We've all heard Elder Packer's description of the Savior paying the debtor's debt, describing for us how the atonement works to satisfy both the demands of justice and mercy. Our repentance can be complete through the atonement. (Video included at the end of post, in case you haven't heard/seen it.)
Last night I read from Lund's "Work and the Glory: So Great a Cause," a conversation between two brothers about this principle. One brother, Joshua, wants to understand how the atonement can make things better if the past cannot be changed. This is his brother, Nathan's description. Bear with me as I share this excerpt with you. My personal epiphany follows.
"Now to my example with Charles. Let's suppose that he is playing stickball with some boys. They are in a field across the street from a general store. Charles knocks the ball with a solid hit. It soars out of the field, across the street, and right through the window of the general store."
There was a bemused smile. "That sounds like Charles, all right."
"So here we have an interesting situation. The storekeeper has lost an expensive glass window. He wants to be paid for its replacement. He wants justice. And that is only right. But you are the father. You want mercy for your son. This wasn't a malicious act. He's only six. He wasn't thinking. He didn't understand the consequences of his actions. Should he be blamed and punished? And if so, how can he possibly pay the damages? He earns no money, has no resources of his own." He stopped and waited a moment before saying, "Do you see the conflict now between mercy and justice?"
"Well, I probably would have put it in different terms, but yes."
"So how do you resolve it so that both mercy and justice are satisfied? Would you make Charles go to work at the store until the debt is paid?"
"He's only six," Joshua protested.
"And that wouldn't be very merciful, would it? So be merciful to Charles. Just tell the storekeeper that Charles is only a boy and that he—the storekeeper—will have to replace the window himself."
"No, that's not fair, either."
"Now you're beginning to see why the Book of Mormon says that mercy cannot rob justice. That would not be right."
"What if I paid it?" Joshua suddenly said.
"Ah," Nathan said softly.
Joshua shook his head ruefully. "Every time you say, 'Ah,' I feel like I just stepped into a trap. Ah, what?"
"That's your answer, Joshua. If you pay the storekeeper, will he be satisfied?"
"He won't insist that Charles actually make the payment?"
"No, not unless he's a dolt."
"One more question, then I'll make my point. If you pay for the window to the satisfaction of the storekeeper, is everything all right now?"
Again, Joshua sensed he was being led, but there was only one answer to that. "Yes."
"But you haven't changed the past," Nathan said quietly.
Joshua saw it now and it hit him with full force. It showed in his eyes and around the corners of his mouth.
"Nothing in the past has been changed, Joshua, but mercy has been shown and justice has been satisfied." Nathan went on, slowly now, choosing his words with great care. "Suppose, then, that Jesus Christ went into the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, and there he suffered so intensely that he paid the price for all those terrible things that Joshua Steed did in the past. Suppose that he suffered enough that Joshua's beating of his wife was paid for, not by Joshua, but by the Redeemer. Would Jessica be satisfied with such a payment? Not from you, but from the Savior?"
"Jessica would," he finally said. "Others might not, but Jessica would."
I've understood this from the debtor's point of view. And I'm eternally grateful for it. But today, I came to understand it from a different point of view.
We all have people to forgive in our lives. We always will. In my life, there is one particular person whom I have a hard time forgiving. In fact, each time I think I've forgiven him, something will come up, remind me of how much he hurt me, and I have to go through the process of forgiving him all over again. The details of how and why I need to forgive him are irrelevant. Suffice it to say that at his hands I suffered my life's (to date) greatest betrayal and abuse.
Now, no one would deny that I have been wronged. (The potential exception being the very person who wronged me.) And being wronged, I have every right to restitution. It's only just. Knowing the past cannot be undone, what would I ask of this person as payment, if I could? That's a hard one, because really I'd wish the wrong never happened. Since that is impossible, I would want him to feel—really feel—what I felt, what he did to me. I would want him to suffer as I suffered because of him. I'd want him to apologize with real sincerity; to feel so sorry for what he did, so sorry for what happened to me and what I went through. I'd want him to try, in whatever ways possible, to make my life better as an attempt to make up for his sin against me.
Remember the analogy. Seeing how this person (let's now call him Charles) either cannot or perhaps will not do these things, what am I to do? Just let it go? I deserve restitution. And God is perfectly just. He would not rob me of that. He probably agrees perfectly that I have a right to all those things I would ask of Charles.
Here's my epiphany: Christ did all that! Christ made the payment. He felt what I felt, perfectly. He suffered as I suffered. He feels so sorry, with perfect sincerity, for what happened to me and what I went through. And He is doing everything He can to make my life better. PAYMENT HAS BEEN MADE!! It didn't come from Charles, it came from Christ, but unless I'm "a dolt," I will recognize that my wrong has been righted. I have received my restitution. And how can I reject payment from someone who, disregarding this situation, has done so much for me? I can't. Of course I accept His payment in behalf of Charles.
So you see, forgiveness doesn't mean I've given up my right for justice. I haven't given up anything. I have received payment in full. Forgiveness only means that I stop holding a debt against Charles when that debt has already been paid. (That doesn't mean I have to trust Charles to play with a stick near my shop again, though.)
Wow. Just wow. I'd never thought of forgiveness this way before. But it is so, so perfect.
Elder Packer's explanation of grace: