Corrie Ten Boom, a prisoner in a World War II German concentration camp called Ravensbruck, suffered greatly during the Holocaust for assisting and hiding Dutch Jews. The following is an excerpt from a story she told about having to forgive one of the guards who had participated in her torture and the death of her sister, Betsie:
‘‘It was in a church in Munich that I saw him… It came back with a rush: that huge room with its hard overhead lights, the pathetic piles of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment of skin . . . The place was Ravensbruck, and the man who was making his way forward had been a guard—one of the most cruel guards. I would recognize him anywhere.
Now I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook, rather than to take that hand… He could not remember me…
‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying. ‘I was a guard there. But since that time 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…will you forgive me?’
I stood there—I, whose sins had again and again needed to be forgiven—and I could not forgive. [My sister] had died in that place—could he erase her slow, terrible death simply for the asking?
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it—I knew that. The message was that God forgives those who have injured us. I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience.
And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that, too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘Jesus, help me!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
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, and sprang into our joined hands. And then [God’s] healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes1.”
Authentic forgiveness is radical. In order to forgive, we must determine to pay the debt of the offender, the “debt” being the sense that the other person needs to “pay” for what he or she has done. That’s what Corrie did in the story above—and the result was an amazing sense of freedom and healing.
When we truly forgive—whether the other person asks us to or not—we release the offender from any obligation to us. We don’t expect him or her to settle the debt; we are willing to pay the cost. It doesn’t make sense from a human perspective, does it? But it has powerful effects.
Jesus said this: “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). Unforgiveness can torture the person who carries it. But forgiveness brings freedom and healing.
When do you find yourself holding grudges, erupting in anger, boiling on the inside, or just “burying” any wrongs committed against you? Whom, and in what ways, might you need to forgive?