What does it mean “to forgive?” It is obvious that humans find it hard to understand what forgiveness is all about. There is not much forgiveness being shown in today’s world, so there are not many examples from which to learn. In addition some of the definitions of “forgive” are misleading or totally inadequate. My dictionary of almost 3000 large pages of small print came up with this definition, to stop feeling angry with somebody who has done something to harm, annoy or upset you; to stop feeling angry with yourself /forgive somebody/yourself (for something/for doing something). The problem with such a definition is that it confuses the end-result with the process. The result of forgiving should be the lessening and ceasing of anger. However the definition gives no description of the process involved in forgiving another person in such a way that there is a lessening or ceasing of anger. It is inadequate to tell someone who knows they need to forgive another person, “Stop feeling angry with them!” They need help to find the process to follow.
An example of true forgiveness
One of the most moving accounts I have ever read of forgiveness in action featured an incident in the life of Corrie Ten Boom recorded in her book, “The Hiding Place”. She was a young woman in Holland who had helped many Dutch Jews escape from the Nazis. But her family was betrayed by one of their countrymen, and she was sent with her sister to a concentration camp, where her sister died.
She wrote that after the war, in 1947, she was speaking in Germany with the message that God’s forgiveness is total. After one of the meetings, a man came forward to thank her for her message. He didn’t recognise her, but she recognised him as one of the cruellest guards at her concentration camp. He was a man partly responsible for her sister’s death. Now he stood before her, not recognising her, and wanting to shake her hand. He told her that he had been a guard at the concentration camp she had mentioned, but now he was a Christian, and had felt a need to ask her to forgive him. She tells how for seconds, she froze and could not take his hand. She knew she had to, and prayed an arrow prayer that Jesus would help her to extend her hand to take his as a token of her forgiveness for him.
She describes what happened, “an incredible thing happened. A 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. But even so, I realised that it was not my love. I had tried but did not have the power. It was the power of the Holy Spirit as recorded in Romans 5:5, “because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, given to us.”
A Process of Forgiveness
It’s a very moving account of what one woman went through as she tried to put her faith into action. It describes part of the process of forgiveness. She was faced with a choice, to forgive or not to forgive. She chose to forgive the man and to treat him as a brother in Christ. As she acted on her choice, the emotional release followed. The process beginning with the choice to forgive, resulted in the cessation of her anger. We will see in what follows that the first part of forgiving someone is choosing to do so.
The freedom of being forgiven
One of the most exciting things in ministry is seeing people being freed of guilt from the things of the past or the present. They become almost new people with a sense of purpose in life and a real optimism about the future. Once they may have been very fearful or even emotionally paralysed because of the degree of guilt they felt. However when they asked for and experienced true forgiveness from God they began to live with a freedom they could never have envisaged. Such was the experience of John Newton of “Amazing Grace” fame. His first verse shows his emphasis on the grace of God, that He was willing to “save” him from his wretched life.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me….
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.
When did that experience begin for John Newtown? He tells us in the next verse,
How precious did that Grace appear…
the hour I first believed.
It was when he put his trust in God that he came to understand the magnitude of his sin and the immensity of the grace and mercy of God in forgiving “a wretch” like him, as he put it.
The freedom of being forgiving
It is also exciting to see some who have experienced the freedom of forgiveness from God, go on from there to learn to forgive others who hurt them. It is very disturbing to discover how humans treat each other and to realise the degree of hurt and pain they can inflict on each other. However to see someone forgive a person who brought them great personal pain in the past, is a witness to the grace of God. By His grace they were enabled to receive His forgiveness. By experiencing His grace in being forgiven, they were motivated and empowered to forgive those who hurt them.
In coming articles we will explore the meaning of forgiveness and how we can receive and experience it for ourselves. We will also look at what is involved in really forgiving other people, and as a result knowing the freedom it brings to those bound up in their unforgiveness.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER (Added in May 2016)
1). What does it mean to forgive someone? What do you think is involved in doing so?
2). Does the example of Corrie Ten Boom in our story encourage you towards forgiving someone or does it discourage you because you feel it is not possible for you? Why do you feel that way?
3). Do you think you have to feel forgiving towards someone before you can forgive them? Why do you think that?
4). Someone has said, “Only forgiven people can forgive.” Do you think that is a true statement? Give a reason for your answer.
5). What part of John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” above really appeals to you? Why?
Jim Holbeck. Blog No.3. Posted on Tuesday 08 February 2011 (Revisited May 2016)