make it clear that reconciliation only happens “IF” the offender hears the offended and repents (D&C 42:88).  That can take a lifetime or longer in serious cases. Of course there are situations where it is not possible or safe to address an offender directly, or to reconcile or resume having a relationship with them once an offense is addressed, and in these cases, the Lord is our recourse. That’s okay, because forgiveness is not contingent on the attitude, motives, or even future intentions of the offender, but rather on the recognition that we, too, sin and need forgiveness for those things we knowingly do wrong, and that ALL have the promise of perfect mercy, and perfect justice and eventual safety from all harm in the kingdom of God.

Forgiveness does not mean removing safeguards. Where there is weakness, it is not charity to subject a repentant individual to repeated temptation. For example, you don’t have an alcoholic work at a bar to prove she has repented, and you don’t give a former child abuser responsibility over children in their church calling. It’s just not charitable or responsible. Not to mention a fate worse than millstones at the depths of the sea (Matthew 18:6)–a fate a wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

It’s important to recognize that the forgiveness we extend to others and the forgiveness that the Lord applies to whom He will (all of us if we turn to Him/ ask/ repent) are qualitatively different. The scriptures define our forgiveness as turning judgment over to God (“The Lord judge between me and thee”) rather than absolution (saying “you will not be held accountable”).

Forgiveness does not mean that we do not hold people accountable for their behavior.  (D&C 64:7-14, also 44:83-90) We are guilty of “the greater sin” when we do not forgive because the greatest sin is denial of the Holy Spirit, the only means we have of assessing our own need for reconciliation with God.1 If we deny that help, we will never make it. We are spiritually lost because we are unable to accept the atonement for ourselves. All other sins, even murder and sexual sin, can be forgiven. But there is no repentance without the guidance of the Holy Spirit to show us the error of our own paths and the whispered confirmation of redemption and exaltation.

Getting accountability straight is essential to teaching the basic principles of the gospel of salvation, and providing hope to all of us in our varying degrees of understanding and accountability! It’s also essential to the work we do in church classes, activities, counsels, and courts to help one another along the path.

Whether offenses and hurts are intentional or not, accountable or not, recognition and disclosure and instruction and learning are still needed. The scriptures direct us to go to those we’ve offended and those who have offended us in preparation for the sacrament each week, because it gives BOTH parties an opportunity for recognition, resolution, and growth. (Matthew 5:24)  Some people are good at this people portion (all the supposed “R”s of repentance), but then fail to take it to the Savior, who is the only intercessor able to absolve us of sin and wipe our slate clean.

Julie, you straighten me out if need be here, but I’m going to conclude with a couple ideas attributed to Paul. They may not be his, but I think they’re beautiful:

2 Corinthians 2:10-11: “If I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ; lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.”

Romans 8:31-39: “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

1. It does NOT mean we take upon ourselves responsibility for the sin of the offender. We are each accountable only for our own sins. Even where scriptures discuss sin being on the heads of parents who do not teach their children truth, the sin on the parents’ heads is failure to pass on knowledge of salvation rather than whatever errant behavior the child then pursues. When we replicate the behavior of an offender, paying it forward to someone else (even to the 4th and 5th generation), only then are we accountable for that particular behavior, and only when we have been brought to awareness that it is ungodly/ harmful.

*Author’s name has been changed due the sensitive nature of this series of guest posts

11 comments for “Guest Post: Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability Part 5: The “Greater Sin”/ Sane Repentance & Forgiveness

  1. “Getting accountability straight is essential to teaching the basic principles of the gospel of salvation, and providing hope to all of us in our varying degrees of understanding and accountability! It’s also essential to the work we do in church classes, activities, counsels, and courts to help one another along the path.”

    Please define accountability in this usage.

  2. Hmmm… yes, I’ve used it several ways here. Sorry I wasn’t more clear. In the part you quote, I’m talking about being careful how we discuss/teach/explain spiritual accountability for wrongdoing/sin. We (LDS) emphasize that those without law (young children, and those without knowledge or understanding) are not accountable before God (spiritually) for those things they do not understand. I believe this extends in varying degrees to individuals with mental illness, and it’s not always clear to what degree, either to the individual, or to others. I think it’s important to acknowledge that in our teaching, counseling, general discussions about accountability, sin and transgression, repentance and forgiveness.

    In the first sentence of the paragraph previous to the quoted portion, I was referring to legal and church accountability for actions which require church or legal court actions (laws of the church and laws of the land). I should have provided more explanation there and perhaps a direct quotation from the cited scriptures. I also believe laying out expected or desired behavior and setting limits is appropriate on a personal level, and is not contrary to being forgiving. I also should have started a new paragraph to discuss what it means to be guilty of “the greater sin”, which is also referenced in those same passages cited, but is a separate issue.

