Forgive Us As We Forgive Others
Due to a clerical error during WW2, Corrie Ten Boom was released from the Nazi Ravensbruck camp one week before all the women her age were killed in the prison. Corrie shared with whomever would listen the story of her family and what she and her sister Betsie suffered and learned in the concentration camp. Eventually, after the war was over, she opened a home for former prisoners to come and find healing. She traveled tirelessly throughout the world till the end of her life telling anyone who would listen the story of what she had learned. She shared one memorable incident that occurred a few years after the war.
"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. 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," this man said to me. "I was a guard there. But since that time, 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?"
No. the guard didn’t remember me. But I remembered what a cruel man he was. Of course, I realized I had to do it. I had to forgive him. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. And I stood there — I whose sins had every day to be forgiven — and could not do it. Betsie had died in that place — could he erase her slow terrible death now, simply by asking for forgiveness?
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there with his hand held out, but to me it seemed like hours as I wrestled with the most difficult decision I ever had to make. I knew I had to forgive him, and yet I couldn’t. 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. Yet, I knew that forgiveness is not an emotion; forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. I prayed silently, "Lord Jesus, help me! Help me to lift my hand and clutch his. I can do that much. Lord, You supply the feeling."
So woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out before me. And as I made the action, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. Then this healing warmth seemed to flood my entire being, bringing tears to my eyes.
"I forgive you, brother!" I cried. "I forgive you with all my heart!"
For a long moment we grasped each other's hands, the former vicious guard and the former suffering prisoner. I had never known God's love so intensely as I did then."
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Metropolitan Kallistos Ware explains the dilemma that Corrie Ten Boom wrestled with in forgiving others. He clarifies that in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” this does not mean God is unwilling to forgive us if we won’t forgive others. “But if, despite God's unfailing eagerness to forgive, we on our side harden our hearts and refuse forgiveness to others, then quite simply we render ourselves incapable of receiving divine forgiveness. Closing our hearts to others, we close them also to God; rejecting others, we reject Him. If we are unforgiving, then by our own act we place ourselves outside the interchange of healing love. God does not exclude us; it is we who exclude ourselves.
Our forgiveness of others, then, is not the cause of God's forgiveness towards us, but it is certainly the condition without which God's forgiveness cannot pass within us. Divine pardon is indeed a free gift that we can never earn. What concerns us here, however, is not merit but capacity. Our relation to God and our relation to our fellow humans are strictly interdependent. As St Silouan of Mount Athos affirmed, 'Our brother is our life.' This is true not in a sentimental but in an ontological sense. Love for God and love for neighbor are not two loves but one.”
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom cautions us in this way. “When we say “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, we take our salvation into our own hands.”
Here lies one of the most fundamental ways during Great Lent that we “take our salvation in our own hands” – by forgiving those who have hurt us, by releasing any bitterness that remains buried in our hearts and handing over our pains and sorrows and hardness of heart to our Lord.
Yet there are other ways we are called to “take our salvation in our own hands.” Great Lent is a time to live up to our Christian faith. That which we profess with our mouths on Sunday, we strive to live in our lives throughout the weeks ahead. Of course, we’re supposed to live our faith every day of our lives, yet we all realize how hard it is to stay motivated and focused on the kingdom of heaven. We all have our ups and downs, spiritual highs and dark valleys. That is why we need a special reason, a little “push,” an added incentive, to get us back on track in our spiritual journey. Great Lent provides that.
“We take our salvation in our hands” during this holy season when we consciously change our pace of life, pushing aside all our vane and superficial pursuits and focusing on what is essential and eternal during this Fast. Instead of giving our attention to what is urgent and demanding, we reflect on where our life is going, we struggle to reorient and direct our lives more towards our Creator and our God.
These past three weeks we heard very clear messages about “taking our salvation in our hands” through repentance like the Prodigal son, through humility like the Tax-Collector, and through the action we heard demanded us at the Last Judgment.
We also “take our salvation in our hands” over the next 40 day by fasting strictly, praying with more discipline, and giving alms generously to those in need.
There are many ways to “take our salvation in our hands” but the message today clearly states we can’t BEGIN this effort without forgiveness in our hearts. We must forgive the person who has hurt us; attempt to speak with the one with whom we haven’t spoken in ages; and reflect upon our own need for God’s mercy as we show similar mercy and compassion to others!
“When we say “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, we take our salvation into our own hands.”
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