What forgiveness is not: forgetting, avoidance or excusing. What forgiveness is, its cost, and seven reasons why it matters.
During the years I was preparing for pastoral ministry an older Presbyterian minister said to me, “If ever you run out of something to preach on, preach on forgiveness.” In nearly thirty years of pastoral ministry I have come to appreciate the wisdom of that observation.
Deep in the human heart is a profound longing to know the reality of God’s forgiveness. Without it, our lives can be locked up in guilt and anger. Experiencing the reality of God’s forgiveness brings a whole new orientation to life. We then face the challenge of extending this forgiveness to those who have wronged us. I have never found this easy.
I don’t think I have met anyone who has. Yet this is the way of the cross. It is the path of true discipleship.
In this excellent booklet Dick Tripp writes of the challenge of forgiveness. The story begins with one of the toughest challenges to forgiveness in the twentieth century, the scourge of Nazi Germany, and how sufferers should respond. In years past, I have been challenged by the remarkable story of Corrie Ten Boom, which Dick relates, and her struggle to forgive her Nazi captors.
The booklet has many outstanding stories of people who have learned to extend forgiveness. I was particularly impressed by the story of a 15-year-old facing execution in Batista’s Cuba, who said to his mother, “Forgive them, or they will be the victors.”
I would like to warmly commend this very helpful booklet on a most important topic.
Murray Robertson BA, BD
Senior Pastor, Spreydon Baptist Church, Christchurch
What is forgiveness and why does it matter?
One of the most important issues that we all face in life is the question of forgiveness. It is important because, whatever our reputation in moral matters, we will never be free of the need of receiving forgiveness from God and from one another, and also of giving it to one another. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus showed his recognition of this by including our request for God’s forgiveness, and our offer of it to others, as part of our regular praying. Without learning something of the meaning of forgiveness, we will never be able to form deep relationships. And yet it is not easy. It has been said that “the most painful question short of our own death is the question of forgiveness.”
In his book The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal, the world’s foremost Nazi hunter, tells of his war experiences. In 1944 he was a young Polish prisoner on his way to concentration camps. He had looked on helplessly as Nazi soldiers forced his mother into a freight car crammed with elderly Jewish women, and as they shot his grandmother to death on the stairway of her home. Altogether, 89 of his Jewish relatives would die at the hands of the Nazis.
One bright sunny day, in a hospital for German casualties, he found himself alone with a dying German soldier in a dark, musty room. White gauze covered the man’s face, with openings cut out for mouth, nose, and ears. “My name is Karl,” said a strained voice that came from somewhere within the bandages. “I must tell you of this horrible deed – tell you because you are a Jew.”
Karl told of his Catholic childhood and the faith he had lost in the Hitler Youth Corps. He spoke of his service in the army and his recent return, severely wounded, from the Russian front. Finally he told of something that had happened in Ukrainian territory. Booby traps had killed 30 soldiers in Karl’s unit. As an act of revenge they had rounded up 300 Jews, herded them into a three-storey house, doused it with gasoline, and fired grenades at it. Karl and his men encircled the house, their guns drawn to shoot anyone who tried to escape. “The screams from the house were horrible,” he said. “I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothes were alight. By his side stood a woman, doubtless the mother of the child. With his free hand the man covered the child’s eyes – then he jumped into the street. Seconds later the mother followed. Then from the other windows fell burning bodies. We shot…”
Karl described other atrocities, but kept circling back to the image of that young boy with black hair and dark eyes falling from a building, target practice for the SS rifles. “I am left here with my guilt,” he concluded at last. “I know that what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn’t know if there were any Jews left…I know what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.
“Simon Wiesenthal, an architect in his early twenties, now a prisoner dressed in a shabby uniform marked with the yellow Star of David, felt the entire weight of his race bearing down on him. He stared out the window at the sunlit courtyard. He looked at the eyeless heap of bandages lying in the bed. “At last I made up my mind,” he writes, “and without a word I left the room.”
