By Joan Endicott
Why does forgiving seem so darned hard? Sometimes it can seem like it all depends on the degree of the offense. If someone owed you one hundred dollars and they didn’t repay it, it might not seem as hard to forgive as if they’d cost you a million-dollar deal, right? Maybe.
One of the most profound examples of forgiveness I’ve ever heard was when I was in Junior High and was blessed to hear Corrie Ten Boom speak at the Easter Sunrise Service at the Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Oregon.
This is Corrie’s story, from her book, The Hiding Place, where she shares her memory of being confronted, after the war, by one of the very cruel guards from the Nazi concentration camp where her sister Betsie had died.
“It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. I spoke in a church in Munich, sharing the message, ‘When we confess our sins,’ I said, ‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.’
After the service was over is when I saw him, working his way toward me–a balding heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.
It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile 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 skin.
Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbrück concentration camp where we were sent.
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, fräulein! 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. He would not remember me, of course–how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
‘You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,’ he was saying. ‘I was a guard in 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. Fräulein’–again the hand came out–‘will you forgive me?’
And I stood there–I whose sins had every day to be forgiven–and could not. Betsie 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 that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’
I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality.
Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
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.’
Then 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.”
It’s one thing to hear of someone’s incredible experience, and then quite another to actually implement it yourself. Like feeling 100 percent committed to starting your healthy eating plan right after you’ve just topped off your favorite delightfully delicious meal with a decadent dessert, have a full tummy and you’re ready for a nap. Forgiveness sounds like a great principle until someone hurts you deeply, right?
After hearing Corrie share her story that early Easter morning in Portland, I felt I did understand forgiveness more. I was grateful, as I thought of various people I’d been hurt by or was mad at, and happy that I felt ready and empowered to forgive them. Then later…when I thought about the person who had violated me for years, I had that normal, very real physical reaction: nauseated, feeling like my heart was pounding so hard it would leap right out of my chest, I felt claustrophobic in my own skin, fear gripped it’s hands around my throat and unjust waves of shame washed over me.
As you’ll recall from my previous story about the shame-filled response I got when I did tell of being molested the first time at five years old…then, additionally, the subsequent abuser threatened me and hurt me enough that I knew he meant it. (At one point, in an instant rage, he chased me, jumped on top of me and began choking me with his bare hands. I was freed only because my sister heard and ran to my rescue, jumped on his back and began hitting him hard on the head.) I felt alone and like I needed to figure this out by myself. So, naturally, I chose to just not think about it. After all, when I did think about it, everything felt wrong, so not thinking about it must be the solution, right?
Then…when I was 30 years old and our oldest child, our sweet little Nathanael was 5 (the same age as I was when I first experienced abuse), I began a very personal journey–a painful internal wrestling match of memories and emotions I’d thought were right where they belonged, in the past. As a mama with two little boys, I realized that at certain ages and stages in their lives, I was naturally going to think back on what life was like for me at that point.
God used that to let me know it was finally time to rip the bandage off that old wound and take an honest look at it. Yes, it was quite painful to rip off the bandage that had been there long enough to become part of my skin. Once I did, I saw a raw and real gaping wound filled with pain, heartache, sorrow and rejection–an infection in my soul that could only be cleaned out by God’s holy, healing hand.
I was ready! The Lord wanted me to be willing, and like Corrie, through the power of the Holy Spirit, I began the journey of forgiveness.
Next time I’ll share that journey, my myths and misunderstandings–what forgiveness is and isn’t–and how I found freedom through forgiveness.
Grab your FREE “I Get To!”® book at JoanEndicott.com and sign up for her FREE blog videos on self-compassion. etc. Joan Endicott is an Award-Winning Keynote Speaker, Author of “I Get To!”® founder of GIANT-Slayer Coaching and “WOW!” Women Owning Their Worth©. Her coaching reaches over 30 countries. Follow her on FB and IG–she posts encouraging words daily!