In 1947, Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch survivor of the Nazi concentration camp in Ravensbrück, Germany, gave a talk at a church in Munich about forgiveness and mercy.
After she spoke, a former prison guard from the camp came up to her, extended his hand, and asked her to forgive him. He didn’t remember her, but she remembered him vividly, along with all the cruelties he had visited upon her and her fellow prisoners.
“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out,” ten Boom later recalled. “But to me, it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. 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.”
She went on: “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.”
We Must Not Think Evil of Him. On October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV walked into an Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania and shot ten young schoolgirls, killing five of them.
Speaking the same day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the girls who had died told other relatives, “We must not think evil of this man.” Another member of the community visited the shooter’s family that day to comfort them and offer forgiveness. Dozens more attended his funeral and offered to give financial support to his widow.
One member of the community later said, “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss, . . . but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.”
A Brother Whom I Have Pardoned. On May 13, 1981, as he was standing in an open car moving slowly through the crowds of St. Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul II was shot four times by Mehmet Ali Agca. He was pierced by two bullets and required nearly six hours of surgery and six pints of blood before doctors could say with any confidence that he would recover.
In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, the pope told his attendants that he had forgiven whoever his assailant was. Four days later, he made that forgiveness public through a spokesperson. And then, two years later, he took the bold step of meeting Agca in his prison cell.
“I spoke as to a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust,” he told reporters after spending twenty minutes speaking quietly with the man. John Paul was also influential in having Agca pardoned by the Italian government and deported to Turkey in 2000—during a Jubilee Year similar to this year’s Jubilee of Mercy.
Can I Forgive? Our personal stories may not be as dramatic as these, but we all face the question “Am I willing to forgive the people who hurt me?” Pope Francis has called us to have mercy on those who have hurt us during this Year of Mercy. So let’s look at our relationships. Let’s take advantage of the grace available to us during the season of Lent and try to become as merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful (Luke 6:36).
Writing to the believers in Ephesus, St. Paul said, “Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ. . . . Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma” (Ephesians 4:32–5:2).
This can sound like nothing more than encouraging words, but this passage contains a number of grace-filled truths that can help us become more forgiving. Let’s take a look at them.
First: God Loves Us. “Live in love, as Christ loved us.” (Ephesians 5:2) We can see God’s love for us in the majesty and beauty of the created world. The fact that God went to such intricate detail in designing our common home tells us how much he loves us. The same goes for the way our own bodies work. So many things happen on the microscopic level, and they all happen with such unity and precision—all without our having to do anything about it!
As amazing as these signs of God’s love are, Paul is speaking about an even more tender, personal love. He’s speaking about the love that the Father has for his children. He’s speaking about a love that redeems and reconciles.
Your heavenly Father loves you very much. In fact, he loves everyone with the same intensity—even the ones who have hurt you. That’s why Paul asks us to “live in love” (Ephesians 5:2). That’s how we will find the strength to forgive and not be bound by resentment or unforgiveness. So try your best this Lent to open your heart to God’s tender and personal love.
Second: Jesus Died for Us. Jesus “handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God.” (Ephesians 5:2) Earlier in his letter, Paul wrote that before Jesus came, we were all “dead” in our “transgressions and sins” (2:1). We were all opposed to God and in dire need of salvation.
And salvation is exactly what God gave us. He sent his Son, Jesus, to give up his life so that we could live. On the cross, Jesus died for our sins. “Our old self was crucified with him, so that . . . we might no longer be in slavery to sin” (Romans 6:6). It can be hard to grasp, but Jesus’ cross has opened heaven’s gates and made it possible for us to know God’s love deeply and personally. It’s his sacrifice that helps us become more loving, merciful, and compassionate.
Whenever you face a difficult situation or some injustice, try to fix your eyes on the cross. See Jesus, who suffered the greatest injustice of all, saying, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). See him saying that for you as well: “Father, forgive!” It’s always a little bit easier to forgive when we know that we have been forgiven.
Third: A “Fragrant Aroma.” Jesus’ death was a “sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.” (Ephesians 5:2) We all know how sweet it feels when someone goes out of the way to be kind or generous toward us. That’s how God saw Jesus’ sacrifice—as a “fragrant aroma” that brought him great joy.
According to St. Paul, we can be the pleasing “aroma of Christ” to God (2 Corinthians 2:15). This happens every time we follow his commands—especially when we have to put aside our own wants and desires or sacrifice something in the process. Nowhere is this fragrant aroma more pleasing to God than when we make the decision to forgive.
So when God asks you to forgive someone, let the love of God and the sacrifice of Jesus soften your heart and tell you that your heart of mercy is a fragrant aroma that will warm the very heart of God.
A New Mind-Set. Take a moment now, and read Jesus’ parable about an unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35). Let the message sink into your heart. The servant in this story could not grasp the truths that Paul spelled out for the Ephesians. Of course, the servant was thrilled when the king set aside his large debt. But the king’s generosity didn’t affect him deeply enough to make him just as merciful. So he lived a double standard, unwilling to treat other people the way that he had been treated.
We face the same challenge when someone hurts us—the same challenge that Corrie ten Boom, the Amish community, and Pope John Paul II faced. Will I respond with kindness, compassion, and forgiveness? Will I let this become a way of life for me? This is the kind of mindset Paul wanted the Ephesians to adopt, and it’s the same mind-set that God wants for us.
Pray for Breakthroughs. Lent is a time to step back and slow down a bit. It’s a time to seek the Lord and experience his mercy and love. It’s also a time to reflect on how we are living and make any adjustments we think are necessary. To help you out, we’d like to suggest three questions you can contemplate.
—Starting today, how can I be more compassionate and merciful?
—Is there someone in my life whom I need to forgive this Lent?
—Is there someone in my life whom I need to approach and ask for forgiveness?
Let’s pray for breakthroughs in our relationships this season. Let’s ask Jesus to break down the dividing walls that separate us so that we can be more merciful, even as he is merciful. May every one of our relationships—the good, the bad, and the struggling—be touched by God’s mercy this Lent!