Forgiveness is a dish best served on the plate of love with a spoon of grace.
As I rounded the corner of the hospital hall that day, I was not expecting who I would be faced with, an encounter I prayed would never again happen. At that very moment, as I rounded the corner, I went from joyful to angry with even my fists clenching as if they had a mind of their own. There he stood, the man that relentlessly hindered and criticized my leadership, allowed my family to be persecuted, chased my son out of town, and had nothing but a smirk of victory on his face when my three young daughters had their Christmas play parts taken away days before the performance. And, this all happened in a church I pastored where this man seemed to make it his goal in life to oust me from ministry with verbal challenges like, “Pastor, I’ve been here through many pastors, and will be here well after you leave.” From finding several want ads circled in red from the local paper on my desk to my children being the only ones not served communion during Children’s Church. These are but a few examples of what my family went through over my five-year tenure. But, that chapter of my life was over; God had released me from that culture and called me to start a new church, a place where my family found joy, peace, and purpose. I had been gone from that toxic church environment for over two years when I found myself in the hallway of that hospital facing the man I had never forgiven, with fists clenched, frozen in time. And there we stood, no words spoken for what seemed like minutes, resembling two cowboys in the old west waiting for the clock to strike high noon before drawing our weapons.
During one of my early counseling sessions in ministry, I addressed two church members that refused to forgive each other over a past argument. Time had done nothing but make matters worse with these members shunning each other, gossiping about one another, and even sitting as far from each other in the sanctuary as they could. The story I used to facilitate reconciliation was that of Corrie ten Boom, taken from her book, The Hiding Place:
It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. It was 1947, and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. “When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.…”
The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence, collected their wraps, in silence left the room. And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. 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, how thin you were! [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 Ravensbruck 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. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze. “You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,” he was saying, “I was a guard there.” No, he did not remember me. “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Chris-tian. 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 again and again been forgiven—and could not forgive. 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. And 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. “… Help!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.” And so 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.Corrie ten Boom
As I stood frozen in time, facing this man that had caused my family so much pain and suffering, God reminded me of this story of His power and love. So, I stretched out my hand in greeting, held my breath, and said a prayer. He never took my hand; he just walked around me without a word. Later that day in my office, I drafted a letter to him, asking his forgiveness for my part in our feud, and mailed it out. I never heard anything back. And, that was alright; my forgiving this man had nothing to do with him and everything to do with my stewardship of the forgiveness and love God had given me.
Hanging from the cross, Jesus asked God to forgive the very ones that nailed Him there and that were gathered around mocking and hurting Him (Luke 23:34). Their repentant hearts didn’t precipitate his request, and it certainly didn’t compel them to seek reconciliation, yet Jesus held out both hands and offered it anyway.
If you have lived long enough, others have hurt you. And, if you have not forgiven them, truly and completely let it go, bitterness has marked your life. Please take it from me; it will consume you until you forgive them and do everything in your power to reconcile. Never forget that the forgiveness God has offered you is not yours to keep but His to give out. You not only have the command to forgive others, but God has given you the power through the Holy Spirit to do the seemingly impossible.
Scripture: “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” -Colossians 3:13, ESV
Question: While you were reading today’s devotion, did a particular situation and person come to your mind? Are there still feelings of anger and bitterness?
Prayer: Father, it is hard to let some things go, especially when mistreated. Please help me remember that you are the only One qualified to be the judge and jury, and trust you even when I am hurt. I ask for the strength to forgive, the heart to love, and the faith to believe that you can work things out. Please help me follow your Son’s example being slow to anger and quick to reconcile. May I be willing to face my fears today and, with your help, put this behind me once and for all. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.