Such a story raises in the starkest manner the whole subject of forgiveness and leaves us begging for answers. Ever after, the scene in the hospital room haunted Wiesenthal. He asked fellow prisoners what he should have done. He inquired of rabbis and priests. Finally, when he wrote up the story 20 years later, he sent it to the brightest ethical minds he knew – Jew, Gentile, Catholic, Protestant, and irreligious. “What would you have done in my place?” he asked. “Did I do right?”
Of the 32 men and women who responded, only 6 said he had done wrong in not forgiving the German. Most thought he had done right. “What moral or legal authority did he have to forgive injuries done to someone else?” they asked. Some questioned the whole concept of forgiveness. This booklet seeks to address this dilemma.
What forgiveness is not
The most important question to establish first is: What is forgive-ness? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to clear the ground of false substitutes and wrong ideas of forgiveness. I would suggest three things that forgiveness is not:
Forgiveness is not forgetting
In the New Testament, in speaking of his ambitions in life, Paul says, “I forget what is behind, and I struggle for what is ahead…so that I can win the prize of being called to heaven”(Philippians 3:13,14). Does this mean that Paul is putting out of his mind all that has gone before? No, it doesn’t. There are some things the Bible says very clearly that we should never forget (read Deuteronomy, chapters 4 to 12 for some examples). However, more importantly, the biblical word “forget” in this context does not mean to “put out of one’s mind”. It has the meaning of “letting go”. It means that we are not going to allow the experiences of the past to dominate our future and to prevent us from becoming all that God has planned we should become. There may well be memories we are unable to put out of mind, but we choose not to allow them to control our attitudes and behaviour in the future, even toward those who may be responsible for those memories.
“Forgiveness means that we are not going to allow the experiences of the past to dominate our future“
Lisa Goertz lost her family in the Jewish holocaust in Germany. Before escaping from Germany herself, she became a Christian as the result of seeing a vision of Jesus, a fellow Jew, suffering on the cross for the sins of humanity. In her book, I Stepped into Freedom, she says:
Slowly I walk on, carrying my sins daily to the Cross, then returning to struggle along my life’s path, on which the slanting rays of a setting sun already cast a shadow. I still weep when I think of a tall blond man who was my husband. My heart still aches with longing for a slim lovely girl, for a small sunny haired boy. My thoughts turn mournfully to my mother and my brother buried somewhere in an unknown grave in what is now to me a foreign country. I know that only God Himself “will wipe away all tears” when I see my Lord in glory. But there is no bitterness or hatred in my heart; one cannot live with bitterness and hatred. There is the peace of God in me and a reflection of His divine love which makes me love my fellow-men whether they are black or yellow or white, whether they are Jews or Christians, whether they belong to this denomination or that. They are God’s family, my sisters and brothers.
No. Forgiveness is not forgetting.
Forgiveness is not avoidance
Forgiveness is not making light of something we find hurtful. Being the imperfect people we are, there are constantly things that happen between us and others that are minor irritations. We can ignore these. However, when the hurt is real, it is not helpful to say “It doesn’t matter”, or to make light of something that is basically wrong. That is being dishonest. Where a relationship is spoiled, something more is necessary.
Dwight Small, in Design for Christian Marriage, says:
Forgiveness is not merely a soft attitude toward a harsh fact; forgiveness is the vital action of love, seeking to restore the harmony that has been shattered.
Forgiveness is not excusing
Forgiveness is not denying that the one who has caused the hurt is responsible for their actions. There is a place for making allowances for people’s behaviour. However, there is a tendency today to err too much in that direction. It is true that some people are more “sinned against” than sinning, but to deny responsibility for the choices we make is to lessen our dignity as human beings. We are beings created in the image of God who calls us to account for our moral choices. Invariably we mess things up, but if we are to grow we must accept responsibility for our own part in that process.
C. S. Lewis, in Fernseeds and Elephants, says:
If one was really not to blame, then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposite.
