What I thought: I can forgive

What I thought: I can forgive

What I learned: I can’t forgive.

I never knew this.

For years, I tried to forgive.  I would think,

If I try hard enough . . .

If I have enough willpower . . .

If I make myself . . .

But I never could forgive, not the kind of forgiveness Jesus talks about when He says

forgive your brother from your hearts (Matthew 18:35b, GW)

I could try to manufacture forgiveness, I could try to distract myself from thinking how much I hated someone, I could order myself to keep repeating words of forgiveness over and over in my head . . .

But it never worked.

When Christ woke me up out of my spiritual coma in 2010, I did not right away think about my lifelong problem of unforgiveness.  I was on vacation in the radiance of His glory.  I realize now He was strengthening me, I’d like to think something like how He strengthened Elijah with food before he would climb Mount Sinai to speak to God (see 1 Kings 19).

It wasn’t until this year that my old wounds of unforgiveness began to fester again.  I have always been amazed at how the pains we receive from others can be as fresh twenty years down the line as they were the day they were made.  This is a silly little example, but I can still remember in preschool a girl telling me to “bug off”.  She was walking on plastic cup stilts and she didn’t want me bothering her.

All the years I had tried and tried to forgive, I wasn’t living in God’s love like John talks about in his letters (see 1, 2, an 3 John).  But then, even after I was living in God’s love, I was confused and troubled by how the unforgiveness in my heart hadn’t magically evaporated.  I went back to my old ways of repeating prayers of forgiveness over and over again and trying to will myself into forgiving, but nothing worked.

In the midst of this, I heard about a play that was going to be going on at a little theater not too far from my house.  Somebody told me it was about forgiveness.  I decided to go more because I was going to spend the afternoon with my grandmother, who was going along with me, than because I actually wanted to see the play, truth be told.

The play was based on a book I’d read as a teenager, The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom.  The play began with Corrie as an older woman giving a speech about what she had learned from her experiences in prison camps in World War II.

The man who was sitting next to me in the theater suddenly gets up, speaking in polite German, and works his way out of our row and down the aisle.  He walks up on stage and says,

“How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.  To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!”[1]

As the man reaches out his hand to shake hers, Corrie pulls back in frozen horror.  This man is one of the men who stood at the showers at the Ravensbrück prison camp, mocking the naked, emaciated women as they came out of the showers.

Corrie silently calls on the Lord Jesus to help her forgive this man, but she cannot find one drop of forgiveness in her heart.

So then she cries out in her soul, “Jesus, I CANNOT forgive him.  Give me YOUR forgiveness.” [2]

Even through all the heartbreak and horror Corrie witnessed and lived, when the guard from the Ravensbrück prison camp comes to shake Corrie’s hand, this is her thinking:

Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them.  Jesus Christ had died for this man.  Was I going to ask for more? [3]

The first time I watched this play, I was deeply affected by Corrie’s act of forgiveness.

The second time I watched this play, I was deeply affected by my lack of forgiveness.

I felt igneous rocks of hate inside me melt into intense, furious hatred.  The old wounds split open and I began to experience all the things I had been suppressing for so many years: the lust for vengeance, the wild anger, the consuming wrath that very nearly left no place for love.  I for the first time allowed myself to see how large the ferocious hate inside of me really was and how absolutely cold I really felt.

And it became incredibly clear to me that I had never forgiven—not these things.

In violent anguish, I screamed out in my soul, Lord Jesus, I CANNOT forgive . . .” And I named the people who have deeply wounded my soulWe all have names.  I did not name them all at once, but one by one.

And I ended with Corrie’s plea, “Give me YOUR forgiveness.”

(To be able to use Corrie’s prayer, to be encouraged to do so by her testimony, when she suffered so much, and I so little, speaks of the wondrous grace of Christ in her life that she shared with others.)

In that moment of vulnerability, just as I had most feared all along if I ever really opened myself up to forgiveness, I opened myself to the pain others had let in my life, and Satan came along and stomped me into an abyss.

But Jesus caught me.

And as the pain of what had been done to me crushed into my bones, and the years of unforgiveness ground them to fine dust . . . For the first time, I let myself experience the full hurt of what had been done to me.

And I became so ashamed.  Because I realized that all the hurt I had endured had been nothing compared to the hurt I had given over the years.  Although I am able to bear all the hurt that others’ sins have caused me, I would never be able to bear the full hurt of my own sin.  The weight of that is Hell.  I cannot imagine what Hell will be like.  I praise Jesus I do not have to go there!

So all those years, in my soul, I had tried to drink from God’s mercy and then spit it out in the faces of my adversaries.

But even knowing this, I could never have been able to forgive.  Never.  I had to receive the power to forgive in the same way I had to receive forgiveness: from the supernatural power of Jesus alone.

I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.

(Philippians 4:13, WEB)

[1] From The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

[2] From The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, the words in all caps were not in all caps.  But I wanted to do justice to the anguish in her heart based on the performance I saw at the Stained Glass Theater and, more importantly, her personal testimony.

[3] From The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom


The Hiding Place, Stained Glass Theater Presentation, DVD

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, first published November 1971

The Corrie ten Boom Museum website, http://www.corrietenboom.com/history.htm

Photograph by Ben Ostrowsky, profile on http://www.flickr.com/people/sylvar/

See Copyright Page for Bible translation information.

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