    Does that help?

  3. Looking again, I also meant being clear that we are not accountable for the actions of others, even if we have influenced them. We are only accountable for our own. This is really important for individuals who have erroneously been made to feel responsible for evil done to them (a common response of abuse victims), or trauma victims who feel survivor guilt (but are not guilty of the loss to others’ lives even though they survived) as just two examples.

  4. Demaris, strictly speaking, that does not help because you’ve used accountability to describe accountability and I don’t know what you mean by that. Is accountable something like liable? Or is it closer to mature? Or is it more along the lines of understandable? There are several common connotations of the word, but in trying to understand your post I need to know how you’re using it because it plays such an important role in the conversation.

  5. Well thanks for keeping me on task. Guess it’s pretty obvious that I’m not an attorney or philosopher, and I may have bitten off more than I realized!

    I think “being accountable” for our actions means knowing what is expected, being free to choose how to act, owning/acknowledging what we have done, accepting consequences (natural and externally imposed, positive and negative) for our actions, and apologizing/ trying to understand better, learn, and change when we learn our behaviors are less than ideal. Accountability is limited by experience & maturity, understanding, biology, and I’m sure other factors. It being limited, however, does NOT mean accountability/responsibility for personal behavior is non-existent.

    “Holding someone else accountable” for their actions can be as simple as recognizing (ourselves) that what they did was wrong, and not allowing ourselves to repeat that same type of harmful behavior, or asking someone else to consider the effect of a particular action they’ve taken, or it can be as complex as reporting their behavior to law enforcement or legal or church authorities. This is the type of “holding accountable” discussed in the D&C. We are told (even in forgiving) to take offenders to court (church and secular) if commandments/ laws have been broken. We are told to let people know and also forgive them if they have offended us. That is an interpersonal form of “holding someone accountable” for their actions, being clear that we expect/ed or hope better of them. For individuals “not under law” for a variety of reasons, it is unfair and unrealistic to expect better or to impose punishment (or forgiveness) of any kind, although natural consequences often still follow regardless.

    We experience natural consequences for our actions whether or not we are of sufficient understanding, maturity, etc. to have freely chosen these actions, and people often impose external consequences without regard to these realities. I do not believe that God, being omniscient and benevolent, does (this I would call God “holding us accountable” or not). Nor do I believe it is the intent of [most] church leaders to judge or impose penalties (like loss of temple recommend or other church discipline) on individuals who do not have adequate understanding of what they have done. Sometimes we inadvertently misjudge because we aren’t clear about limits to accountability/ personal responsibility for actions, or because we have misunderstood scriptural teachings about personal responsibility, forgiveness, and the like. In spite of the difficulty and the nuance, we are still instructed to deal with these issues, and to discuss them with others individually and in church settings.

    I bring all these issues up in a series about mental health in the church because I and so many I’ve known have had their difficulties made worse rather than helped by church leaders, teachers, and peers who have misunderstood and misrepresented the personal responsibility of the individual/s struggling with mental health challenges.

    Any better?

  6. Demaris, that is clearer, yes. Thank you for taking the time to respond in detail. Having a mental illness myself, I’ve thought often about the idea of accountability. In particular, the idea that “being accountable means accepting consequences (natural and externally imposed, positive and negative)” is one that I find ultimately unhelpful. One has no choice but to live with natural consequences, but acceptance implies making peace with them in some way. I’m not sure this is either healthy or required by God. Externally imposed consequences are even more troublesome because they may be imposed without justice or mercy. Again, accepting them (or even agreeing to live with them) is not necessarily the right thing to do, IMO. In some cases, consequences can prompt us to rethink our lives and sometimes when we do that we end up progressing, but tying this to accountability confuses fundamentally distinct principles. Instead, I think of accountability as a level of awareness. Our choices change us, and the atonement can only save us from that changing insofar as we weren’t aware of the full scope of those changes. As the authors of “The God who Weeps” describe, this is why denying the Holy Ghost is the unforgivable sin – when someone has full awareness of their choices then (and only then) are they *fully* accountable and so repentance (a change brought on by new or renewed awareness) and the atonement don’t even make sense in such a state.

    Mental illness usually decreases one’s awareness and so such are less accountable. The hurts, pain, and other suffering accompanying and stemming from mental illness are simply byproducts of the condition, and it is my thinking that labeling these things as consequences is, due to the association of that word with guilt, inaccurate.

