There is an extraordinary true story about a woman called Corrie Ten Boom, a Protestant living in Holland during the Second World War. She lived with her sister and father and they used to read the bible every evening after dinner. During the war as Holland was occupied by the Nazis and Jewish people began disappearing, they ended up hiding people in their home, although they didn’t set out to do this. Eventually they were caught and sent to one of the Concentration camps in Germany called Ravensbruck. Her sister and father both died there, but she survived and was eventually released.
When she returned home she began working to help the many people who were so hurt by the war and she felt above all that God was calling her to speak about the need for forgiveness. And so she did and she was invited to speak all over the country and then in other countries. While speaking in Germany one day, a man came up to her after her talk and thanked her for this message of forgiveness. He said, ‘It is good to know that Jesus forgives all our sins.’ She recognised him as one of the SS officers who had been in charge of their prison and who was responsible for the death of her father and sister. As he extended his hand to her, she found herself freezing up and unable to respond, but she realised that if she did not forgive this man then all her preaching would be meaningless. So she found herself praying to God on the spot asking him to forgive this man for her and finally she was able to put out her hand to him. The book is called The Hiding Place. She wrote:
And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.
One of the hardest things that any of us are faced with is trying to forgive people who have hurt us. Often the people who hurt us the most are the people closest to us. When people say to me that they are angry with someone, it nearly always indicates that they need to forgive that person. Let me try and clear up a few misconceptions about what forgiveness is and is not.
Forgiveness is a decision of the will, as opposed to something we feel like doing. Most of us rarely feel like forgiving someone and if we were to wait until we actually felt like it, we would probably not forgive at all. When I forgive someone I make a decision to forgive that person because the Lord is asking me to, not because I feel like it. The reason why it is so important to do that is because when we forgive someone we open up the door to God’s grace to help us begin to heal. If I refuse to forgive someone I am blocking God from helping me to heal from the hurt. We are the ones who suffer, not the person we are angry with.
We may think that if I say I forgive someone I am saying that what they did doesn't matter. When we forgive we are not saying that, or that we no longer mind, or that the hurt is all gone. But when we refuse to forgive someone, we are the ones who suffer. The anger, hurt and resentment eats away at us inside. It is a terrible thing to meet people late in their life who have continually refused to forgive. You can see the bitterness in them and it is a sad sight to see. None of us want to end up like that. The good thing is that it is never too late to forgive.
It is easy to think that if I don’t forgive someone they will go on suffering because of what they did. The truth is that they may not even be aware of it any more. We are the ones who suffer. We are the ones who lose out. The first step in the process of healing from the hurt is to make the decision to forgive them and say the words. ‘Lord I forgive this person because you ask me to.’ It doesn’t mean that everything will suddenly be alright, or that we will suddenly love that person. In fact we may need to say those words again and again, but slowly we begin to heal. When we make the decision to forgive, we allow God to heal us, because we are the ones who are injured.
Another thought is this: All of us make mistakes and do wrong. We are well aware of that. I’m quite sure that all of us expect and hope that God will forgive us, but Jesus was very clear that we also need to forgive others if we expect to be forgiven ourselves. Jesus gave some very strong stories about people who refused to forgive, finishing with the words: ‘And that is how my heavenly Father will treat you unless you each forgive your brother from the heart’ (Matthew 18:35). In another place Jesus says:
‘If you come to the altar to make your offering and there remember that your brother has something against you. Go and be reconciled with your brother first. Then come and make your offering’ (Matthew 5:23-24).
Even if it is the other person who has a problem with us, we are asked to at least be willing to reconcile, to reach out to them. If they don't accept it, that is their problem, but we must not be the one to refuse to reconcile.
I remember the story of two brothers who lived in an apartment block next door to each other and they had a falling out over something. They refused to speak to each other and would have nothing to do with each other. Eventually one of them began to leave a small bag of candy outside the door of the other and then the other brother did something similar. It was their way of saying I forgive you and I'm sorry, even though no words were spoken.
We also need to forgive ourselves for the sins we have committed. So many people carry the guilt and shame of sins from years ago. If we have asked for forgiveness then God has forgiven us, because He has promised us that. By dying on Calvary Jesus won that forgiveness for us. All we have to do is ask for it and it is ours, no matter how terrible the sin was. God assures us of his forgiveness for anyone who asks. We will always carry the memory, because that is the damage done by the sin, but we have the freedom to know that we are forgiven.
Finally, remember the lady I mentioned at the beginning, Corrie Ten Boom. When she was faced with having to forgive the man responsible for the death of her sister and father, she found it nearly impossible, but she prayed for the grace and it was God who enabled her to do it. By our own strength it is often nearly impossible to forgive, but that is where we turn to the Lord and ask him to help us, and He does.
Forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us…