“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
Corrie ten Boom describes the time she and her sister were digging trenches, watched by NAZI guards. Her sister Betsie, a petite woman, and frail from months of mistreatment in the Concentration Camp, could only shovel small spadesful of earth. One guard grabbed the small pile of earth she had just dug, and held it aloft, calling attention to it and laughing with his fellows. Corrie had had enough. She grabbed her shovel and began to charge the offending guard. The only thing that stopped her was the voice of her sister: “Don’t look at him, Corrie,” she said. “Look at Jesus only.”
But the story does not end there.
Years later Corrie was lecturing in Munich on the subject of forgiveness. Following the talk, a man approached her, remarking: “Yes, it is wonderful that Jesus forgives our sins, just as you say.”
Her heart went cold. It was the guard she remembered from the prison camp. Her hand froze, unwilling to take his hand in forgiveness. Horrified at her inability to forgive, Corrie prayed: “Lord, forgive me. I cannot forgive.” Immediately she confessed her weakness, her hand loosed, and she took his in a gesture of forgiveness. She forgave him, as she had been forgiven.
We see the faces of those who have inflicted pain on us. The pain of an abusive child hood, the emotional whelps from bigots who in their small-minded, anger-filled world make race a weapon. We walk away from the grave of a child, then learn that the drunk driver who killed her walked free. We see the faces of those who damaged our reputation by lying about us, by claiming to know our motives.
Injustice. It blisters. But what can we do about injustice? We can try to ignore it. We can sweep it under the rug. Forget about it. But the bump in the rug just keeps getting bigger and bigger until it trips us up.
Or we can retaliate. Punch back. Flash our headlights back at them. Throw a party and don’t invite them. Circulate gossip. Get her fired. Honk your horn. But retaliation doesn’t get us anywhere. “Eye-for-eye” just leaves everyone with swollen eyes. Each time we repay evil for evil, we’re just feeding coins to the Evil Machine, guaranteeing that it continues playing.
Or, of course, we can forgive (Matthew 5:38-42). When the Old Testament speaks of an “eye for an eye,” please note that this was punishment meted out by government, not revenge enacted by vigilantes bent on vengeance. Also note that this principle provided some protection, by limiting the amount of punishment that was carried out. They wouldn’t, for example, pay back “head for arm,” as the human tendency might prefer.
As Christians we are taught to respond to evil with love, match insult with blessing, offer smiles in exchange for scowls and forgiveness in exchange for bitterness.Can you imagine the restorative potential for rush-hour traffic, lines at the grocery store, feuding families, for racial walls, and congregational division?
Forgiveness is not easy. So how can I forgive?
- Step one: Remember that there is darkness in you, too. You have contributed to the brokenness of the world. You have been wrong. You need the grace and forgiveness of Christ, like everyone else. This is a call for humility!
- Step Two: Remember the Biblical basis for forgiveness. We do not forgive because it heals us, nor do we forgive because we’re so loving and magnanimous. We forgive because he forgave us first (Ephesians 4:32).
- Step Three: Forgiving does not require that one must forget what happened. “Forgive and forget” is a proverb not found in the Book of Proverbs! Now, it is one thing to constantly bring up the other person’s mistake. It’s quite another thing to expect the victim to wipe the pain out of his memory. The hard drives in our skulls don’t erase that easily!
- Step Four: Forgiveness does not require that we be foolish, and, for instance, require the wife of an adulterous husband to keep him at home and pretend that everything is all right.