“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you”.-Lewis B. Smedes
I am sure there are people in your life who have harmed you and you wanted revenge or wanted to get back at them. What if the person came up to you and said will you forgive me for harming you, what would you do?
I have had numerous opportunities of learning about forgiveness, and there are a few that stick in my mind. There is this one specific incident that happened in my first semester as a University professor. Being a professor means “you always have to be on.” In other words people are evaluating everything you do and say.
One class I taught is economics, and for many this course usually stands out as the most rigorous and at times the most boring. During this one semester I had a student who sat about four rows from the front on my left side. Every class period he would taunt me with comments, questions, and smart remarks. After a few weeks I started to get irritated with the student. In fact I hated coming to class and was hoping he would not show up.
On this one particular day he came to my office and knocked on my door. I asked him what I could do to help him. He said he wanted to go over a recent exam. I said fine, what are your questions? He proceeded to argue about the test questions he missed and was making a case for his wrong answers. After a few minutes I leaned over and said what’s your agenda? He started yelling at me and wanted to see my boss. I said she’s down the hall.
After she had a conversation with him I told her I don’t want him in any more of my classes, and he needed some help. I was furious and wanted to give him an adult lecture on respect and how to treat others.
The semester ended and I went home for the summer. School started in September and the first day I was in my office and there was a knock at my door. There stood Tim, the student from my economics class. My heart started beating and I am thinking what now. Won’t this guy ever go away? He came in and said the following, “we started off on the wrong foot last year, will you forgive me?” My first thought was saying “no kidding”. However these words came out of my mouth, “I needed to hear that today, I forgive you”.
Over the next couple years Tim became one of my best friends. At a senior graduation party he came in and asked where is Grant, he is my favorite professor. Two years later I was at a network meeting with former alumni and in walked Tim. The first person he asked for was me, and gave me a hug.
What did I learn from this experience? When a person comes to you and asks for forgiveness it releases you. By this I mean it releases you from the pain and hurt about that person and situation. However, the action associated with this exchange you have to be ready to forgive as well. Letting it go is the most important aspect of forgiveness, and also know that you will face this moment later on whether you want to or not. You are the only one who has responsibility for your response, not the other person.
I came across one of the most powerful stories I have read on forgiveness. For background purposes Corrie Tenboom is a holocaust survivor who spent her life after World War II sharing her amazing story of living in a concentration camp even though her family was exterminated. In her speeches to thousands of people Corrie recalls her strong faith and ability to endure adversity. During one of her meetings she came face to face with the prison guard who was responsible for her family’s horrible experience. Her story retells this stunning confrontation after many years being freed from the concentration camp.
Corrie was taken by surprise one night when after one of her lectures and she came face to face with the prison guard who was responsible for her time in prison. Corrie faced a shocking and unpredictable moment that immediately turned from a point of reflective anger to one of reconciliation by the language of forgiveness.
“You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk, I was a guard there.” But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein–” again the hand came out–“will you forgive me?” (Boom, 1995, p. 1).
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and former prisoner. I had never known God’s love as intensely as I did then.
Reading this story, the powerful words will you forgive me, completely transformed Corrie Tenboom’s life in an emotionally charged moment. This transformation brought about new meaning and perspective in Corries life. In speaking the former prison guard is saying, “I care about you and I have harmed you”. The feelings and emotions Corrie felt in that moment changed her perspective about others, even a former enemy.
What is the leadership lesson learned from this experience? With the guard speaking these words he had actually reshaped Corrie Tenboom’s future. The guard had reframed Corrie’s thinking about resentment and changed her perspective about the hurt and pain she has been carrying all of these years. Corrie was released from her resentment which had poisoned her thinking and her new story would be quite different because she had actally experienced forgiveness.
The two words forgive me are the two most powerful words I have learned in my life. Being a “guy” I didn’t want to tell someone that I blew it, it shows weakness and at the same time I felt imperfect. However over the years I have learned some important principals about forgiveness.
Principal 1: We are all imperfect
To be human is to be imperfect; we all sin from time to time. To understand this is to acknowledge our human limitations and ability to make mistakes. As humans we try to change the rules by redefining or lowering the standards to reach perfection, or blaming our flaws or errors on someone else. Therefore, we need to realize we are vulnerable to making mistakes, and understand there is very little tolerance within our society to make any errors.
