Who was the most recent person to malign you? Make you look bad (or stupid)? Denigrate you (to your face, or behind your back)? Take advantage of you? Even rip you off?
For some of us, a name and a face comes quickly to mind. Why, just the other day, So-and-so did such-and-such…. Our teeth begin to grind at the memory of how we were slighted or mistreated.
Others of us draw a blank at trying to think of an offense. My wife has said to me on occasion, “You have a good ‘forgetter’! Stuff happens to you, and you don’t seem to retain it.”
I wonder why this disparity of reaction.
I don’t think it’s because some of us are more saintly than others. We all have heard the ancient saying “A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11). We all agree with its truth. But putting it into action is tough for some, easier for others.
My theory is that it hinges upon our view of society in general. Here’s what I mean:
If you think the world is basically a decent place, populated by mostly fair-minded, honest, thoughtful, good-hearted people … then you have set yourself up for frequent disappointment. Every time you run into someone who is vindictive, judgmental, unethical, or just plain nasty, you’re going to be irritated. They didn’t do right by me! They’re not supposed to act and talk like that! You will end up carrying lots of hurts and grudges.
If, on the other hand, you think the world is basically selfish, conniving, and cutthroat (including even a fair number of professing Christians), then you’re more likely to take things in stride. Stuff happens to you, and yeah, that’s pretty much to be expected. The offenses and slights of life are par for the course. This is a planet that has been damaged by “the Bent One,” to use C. S. Lewis’s term. Folks don’t automatically act and speak the way they should, the way that lends harmony to relationships.
Starting from this more pessimistic viewpoint, you set yourself up to be pleasantly surprised sometimes when you do get a fair shake, a kind word, a gentle reaction from another person. Having expected little, you can celebrate the exception.
And meanwhile, you can go through life giving other people surprises. You can take them off guard with unexpected thank-yous and ordinary-day compliments. It will help them get through the next hatchet chop that almost surely awaits them not far down their path.
Doing this comes as a result of something deeper that was done to favor us. You’ve probably already heard the poignant story of World War II survivor Corrie ten Boom’s awkward moment a few years after her release from the concentration camp where her beloved sister had already died. As she wrote many years later (1972) in Guideposts magazine:
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!
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 Ravensbrück 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 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. Fräulein,”—again, the hand came out—“will you forgive me?”
And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be 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.
The next time you run into your persecutor, the one who offended you so deeply … will you avoid, or will you engage?
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