What is forgiveness
Forgiveness is the miracle of a new beginning. It is to start where we are, not where we wish we were, or the other person was. It is to hold out a hand; to want to renew a friendship; to want a new relationship with husband, father, daughter, friend, or indeed enemy. It may not take away the hurt. It does not deny the past injury. It does not ignore the possibility and need for repentance and a change in the relationship. It means being willing to take the initiative in dealing with any barriers that I may be raising towards a restored relationship. It means that I am willing to have a relationship with the other party that is based on Christian love and not on what has happened in the past, if the response of the other person makes that possible.
“Forgiveness may lead to reconciliation or it may not, but they are not the same“
Paul Thigpen, a contributing editor for Discipleship Journal, in speaking of the difficult steps he went through in forgiving his father, found it helpful to repeat his willingness to forgive aloud, as if speaking with his father, until he felt a sense of relief. He describes the meaning of forgiveness in these terms:
Two New Testament words we translate “to forgive” mean literally “to let go” and “to cancel a debt”. I found that at times the phrase “I forgive you” seemed empty, so I said, “I release you. I let you go. I let go of this offence. I cancel your debt. You owe me nothing now. I renounce my desire to get even with you.” That way, the imagery of this biblical language filled the word “forgiveness” with a more specific and concrete meaning.
Of course, it is always on the cards that reconciliation may be impossible because of the unwillingness of the other party to be reconciled or to admit any fault in the matter. However, I am not responsible for their actions, only my own. Quin Sherrer, a freelance writer, tells in Decision magazine of the devastation it caused in her life when her father left her mother to marry his secretary. Quin was 12 years old. Years later she came to a deeper commitment to Jesus when she asked him to be Lord of all of her life. Not only did she tell Jesus that she forgave her dad, she also asked him to forgive her for all the bitterness, hate and resentment that she had built up over the years. She began to write him letters. Sometimes he wrote back hateful letters, but each time she chose to forgive him. Twenty-five years later, just before he died, he told her plainly, “I’m glad you forgave me.” Forgiveness may lead to reconciliation or it may not, but they are not the same. Paul recognises this when, in writing about our attitude to those who wrong us, he says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
It is significant, on this point, that Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount, “God blesses those people who make peace“, is immediately followed by “God blesses those people who are treated badly for doing right.” (Matthew 5:9,10). John Stott , in The Message of the Sermon on the Mount perceptively comments:
It may seem strange that Jesus should pass from peacemaking to persecution, from the work of reconciliation to the experience of hostility. Yet however hard we may try to make peace with some people, they refuse to live at peacewith us. Not all attempts at reconciliation succeed.
The cost of forgiveness
You may well ask, “Isn’t that ignoring the past? What about justice?” The issue of justice faces us with the cost of forgiveness. Paul says, “Forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you” (Colossians 3:13). Our forgiveness of others is to be of a similar nature to Christ’s forgiveness of us. What did it cost Christ to forgive us? It cost him his life.
“To forgive means two things, to remit a debt and to pay it. It is the same word for both“
God is not only perfect in love. He is also perfect in justice. The Bible says that righteousness and justice are the very foundation of his government (Psalm 97:2). There is justice at the heart of this universe. That means that if we are to be forgiven, someone has to accept the consequences for our wrongdoing. In a manner that passes human understanding, Jesus Christ accepted that responsibility. “Christ died once for our sins. An innocent person died for those who are guilty. Christ did this to bring you to God…” (I Peter 3:18).
On the basis of that sacrifice he can offer us forgiveness and reconciliation. It is a gift, and can only be accepted – never earned. We owe to God a debt we could not pay ourselves. God invented forgiveness in order to keep alive his romance with fallen humanity, but at infinite cost. His justice was fully satisfied at Calvary.
