“Forgiveness is letting the prisoner go free, only to know the prisoner is me” is an adage that could not be truer in Corrie ten Boom’s life. In her book, The Hiding Place, the Dutch Christian writer describes her experience in Amsterdam during World War II where she and her family hid Jews from the Nazis. One day, after an informant reported them, her family was seized and deported to the concentration camp. Corrie never saw her father again, and her sister died in the camps.
Years later, Corrie travelled throughout Europe speaking on the forgiveness of God until she experienced a moment that forever changed her spiritual life. After one talk, a man approached Corrie to thank her for her message on forgiveness. Corrie immediately recognized him as one of the guards from the concentration camp, and memories of the brutal camp came flooding in.
“Will you forgive me?” he said, extending his hand.
But Corrie’s arm stayed frozen, her blood draining … remembering, reliving.
She whispered in her heart, “Jesus, help me! I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
Immediately something like warm current began to flow in her shoulder, then down her arm, eventually ending into their joined hands.
“I forgive you, brother, with all of my heart,” Corrie reciprocated.
The prison doors were flung open.
What Forgiveness is Not
How can I forgive this? How do I forgive someone who’s not even sorry?
Who among us hasn’t been hurt, angered, or wounded? We wrestle in prayer, wanting to forgive but find ourselves licking old wounds again, frustrated with our failed attempts to truly forgive.
I believe we often resist forgiveness because we lack understanding of what it means. We equate “forgiving” with “forgetting” assuming we have to let our offender off the hook and forgo justice while we suffer. Other times, we confuse loving with liking considering forgiveness as complete only if we have “joined hands” in reconciliation. Such an inaccurate view on forgiveness can be very damaging.
Do I have a right to feel anger or hurt? Absolutely. The Catechism reminds us:
It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense. // CCC 2843
In other words, God doesn’t suggest we forgive and forget as a way of ignoring our broken hearts and allowing for gaping wounds to fester. It simply means He is leading us to something greater.
This higher calling demands our decision. Therefore, forgiveness is a decision—a decision that opens doors to our healing, to our own freedom.
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Rewrite the Script
A few years ago, a close friend’s betrayal left me hurt, embarrassed, and angry. Not only was I judged falsely, I was also slandered in the community. I held on to Jesus’ admonishment to forgive as we are forgiven, but found myself withholding love. Cynicism dressed like a security guard, protecting my pain. On some level, judging him made me feel safe. “I will forgive only when you are sorry.”
One evening, I was led to Matthew 5:23-24:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift…”
Oh I knew this verse so well, yet the reality of prison doors had never been more poignant.
The word “reconciled” in Greek means “commanded to go.” In other words, you initiate the action. I was suddenly seized with the inescapable painful realization—I was living under the tyranny of another’s sin. I was waiting for my offender to extend his hand, while I kept mine frozen. Like the unforgiving servant (see Matthew 18: 21-35), I was grasping at the collar of my offender, losing sight of my own debt. I was holding him imprisoned. I was holding myself imprisoned.
God Has to Do It
That week in all of my anger and brokenness, I cried out to God. As I vented my pain, I heard in my heart, “I need you to forgive so he and you can change.”
How contrary this was to my own script. God’s healing for both sides had begun. It had begun the moment I had desired to re-write the script, reverse the lies and choose love all over again.
As I stretched my hands heavenward, I felt it – the rush and rain of the Holy Spirit, cleansing my heart, shifting my perspective, loosening my grip. My heart was exposed but it was stretched, for more mercy, more healing. I could trust the unchangeable God to turn my great affliction into a game changer.
A week later, I met my offender. Though I desired reconciliation, he did not. But in that moment, I discovered something powerful. People can hurt us, but they can never take away our peace, freedom, and joy. Freedom isn’t conditional on them wanting our forgiveness, only in our willingness to live free.
I extended my hand, then an embrace, and walked home… free!
Ongoing Journey of Healing
It was not until that moment that I realized how insidious the roots of unforgiveness are, how they make the heart so impervious to God’s mercy (see CCC 2840), how they convince us that we can only be happy if our offender pays.
Forgiveness isn’t a destination; it’s a doorway to healing. This healing is an ongoing journey that may possibly end only in the grave. But for healing to be active, it requires both our intent and God’s power. As we ‘choose’ to forgive daily, we tear down illusions of hurt and heartlessness. We learn to crucify the flesh and its strongholds. We die to pride, selfishness, and all things that prevent us from seeing another human formed in God’s image. And we discover God’s Kingdom found in poverty, in meekness, and in the least likely places.
Are You Struggling to Forgive?
We can be so hard on ourselves when there is no closure. But don’t we deserve so much more than the pleasure we get out of our grievances? This irrational pleasure not only distracts us from God, it derails our witnessing. Henri Nouwen reminds us that we are “wounded healers” who need to heal our own wounds before we can witness to heal others.
My own ongoing healing consists of studying specific Scriptures on unforgiveness, frequenting the Sacrament of Reconciliation, learning from the Saints, and listening to people’s stories. If you have a spiritual director, talk over your grief with him/her. If you don’t have one, talk to a priest. I also recommend writing a letter to the one who hurt you, even if you don’t share it. Journaling can be therapeutic in so many ways.
Like Corrie, we must depend on the Holy Spirit for our healing. He alone can turn our “injury into compassion” and transform our “hurt into intercession” (see CCC 2843). It takes vulnerability to face our wounds. It requires humility to cry out like Corrie “Jesus, help me.”
Sister, God isn’t done writing your story. If you allow Him to, He can weave all your life’s injustices into greater good (see Romans 8:28). Remember what Jesus did for you will always be greater than what has been done to you. In His Resurrection, Christ retained the scars of His wounds so He can accompany your broken road, so He can release you to freedom, so He can bring you home.
I whisper a prayer as you make the choice to extend your hand.
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