The Miracle of Forgiveness

Thursday night I heard a short piece on the radio that brought me close to tears. Part of NPR’s on-going series of personal essays called This I Believe, the segment illustrated for me the meaning of true forgiveness as perfectly as anything I’ve ever heard. The essay was delivered by two people, Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino. Ronald is a man who spent 10 1/2 years in prison for a crime he did not commit based primarily on testimony given by Jennifer, a woman who had mistakenly picked him out of a line-up as the man who had raped her. A DNA test conducted in 1995 exonerated Ronald for the heinous act, leading to his release and a full pardon, but it simultaneously threw Jennifer’s life into disarray. The tragedy, however, unexpectedly forged a close bond and friendship between the two. Struggling to forgive herself for a mistake which cost an innocent man more than a decade of his life and left a guilty man free to attack others, Jennifer found herself able to heal because of Ronald’s forgiveness. And Ronald, rather than lose himself in bitterness over all that was taken from him, found freedom in forgiving Jennifer, herself a victim, as well as the man that had actually committed the crime and left Ronald to take the blame, noting that “letting go of my anger toward him was hard, but staying free in my heart was a choice only I could make.” In a world that revels in retribution, vengeance and hate, absolution like this is almost unheard of. More often than not, people nurture their resentments for solace and let the wrongs committed against them continue to eat at their own souls.

In part, I marvel at Ronald and Jennifer’s shared story of forgiveness, understanding and love because I can’t help but wonder how I would have responded were I Ronald and faced with such a situation. Forgiving others has never really been one of my struggles. I’ve just never been one for holding grudges. I’ve also seen enough people consumed by anger, animosity or hate stemming from some consequential wrong which resulted in serious harm, be it a physical injury, the loss of a loved one, serious abuse of some kind or some other significant affliction, that I truly believe that forgiveness is the only way to move beyond such an offense. But the list of whatever perceived wrongs I may have ever felt were committed against me in my life more than pales in comparison to these sorts of injustices.

I hope I could do what Ronald did. I mean, I hope that I could forgive those, the mistaken and the malicious alike, for their respective parts in taking away my youth, my reputation, my family, and my freedom. For putting me through the trials of Job and the hellfire of nearly 11 years in state prison. In much the same way that I hope I would have been one to shown the courage of Helmuth Hübener during World War II, I hope I would have had the humility and Christ-like ability to forgive of Ronald Cotton in circumstances like these. It’s just impossible to say. I think most of us are this way though. We strive to live the commandments in the small ways we’re asked to each day, and we hope that if we’re ever tested and called to live them in some larger way, that we’re able to heed that call; that we’re able to sell all that we have, that we’re able to offer the other cheek, that we’re able to forgive all men.

In any event, this short radio segment is worth a listen. Ronald and Jennifer were also on 60 Minutes Sunday night, and although I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, it’s probably worth a gander too.

8 comments for “The Miracle of Forgiveness

  1. Naismith
    March 9, 2009 at 5:58 am

    I appreciated that, too, shared it with my husband and said, “I bet we hear this story in General Conference….”

  2. lamonte
    March 9, 2009 at 8:54 am

    Marc – Thanks so much for highlighting this story and reminding us all of our obligation to forgive others.

    You state that , “Forgiving others has never really been one of my struggles. I’ve just never been one for holding grudges.” How fortunate you are – or maybe it is just a metter of following the teachings of the Savior. Regardless, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that you are better off for it.

    I remember when I was a young man in high school and I had exactly those same feelings. I was a sensitive kid and would often get my feelings hurt but it didn’t take much for me to be forgiving. When I started college an institute instructor asked each of us to stand up on the first day of class to state out name and to say something nice about ourselves. I remember saying almost the same thing, ” I’ve just never been one for holding grudges.” It seems that since that day, it has been a challenge for me to live up to that standard. Now in my old age I have fnally started to realize who is hurt most by my unwillingness to forgive. The Ronald Cottons of the world will always be an inspiration to me and hopefully – someday – we can all live with such grace and peace in our hearts.

    Thanks again.

  3. March 9, 2009 at 9:29 am

    Great inspirational story. Ever since I read the book, “The Miracle of Forgiveness,” I have tried to live up to the Savior’s words:

    “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what ajudgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matt. 7:1-2)

    It’s sobering to realize that the Lord’s mercy on us is directly proportional our own mercy on others.

  4. Marc Bohn
    March 9, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Lamonte – Trust me, I get angry and annoyed easily enough (just ask my wife) and I have a long ways to go in the charity department. I’ve just never struggled much with letting go of slights, real or perceived. As much as anything, it may simply be the product of never having been significantly wronged in my life. I certainly hope this doesn’t mark a point in my life from which I will begin to struggle with this issue (or a point in my life when I begin to be seriously wronged).

    Ronald Cotton’s story moves me deeply and, like yourself, I find him to be an inspiration, because regardless of whatever I’ve struggled or haven’t struggled with in the past, I question whether I could be as humble and forgiving. Ronald’s story underscores to me that what I might have thought of as a personal strength is more than likely the product of circumstance rather than anything to do with my nature.

  5. lamonte
    March 9, 2009 at 10:30 am

    Marc – If I were you I wouldn’t worry about starting down the wrong path with regards to forgiveness and I hope my comment didn’t sound like I suggested that. I think I’ve come to realize that my tendency to be easily offended has as much to do with my own insecurities as anything. I have discovered, as I said, later in my life, that a close relationship with Jesus Christ, through the Holy Ghost, is the key to NOT being offended and to forgiving others when I am. You sound well grounded in your standard for forgiving others and all of us will never know what our response will be to a major offense when it occurs, but practicing on the small stuff always helps us with the large stuff.

  6. CS Eric
    March 9, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Holding grudges is one of my biggest challenges. When I look at the obituary pages online of places where I’ve lived in the past, I’m not just keeping up with my old stomping grounds–there are people whose obituaries I am looking forward to reading.

  7. Mark N.
    March 9, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    I honestly think that much of our current financial crisis could be avoided if we were more willing to take seriously the idea found in the Lord’s Prayer that we must forgive our debtors in order to obtain forgiveness ourselves. instead, the financial institutions of the world seem determined to hang on to every last cent of debt they are owed as debtors’ abilities to pay disappear in the spiraling unemployment numbers.

    It’s time to look at the old Jubilee debt forgiveness “laws” in a new light, if you ask me.

  8. Becky
    March 10, 2009 at 1:36 am

    Well forgiving others has always been difficult for me. It took reading “Murder by Family,” a great inspirational book written by Kent Whitaker to help me realize just how stupid I have been all of these years. His wife and youngest son were murdered by his oldest son, and he still found enough love in his heart to forgive him. Mr. Whitaker is a real inspiration to me; if he can forgive something so horrible I ought to be able to forgive others for things that they have done to wrong me. I have made forgiving others my number 1 goal to accomplish for the year- I have felt more peace than I have in a long time!

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