the art of forgiving

Death. Injustice. Destruction. Pain. The top stories on the evening news just about covered it.

This excerpt from Lewis B. Smede’s, The Art of Forgiving, offers some perspective. Read on.

“Many of us have been awed by stories of how ordinary human beings became almost divine in their power to transcend the intolerable barbarity of concentration camps. One story that staggers me is about Agnes, a tall, thin, erect woman who found herself mired in the Austrian camp at Malthausen, a labor camp, not a camp equipped for slaughter but one where prisoners were sometimes worked to death and treated like animals in the process.

Agnes was fated to come under the power of a squat, pimpled sergeant name Bernard who elected her to be his private victim. He leered while he watched her take showers, prodded her with his rifle barrel at every roll call, poked obscene finger gestures in her face, and whispered that he was going to rape her one night. She would have put a knife in his back if she had one. But she determined not to let this evil man destroy her spirit.

So she made an outlandish decision: She would try to save herself by trying to forgive him. She began by looking for signals that there really was a human being — albeit a pitiful, weak, vulgar, shamed human being — beneath the skin of the snake. She found signals. She caught a glimpse of him once hanging his head down and putting his arm over his eyes while his fellow guards taunted him for being a slob. Once she caught a glimpse of him smiling at a little child and slyly giving her a piece of bread. Paltry proof of humanity, but she grabbed it.

She disciplined her imagination and surrendered her dreams of revenge. And finally she actually made prayers on his behalf. She prayed that the maker of the universe might redeem his soul. She was never sure she wanted what she was praying for, but she prayed nonetheless, and gradually, to her own silent amazement, discovered that she was meaning what she prayed.

Forced to endure the worst of all that is intolerable, she actually began to forgive the beast. She did what few forgivers can do: She began to forgive him while suffering the very thing she needed to forgive. Perhaps she had to; it was then or never. She might well be dead before the week was out. So she took control of her own soul by forgiving a monster hellbent on destroying it. But never for a moment, in her own mind, did Agnes suppose that forgiving her private Nazi terrorist somehow changed his intolerable bestiality into something humanly tolerable.

When I try to put myself in Agnes’s place, I would not bet a nickel on my courage or grace to do what she did. I cannot even understand how she did it. But what she did teaches one all-important truth about forgiving: Forgiving and tolerating have nothing in common. They live in different worlds.

Forgiving may enable us to bear up under and even to surmount intolerable abuse that people do to us when we cannot escape it. But it can never, should never, shall never, transform intolerable wrong in tolerable pain.

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