His name was Karl. He was a 21-year-old German soldier who wanted to be forgiven by a Jew for the atrocities he committed against Jews during World War II.
As he lay dying in a dark, isolated, hospital room, he told his story to Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish inmate from a nearby concentration camp. Karl told Simon that in a Russian town several German soldiers were killed by booby-trapped doors. In retaliation for the German deaths, Karl’s commander had his unit place several cans of gasoline in a small three-story house. They then herded approximately 200 Jewish men, women, and children into the house and set it on fire. One Jewish family, a mother, a father, and their small child, tried to jump to safety but the soldiers shot them as they fell to the ground.
Several weeks after this incident, Karl’s unit advanced farther into Russia. One day as Karl charged out of a trench during a battle, he froze because he saw the Jewish family that jumped out of the burning house coming toward him. As he stood there motionless and afraid, a shell blew up beside him, severely wounding him. Karl’s physical pain was excruciating, but his conscience produced an even greater pain. It constantly reminded him of those innocent Jews he killed. Wanting to die in peace, Karl asked Simon to forgive him on their behalf.
Simon believed that Karl was truly repentant. As he looked at this helpless young man with the blood of innocent people seared into his conscience, Simon asked himself what he should do. When Simon made his decision, he stood up, looked at Karl, and left the room without saying a word. Simon recorded this incident in his book, The Sunflower. He ended his story with these words: “You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can you mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, ‘What would I have done?'”
Indeed, what would you or I have done? Would we be capable of forgiving an atrocity of this magnitude? The sad thing is, we will never know how we will respond until we find ourselves in such a situation.
Today we are so easily offended. Political correctness is the hot topic of our modern-day society. Not even a derogatory word can be uttered without the most horrendous offense being taken. I remember the old saying from when I was in school, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Not so in the world we live in today. We are so easily offended that it boggles the mind. We have our rights, we have our dignity, we have our pride, and let no one dare trample on us. Might it be that our society, and we as individuals, have come to think too highly of ourselves?
Simon had every right to walk out of that room. What Karl had done was horrendous; here was a man who had contributed to killing some 200 defenseless human beings—in a very brutal and inhumane way. Some of those 200 victims might have been friends or even relatives of Simon’s. At the very least they had cultural and religious ties. Here too was a man whom Simon believed was truly sorry for his actions. Yet that repentance seemingly wasn’t enough to warrant forgiveness. Why couldn’t Simon find it in his heart to forgive? Are there some acts that are truly unforgivable? I think we all know the answer to that question. Even as Christ was hanging on the cross dying a slow, agonizing death, he prayed “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” A murder was about to happen and yet our Savior was able to unilaterally forgive His tormentors and those that nailed Him to that cross—including the soldier that would pierce his side. At that moment in time not one of them was repentant, not one was sorry for what they were doing or had done to an innocent man. But how often have you heard someone say, or perhaps you have said it yourself—I will never forgive that person for what they did, or what they said.
There are times when we feel justified not forgiving someone else when we know that we should, but that is what Christ calls us to do—to forgive. Some use Luke 17:1–4 to justify a lack of forgiveness.
“Then He said to the disciples, It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him” (Luke 17:1–4, NKJV).
Many who would use verses 3 and 4 as justification for not forgiving until the offender has repented, fail to realize that the word sins is translated in the Authorized Version as trespasses. A trespass is not necessarily a sin in God’s eyes. A trespass can be rendered an offense. I can offend you by telling you the truth and not commit a sin. So is unforgiveness justified if I tell you the truth? I think Jesus’ point in verse 4 is not that forgiveness of a brother is predicated on repentance, but that forgiveness is absolutely mandatory if repentance is expressed.
Forgiveness is an elusive thing, we tend to think if we forgive then that person gets off scot-free. That’s not necessarily true; if we turn it over to God, He can handle it. We ought to have enough faith to know that God will fight any and all of our battles and will defend His own. Once we turn it over to God and let him deal with that person or situation on our behalf it is no longer our responsibility, but God’s. We have taken ourselves out of the equation as did Christ. He allowed His Father to judge and we also should allow that same Father to handle our situation in our stead.
We have come to expect repentance as a precondition of forgiveness. All the while, we desperately hold on to the offense until a sincere apology is offered. But what if repentance or an apology never comes?
