When my wife, Julie, and I were living in Morocco, we were required to leave the country every three months to renew our tourist visas while waiting for our official resident cards to be processed. With Ryanair we were able to fly anywhere in Southern Europe for typically less than 70 euros roundtrip. For one of these trips we went to Marseille, France, a large port city on the Mediterranean Sea.
We explored a beautiful national park and a nearby fishing village, ate some fantastic pastries, and took a boat trip to some of the islands off the cost of Marseille. The name of our boat was the Edmond Dantes, named after the protagonist in the 1844 Dumas volume The Count of Monte Cristo. According to the book, Dantes was framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and he was sent to an island fortress, the Château d’If. Here a fellow prisoner, a former priest, gives him a treasure map that, after Edmond escapes prison, will lead him to a fortune. The treasure was carefully hidden, its whereabouts known to only one person. Finding it would change the life of Edmond Dantes forever.
I, too, experienced my own prison escape, but from a spiritual prison cell that many of us are all too familiar with. It began in college, after I gave my heart to Jesus and joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Following my conversion experience I enrolled at Southern Adventist University and decided to participate in their student mission program. My calling took me to the jungles of Nicaragua.
I’ll never forget the day I was sitting in a hammock stung up on the porch of my little hut during a rainstorm. I was reading in the Gospel of Matthew when I came across the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:8-15 (NKJV):
“Your kingdom come. Your will be done.” Yes, Lord!
“On earth as it is in heaven.” Yes!
“Give us this day our daily bread.” Yes, please!
“And forgive us our debts.” Absolutely!
“As we forgive our debtors.” OK, sure.
“And do not lead us into temptation.” Yes again.
“But deliver us from the evil one.” For sure.
But then Jesus did something unexpected. He expounded on one part—and one part only—of His model prayer.
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Jesus could have expounded upon any of the points in the Lord’s Prayer, but He chose one. He singled out only one part, the part about extending forgiveness. When I first read it, I thought, I’m a pretty forgiving person. I don’t hold a grudge.
But then it dawned on me. There was something from my past that I was holding on to; and in some respects, it was holding on to me too.
It’s harder to forgive when we’ve been hurt. And in my experience the difficulty of extending forgiveness is proportionate to the pain the event caused in our life.
For a moment I was no longer in the middle of the jungle stuck in a rainstorm. I was instantly in the head and heart of that scared and wounded little boy from my youth.
About 14 years before, a seemingly innocent sleepover turned into the worst memory of my childhood. I can only speculate as to what influenced the actions of that night, but by the next morning I would know what it meant to be molested. I had never known such a sickening and dirty feeling before. I was ashamed of what had happened, too ashamed to tell anyone about it.
Those feelings of sickness and shame slowly turned into frustration, anger, and complete hatred for the two “friends” of mine who molested me. And as the years went by, they both eventually moved away with their families, and the memory slowly began to collect dust.
That is, until Jesus said I needed to forgive them.
Forgive them? How can I do that? Jesus, don’t You know what happened to me? After all, they’ve never asked for forgiveness. And I hope they’re eternally punished for what they did.”
But Jesus pressed in. I realized that I was holding on to this. Then it hit me: this bitterness, resentment, and hatred were doing nothing good for me.
In that rainstorm I looked to Jesus, and He pointed to the cross. I saw Jesus, dying, for my sin. Paying the price for all the wrongs that I had committed. It never occurred to me that I could ask Him to take the pain caused by the sins committed against me as well.
“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted” (Isa. 53:4, NIV).
Jesus didn’t die only for the sins I committed, but for the sins that were committed against me. Sin committed against us manifests itself as pain in our lives.
As a recent convert, I was eager to allow Jesus to take away the guilt of my sin, yet I found myself holding on to this pain and “justified” anger with a death grip.
I asked myself, “Why was I holding on to this?”
I had carried this wound around with me for 14 years. It was my right to be angry, wasn’t it? “They don’t deserve forgiveness—right?”
I learned that forgiveness does not mean justice. These are two separate things. Some wrongs committed against us will never be righted on this earth. Abusers will sometimes evade justice. Yet that doesn’t mean that I need to carry that weight around with me the rest of my life.
I realized that if I didn’t forgive those two guys, then they still had power over me. And I was tired of being the victim; I was ready to allow Jesus to give me victory.