  7. I think we are mostly in agreement. The part you quoted is about people who are able to be accountable because they did choose their actions needing to accept consequences. I haven’t read The God Who Weeps, but from the part you summarize, I might disagree w/ the author.

    Acceptance of natural consequences for those NOT fully accountable is a whole ‘nother issue. But even here, I find acceptance of natural consequences to be a positive. Maybe because I don’t feel guilty when I recognize that it’s a consequence that isn’t my fault? For example, when I can see the effects of maladaptive thinking or behavior that I’ve passed on to my own children that are a direct result of the way I was raised and my own parents’ mental illnesses, it’s frustrating and painful. But I don’t think seeing similar maladaptive behaviors and traits in kids is unique to individuals with mental health challenges; it’s a natural consequence of being in process. Not only that, it is clearly okay with God, too, or we wouldn’t have gospel teaching, an atonement, and other helps along the way! So when I recognize one of these situations, I identify what’s going on, apologize for it, work on it (getting professional help where needed), let my kids know I’m working on it & how, and (when they’re ready) help them work on it, too. I still have to deal with the effects (natural consequence) even if it’s not “my fault.”

  8. This is a real-life situation where I live: A priesthood holder sits in jail awaiting trial on sex-abuse charges against youth in our ward. After three court appearances he has yet to register a plea, but his lawyer has signalled an impending not-guilty defense. The mother of one victim visited the offender in jail, where he admitted his guilt to her. The ward is split; half demanding accountability, the other half pleading forgiveness for the perpetrator. How can this situation be reasonably addressed?

    As for me, I studied Bruce R. McConkie’s tome, ‘Mormon Doctrine’ where he outlines repentence. I quote from page 630, paragraph 2:
    “To gain forgiveness through repentence a person must have a conviction of guilt, a godly sorrow for sin, and a contrite spirit. He must desire to be relieved of the burden of sin, have a fixed determination to forsake his evil ways, be willing to confess his sins, and forgive those who have trespassed against him;”

    In our ward some folks have been falling all over themselves proclaiming love and forgiveness from the pulpit on the first Sunday of each month, while the youth twist in their pews. There is an order to these situations. Surely, forgiveness is a required stance for all of us. In this situation, I would rather some accountability beforehand.

  9. Amen, Doug. We had a similar situation in a previous ward as well. The wife of the offender got up in testimony meeting “bearing testimony” of her “eternal marriage” in spite of others (within the ward) who had counseled her to leave him for the sake of their children. Yikes. I think we put the cart before the horse when we expect (or even demand) forgiveness of those who have been harmed by serious wrongs before we’ve even clearly identified the wrong and examined its effects, both on those harmed and on the perpetrator, and also without clearly identifying what forgiveness means and doesn’t mean. I had a conversation with my dad once in which he asked for blanket forgiveness for “not being a perfect father” (which I never expected). I asked him what he thought that meant. “You know, forgive and forget.” Yeah. Right. What every perpetrator hopes of his or her victims. Just forget about it, don’t tell anyone, assume the blame yourself.

    I hope the youth and perpetrator in your ward are actually given some professional help (beyond whatever legal action ensues) to deal with the effects of this horrible situation.

  10. Oh, and technically, that guy in jail is not a priesthood holder if he ever was. Something about “amen to the priesthood authority of that man”?

  11. Re the situation in Doug’s ward (#8): Absolutely there must be accountability. The law should take care of legal charges against the offender. The ward leaders should make sure that the man never has the opportunity to have contact with youth again. The youth should be supported and told that the adults are doing everything in their power to protect them now that they know about the problem and make things safe for them. It would probably be appropriate to tell the offended ones what consequences the church has placed on the offender. They are directly affected and deserve to know if he is excommunicated.
    And absolutely the ward members should forgive him. Some might not be able to forgive and should not be judged about this, but in the long (eternal) term they should all forgive him.
    Forgiving means, I think, “I will lay down my weapons of war (my hateful words) and I will cease to hate the offender. And I will protect myself in appropriate ways, by distancing myself from the offender if necessary. I will let God be his judge.”
    Accountability and forgiveness go together.
    Forgiveness is a gift the offended gives to himself. If the offended does not forgive, the hate inside might eat him up. In my ward there is an elderly woman who has chosen not to forgive others–an unfaithful ex-husband, some “wayward” children, neighbors who don’t clear the snow off their driveway, the bishop who doesn’t seem to have time for her. She is the most unhappy person I have ever met. Her inability to forgive might be due to some unseen mental illness, I don’t know. I don’t judge her but she is an example of how I don’t want to live.

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