Principal 2: Resentment is poisonous
Resentment is like poison to the spiritual life. The word resentment means “feeling again,” in the sense of “feeling backward”. “The emphasis is on clinging to the past, harping on it where we become mired in it” (Kurtz & Ketcham, 192, p. 214). Resentment tends to go over and over our past hurts, revisiting the pains, rage, powerlessness, and anger of being wronged. It should be noted that spirituality begins with recognition of our own imperfections whereby we focus on or reflect back on our own faults and defects. Having resentment is like being in a prison of pain that is never released. To release the pain of resentment is human; but holding on to it we soon become like an animals.
Patton (1985) examines the story where Peter asks Jesus, “Lord when my brother wrongs me, how often must I forgive him? Seven times!” And Jesus answers: “No, not seven times; I say seventy times seven times.” (Matthew 18-21-22). Patton (1985) commented on this passage by saying (p. 179):
Peter’s question seems to say, “Please give me a rule so I don’t have to keep dealing with this. How can I know when enough is enough? I want to know what to do instead of having to come to terms with the whole history of our relationship.” Jesus’ response to the question says in effect, “I am unwilling to give you a way out of a continuing relationship to your brother.”
Resentment is the trigger that hardens our hearts because of our inability of not discovering alternatives to destructive spirals of vengeance, harshness and carelessness. Thus, we protect ourselves by having a heart that is impenetrable. Our world becomes cynical and full of suspicion. “If we then live in ways that reinforce our estrangement from one another, we discover in the larger social world a similar hardening: a loveless indifference that carries within it seeds of explosive bitterness that erupt to rupture relationships” (Jones, 2007, p. 41).
Principal 3: Forgiveness is a gift for others
Forgiveness is defined “as a process by which an offended worker cognitively acknowledges the wrongfulness of an injurious act and deliberately chooses to release negative emotions and inhibit the desire for revenge” (Aquino, Folger, Grover, Goldman, 2003, p. 209). The release of negative emotions is moving away from the built up resentment and the hardening of the heart. Looking at the heart of the Christian faith is God’s forgiveness of man’s imperfections. “We all need the gift of others who will patiently and lovingly bear with us through time and nurture in us patterns that help to thaw our hearts, heal our memories and repattern our thoughts, feelings and actions” (Jones, 2007, p. 41).
Kearns and Fincham (2004) emphasize that the act of forgiveness is a journey or process. The individual struggles with wanting to or not wanting to forgive. It is an inner struggle that takes place within the person. According to Kearns and Fincham’s (2004) research “a minimum of 80% or more agreed that forgiveness was an inner process of releasing anger and fear, that forgiveness reduced the desire to retaliate, that forgiveness took time and may be a slow process, and that in forgiveness one does not need to forget the painful incident” (p. 838).
Binau (2007) also agrees that forgiveness is more of a process of discovery than a once-andfor-all decision. This discovery Binau (2007) speaks of comes from having a transcendent experience or a connection with a higher being.
By having a transcendent experience the leader takes on a selfless focus and a set of beliefs that facilitates a relationship with the transcendent (Sanders, Hopkins, and Geroy, 2003). “Kant’s (1997) work taught that time and space are not external realities but ways in which the internal dimensions of a person make sense and meaning of the world” (Sanders, Hopkins, & Geroy, 2003, p. 22). Kant (research from Sanders, Hoplins, & Geroy, 2003) contends for an individual to experience meaningful development 1) they need consciousness of passing into a higher sphere of being, 2) possess a deepened conviction, 3) make sense of spaciousness, 4) seek clarity between reality and the relative unreal, 5) seek moral harmony, and 6) integrate the immaterial, i.e. spirit with the material. Because we realize we have been abundantly forgiven by higher being, we are able to forgive others in turn. In the Biblical text according to the Gospel of Matthew there is a direct connection between forgiving others and being forgiven which is seen in the Lord’s Prayer where we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Therefore, the opposite of resentment is forgiveness. “Forgiveness belongs to the divine. It is God’s act: something other, something that is not ours; and unless we can acknowledge this, the word is only a noise we make with our mouths” (Dooling, 1987, p. 6). In other words for a leader to forgive there is a distinct transcendent experience where a leader makes an intentional effort to forgive another, rather than thinking this is just a common thing you do.