The Book of Mormon is an account of conflicts in which the principle of forgiveness plays a pivotal role in the relationships of people. Beginning with Lehi and ending with Moroni, the book bears its solemn witness to the consequences of failing to forgive others. Much can be gleaned from studying these failures and the harm that disregarding forgiveness can bring.
The Book of Mormon showcases many examples of the power of forgiveness. But it opens with one pathetic account of failing to forgive. The consequences of this failure last a thousand years.
It begins with Nephi, son of Lehi, who lived in the shadow of his elder brothers' constant complaining and recriminations. When Nephi's life was at risk, the Lord finally counseled him to separate from his contentious siblings.
He obeyed, and two nations emerged. Approximately four hundred years later, a Nephite leader by the name of Zeniff recounted why the Lamanites still harbored such animus toward the Nephites.
Note the generational hatred that persisted in Lamanite memory: "They (the Lamanites) were a . . . blood-thirsty people, believing in the tradition of their fathers, which is this — Believing that they were driven out of the land of Jerusalem because of the iniquities of their fathers, and that they were wronged in the wilderness by their brethren." (Mosiah 10:12—13).
What a truly tragic aftermath of two brothers with an enlarged disposition for revenge! But even four hundred years did not circumscribe the damage of these two unforgiving brothers. Approximately one thousand years after Laman and Lemuel contended with Nephi, the prophet Mormon watched hundreds of thousands perish as those who called themselves Lamanites annihilated the entire Nephite nation. The pattern for this genocide can be traced to a contempt for those who followed God or were the children of Nephi (see 4 Nephi 1:39).
Two contemptuous brothers set the pattern for almost one thousand years of conflict. It represents the ultimate example of the aphorism, "He who is offended when no offense was intended is a fool; he who is offended when offense was intended is a greater fool."
The Book of Mormon is not only about failing to forgive others. Four positive examples are Lehi, Nephi, Pahoran, and the risen Lord.
Lehi and Sariah: Responding with Love
Almost unnoticed in the story of the Book of Mormon is the relationship between Lehi and Sariah. Tremendous pressures were placed upon their marriage when they were commanded to leave their home. In one case these pressures boiled over and Sariah gave Lehi a terse tongue-lashing (See 1 Nephi 5:2-3).
Sariah's attack was undoubtedly searing and painful. A likely response would have been to lash back and "put her in her place." Of all people, she should have known better.
Yet, Lehi did not recriminate or denigrate his faltering spouse. He took responsibility of the situation by acknowledging that he was a visionary man. He then encouraged his wife with the power of his testimony. What is also evident from these events is that Lehi did not harbor ill feelings toward his wife. Lehi was a great example of forgiving a faltering or insensitive spouse.
Nephi with Laman and Lemuel: Forgiving Freely and Completely
Perhaps Nephi learned to forgive from his father because he displayed it as he interacted with Laman and Lemuel. He was told early in the Book of Mormon record that he would be a ruler and a teacher over them (see 1 Nephi 2:22). But he appears to have been unprepared for how often they would malign and abuse him.
After a history of abuses, how hard would it have been for Nephi to grant them forgiveness? Nephi had endured one painful moment after another with these calloused brothers.
To this mountain of offense, Nephi responded with forthright forgiveness. "And it came to pass that I did frankly forgive them all that they had done, and I did exhort them that they would pray unto the Lord their God for forgiveness. And it came to pass that they did so" (1 Nephi 7:21).
Nephi cared nothing for revenge. He looked beyond their malice and concerned himself with his need to forgive and their need to be forgiven of the Lord.
Pahoran and Captain Moroni
Another quiet and yet marvelous example of forgiveness surfaces during the war years. This often overlooked account involves a government leader, Pahoran, who was responsible for supporting the great Nephite leader, Captain Moroni.
During his time as the chief governing officer, an uprising developed among the Nephite upper class. Calling upon Moroni for support, the insurrection was quelled (see Alma 51). The Nephite armies continued to battle the Lamanites on a number of fronts while depending heavily on Pahoran and his citizenry to sustain and support them.
Unbeknown to Captain Moroni, a second uprising erupted at home, crippling Pahoran and his government. Pahoran and his loyalists were forced to abandon their city and flee. While hiding from his traitors, Pahoran received a scathing letter from Captain Moroni.
The letter accused Pahoran of gross indifference to Moroni's urgent request for additional supplies. As Moroni continued, he made threats of returning to accost those government leaders who were responsible. His accusations became bolder, and by the end of his letter he was threatening Pahoran's life. (See Alma 60:7-28.) Moroni caustically attacked Pahoran's character from almost every angle.