There is a sense in which all sin is sin against God. Only God can forgive that. But on the basis of our experience of that forgiveness we are to extend it to others who sin against us. We cannot accept responsibility for their sin against God. He has already done that. However, when we choose to forgive another, there is always some sense in which we are accepting responsibility for the consequences of those sins. This is why forgiveness always has a cost to go with it. I bear in myself the price of the evil done. To give a simple illustration: if someone breaks a precious heirloom of mine and I forgive them, then I am offering to pay the cost, whether it be in the price of replacement, or of the loss. It is interesting that the Hebrew word for “forgive” means two things, to remit a debt and to pay it. It is the same word for both.
An Episcopalian writer, Gale D. Webb, caught this aspect of forgiveness when he wrote in The Night and Nothing:
The only way to conquer evil is to let it be smothered within a willing, living, human being. When it is absorbed there, like blood in a sponge or a spear thrown into one’s heart, it loses its power and goes no further.
M. Scott Peck makes the same point in his conclusion to People of the Lie. For the healing of evil, he notes:
A willing sacrifice is required…He or she must sacrificially absorb the evil…There is a mysterious alchemy whereby the victim becomes the victor…I do not know how this occurs. But I know that it does…Whenever this happens there is a slight shift in the balance of power in the world.
It is this that is the miracle of forgiveness.
There is one other matter of importance related to justice that we need to address before looking at the importance of forgiveness. God is certainly not indifferent to justice. The need for Christ’s cross demonstrates that. However, ultimately justice is God’s concern, and only he can dispense it fairly, taking all the factors into account. He has guaranteed that this is what he will ultimately do. Paul, speaking about those who mistreat us, says, “Dear friends, don’t try to get even. Let God take revenge. In the Scriptures the Lord says, ‘I am the one to take revenge and pay them back.’… Don’t let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good” (Romans 12:19,21).
God delegates the ordering of justice in society to duly constituted authority (Romans 13:1-5). Being members of a fallen race, this means that justice in this world is always flawed. However, we are not to take revenge into our own personal hands. God will see that justice is done, if not in this life, then surely and fairly in the next. Where repentance is not genuine and God’s offer of reconciliation in Christ is not accepted, there can remain only justice. To meet evil with evil is a defeat for ourselves.
Why forgiveness matters
I would suggest seven reasons why forgiveness matters, most of all to the one who gives it, but also to those to whom it is offered. Five are mainly negative, two are positive.
1. Unforgiveness will hurt no one more than myself
R. V. G. Tasker said:
Probably more characters are spoiled by the nursing of grudges and the harbouring of grievances than by anything else.
“All his Holy Spirit needs is one little crack, a closed thing pushed ever so slightly open, a faint cry – I forgive”
M.Hancock & K.Mains
Harbouring resentment has been linked to many physical and mental complaints. We can become locked in the straightjacket of our own resentment. It has been described as “a videotape in the mind playing its tormenting reruns, shackling us to the unremitting pain of a raging memory.”
Some of the most difficult and painful traumas many people have to cope with result from hurtful experiences that happened in childhood. This may be especially difficult, both to diagnose and deal with. This is because we were so vulnerable when they happened and lacked the maturity to deal with them, and also because such things get buried deep in the subconscious. But, here again, forgiveness must at least become part of the process if healing is to occur. Maxine Hancock and Karen Mains, in their bookChild Sex Abuse, write:
If we think of the illustration of the household of the mind with rooms double boarded, then we will have a good visual picture of the effect of sin on a human soul. Into those closed rooms we have shoved the guilt of our own sins, our bitterness, our hate, our vengeful spirits as well as the memory of the pain of grievous acts against us. Until we take the key of forgiveness and tentatively push it into one of those locks and (however reluctantly) open those doors, God’s love is often unable to reach our most inward, wounded selves. His light cannot shine through the dusty, shuttered windows with the shades pulled and the curtains drawn tight. All his Holy Spirit needs is one little crack, a closed thing pushed ever so slightly open, a faint cry – I forgive.