Many years ago I suffered what I thought was a grievous offense. To this day twenty-seven years later no apology has been offered. It was serious, it threatened my very livelihood. My pride and my job were at stake. When I say it occupied nearly every waking hour, I am not exaggerating. I ran the scenario over and over again in my mind. Each time I felt more insulted, more offended, and more depressed. This went on for months and months approaching a year or more. I would tell the woeful story to anyone who would listen, seeking vindication for the offense and pain I felt. Finally one day after unloading on a gentleman I hardly knew, my wife turned to me and said, “Do you realize what you are doing?” “Why, what am I doing?” was my response. As my wife proceeded to explain my behavior, suddenly I realized how consumed my life had become by this incident.
I hadn’t realized how much this incident had overtaken me and was literally eating away my life. Like a cancer it had grown uncontrollably, it was sucking the very life out of me. All joy was gone; the anger and emotional pain were ever-present. Subconsciously, I dwelled on it not only during the day, but I often dreamed about it at night as well. Unforgiveness can consume your life and the lives of those around you. So is it better to wait for repentance and an apology before you forgive another person? Or, is it better to forgive that person, turn the entire matter over to God, and allow Him to deal with the situation and the problem? Then you walk free—free from the yoke of bondage, free from the offense, and free of the burden of owning the offense.
“Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:21–22, NKJV).
How many sins or trespasses would you be willing to forgive? If a person offended you time after time, again and again, and each offense was worse than the last until you had a mountain of offense—how would you respond? When is enough, enough? Peter wanted to know, is seven times enough? The rabbis said that seven times was enough. They must have thought that after seven times the offender was beyond redemption or insincere in his repentance. So Peter thought he was being generous with his forgiveness by offering it seven times. Jesus, however, set Peter straight with seventy times seven—a whole lot more than seven. Jesus’ point was that there should be no limit; there is never a point of too much or enough forgiveness. “To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either” (Luke 6:29). And, “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” (Matt. 6:14–15, NKJV).
We are to live lives of mercy; we are to forgive even when it is to our own hurt and detriment. Our lives are not to be based on anger and vindictive acts. Our lives are to reflect our Father and our Elder Brother’s attitudes of love and mercy, even toward those who would do us harm. We are to reflect the mercy shown to us—how many times should our Father forgive you and me? What kind of measure do you want to be judged by? Is seven too many? Or is seventy times seven not enough? How many times shall Christ forgive each one of us?
It is often said that one should forgive and forget. While we should and can forgive; it is not always easy to forget. The scars of offense will remain for a very long time. We cannot always forget, and the scars will of necessity be borne for eternity. But scars do heal and fade with time. Scars will not be a stranger in the Kingdom of God. Scars inevitability will be a common trait of those who live there. “And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Rev. 5:6, NKJV).
Jesus Christ will inevitably bear the scars of His humiliation and crucifixion in the Kingdom of God. We too might well bear our scars, both physical and emotional, as living sacrifices alongside our Savior. Our scars might well be a visible declaration and testimony of our love, our mercy, and our forgiveness.
“It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, a former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there—the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face. He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.” He said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!” His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I prayed, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness. As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself” (The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom).
Corrie ten Boom lost all her family except her father in the holocaust. She herself barely survived in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Two very similar lives—Simon’s and Corrie’s. Two lives that survived one of the darkest periods of human history. Two lives that emerged very differently. Simon Wiesenthal emerged from WWII to hunt down and take vengeance on Nazi war criminals. Corrie ten Boom emerged from the same hellish pit to preach forgiveness and healing. Will we hunt down and prosecute those who have offended us? Or will we forgive and offer healing to those who have caused offense? How will your spirit emerge from this moment of your life?
“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:27-38, NKJV).
Christ told us in Matthew 9:13 that He desires mercy and not sacrifice. Is there truly an unforgivable offense? The only one I know is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. All other offenses and sins are forgivable. Forgiveness may not always be easy but it is as they say, the right thing to do. It is what we must do if we wish to call ourselves Christians. It is what our Savior has done for you and me—can we do any less? Then we will be able to say as did our Savior in Zechariah 13:6, “And one will say to him, ‘What are these wounds between your arms?’ Then he will answer, ‘Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends’” (NKJV).
Will we follow our Master’s simple request—to forgive?