Last time I wrote about forgiving yourself, so you can move forward. Now I’d like to talk about the power of forgiving others (even before they ask you to forgive them).
The word FORGIVENESS, is not one we hear a lot in business. I believe it is an essential character trait in a LEADER – being forgiving.
Working with other people is fraught with mistakes, unkind words (slights), misunderstandings, and one-ups-manship (being taken advantage of). As a Leader we need to learn how to ‘right these wrongs’ so that we can move on and continue to work well with others.
My faith – Christianity – teaches a radical approach to forgiveness. Our teaching is beautifully depicted in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The story is found in the Gospel of St. Luke 15:11-31.
A young man insisted his father give him his inheritance now. He took the money and ran (literally). After squandering his inheritance and finding himself wallowing in the mud with the pigs (what a symbol of his transgression against his father), he said to himself – the hired men at my father’s house are better treated than this. I shall return and ask to be a hired man.
What did the father do? Did he give the son a lecture? Did he tell him he can’t come back? Come on parents – what would you have done? I know I would have been so angry that a long lecture and great acts of payback would have been required. I certainly would have acted more like the older brother who became angry and refused to join the celebration.
Instead, while the son was a long way off, the father ran to him, threw his arms around him and covered him with kisses. Not only that, he threw a party! He called for a robe, sandals, and a ring to be put on his finger. These are all signs of complete reinstatement to his role as his father’s son. Then they killed the fatted calf and celebrated his lost son’s return.
The POWER of this Approach
Here’s what so revolutionary… When two people are at odds with each other, regardless of who is at fault, it is as if they have turned their backs on each other. What my faith teaches is that the hurt party needs to turn back around and be ready to forgive, with their arms outstretched (a long way off), so that when the aggrieving person turns around to ask for forgiveness they see that it is already being offered!
Here’s the power in this approach to forgiveness (and I’d like to talk about it from the Prodigal Son perspective). In the last few years I have had two very sorrowful experiences where I (the prodigal son) turned around to ask forgiveness but I was not greeted by someone that had already forgiven me. In both cases, it was not my intention to hurt the other person and I was actually surprised that what I did was perceived as hurtful. But alas, that is not the point, I did hurt the person. When I asked what I could do to repair the hurt I caused, one person said, “I don’t think there is anything you can do to repair this”; the other person said, “It sounds like you want to just sweep this under the rug and I can’t tolerate that.”
When I turned around to ask for forgiveness, it was as if the person I offended had their back towards me and was not willing to ever turn around. How then can we ever move forward to repair the hurt and reconcile the relationship?
Repentance vs. Retribution
I know in both cases that asking for forgiveness was only the first step. I know that with forgiveness comes repentance – acts of love I must do to repair the trust I had damaged. I’m sure the Prodigal Son had a lot of work ahead of him – but the work began with a celebration of the fact that “the son that I thought was dead, is alive.” The relationship that I thought was broken will be repaired.
However, let’s not confuse repentance with retribution. Retribution is a pay-back – an eye for an eye. In its more subtle form, retribution might simply be withholding forgiveness until the offending party has suffered enough to the satisfaction of the one offended.
As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “[F]orgiving does not mean excusing. Many people seem to think it does. They think that if you ask them to forgive someone who has cheated or bullied them you are trying to make out that there was really no cheating or bullying. But if that were so, there would be nothing to forgive. (This doesn’t mean that you must necessarily believe his next promise. It does mean that you must make every effort to kill every taste of resentment in your own heart – every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out.)” *
Great leaders of forgiving character know they will be hurt, mistreated, even slandered. They also know by practicing forgiveness, they will be able to develop followers of great character who would rather LOVE each other as they work together vs. resent each other and therefore always be looking for retribution and pay-back.
*C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: Harper Collins, 2001; Originally published 1949), 181-183