“I only forgave when I saw how destructive my hate was”
Gracilla Martinez tells how she learned to forgive when her 15-year-old son, recently having become a Christian, was executed under Cuba’s Batista regime. “Don’t hate them,” the boy had urged that morning as they huddled in their last embrace. “Forgive them, Mamacita. Forgive them, or they will be the victors.” But she could not. “In my heart,” she recalls, “I vowed revenge. I would get even with his assailants.”
For 10 years, Graciella Martinez carried the burden of that hatred, fuelling it with plots and plans for retaliation. At a workshop on forgiveness, she said:
I only forgave when I saw how destructive my hate was, how it consumed my energies, crippled my friendships and disabled any good that I wanted to do. I wanted to be freed from the prison I had erected in my life. I saw, finally, the truth of my son’s last words, that when we return hatred to those who hate us, we fall into playing their game according to their rules – and do them the great favour of hurting ourselves.
Edith Buxton, in her book Reluctant Missionary, says:
I wish I had learned earlier about forgiveness, both giving it and receiving it and the freedom of spirit it can bring. You cannot have a happy old age without it. My daughter once wrote these words, “When a situation has broken down in hurt and bitterness, and disagreement is so deep there seems no solution on earth – there remains forgiveness.”
2. Unforgiveness will often hurt others
Too often unforgiveness will affect those around us and may well be passed on to the next generation. This can happen in families and on a larger scale in countries. The terrible toll of unforgiveness has been all too obvious in countries such as Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and East Africa today. The innocent are often involved. As Ghandi said, if everyone were to follow the “eye for an eye” principle of justice, the whole world would go blind.
When King Alfred the Great finally conquered the Danes who had raped and pillaged England for years, he took pity on his enemies, fed them and offered peace, instead of doing what kings normally did to their conquered foes. His act led to the conversion of the Danish king, with Alfred participating in his baptism, and brought lasting peace to those islands. Historian Arthur Bryant concludes, “No greater act of statesmanship was ever performed by an English king.”
It has been said that forgiveness is the only way in which the power of sin in the world can be absorbed, neutralised and brought to nothing.
3. Unforgiveness may deny healing to another
Unforgiveness may deny healing to another to whom I alone can give it. Bishop Stephen Neill expresses this thought in a perceptive way in A Genuinely Human Existence:
Forgiveness recognises the wrongdoer as a person. He has done wrong, and about this there is no pretence. But this is not the whole truth about him. He is still of infinite value as a person, since every person is unique and irreplaceable by any other. Since he has so greatly injured himself by doing wrong, he is in special need of help, and help that can be rendered only by the one to whom he has done the wrong…Forgiveness can spring only from a self-forgetfulness that is more concerned about another’s wellbeing than about its own, and that longs for the renewal of fellowship even when fellowship has been flouted and destroyed by the wilful aggression of another.
In Decision magazine a remarkable story illustrating this was told by Walter Everett, pastor of United Methodist Church in Hartford, Connecticut. Walter’s son, Scott, was murdered in 1987. For the next 10 months he went through various stages of denial, anger, depression and indecision. The first time he saw his son’s murderer, Mike, was in court almost a year after Scott’s death. During the trial, Mike said he was truly sorry for what he had done.
Walter Everett continues the story:
Someone beside me said, “He didn’t mean that; he’s trying to impress the judge.” I wondered.
God nudged me with the thought, “There’s a way for you to let go of your anger and to start the healing process.”
Three-and-a-half weeks later, on the first anniversary of Scott’s death, I wrote to Mike. I told him about my anger and asked some pointed questions. Then I wrote, “Having said all that, I want to thank you for what you said in court, and as hard as these words are for me to write, I forgive you.” I wrote of God’s love in Christ and invited Mike to write to me if he wished.
Three weeks later Mike’s letter arrived. He said that when he had read the letter he couldn’t believe it. No one had ever said to him, “I forgive you.” That night he knelt beside his bunk and prayed for, and received, the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
Additional correspondence led to regular visits during which they both spoke of their growing relationship with Jesus Christ. Later, Walter spoke on Mike’s behalf before the parole board and he was given an early release. In November 1994, Walter officiated at his wedding.
