(Part three of a previously published series on forgiveness from a Christian perspective.)
One of the great examples of forgiveness in our time comes from Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch Christian woman who, during the Second World War, was arrested by the Nazis for harboring Jews. She was imprisoned, along with her sister, Betsie, in a concentration camp and subjected to brutal and degrading treatment. Betsie, and four other ten Boom family members, died as a result of the treatment they suffered in prison. Only Corrie survived the concentration camps.
Years later, at the conclusion of a speaking engagement, Corrie came face to face with the cruelest and most heartless of all her prison guards. The very thought of him had been too painful to bear. He had humiliated and degraded Corrie and her sister again and again. He had jeered and sexually harassed them as they stood in the delousing shower. He had treated them like animals. In her mind, this man was evil incarnate, the embodiment of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp. To her surprise, he now approached her with outstretched hand and said, “Will you forgive me?”
Corrie later wrote, “I stood there with coldness clutching at my heart, but I knew that the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. I prayed, ‘Jesus, help me!’ Woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me and I experienced an incredible thing. The current started in my shoulder, raced down into my arms and sprang into our clutched hands. Then this warm reconciliation seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, brother,’ I cried with my whole heart. For a long time we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I have never known the love of God so intensely as I did that moment!”
It may surprise you to know that this remarkable woman, who could in one extraordinary moment forgive her greatest enemy, was still at times plagued by bitterness and painful memories. On another occasion, after sincerely forgiving a person who had hurt her, Corrie found that she couldn’t stop rehashing the incident in her mind. After many sleepless nights, she cried out to God for help. She tells what happened next in her own words:
“His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor to whom I confessed my failure… ‘Up in that church tower,’ he said, nodding out the window, ‘is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope the bell keeps on swinging. First ‘ding’ then ‘dong.’ Slower and slower until there’s a final dong and it stops. I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down’.”
Corrie continues: “And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations . . . but the force – which was my willingness in the matter – had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at last stopped altogether.”
Like Corrie, if a person is to forgive, he must take his hands off the rope, and he mustn’t be surprised if the painful emotions and angry thoughts continue for a while. When such thoughts come, the best way to banish them is to pray for the offender – to pray for his well-being, his health, his family. This is in line with Jesus’ wise instruction: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
A person who reaches out to God in prayer every time angry, painful thoughts come, will find both their frequency and intensity reduced, and his or her disposition toward the offender transformed. But not only will the person’s relationship to the offender be changed, his or her connection to God will be significantly strengthened as well.