I will never forgive my husband. I will never forgive the whore who took him away from me. This wasn't my choice and yet I have to carry the pain for their selfish choices. I hope they both rot in hell.
It's a sentiment often expressed, in one way or another, by those who have been betrayed by infidelity. The pain inflicted on them, perhaps the greatest emotional pain they will ever experience, is undeserved. Why would anyone even suggest forgiving such a selfish, unjust act?
When confronted by the question of unreasonable forgiveness, I am often reminded of Corrie ten Boom's story. During World War II, she and her sister, Betsie, were sent to a concentration camp after it was discovered that they were hiding Jews in their home during the Nazi occupation of Holland. In her book, The Hiding Place, she wrote about her spiritual journey of healing, and about the day she unexpectedly encountered a man who had been one of her guards. Here's the story in her words...
It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear.
It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives... The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.
And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.
It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!
Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbrück concentration camp where we were sent.
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”
And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course–how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.
He went on: “I know 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 the hand came out – “will you forgive me?”
I stood there and could not. 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.
For 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. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality.
Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. 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.
“God, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
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.
I wish I could say that merciful and charitable thoughts just naturally flowed from me from then on. But they didn’t. [Several years later, I found myself failing in the attempt to forgive friends who had wronged me. I seemed unable to move past their offense.]
Help came in the form of a kindly pastor to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks.
“Up in that church tower,” he said, nodding out the window, “is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding then dong. Slower and slower until there’s a final dong and it stops.
“I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive someone, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.”
And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in my conversation. But the force – which was my willingness in the matter – had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at last stopped altogether.