Tom Houston says:
Forgiveness does not come to us in a cup to consume for ourselves, but in a pipe so that it flows through us to others. That is the nature of forgiveness.
4. Unforgiveness affects my relationship with God
” Jesus condemns most strongly the proud… unforgiving spirit”
In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a story about a servant who, though he had been forgiven an infinite debt himself, acted in an unforgiving way towards a fellow servant who owed him a pittance. As a result he was ordered by the very angry king to be tortured until he should pay everything he owed. Jesus concluded the story by saying, “That is how my Father in heaven will treat you, if you don’t forgive each of my followers with all your heart.”
The point of the story is obvious. If we are Christians, we have been forgiven an infinite debt that we owe to God which we could never hope to pay ourselves. If we in turn do not share that forgiveness with others, God treats it very seriously. It is significant that, in Matthew’s gospel particularly, what Jesus condemns most strongly is the proud, uncharitable, unforgiving, jealous spirit.
Lorne Sanny, for many years President of the Navigators, an organisation committed to building Christian leadership, says that bitterness has put more people on the shelf for God than any other thing he knows. He describes it as “a sort of self-cannibalism” that eats your insides out.
Contrast the example of Dr Joon Gon Kim, one of Korea’s outstanding educators and Christian leaders. It was springtime and the rain was falling gently as the family were sharing the events of the day. Suddenly, without forewarning or provocation, an angry band of communist guerillas invaded the village, killing everyone in their path. The family of Dr Kim was not exempt. In their trail of blood, the guerillas left behind the dead bodies of Dr Kim’s wife and his father; he himself was beaten and left for dead. In the cool rain of the night he revived and fled to safety in the mountains with his young daughter. They were the sole survivors.
Dr Kim is a man of God and he had learned from Scriptures to love his enemies and pray for those who persecuted him. What was he to do? The Spirit of God impressed upon him that he was to return to the village, seek out the communist chief who had led the attack, tell him that he loved him and tell him of God’s love in Christ. This he did and God honoured his obedience. Dumbfounded, the communist chief knelt in prayer with Dr Kim and committed his life to Christ. Within a short time, a number of other communists were converted to Christ and Dr Kim helped build a church for these and other converts. He was later to become the pastor of one of the largest churches in South Korea.
God cannot bless us unless we keep the channels of forgiveness open.
5. Unforgiveness is readily exploited by the Evil One
One of Satan’s strategies to hinder our personal growth and undermine the growth of God’s kingdom is to encourage and exploit the lack of forgiveness among God’s people. Paul urged the Corinthian believers to forgive one of their members who had caused hurt. He said that he himself had forgiven the offender and gave his reason: “I have done this to keep Satan from getting the better of us. We all know what goes on in his mind” (2 Corinthians 2:11).
E. M. Bounds, in his book Satan, says:
A lofty spirit, ready and compliant with the spirit of forgiveness, free from all bitterness, revenge or retaliation, has freed itself from the conditions which invite Satan and has effectually locked and barred his entrance. The readiest way to keep Satan out is to keep the spirit of forgiveness in. The devil is never deeper in hell, nor farther removed from us than when we can pray “Father forgive them; they know not what they do.”
6. Forgiveness demonstrates Christ’s presence
“When you forgive someone who hurts you, you are dancing to the rhythm of the divine heartbeat”
Jesus said that people would recognise us as his disciples by the way we love one another (John 13:35). One of the ways love is expressed is in forgiveness. Someone has said that “when you forgive someone who hurts you, you are dancing to the rhythm of the divine heartbeat.” It points people to God as the great Reconciler when they can see reconciliation amongst his people.
