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“Dear God, Can You Believe What an Idiot Bob Was?” The Five Stages of Forgiveness

March 5, 2009

I confess that I am probably breaking a blogging rule here, but I am re-posting.  This post was run a few months ago, broken up into several parts, but I recently rewrote it.  For some reason, I was possessed with this rewrite, and then when I was finished, I didn’t know what to do with it. So, I will share it with you – again! Maybe someone out there needs to read it now. Here it is, the whole shebang in one long, rambling post.  Take your time. Read it in two or three visits if you want.  Brad 

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It’s not until you’ve been royally screwed over by someone that you realize how impossible it is to forgive. It’s downright unnatural, like taking a bath with your cat.  For Christians, most of us believe it is our obligation and duty to rush headlong into forgiveness the moment we have been betrayed, as Jesus modeled for us in the gospels. But the reality is not always quite so.  It seems as if we humans are wired instinctively to do the opposite of forgiveness. Our first instinct is more likely to hold a grudge, or to get sweet revenge, or spreading malicious gossip, rather than heaping up loving kindness upon the enemy. Christian or not, the call to forgiveness can be quite daunting. But we move forward, we pray, we ruminate, we persist with God, and eventually, hopefully, we learn how to forgive. 

Forgiveness is often a gradual process, one that takes place in small degrees. It’s like throwing your feelings and your spiritual life and your perpetrator all into a slow cooker: sometimes it takes a while until it’s done, even if all the essential ingredients are right there. Rarely does anyone experience forgiveness in one fell swoop. It unravels in discreet stages, over time. 

I know first-hand about this, because I was recently trespassed against. 

You may be familiar with this phrase from a version of the Lord’s Prayer which says “Forgive us our trespassers as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There is also another version, popular with many Protestant denominations, using the word “debtors” instead of trespassers. But I prefer the trespassing version because, as far as I’m concerned, someone who trespasses against me presents far more of a serious violation than simply having a debtor. “Trespassing” reminds me of the old TV Western shows with the hillbilly pointing a gun from his front porch at someone walking through his property: “Hey you thar! Git off o’ my property or I’ll blow a hole through yar head!” The trespassing account conjures up images of someone actually trampling all over me with their big, dirty, muddy boots … not just on my land or my property, but over my person and my spirit and my very sensitive soul.   The debtor, on the other hand, sounds more like some kind of slacker who just can’t get his act together to pay me back the $100 bucks I fronted for the tickets to the Springsteen concert. It just doesn’t sound as bad.

So I was “trespassed against.” I still have the muddy footprints on my back to prove it.  And now I’ve got a forgiveness problem.

Without going into details, let’s just say that there was an incident with one of my colleagues at work; a friend, actually, turned on me. He publicly iced me out in the presence of a very influential group of peers, by making some hostile and antagonistic comments directed specifically towards me in order to establish his superiority regarding a certain situation, while diminishing mine. He was engaging in the familiar practice in what is know throughout the business world as “corporate politics.” I was humiliated. And it stung.

When this happens – when I feel that sense of violation of trust, betrayal or outright hurt, it is hard to just let go of it. I don’t know about you, but instead of forgiving, I find myself immediately thinking of very creative ways to retaliate. I don’t usually retaliate directly and immediately, say with a few choice words towards the trespasser. No, I rarely think so quick on my feet. Instead I go through the long patient route of planning for justice by pushing along the “what goes around comes around” approach: planting a few seeds here and there; getting the right people to have the right opinion. All so that the person in question eventually finds themselves at the lower end of the food chain, so to speak, due to some subtle political navigation on my part.

Over the next few hours and days I found myself wondering… Did I take that too personally? Was it me, or was it him? Maybe he had a point? But after a couple days of ruminating, my conclusion was that it was not me at all. No, this person, this Trespasser, had intentionally put me down to further establish his own agenda. And very possibly at my expense.

Upon this realization, the best of my passive-aggressive skills and instincts began to kick in. I started planning to launch my campaign for the counter-attack. A major corporate political smack-down was coming, so I geared up. I began scheming to spin a tangled web that would catch the Trespasser in his own trap.

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Stage one is Selective Amnesia. When the wound is fresh, you are in complete denial that you are even a Christian. Instead, you are on a mission for revenge. “Screw him! Off with his head!” You completely forget about all that stuff in the Lord’s Prayer and pretty much ignore the New Testament teachings in general.

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The next morning, during a brief reading of scripture before work, I was reminded about what Jesus had said about forgiveness. But, to be honest, another part of me kind of feels that it’s my job to correct the situation and prove that I’m more powerful and that of course, I am right and he’s wrong. He’s wrong and impulsive and emotional and thus his decision-making is impaired which makes him a lousy executive. And I’m reasonable, level-headed and much, much more objective.  

As you can see it is very difficult for me to even begin to give this person a platform for forgiveness because, well, it’s the best thing for everyone that he gets taken down a notch.  Plus, didn’t Jesus really stick it to the Pharisees when they questioned his authority? Yes! Jesus put those Scribes and Pharisees and Lawyers in their place and made them look stupid in front of the crowd of onlookers. Jesus spent three years of his life dishing it back to those arrogant Pharisees. He stumped them and outsmarted them, and basically made them out to look like arrogant, shallow boneheads.  Now, that’s the Jesus I’m talkin’ about!

