Friday, October 25, 2013


This evening, as I sat down to reflect on the Scripture for the day, these were the words that greeted me:

I know of nothing good living in me - living, that is, in my unspiritual self - for though the will to do what is good is in me, the performance is not, with the result that instead of doing the good things I want to do, I carry out the sinful things I do not want. When I act against my will, then, it is not my true self doing it, but sin which lives in me.

In fact, this seems to be the rule, that every single time I want to do good it is something evil that comes to hand. In my inmost self I dearly love God's Law, but I can see that my body follows a different law that battles against the law which my reason dictates. This is what makes me a prisoner of that law of sin which lives inside my body.

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body doomed to death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7: 18-25)

I suspect that most of us can relate to this passage. We want to do good. We plan to do what is right but often find ourselves not carrying out these intentions nearly so well as we had hoped. It is rather consoling that St. Paul wrote this about himself. If one of the greatest of the apostles felt this way, perhaps there is hope for someone like me. 

What I am about to write next, however, is much harder for most of us to relate to.

Many years ago, a man I knew mailed these very words to me, painstakingly copied in his own hand. He was writing to me from prison - where he was incarcerated for molesting little girls. 

The crime of which he was accused and convicted is considered among the most heinous in our society. To prey upon the innocence of children seems unforgivable to most of us and many of us might label such a man "a monster". 

Yet here he was writing words that any one of us might have written, "instead of doing the good things I want to do, I carry out the sinful things I do not want." And I believe that he meant those words quite sincerely.

For him to copy this passage from the Bible was a great deal more work than it would have been for most of us. He was unable to read and write. He had to look at every letter of every word, one by one, and copy its shape. I suspect it took him hours.

The tragic childhoods he most likely contributed to only reflected the one he himself had lived. He was an abused child in an adult body, a severely damaged human being who could not be permitted to live freely in society.

And yet he was a person, created in the image and likeness of God. It was not his desire to hurt children nor was it his desire to offend God. And yet undoubtedly his behavior did both.

Can God's forgiveness be granted even to someone like this? Should God's forgiveness extend to a person who does such things? If I were one of his victims, could I forgive him?

These questions drive us deep into the heart of great mystery. The mystery of  forgiveness, what it is, what it means. The mystery of God's love for his broken people. The mystery of Jesus' teaching that, in our prayers, we should ask to be forgiven as we forgive others...

On a human level, forgiveness is often defined as a cessation of anger or resentment toward another. In psychological terms, it is often regarded as a process - but also a conscious decision. If I want to hold onto my anger, most assuredly I will not let it go. If I want to renounce it, I begin the process.

It also interesting to note that, on that same human level, there is research evidence that people who forgive tend to be happier and physically healthier. (And this research was done with people who had some pretty big things to forgive, such as murder of family members in political violence.)

And yet, forgiving is so hard for us to do.

It may not be quite as hard for me to forgive the people I love. It may not be so hard to forgive offenses that I could imagine myself doing in a moment of weakness...But what about those other ones? The acts so horrible that I could never, ever imagine doing that to another human being...

And this is where the forgiveness of God enters in. Not just that God forgives me - but that, if I accept that forgiveness, truly embrace it, I become empowered to forgive on a level transcending my own very limited goodness.

It is here, in this place, that we truly meet God and begin to understand.

I myself have never faced a challenge anywhere close to this and therefore it would seem false for me to try to explain. But I can share with you someone who has.

Corrie ten Boom and her sister, Betsie, were imprisoned during World War II at the Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women. Their crime? Concealing Jews in their home in Holland. Betsie died in the camp. Corrie survived - and went on to preach to people around the world about God's forgiveness.

In the short video that follows, she tells of a meeting of a man following one of her talks in Germany. Listen with me:

(Excerpt from Corrie ten Boom's autobiography, The Hiding Place):

It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavy-set 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. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. ...

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. ...

"You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk," he was saying. "I was a guard in there." No, he did not remember me. "But since that time," he went on, "I have become a Christian. 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. Fraulein, ..." his hand came out, ... "will you forgive me?"

And I stood there — I whose sins had every day to be forgiven — and could not. 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." ...

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. "Jesus, help me!" 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.