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More than 40 years after World War II, Ailsa Margaret Coutts received an unexpected phone call.
During the war, the plane of her husband, Andrew Coutts, was shot down over Amsterdam, Netherlands, by a fighter pilot from the German Air Force.
An 8-year-old boy witnessed the plane crash, during which the member of the New Zealand 487 Squadron died. The boy wrote down the identification number of the German aircraft.
Later, the German fighter pilot learned of Andrew Coutts' fate.
In the early 1980s — more than 40 years after the war — the pilot contacted Sister Coutts, a Latter-day Saint living in Birkdale, New Zealand.
She was just 29 years old when her then-27-year-old husband died. She had raised their two daughters on her own.
The former fighter pilot had one desire. He wanted to apologize.
Sister Coutts told him she harbored no ill will. "We forgave him," she said.
Forgiveness is a divine attribute that the Lord has commanded us to give those who offend or hurt us.
"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" (Doctrine and Covenants 64:9–10).
President Gordon B. Hinckley said during the Church's October 2005 general conference that "somehow forgiveness, with love and tolerance, accomplishes miracles that can happen in no other way."
He called forgiveness the greatest — and most needed — virtue on earth.
"The great Atonement was the supreme act of forgiveness. The magnitude of that Atonement is beyond our ability to completely understand. …
"It is through Him that we gain forgiveness. …. May God help us to be a little kinder, showing forth greater forbearance, to be more forgiving, more willing to walk the second mile, to reach down and lift up those who may have sinned but have brought forth the fruits of repentance, to lay aside old grudges and nurture them no more."
The Savior also taught about forgiveness:
To the Nephites, He said: "For, if ye forgive men their trespasses your Heavenly Father will also forgive you;
"But if ye forgive not men their trespasses neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (3 Nephi 13:14–15).
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency, said during his April 2012 general conference address that "we are not perfect. The people around us are not perfect. People do things that annoy, disappoint, and anger. In this mortal life it will always be that way.
"Nevertheless, we must let go of our grievances. Part of the purpose of mortality is to learn how to let go of such things. That is the Lord's way.
"Remember, heaven is filled with those who have this in common: They are forgiven. And they forgive."
President Thomas S. Monson said during the April 2002 general conference that it is easy to take offense or to be too stubborn to accept a sincere apology.
"Let's not pass to future generations the grievances, the anger of our time," he pleaded. "Let's remove any hidden wedges that can do nothing but destroy."
President Hinckley said we can look to the words Abraham Lincoln spoke after the terrible civil war: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, … let us … bind up the … wounds" (John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations, Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1968, p. 640).
"My brothers and sisters, let us bind up the wounds …" said President Hinckley in a June 1991 address. "Of you it is required to forgive.
"We all have a little of this spirit of revenge in us. Fortunately, we all have the power to rise above it, if we will 'clothe [ourselves] with the bond of charity, as with a mantle, which is the bond of perfectness and peace' (Doctrine and Covenants 88:125). … There is no peace in reflecting on the pain of old wounds. There is peace only in repentance and forgiveness."
That is the lesson taught 30 years ago by Sister Coutts, who celebrated her 100th birthday on Jan. 20, 2013. At a birthday party in her honor held at the Beach Haven meetinghouse in Auckland, New Zealand, Sister Coutts reflected on her life. She recalled her husband's death and the long days and years without him. Then she spoke of the unexpected phone call.
She told a North Shore Times reporter about the day the German fighter pilot received her forgiveness.
"We had to comfort him," she said.