But I must admit Jesus was fighting for a greater purpose – that being for God’s love and redemption of mankind.  I’m just fighting for, well, me – my ego, my authority and position, my way. This has nothing to do with God. 

Forgiveness is hard work. Mostly because no one really wants to do it. Not at first, anyways. Our feelings of hurt and retaliation run so strong that we instinctively take action to protect ourselves.  But Jesus seems to really harp on this subject quite a bit. The gospels are filled with his teaching about turning the other check, and praying for your enemies, and walking the extra mile, and basically sounding like we should all just find joy in being abused and taken advantage of for the rest of our lives. Sometimes I’m downright embarrassed by these “hard sayings” of Jesus recorded in the gospels. They don’t make sense! Plus they are so extremely counter-intuitive to what we would really do in the face of attack and betrayal.

Upon deeper reflection of these difficult commands, I start thinking of Jesus more like an eccentric relative at a family holiday gathering rather than the Savior of Mankind. You know, you really love him deep down inside, but you cringe a little when you hear him talking about these things in public. So you feel obligated to intervene and you turn to your friend with a nervous chuckle and say, “Oh, that crazy Jesus! He said what? Oh, my goodness! I’m sorry…He didn’t really mean it that way…He’s always saying things like that!”  But I also know that Jesus meant what he said. It’s just hard, and I don’t like it very much. The point is, if we really want to follow Jesus, we must get over our shallow-headed spiritual resistance and face the act of forgiving head-on.

But that is not what I did.

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Stage 2 is Procrastination. Here is where you start to calm down a bit, and you realize that God wants you to forgive this person. Maybe your spouse got on your case, too, or you heard a very convicting sermon. But let’s face it – you still don’t like the idea, so you think about something else for a while, hoping to distract yourself, procrastinating on doing God’s business. And who are you kidding? You still very badly want to see the trespasser get screwed!

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I decided to enlist reinforcements, so I called in a trustworthy business and spiritual mentor, an older and wiser friend named Alan. I was certain that he would quickly jump to my aid, being a seasoned business executive and all. Surely he would support my cause for snuffing out the dirty trespasser. Maybe Alan could also suggest some crafty and underhanded political maneuvers that I hadn’t thought of yet! Yes, this will be fun. I was so happy to have an advisor to help navigate the tricky currents of organizational life. Isn’t that what a mentor is for? To help me succeed? To get me to the winner’s circle?

Let’s say this trespasser’s name is Bob. After a passionate and compelling presentation of my case to Alan, I wrapped it up by saying, “And now I have a ‘Bob’ problem.”  I sat back, rather satisfied, and waited for Alan’s most cunning response.

“You don’t have a ‘Bob’ problem,” he replied.

Good! This is going to be bigger and badder than I thought!

Alan continued. “No, you have a forgiveness problem.”

What? A forgiveness problem?  Hello, I’m the one who got trespassed against!

“You must help him.” Alan said, conclusively. “You must forgive him and try to help him succeed in his job.”

Ouch. Where does he come up with this crap? Is it Opposite Day? 

Those bitter thoughts shot through my conniving brain at lightning speed. These are my instincts – my guts – my hard-wired sense of protection and survival. And this is the same instinct that we all have; it’s what every one of us feels when we are attacked. But after several hundred milliseconds I slowed down to actually hear what he was saying, to begin processing it. I started thinking much more slowly. Like the way Homer Simpson thinks about donuts. Sometimes that helps me. “Ooooookayyyyyy,” I thought, with a slow-motion voice-over. “Forrrrrgiiiiiiiiive him. That’s right. That’s the riiiiiiiiiiight thing to do.” BUT I DON’T LIKE IT.  Those neurons and synapses in my brain fired up again, and retaliation wanted to kick forgiveness in the ass.  I tried to discipline my thoughts.

“Alan, that would be really hard. Are you sure there’s not a better idea?”

“No, you must forgive him. And I want you to call me back in a month and let me know how it went.”

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Stage 3 is Discussion. You begin to talk it over with God in your prayer conversations. “Dear God, you must have seen what an idiot Bob was! You were there, right? Can you believe what he said to me?” You admit that you still have bad feelings, but you actually consider the possibility of forgiveness, and believe that God may have some higher purpose. (Ya think?)

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The next day I swallowed my pride and followed Alan’s advice. I paid a visit to ‘Bob’ and we talked about our little blow-out. I took the high road and told him that, based on his reaction towards me that day, maybe I had offended him at some point, and that I was sorry and didn’t mean to do that. We cleared the air as he explained in more depth why he said what he did, what was going on in his mind, and what was behind it. We actually ended up having a very good discussion about the whole thing. But he never really apologized to me. Even though I apologized to him. So, I kind of was still holding on to my negative retaliatory feelings. But the big difference now was that I was going to count on God for the vengeance. I’m passing the revenge baton to the One with the biggest stick I know.

“Vengeance is mine, thus sayeth the Lord!”

