"[T]he man who was making his way forward had been a guard - one of the most cruel guards.
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: 'A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!'
And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand...
I was face to face with one of my captors, and my blood seemed to freeze.
'You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,' he was saying. 'I was a guard there.' No, he did not remember me.
'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?'
And I stood there - I whose sins had again and again been forgiven - and could not forgive."
I know I have already mentioned The Hiding Place and how much I love the testimony of the ten Boom family. Their story is riveting, and it is sobering to think of the difficulties they faced and the faith they showed even in the midst of such dark times.
The WWII era witnessed unthinkable crimes, and Corrie ten Boom personally experienced merciless cruelty. She had friends and family members who were killed for doing right, and saw firsthand brutality and inhumanity we cannot imagine. In Ravensbruck, Corrie watched her sister wither away until one day she, too, was gone.
It is one thing to read about forgiveness, learn about forgiveness, and believe wholeheartedly that forgiveness is a vital characteristic of the Christian walk. It is another thing to actually live it out.
What if I was faced with forgiving the atrocities Corrie experienced? I find it hard to forgive even "little things": inconsiderate actions, petty disagreements, unkind words. If I struggle with forgiving minor inconveniences, what if I was asked to forgive such grievous crimes?
Could I? Would I?
For months, Corrie endured the difficulties of life as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps, suffering daily alongside her sister, Betsie. Throughout her time in captivity, Corrie drew encouragement from her sister's faith - and forgiveness.
“‘Betsie!’ I wailed, ‘how long will it take?’
‘Perhaps a long, long time. Perhaps many years. But what better way could there be to spend our lives?’
I turned to stare at her. ‘Whatever are you talking about?’
‘These young women. That girl back at the bunkers. Corrie, if people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love! We must find the way, you and I, no matter how long it takes...’
She went on, almost forgetting in her excitement to keep her voice to a whisper, while I slowly took in the fact that she was talking about our guards. I glanced at the matron seated at the desk ahead of us. I saw a gray uniform and a visored hat; Betsie saw a wounded human being.
And I wondered, not for the first time, what sort of a person she was, this sister of mine...what kind of road she followed while I trudged beside her on the all-too-solid earth" (The Hiding Place).
In Matthew 18, Jesus tells of a servant who owed his master an amount he could never repay - possibly about 200,000 years' worth of wages. As the master prepared to sell the man's possessions and family to make a dent in his debt, the servant begged for patience, and he would pay it all back. The master knew that was not possible. Instead of patience, he granted mercy to the man, erasing his debt. What an incredible gift! Then the servant left the master's presence and found a fellow servant who owed him one hundred days' wages - obviously a much smaller sum. Instead of passing on the forgiveness he had just been granted, he began to threaten the fellow servant, impatiently and unmercifully demanding instant payment.
The story, we know, was a parable. But it was a true story. The scenario is repeated every day as we who have been forgiven incurable iniquities walk around griping and groaning over the lesser offenses others commit against us. Even when we are faced with truly horrific wrongs, as Corrie ten Boom and her family were, we know that what has been done to us could never compare with what we have done to Him.
While He was still on the cross, still suffering unimaginable torture and the ridicule of those whose sin He bore, Jesus Christ forgave the greatest crime ever committed. And He forgives it again every time He welcomes one of us to His kingdom.
As Christians, we serve a God who forgives, and we are called to extend the forgiveness we have freely received. "...as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (Colossians 3:13).
"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...And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my 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, 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 the former prisoner. I had never known God's love so intensely as I did then. But even so, I realized it was not my love. I had tried, and did not have the power. It was the power of the Holy Spirit as recorded in Romans 5:5: '...because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us'" (Tramp for the Lord).
Could I? Would I?
No. I couldn't. The strength to forgive wrongdoing - whether it is a minor or a seemingly unforgivable act - is not something I find inside myself. Every time I am faced with forgiving the wrong of another, I know I cannot do it alone. Just as Corrie ten Boom could never have done it on her own.
The One who formed me, even though He sees and knows and is grieved by all of my sin, even though it cost Him an unimaginable price, can give His forgiveness to me. And I can pass it on.
Image courtesy of chanpipat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net