Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Forgiveness is personal

Corrie Ten Boom was 52 years old when the Nazis came for her and her family.

For two years, the Ten Booms had been helping to hide Jewish families and other refugees during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. When she was arrested, Ten Boom and her sister Betsie were sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany, where Betsie died. Ten Boom survived, and when the war ended, she returned home and established a safehouse for refugees.

Two years later Ten Boom was back in Germany, sharing with the internationally reviled German people a message that God forgives. One night, at a church in Munich, she recognized a member of the audience. He had been one of the guards at Ravensbrück.

At Ravensbrück, Ten Boom had known hunger and want. She had been stripped of all her possessions and forced to walk naked past the guards. She had been forced to sleep in beds infested with fleas. Her sister Betsie had died, one of an estimated 50,000 women to perish at Ravensbrück. Prisoners there had been starved, overworked and even experimented on. Ten Boom had endured and witnessed unimaginable suffering, and this man had been a part of it.

And he didn't want just a divine pardon. He wanted hers as well.

If you've heard the story, you know how it ends: She forgave him. (If you don't know the story, go read it.)

Corrie Ten Boom's story is one widely shared in Christian circles, in no small part because it is so amazing. It's hard to imagine a more difficult request than the one the former Ravensbrück guard made of her, and it defies belief that she actually forgave him. It's not just amazing; it's supernatural.

That's one of the reasons we often lionize Ten Boom and portray her as a larger-than-life hero of the faith, but when we do that we miss out on so much. We can draw inspiration from saintly heroes, but following in their footsteps is too daunting if they wear seven-league boots and we're left to chase after them in sandals. There is hope if we remember that seven-league boots only go one step at a time.

We'll start with the first step. Let's suppose we could approach Ten Boom the afternoon before she arrived in Munich. Maybe she's having a cup of coffee, or maybe she's writing her thoughts down on a piece of paper. She sees us coming, and smiles that encouraging smile of hers, so we ask her the big question. Has she forgiven the people responsible for the death of her sister, for all that she had suffered and seen during the Holocaust?

The words wouldn't even be out of our mouths before we realized what a stupid question this was, not to mention rude and presumptuous. Of course she has forgiven these people. She's in Germany, isn't she? While other survivors of the camps were weighted down with horror and grief, or quietly rebuilding their lives and starting new families, Ten Boom had come back to the land where she had suffered, to share God's forgiveness with the nation that had visited such evil on the world.

And then there was Ten Boom's work in the Netherlands. She hadn't just been caring for Jewish refugees and other victims of Nazi savagery; she also was providing shelter for jobless Dutch citizens who had collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation.

How could anyone think to ask if she had forgiven? Of course she had.

Her encounter with the former Nazi brings out the one thing missing from this forgiveness narrative: the human element. It took his self-awareness and his desire for forgiveness to set this amazing story in motion. It's easier to forgive in the abstract, but it's much more meaningful to do it person-to-person. If the former guard hadn't been in that Munich church that night, he never would have asked Ten Boom to forgive him; and neither of them would have experienced that soul-shaping moment.

It's not just enough to offer forgiveness carte blanche. For real, deep and meaningful forgiveness to happen, someone needs to ask for it, and someone else needs to give it.

So where does that leave us when people are unaware how badly they have hurt us, or in even worse situations, know what they have done but don't care, because they don't see it as a big deal? Is it possible to forgive someone if they don't ask for it? Even the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the grandfather of teachings about forgiveness, says that God's forgiveness is free but we are required to acknowledge our sins and to repent of them, rather than merely feeling sorry about them.

Think about the story of the rich young ruler. He wanted to follow Jesus, who told him that mere belief wasn't enough. The ruler also needed to part with his wealth and give it to the poor around him. Unfortunately, the money meant too much to him, and the young ruler walked away, prompting Jesus to lament that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Compare that to the story of Zacchaeus. As a tax collector, Zacchaeus used his position with the Roman government to extort money from his countrymen. Jesus didn't even need to prompt him. During dinner, Zacchaeus pledged to give half his possessions to the poor and to repay fourfold anyone he had defrauded, after which Jesus declared that salvation had come to Zacchaeus' house.

Jesus seems like a forgiving guy. You're left with the impression from these two stories that he's going to have a good relationship with Zacchaeus going forward. The other guy? Not so much.

So where does that leave us? I've heard for years the merits of letting go of things, and there have been many times I've given that same advice to other people. And letting go seems like excellent advice when someone is overreacting, like being angry because their favorite seat was taken, or because someone else ate more cookies than was fair.

The trouble is, it's easy to let it go and forgive when someone is five minutes late picking you up, but not so much when they completely forget about you, leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere and potentially put your life in danger. It's easy to let go of an inconvenience. It's much harder to forgive when someone has really hurt you.

At best, letting go may be the first stage of forgiveness, one where no one learns anything, except for how inexcusably awful other human beings can be. But maybe that's the highest we can aspire to in some circumstances.

Author Madeleine L'Engle once described herself in a situation where she realized she needed to forgive someone but couldn't find the strength to do it. So she prayed this: “God, forgive the son of a bitch,” and found that in the end, it was enough. It was a start.

And so, for those who have wronged us and who make no attempt to set things aright, we pray to the Lord: "Lord, forgive the sons of bitches." Amen.

So say we all.

Copyright 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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