An Australian Bishop tells a delightful story about the Sawi tribe of what used to be Dutch New Guinea, now Indonesia. There had been a large movement to Christ among these people and there was a radiant new first-generation congregation. A young man went off behind a bush with one of the girls. The trouble was that she happened to belong to someone else. Adultery! They are pretty hot on these things amongst the Sawi tribesmen so the husband came to bump off the wretched youth, who, by this time, was not only very frightened, but exceedingly repentant. What did the church do? They gathered round this man, and, assured of his repentance, begged and begged and begged the irate husband to forgive. At long last he agreed that he would accept 14 sows as a peace offering. The youth hadn’t got 14 sows, and so the congregation gave of their own money and bits and pieces to get 14 sows. The bishop arrived to see them being carried up the hill to this man.
7. It shows our own experience of God’s forgiveness
“Nothing in this lost world bears the impress of the Son of God so surely as forgiveness“
It has been said that nothing in this lost world bears the impress of the Son of God so surely as forgiveness.
After the Second World War, still suffering physical and emotional scars from Nazi brutality, Corrie Ten Boom felt called to preach forgiveness through Europe, as they dug out of the war’s emotional rubble. She had lost most of her family in concentration camps for helping in the rescue of Jews. She was sure she had overcome her own desire for vengeance against the German SS troops who had dehumanised her and her loved ones in those camps. One occasion took her to Munich. Outside a church after the Sunday Service, she found herself looking hard in the face of an old SS guard. He had watched and sneered at frightened women prisoners as they had been forced to take delousing showers in front of him. Suddenly for Corrie the memories were there again – the roomful of mocking men, the pain and shame of it. And now with the war over, the man had come up to Corrie, beaming and bowing politely. “How grateful I am for your message,” he said. “To think, as you say, that he has washed my sins away.” He put out his hand to her. It was too much for Corrie and she kept her hand frozen at her side. Forgiveness comes hard for anyone, and it seemed to her outrageous to expect it of her at that time, in that situation.
She goes on to tell in her book, The Hiding Place, how at that moment angry and vengeful thoughts boiled through her system and she struggled to raise her hand, but she could not. She felt nothing, no emotion. Not the slightest spark of forgiveness. So she breathed a silent prayer, “Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.” And Corrie was touched in that instant by the One who can forgive everyone everything, because he himself had born the cost of those actions, the cost of forgiveness, on the Cross in his own body. Corrie felt the force of her own forgiveness and the understanding of that forgiveness. In the freedom of being forgiven, she raised her arm and took the hand of the man who had done unforgettable things to her.
Corrie was later to say:
We never touch the ocean of God’s love so much as when we love our enemies. It is a joy to accept forgiveness, but it is almost a greater joy to give forgiveness.
We demonstrate our own experience of that divine forgiveness by the way in which we extend it to others. What could be a greater witness to the truth of the gospel than the sight of Betty Elliot in Berlin, walking along arm in arm with two Auca Indians who had murdered her husband in the jungles of Ecuador and made her a widow. This happened at the World Congress of Evangelism in 1966. Since they didn’t know anything about Western civilisation and had come straight from the jungle, she was teaching them how to use a knife and fork, how to use the toilet and all the other things necessary for coping with modern ways of living. Or similarly, Marge Saint, whose husband was killed by those same Indians, spending time with the tribe and seeing her two children, now teenagers, baptised by one of the men who had killed their father. He was now a Christian leader in his tribe.
The Communion Service is supremely the moment in our Church Services when we focus on the cost of our forgiveness. In the old Anglican Service, before the congregation receives the bread and wine, symbols of the Cross, the minister would always read these words from the Book of Common Prayer: “You that sincerely and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, draw near with faith…” It is not only the acceptance of our own forgiveness that qualifies us to join in celebrating such an event, but also the extending of that forgiveness to others. So we demonstrate our membership in the family of God.
For the basic outline of this booklet I am indebted to a sermon I heard preached by Rev. Philip Saunders, Vicar of St. Andrews Anglican Church, Waverley, Melbourne, in 1983.