Forgiveness : Forgiven and Forgiving
By Gary L. Carver
Bill Self relates a story about Corrie ten Boom. Her imprisonment in the Nazi concentration camps for hiding Jews is chronicled in her book, The Hiding Place. After her release, she was traveling through Germany, witnessing to her faith. On a particular night she found herself in Hamburg, giving her personal testimony.
She talked about the horrors of concentration camps, the mistreatment, the torture, the humiliation that she and many others experienced. She talked about her own struggle to forgive those who had humiliated her. At the end of her address, she was standing in front of the little congregation when through that crowd of people she saw a face that caused her to freeze in mid-sentence. It was a face from her past. Much to her horror and dismay he began to walk toward her and flashbacks from the past began to cloud her mind. He was a prison guard at one of the concentration camps. He was more than just a prison guard — he was the guard over the women’s shower. Once a week all of the women in the prison were stripped and paraded through the shower like cattle. He was one of the ones who watched and leered as the women paraded before him.
As he walked toward her, all of those memories crowded into her mind. She was then faced with a decision as he reached out his hand and said, “Corrie, can you forgive me?”
Can you forgive me? Can we forgive? Can we forgive those who ask our forgiveness? That’s difficult. Perhaps even more difficult is to forgive someone who does not ask our forgiveness and who could care less about our forgiveness. What about the person who doesn’t want our forgiveness and continues to persecute us? Can we forgive that person?
Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, is (at least to this third rate theologian’s eyes) a study in contrast of two men who have been touched by grace. One of those men is the main character of the play, Jean Valjean. Valjean has spent nineteen years in prison for stealing bread. He is now paroled but unable to find work. He breaks his parole, becomes a fugitive and is pursued by his constant nemesis, the officer, Javert. Valjean continues his thieving ways while he is being hosted by a priest. He steals two silver candlesticks but is caught and brought back to the priest. The priest not only lies to the officer, not only forgives him, but gives Valjean the candlesticks. In that moment Jean Valjean is converted. The remainder of his life is a reflection of the grace and forgiveness he experienced from the priest. He spends the rest of his life extending that grace to others: he rescues a man who has been run over by a cart. He learns a man is to be sent to prison because they think he is Valjean. Valjean reveals his identity in court, allowing the innocent man to be released. Javert meanwhile continues his pursuit.
The climax of the book occurs when Valjean is assisting a rebellion and the rebels have captured Javert. They are about to put Javert to death. Jean Valjean comes to his old nemesis, the man who has pursued him for nineteen years, and he grants the man his life. He sets him free, again a reflection of the grace and forgiveness that has been granted to him.
What is interesting to note is the result this brings about in the man, Javert. Javert knows only black and white. He is a man of unbending rules and principles. Now something has happened that literally explodes his world! Grace has entered; forgiveness has been shown! The man who has every reason to hate him, the man who has no reason whatsoever to forgive him, the man who should not care for him …. DID. Jean Valjean forgave him and gave him his life. Javert cannot cope with that. Because he could not cope with grace, because he could not accept that forgiveness, he commits suicide by throwing himself into the torrent of the River Seine.
Two men are touched by grace and forgiveness. One becomes a reflection of the love and forgiveness that he has been shown and the other, unable to accept that forgiveness, ends his life in self-destruction. Each of us fits into one of those two categories. Each of us who has been touched by the love and forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ will either become a reflection of the forgiveness and love that we have known or will continue on a road to slow suicide as we refuse to forgive others as He has forgiven us.
Which one are you? Which one am I? Do we want to be healed if we fit into the latter category, or do we want to continue to nurse the hurt that we feel? Sometimes it feels so good to feel bad, doesn’t it? When someone has wronged us, when someone has spoken ill of us, when someone has hurt us, oh, we have the most wonderful time in the world having a little “self pity party.” We take that hurt and rub it all over ourselves because it feels so good! We don’t realize that we are hurting no one but ourselves.
Why does it feel good to feel bad? A couple in my church many years ago we will call the “Move-alongs.” The Move-alongs were members of the church when I came there as pastor. They had been members of that church once before. They then went to the Hill Church, which was just down the street. They had now come back to our church and were very discontented. They were miserable!
Once from the pulpit I made a faux pas in announcing that an event was to occur in their home when in actuality, it was not. I made a mistake! I apologized to them, I found the most unusual reaction. They would not accept that apology whatsoever, and the next Sunday we found them back in the Hill Church. I thought, “My gracious! What a drastic move over such a simple mistake.” Then I realized, “They were looking for a reason to do what they already wanted to do, and in my faux pas they found their excuse!
How often will we not forgive people because at least in our thinking it gives us a reason to do what we already wanted to do? We can continue to hate; we can continue to ignore. We are appalled when the Ayatollah Khomeini said to Salman Rushdie, “You have written a book that insults my religion. In the name of my god, I am putting a contract on your life!”
The source of our dismay could be the fact that when we refuse to forgive, that same kind of spirit is in our hearts. We may not take a gun to their heads or put a contract on their lives, yet that kind of spirit of unforgiveness, of cutting them off, is in our hearts as well. As far as we are concerned, they might as well be dead. We nurse that hurt because it allows us to do what we already want to do: to separate, to cut off, to hate, to ignore.
In the Lord’s Prayer and reiterated again at its conclusion, Jesus said that if we do not forgive others, God cannot and will not forgive us. Jesus also said in Matthew 18:15 that if someone has wronged us, it is our responsibility to take the initiative to go to them. Forgiveness is an action word. It is an initiatory word.
So the question is, do we want to forgive or do we want to continue to nurse our hurt, thereby giving us justification for doing what we already want to do? Let me ask a more practical question: “Are you willing to start on the road to forgiveness?” Forgiveness is a continuing process. Do you want to begin?
John Claypool tells the story of a sailor, a crusty old salt, who is dying. A young Catholic priest is sent to him to grant him final rites and absolution for his sins. The young priest, still wet behind the ears and green in his theology and approach to life, asked the old salt, “My friend, you are about to die and pass from this world into the next. Tell me, are you sorry for the life that you have lived?” The old man scratched his head and said, “To be honest with you, Father, I am not. I have enjoyed my life of wine and wild women. To be honest, I am not sorry; and I don’t want to leave this world with a lie upon my lips.”
The priest was taken back. He did not know how to respond. Finally he said, “Let me ask you this: Are you sorry that you are not sorry?” The old man’s eyes clouded, and he said, “Yes, Father, I can honestly say that. I am sorry that I am not sorry.”
Can you say that? Can you open the door that narrowly? Can you let that much light shine through, that much of an opportunity to begin to awaken itself? Can you say: I am sorry that I am not sorry? Can you say, “Father, forgive me for I cannot forgive.” At least that is a beginning, a start in the process along the road to forgiveness. Can you begin? Will you begin?
Possibly the greatest reason many of us find it difficult to forgive is that we have never accepted God’s forgiveness in our own lives! We have never felt fully cleansed as God wants to cleanse us. Paul said, “The spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). But we do not feel free. We have taken the position of Javert. Life is black and white with no gray, with unbending rules and principles that sin is punished and you reap what you sow. But when grace comes in and touches our lives, it is too good to be true! We cannot believe it! We cannot accept it because we not only want to continue to punish others, we want to continue punishing ourselves.
The wonderful good news of the gospel is not that you can be forgiven, not that you will be forgiven, but that you already are forgiven. By Christ’s death you already are forgiven. He is just waiting for you and me to accept His forgiveness. When we truly hear that word of mercy and accept His forgiveness in our lives, then we, too, can forgive.