Suffering and Forgiveness: Lessons from Corrie Ten Boom

“Forgiveness is the Christlike suffering which it is the Christian’s duty to bear” (Deitrick Bonhoeffer).

That stings.

No one likes bearing suffering. The idea that Jesus has made suffering a part of Christian life that we can’t escape doesn’t make it easier. In fact, I’ve seen this idea lead to anger at Jesus.

Corrie ten Boom, born on April 15, 1892 in Haarlem, Netherlands, also didn’t find it easy, even as she preached the Gospel message of love and forgiveness. You may recognize her name as she was the author of the very popular book The Hiding Place. The Ten Boom family had decided to hide Jews in their home during the Occupation when a woman in May 1942 knocked on their door asking for refuge. The father readily took her in although the police headquarters was only half a block away. The whole family worked in the Resistance until on February 28, 1944, a Dutch informant, Jan Vogel, told the Nazis about the Ten Booms’ work. A little after noon that day, the Nazis arrested the entire Ten Boom family.

In September 1944, the Nazis deported Corrie and Betsie ten Boom to the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women in Germany. Life at Ravensbrück was almost unbearable, but Betsie and Corrie spent their time sharing Jesus’ love with their fellow prisoners. There, they held worship services after the hard days at work by using a Bible that they had managed to smuggle into the camp. Through the two sisters’ teachings and examples of unfailing charity, many of the prisoners there converted to Christianity. While they were imprisoned at Ravensbrück, Betsie and her sister began to discuss plans for founding a place of healing after the war. Betsie’s health continued to deteriorate, and she died on 16 December 1944 at the age of 59. Before she died, she told Corrie, “There is no pit so deep that He [God] is not deeper still.” Twelve days later, Corrie was released because of a clerical error. Corrie Ten Boom returned home amid the “hunger winter.” She still opened her doors to people with disabilities who were in hiding for fear of execution.

After the war, ten Boom advocated reconciliation as a means for overcoming the psychological scars left by the Nazi occupation. In her presentations after World War II when she sought to be a voice of healing, Corrie used to say to people who came up to her with their own stories of bitterness and non-forgiveness, “Can you forgive this person?”

When they said they couldn’t, or that they didn’t know how they could ever forgive the person who had hurt them, she would reply, “No? I can’t either. But God can.”

Sounds kind of pollyannish doesn’t it? I remember, though, one time in confession telling the priest that I couldn’t forgive someone under whom I had suffered for many years. And I had tried, seriously tried, to forgive for many years. Again and again. His words broke the cycle of my struggles that seemed to be getting me nowhere. “Yes you can,” he said to me. “You can forgive because Jesus makes that possible, Jesus who died on the cross for you and for them.”

They were words backed up with grace and rooted in the ground of truth.

Maybe instead of talking about whether or not we have forgiven, we should instead acknowledge in our whole life we are simply learning how to forgive, learning how to love enough to bear this responsibility of being the forgiving and merciful Jesus in the world today.

After the war, Ten Boom returned to the Netherlands to set up a rehabilitation center in Bloemendaal. The refuge housed concentration-camp survivors and until 1950 exclusively sheltered jobless Dutch who had collaborated with the Germans during the Occupation, after which it accepted anyone in need of care. She returned to Germany in 1946 and met with and forgave two Germans who had been employed at Ravensbrück, one of whom had been particularly cruel to Betsie. Ten Boom went on to travel the world as a public speaker, appearing in more than 60 countries. She wrote many books during this period.

In a story run in Guideposts in the year 1972, Corrie Ten Boom narrates how she came to realize that she herself was still learning to forgive.

She had just finished speaking in a church in Munich. It was 1947 and she had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. As people filed out of the basement, a heavy-set balding man clutching a felt hat between his hands approached the front of the room where she stood.

As soon as she saw him, it came back with a rush. This man had been a guard in the large room at Ravensbrück where the newly arrived women had to undress and leave their clothes and shoes in a pile. In shame they had been forced to walk naked past this man. Now he stood there, pathetic himself, humbled.

“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he said. “I was a guard in 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. Fraulein, …” his hand came out, … “will you forgive me?”

Corrie stood there, frozen, ice clutching at her heart. Her sister had died at Ravensbrück. Did this man think that he could erase her slow terrible death simply by asking for forgiveness. She wrestled in her heart with the most difficult thing she had ever had to do.

Finally, after what had seemed hours but which were probably just seconds, she remembered that forgiveness is an act of the will not the emotions. She prayed silently to Jesus for help. She told him, “I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You, Jesus, must supply the feeling.”

In her own words recorded in the story in Guideposts, Corrie said, “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.”