Well that’s how I remembered that saying in my mind from childhood. I looked up the real scripture and it actually says:

 “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19, by the way)

What a great scripture! I didn’t think that passage was actually even in the bible, assuming that it was one of those sayings everyone attributes to the bible and maybe hopes is in the bible, but really isn’t there. Like, “Cleanliness comes before Godliness.” Not in the bible.  Or, “God helps those who help themselves.” Also not there.  Well this one is, praise God! Probably a good verse for all of us lay-people to take completely out of context, too, especially when we’ve been betrayed. So I will not spend too much time researching the commentaries or digging in to the Greek and Hebrew to get the real gist of it. I like it the way I used it just now. Parts of the bible, I just love! I like in this verse the way Paul says, “Do not take revenge, my friends…”  I imagine Paul speaking with a gravelly pirate-voice in a Cockney accent, his face all scarred up from his shipwrecks and hardships, with his band of believers circled around him, sitting by the campfire late at night. He’s got this glint in his eye and he says, “Arggh! Do not take revenge, my friends…” Then he nudges the guy next to him, with a wink and a nod. “Ye got to leave room for God’s wrath, mates!” Say no more, Paul! Another round! Then they all lift their drinks for a toast and sing a rousing hymn.

Alan  had thus assured me that I didn’t have to take matters into my own hands to see justice served. Most of the time justice kind of works itself out over time, as long as you’re not working in a complete loony bin. Which I’m not. Most of the other execs at my company, the Chairman, the Board, they are all reasonable and intelligent people who would see right through any negative, destructive and impulsive behavior and make decisions accordingly. 

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Stage 4 is Mobilization. This is where you work up enough courage to approach the trespasser in question and try to work it out, even though the oblivious trespasser should have been the one to come to you first. You know that, but you’ll overlook it for now. Hopefully those conversations with the trespasser lead to some healing and recovery and maybe even to a couple of beers later on. Things are looking much better now.

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I took a breath and relaxed a bit more and made another conscious choice of forgiveness (even though I didn’t get the apology – I couldn’t forget that part yet).  Over the next few days, I tried to find other opportunities to help this trespasser guy, just as Alan suggested. I dropped by his office a couple more times with some ideas for him. And you know what? He softened up quite a bit towards me. We even agreed to re-visit the dreaded topic that he was so jacked up about that day, the nasty remark that got this whole thing started. Hey, that’s great. As long as we can talk about it together without putting each other down. Over the next few weeks the retaliation and vengeance thoughts didn’t matter so much any more. I got over it. I forgave him. I really, truly, in my heart, forgave the trespasser.

He still hadn’t apologized yet, but I didn’t care any more.

A few months later, Bob was asked by the Chairman to resign. When I heard the news, I shrugged my shoulders. “I guess it’s all for the best,” I said.

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Stage 5 is Surrender. Maybe it worked out, maybe it didn’t, but in either case you know that it’s not good for you or for anyone involved to hold on to all those bitter feelings. You give it to God. You don’t care any more. And when you’re lying in bed late at night trying to be thankful for all the blessings in your life, and those resentful and bitter thoughts start to creep in again, remember that wonderful verse – not the actual verse itself, but the way you remember it from childhood: “Vengence is mine, thus sayeth the Lord.” And sleep will come to you like a dream. 

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2009 10:17 am

    I like the rewrite, Brad.

  2. March 7, 2009 4:54 pm

    hi brad,

    i missed reading the first draft,
    however, i like this very much.

  3. Michele Corbett permalink
    March 7, 2009 5:42 pm

    Thanks for breaking down the process so succinctly.

  4. March 8, 2009 5:08 pm

    Forgiveness as a divine gift…imagine that. Good thoughts.

  5. March 9, 2009 9:24 pm

    Great thinking and writing! I have an idea we could be “buds” if you guys didn’t live so far from the warm, sunny North Carolina Coast! Seriously, Brad, this is good stuff! In fact, I’m going to tell the folks who visit my site they ought to visit yours. donkimrey
    Incidentally, I read the whole thing in one large chunk!
    (Just between us, you didn’t even offer up a muffled “eh! eh! eh!?)

  6. shrinkingthecamel permalink*
    March 11, 2009 6:50 pm

    Thanks for the feedback, guys! So glad you liked it.

    The folks at Inside Work are going to publish this story on their site – hopefully soon? I like this particular story alot and I think that there are probably quite a few who can relate- especially in dealing with office politics…

  7. March 12, 2009 10:10 am

    I love this, Brad! Great job and thanks for sharing.

    Andrea

  8. March 14, 2009 6:23 pm

    Talk about a word in due season–I’ve really been struggling for weeks now with forgiving my own “Bob” at work. You perfectly described every emotion I’ve had since my “betrayal” occurred, including feeling like a toad that I wasn’t living up to the Christian ideal, forgiving him as an act of will (because I know I’m supposed to), but not really “feeling” it yet, and concluding that “Vengeance is mine…” is going to be the ultimate salve for me in all this.

    Thanks for sharing this!

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  1. Spiritual Breakthroughs in Difficult Work Situations: Part 3 » Leadership, Spirituality, Work » InsideWork

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