She spent the last thirty-three years of her life speaking a healing message of forgiveness. Having survived imprisonment in a German concentration camp she returned to Germany with a message of God's eternal love. At a church in Munich a balding, heavyset man approached her. She recognized him as one of the camp guards; and remembered how she and her emaciated sister had to walk past him, unclothed, during camp inspections.
The Nazi guard -- now a professing Christian -- reached out his hand and asked to be forgiven.
The woman put her hand in her pocket. The nightmarish horror of her imprisonment flooded her memory. Her father had died ten days after the family had been taken into custody by the Gestapo. (He once said that it would be an honor to give his life for God’s ancient people.) Her sister Betsie died in 1944 -- only months before the Soviet army liberated the camp. Tens of thousands of precious souls perished due to maltreatment or execution.
Again, the former camp guard reached out his hand and asked to be forgiven.
The woman recalled that her blood froze. Since the war she had traveled the world preaching a message of God's love and the need to forgive, but she couldn't find the strength to forgive this man.
Her story began in May 1940 when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Her father Casper was a watchmaker; and the family was active in the Dutch Reformed Church. Two years after the occupation a Jewish woman came to the family seeking refuge. Casper, who was devoutly religious, told the woman, "In this household, God's people are always welcome." Thus began the family's involvement in the Dutch Underground. They sheltered -- at any given time -- up to six Jews, or Dutch Resistance fighters behind a false wall in an upstairs' bedroom. During the war the family saved over 800 Jews, or members of the Underground.
The SS never discovered the hiding place, but the family was detained based on a tip from a Dutch informant.
Casper's two daughters were deported to the infamous Ravensbrück Concentration Camp near Berlin. Thousands of prisoners were gassed in the camp's crematorium. Selection lists were compiled by the camp administration designating which prisoners were to be euthanized.
These horrifying memories were fresh in the woman's mind as the former camp guard, again, reached out his hand:
A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea! You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk. I was a guard there. But since that time I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well, Fräulein.
Again, reaching out his hand, the man asked:
Will you forgive me?
The woman recalled:
I stood there -- I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven -- and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place -- could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? It could not have been many seconds that he stood there -- hand held out -- but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
What does forgiveness look like? Is it an emotion, or an act?
After the war the woman returned to Holland and opened a home for those who suffered Nazi atrocities. It was striking to her that those who forgave were able to restore normalcy to their lives while the unforgiving victims essentially became invalids.
As she stood before the man who had been her tormentor she thought of the words of Jesus:
For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:14-15).
Ellicott suggests that repentance is the condition of forgiveness. Certainly, God does not forgive an unrepentant sinner, and we should never harbor ill-will for that is a sin God will surely charge against us.
Forgiveness is a difficult act to perform, indeed.
The woman stood there, in the basement room of that Munich church, with a coldness in her heart:
I had to do it -- I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. 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.
So she stood before the prison guard, and prayed to God for the strength to forgive. She thrust out her hand, and felt a healing warmth as their hands clasped together. At that moment she forgave him with all her heart, and she cried:
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.
And the woman, Corrie ten Boom, remembered what her sister Betsie had said before she died at Ravensbrück:
There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.
On December 12, 1967 Corrie ten Boom was recognized by the Yad Vashem Remembrance Authority as one of the Righteous Among Nations. She went home to be with the Lord on her 91st birthday -- April 15, 1983. According to Jewish tradition, the one is blessed who is taken by the LORD on their birthday.
Corrie ten Boom Museum (Link)
Ellicott's Commentary (Link)
Excerpts from I’m Still Learning to Forgive by Corrie ten Boom (Link)
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Link)
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