What forgiveness is not

Forgiveness is not easy. We can only forgive because God has forgiven us. It is only by experiencing forgiveness ourselves, that we can understand how precious it is to give this gift to another. We all have received the mercy of God. He has forgiven our sins, washed them away—even though we don’t deserve it. This is why St Paul can say in the letter to the Ephesians: “Let all  bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Eph 4:31-32).

Forgiveness is not an emotion, it is an act of the will. As Corrie faced the gentleman who had been a guard when she had been at Ravensbrück, her heart’s thermometer was cold, small, frightened. Even though she preached forgiveness with her actions and her words, even though she knew that she had been forgiven by God and needed to respond to this person before her asking for her forgiveness, her heart’s reactions didn’t correspond to what her mind knew. She simply asked Jesus’ help and, by an act of the will, stuck out her arm and asked God to do the rest. What she experienced—“I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then”—was God’s action within her. It was gift. She received in her own spirit the divine love and mercy that characterized the heart of God.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. The expectation that we will forget the person and actions through which we have been hurt is called denial. I’m sure Corrie was haunted all her life by what she had experienced in the concentration camp and by the slow death of her beloved sister Betsie. Her prayers, her encouragement to others, her preaching, her actions to provide places of healing for those who had suffered as she had in the concentration camps, as heroic as they may have been, were softened and sifted and saturated by her own struggles with memories, heart-movements of loss and grief, flashbacks and psychological struggles, as well as her desire and determination to be a person of reconciliation.

Forgiveness doesn’t excuse the wrong. Forgiveness doesn’t say that what was done doesn’t matter. If it didn’t matter, then there would be no need of forgiveness. Instead, forgiveness respects and reverences what has happened and the deep wound it has caused. Forgiveness says: “I know what you did. It hurt. It damaged me. It wounded me in ways that I may bear for the rest of my life. But I won’t hold it against you.”

Forgiveness is not reconciliation. In any number of ways, Corrie had forgiven those who had destroyed her family and her Jewish brothers and sisters. She encouraged others to forgive them. She had run a rehabilitation for concentration-camp survivors which until 1950 exclusively sheltered jobless Dutch who had collaborated with the Germans during the Occupation. She travelled to Germany to meet with and forgive two Germans who had been employed at Ravensbrück. That night, however, in the basement of the church in Munich, God asked her to go a step further. Reconciliation requires repentance. In this case, the former guard who approached her had repented and had even become a Christian. He extended a hand and asked her directly for forgiveness. There are many times that we may forgive, but reconciliation at that point is not a question. There is no repentance. It would be dangerous or unhealthy to reconcile with an individual who could continue to hurt us. There are other times, however, when we can offer this reconciliation. In Corrie’s case, she probably never saw this man again. When we take that next step of reconciliation, it doesn’t mean that we are required to resume friendships or move back in with the offending individual. We can reconcile without putting ourselves in the position of being hurt again, particularly when we ourselves haven’t healed sufficiently to create and enforce clear and healthy boundaries.

What forgiveness is

For us, forgiveness is a matter of becoming capable, of being given the power, to disrupt the cycle of continued wrath and suffering we experience as inevitable. Forgiveness is always going to be demanding, costly, and a freely chosen effort. Others cannot tell us when and how we must forgive. No one but we ourselves can require us to forgive.

As we wrestle with forgiving, here are three things that will help us open to God’s grace:

  1. Pay attention to how thoughts about the person make it more difficult to forgive. Take your mind off of the person. Don’t give yourself the luxury of grumbling. Don’t justify yourself or feel sorry for yourself. Don’t imagine ways you could get even. When you see those thoughts coming in for a landing just tell them that there is no place for them in your heart.
  2. Remember that you yourself have been forgiven any number of times. Recall a time when God has shown you his love and let you start again. Remember a time when someone else has shown you mercy. Ask God to help you call to mind times when you have needed forgiveness just as any other sinner. Practice being grateful for the mercy you have shown by the Lord.
  3. Whenever the person who has hurt you comes to mind say the words “I forgive you” whether you feel it or not. Remember that forgiveness is an act of the will, and our emotions often deceive us. Just because we feel anger and hatred for another, our will can still choose to forgive, to at least say the words “I forgive you.” Ask the Holy Spirit to pour God’s love into your heart. When you are ready, you can take the next step of asking God to bless this person.

We can only offer ourselves to God’s action—to “seek, suffer (that is, allow), and trust.” And in that effort, God will supply for all that we fall short.

This article is the second in a series on forgiveness. Read Saint Rita: How to Choose Forgiveness.

Image: Luis Ángel Espinosa, LC via Cathopic

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