But how could I forgive them? How would I do that? Call them up? I was in the jungle of Nicaragua. I couldn’t even call my parents!
Here’s the key. Forgiveness doesn’t begin with your voice; rather, it starts in the heart. I can say all I want, but until it has happened in my heart, my words mean nothing.
Forgiveness is a decision to grow. When we allow Jesus to take that pain from us and to allow forgiveness to flow through us, then we can be freed from the power of our pain.
So there I was back in my hammock, on the porch of my hut, in a rainstorm. I asked Jesus to forgive these individuals through me, and for the first time in my life I experienced peace regarding this event. A weight slid off me that I didn’t even know was there. I was free!
Even though it’s important to know what forgiveness is, it’s also vital to understand what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean we have to enter back into a relationship, especially if it was abusive or manipulative. Forgiveness, however, always precedes true reconciliation.
Forgiveness is not a feeling. Some pains are so deep that it is truly an act of God to free you from them. If we base forgiveness on our feelings, the most painful things will continue to rule over us.
Forgiveness is not justice. When we choose to forgive, that doesn’t mean the wrong has been righted. Sometimes justice will never take place this side of heaven.
Forgiveness does not mean covering up abuse. If an abuser says, “Please forgive me, and please don’t tell anyone. I’ll lose my job,” or something similar, you can still forgive while at the same time hold someone accountable for their actions. Make sure you have some trusted people to walk with you through this process.
Forgiveness is not weakness; it is strength. When someone has not and probably will not ask for forgiveness, extending it anyway is a sign of great strength.
One of the most telling stories of forgiveness comes from Corrie ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place, where she recounts her experiences during World War II in Holland and Germany.
During the German occupation, Corrie’s family worked with the Resistance by hiding Jews and others in their home. They had an architect build a secret room, “the hiding place,” which could hold up to six people. Eventually, the police raided the Ten Boom family residence and arrested the family and all those in the house for working with the Resistance, yet the six individuals in the hiding place were never found.
The next 10 months of Corrie’s life would prove to be the most trying and heart-wrenching experience she would ever face. Shortly after being arrested, her father died in prison. Corrie was in solitary confinement for three months. Later, Corrie and her sister, Betsie, were moved to another prison, and then finally transferred to Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. On December 16, 1944, Betsie died there. Corrie’s world had turned into a nightmare. And yet Betsie’s words rang clear in Corrie’s mind: “There is no pit so deep that He [God] is not deeper still.”
Twelve days after Betsie died Corrie was released from Ravensbrück, and she set off to find whatever remained of her home.
While in Ravensbrück, Corrie and Betsie would often dream and talk about life after the war. The dream that Corrie set off to build in Holland was a rehabilitation center for concentration camp survivors.
The rehab work taught Corrie some remarkable lessons on forgiveness, and she once said, referring to forgiving those who have caused harm:
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.
For Corrie, however, the lesson would change from theory to experience on a preaching trip to postwar Germany in 1946. She knew that God’s forgiveness needed to be shared with the Germans, so she preached her heart out, letting her audience know how God throws our sins into the depth of the sea when He forgives us.
It was at the end of the sermon, as the audience silently walked out the door, that she saw him. It was the familiar face of a guard from Ravensbrück. Instantly the emotions and memories of that place vividly returned to her. The former guard approached Corrie and thanked her for her sermon and that he was grateful to hear how God throws our sins into the depth of the sea. He went on to tell her that he was a guard in Ravensbrück. What happened next was completely unexpected. The former guard held out his hand and asked her for forgiveness.
This is what she recounts in her book, The Hiding Place:
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.
Jesus wants to give each one of us independence from the pain and prison of bitterness. He came to break the chains in our lives, and those chains include the weight of what sin has done to us.
By asking Jesus to forgive through us, we empower Him to bring about healing and freedom in our lives. These are not burdens we were designed to carry. Let’s give them to Jesus, for He wants to carry them for us.
“He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and broke their chains in pieces” (Ps. 107:14, NKJV).
The painful stories recounted here will cause some readers to recall and revisit their own experiences of victimization and abuse. Many who struggle with the memories of what has been done to them will need professional support to discover the healing and restoration of which the author writes. If you find yourself in need of a counselor, consult Christian and professional counseling centers in your area, or ask for a referral from your pastor.--Editors
1 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
3 Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Chosen Books, 1971, 1984, 2006), 35th edition.