We may never suffer what Corrie did, but all of us encounter situations where forgiveness is needed. How will we respond?
Corrie ten Boom lived through the horrors of the Holocaust and came out more than a survivor; she came out a victor. Having chosen to help the Jews by hiding them in their home, her whole family perished at the hands of the Nazis. After the war, Corrie traveled and spoke to thousands of people, telling of her experiences and teaching on God’s gift of forgiveness and salvation.
One evening, after concluding her message, the very officer who had been in charge of her sister, Betsie’s, torture and death walked up to her. It was the first time since Corrie’s release that she had been face to face with one of her captors and her blood seemed to freeze. He told her that he had been a guard at Ravensbruck, but since that time had become a Christian. “I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there,” he said, “but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Will you forgive me?”
For a long moment, Corrie stood there. Her beloved sister had died in that terrible place. Could this man erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? The moments seemed like hours as she wrestled with the most difficult thing she had ever had to do. But she knew that forgiveness is an act of the will, and she prayed silently, “Jesus, help me!” Finally, woodenly, mechanically, she thrust her hand into the one stretched out to her.
She tells what happened in her own words: “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 former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”
Forgiveness is needed
Though few of us will face a challenge equivalent to what Corrie ten Boom faced that day, all of us encounter situations where forgiveness is needed. Offenses may range from minor irritations in marriage to infidelity, from hasty words spoken by parents to years of child abuse. They may occur on the playground, in the classroom, on the job, in the church. Whether it is an apparent slight of a friend or deliberate mistreatment, everyone faces circumstances that demand forgiveness. And each new situation requires a new decision to do so.
Many people carry grudges for years. They may have been wronged, falsely accused, or mistreated. They may think they have good grounds for the feelings that are down in their hearts. However the Bible gives no excuse for resentment, ill will, or lack of forgiveness, no matter what the provocation may be.
What forgiveness is
Forgiveness is something intensely personal. It affects the way we relate to God and interact with others. One way we can begin to understand forgiveness is by looking at what it is not. It is not a cover-up or game of pretense. It is not teeth-gritting determination to overlook or minimize an offense. It is not passive waiting until the problem diminishes. It is not tolerance—just excusing the rude driver or the person who grabs the parking place you were heading for. Forgiveness is not ignoring the past, it is facing up to the past and choosing to start over with the person who hurt you. Forgiveness releases a legitimate debt. It means ceasing to allow feelings of resentment against an offender—letting go of our right to hurt back.
All of us need forgiveness. We were born sinners and have no chance of entering Heaven without being forgiven. Even after we are saved and delivered from sin, we find it necessary to be forgiven for unwise decisions, inappropriate words, and errors. Jesus said, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). He was telling us that if we want to be forgiven, we must forgive.
Yet, does knowing we must forgive make it easy? We may think it is our right at least to let the other person know he has hurt us. Perhaps the hurt is so deep that forgiveness seems an impossibility.
Jesus said in Matthew 18:35 that we must forgive from our hearts. How is that possible when the heart rebels against it? At times there is no easy way to have a forgiving heart. The only route is through prayer. Some people have found it necessary to pray earnestly over a period of some time for a true spirit of forgiveness. Then sometimes more prayers must be prayed to retain that spirit. How quickly the enemy would slide the bitterness back inside!
No, forgiveness is not easy. Often our ability to forgive others is tied directly to the seriousness of the offense. If it is just a slight offense, we find it relatively easy to forgive. If the wrong was serious or the pain very deep, it is much harder to forgive. However, refusing to forgive others is like tying a rope around our spiritual “necks.” If we refuse to forgive, the knot gets tighter and tighter. When we forgive, we are released and set free.
The result of an unforgiving spirit
What is the result if we do not forgive? The Bible says that we should watch diligently “lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled” (Hebrews 12:15). Without forgiveness, bitterness grows in the heart. At some point, that resentment will spill out. It may come tagged onto an unrelated disagreement, or result in a hard attitude toward someone. Whatever form it takes, the bitterness will grow. If unresolved, it will result in a person’s standing before God unforgiven. What a price to pay!
An unforgiving spirit will also hinder our prayers. Jesus warned: “When ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). This message is included in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where He said directly, “If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15). What a warning!
Although forgiving does not instantly solve the complications of every situation, it frees us to work on those situations with God’s help and wisdom. It helps us lay down the defense of ourselves, and endeavor to find solutions.
Jesus himself is the best example of a forgiving heart. Sinless and holy, He was falsely accused, beaten, and nailed to the Cross. In His dying agony He cried, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). If we want to follow Him, we must seek to follow His example.
One time, Peter asked the Lord how often he should forgive his brother. He suggested seven times, as though that would be a bountiful number. Jesus answered, “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). Four hundred ninety times! Someone may come and ask our forgiveness, and we may reply, “I will forgive you, but . . .” God does not make any exceptions in forgiveness. If we forgive our enemies, those who despitefully use and persecute us, we will have a reward from our Father in Heaven. If we love and befriend only those who love and befriend us, we are no better than sinners, for they do that.
If we have done some wrong to someone else, it is necessary to seek forgiveness. “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
Some have made restitution but never received forgiveness. If we have done all in our power to make things right, obeying God’s instructions, then there is nothing more we can do. If we cannot achieve reconciliation after we have humbled ourselves and made confession, we can leave the situation in God’s hands. He will handle it from there.
The Bible does not tell us to question who is right and who is wrong. The all-important issue is getting wrongs made right, if possible. It takes the love of God in the heart to do that. Our personalities are not all alike, and some people are difficult to get along with. We need to overlook others’ mistakes and shortcomings. We all have something that others must tolerate in us. God will honor us if we have a spirit of forbearance, love, and forgiveness.
An unforgiving spirit is a tool of the enemy of our souls. He uses it effectively to drive people from God. Let’s defeat Satan rather than allow him to defeat us. Choose to seek God for a forgiving heart.