Not only was Moroni claiming that Pahoran was lazy, selfish, greedy, and proud; he implied that God's inspiration was directing him in his criticism of Pahoran.
Pahoran could have responded with a spirited defense of his honor, integrity and spirituality. Instead, what occurred was an incredible example of Christlike forgiveness.
In one verse he outlined a model response for forgiving those who offend us. "And now, in your epistle you have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart" (Alma 61:9).
The essence of his forgiveness is couched in three phrases: first, "it mattereth not;" second, "I am not angry;" and third, "I . . . do rejoice in the greatness of your heart."
"It Mattereth Not:" Learning to Look Beyond Personal Attacks
How is it that Pahoran could just say, "Yes, you have belittled me, assailed me, and even threatened my life but let's get beyond the unfounded attacks to the real issue here"? Didn't he have any feelings? How could he just ignore such deeply personal assaults? The answer must have in part originated in Pahoran's own feelings about himself. Moroni would discover the truth soon enough.
Pahoran, who did not see it as his responsibility to argue with Moroni, subscribed to the simple counsel of President Boyd K. Packer: "Leave it alone. . . . Leave it alone." (Boyd K. Packer, "The Balm of Gilead," Ensign, November 1977, p. 59.)
Pahoran ignored the insults because they truly did not matter and focused his attention on the real issue, the king-men.
"I Am Not Angry:" Disarming Negative Emotions
Pahoran separated himself from unhealthy, negative emotions. His claim, "I am not angry," settled the issue. He chose to align himself with the Savior's pattern by avoiding entirely the spirit of contention (see 3 Nephi 11:29).
For Pahoran, anger was spiritual poison, and that ended the issue.
"I . . . Rejoice in the Greatness of Your Heart:" Finding Compassion for the Offender
Pahoran's final pronouncement expressed the thought, "I . . . do rejoice in the greatness of your heart" (Alma 61:9). Pahoran dismissed the negative and replaced it with positive thoughts about Moroni.
There is a second motivation in looking for the good in the offender. The scriptures warn us that if we cannot forgive the offender then we are guilty of a greater sin (see Doctrine and Covenants 64:9). This seems completely unbalanced at first glance. Is not the offender responsible for hurting us in the first place?
Apparently this commandment has nothing to do with who is right and who is wrong. Instead it has everything to do with entertaining positive or negative feelings. As Pahoran was submerged by a wave of false accusations, he knew that to follow Christ he had to get beyond the initial pain of Moroni's attacks and recognize the good motives in his offender.
Accordingly, he saw not only the good but also the "greatness" in Moroni.
Extending Forgiveness to Include "Inspired" Leaders
When Moroni attacked Pahoran, this civilian leader had to reconcile some very difficult feelings.
How could God let an inspired leader make such a blatant mistake? Does God make mistakes? Was Moroni really chosen by God to lead? These questions could have besieged Pahoran. Rather than confront Moroni, he chose to exercise faith in God's hand.
Pahoran continued to believe that God was leading Moroni in spite of Moroni's human weaknesses. In his reply he reinforced Moroni's spiritual standing with such comments as, "See that ye strengthen Lehi and Teancum in the Lord; tell them to fear not, for God will deliver them" (Alma 61:21).
One of the great lessons we can take from humble Pahoran's interaction with this inspirational military captain is that chosen leaders can make mistakes and that our spiritual growth depends upon our willingness to forgive and sustain them.
Jesus Christ: The Ultimate Example of Forgiveness
The supreme example of forgiveness in the Book of Mormon is our perfect Exemplar.
What is often overlooked is that He came as the ultimate example of forgiveness.
As the Savior descended upon the multitude gathered at the temple in Bountiful, He declared with great solemnity that He was Jesus Christ. His next words pointed to the atoning sacrifice and how bitter His sufferings were for mankind. The multitude fell to the ground in humility. He then invited them to come and feel the wounds of His Atonement.
Note how the people were received at the temple that morning in the land Bountiful. Each one individually came forth and touched those physical points of His wounds.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell pointed to this when he stated, "Jesus partook of history's bitterest cup without becoming bitter!" ("Enduring Well," Ensign, April 1997).
The Lord ultimately is our quintessential example of forgiveness. While we often overlook this aspect of His atoning sacrifice, it is a fitting capstone for our discussion of forgiving others through the examples in the Book of Mormon.
This article was excerpted from Keith J. Wilson's address given at the 2003 Sidney B. Sperry Symposium at BYU. Brother Wilson is an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.