I can’t forgive. Not always and never easily. It is hard to forgive and sometimes I don’t want to forgive. What do you do when there is something in your life that is too huge for forgiveness?
The video featured today is an advert for an Asian mobile phone network. It shows a story based during the Second World War, when Prisoners of War were expected to build the Thailand-Burma railway. It is estimated that at one time the brutality of the set up led to one death for each sleeper on the track laid. It was known as the “Death Railway”.
In this advert, a young woman reaches out to a beaten and dying man who is crying out in pain and suffering. She offers her hand; he takes it, an action that sees her receiving a brutal punishment from the guards. However her action is not just an isolated moment, a one-off-act of extreme kindness. Her compassion spirals into the man’s life, spurring him on to new hope. He returns home and dedicates his life to serving others.
On watching this short film, it occurred to me that in order for the gift of compassion to be both given (by the young woman) and received (by Gordon) both of them had to rise above their current situation and be brave enough to tell another story. This is, I believe, a good way of explaining what we are actually doing when we forgive.
A friend of mine once visited Auschwitz. He described how he saw that outside one of the buildings, in a low alcove in the wall, someone had placed a lighted candle. It was such a small thing, but very powerful. It was an act of love in one of the darkest places on earth, and it said that the darkness did not get the last word.
The young woman in the advert is saying this too. She is saying, ‘I know what they are doing is wrong, but I will not be part of that. I will not stand by and let you suffer. I will not support them by standing to one side. Instead, I will put into this place of hatred an act of love. It is the only way to break the cycle of hatred. It is the only thing that will bring life and something new out of this’.
This is what happens when we forgive. We do not like to forgive. Forgiveness has a bad reputation, and often there seems little point to it. So let’s first look at what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness is not saying that what they did is now ok, or can be forgotten about. It is not ignoring your hurt or pretending that nothing happened.
It is not letting the other person get away with hurting you.
But forgiveness is choosing to bring an end to your suffering and pain by placing a light into the situation. Hating the other person will not make their act of aggression go away. Hating them will not change what they did to you or change events of the past. Hating them will only damage you, because hate cannot create good. Hating cannot stop the hurt you feel or heal the wounds you suffered.
However, even with all this understanding of what forgiveness is not, forgiveness still feels so unfair! It feels unfair because it requires us, the hurt one, to make the first move, that act of compassion. They might never know that we are forgiving them, which makes the prospect worse- what is the point of forgiveness if the person doesn’t even know how much they hurt us in the first place?!
Another stumbling block to forgiveness is that hating the other person feels good. It makes us feel better about ourselves. Sometimes, I’m quite happy to hate forever. I am not interested in forgiving because I don’t want to lose the power that hatred gives me – the power to get back at them and let them suffer as much as they made me suffer.
However, hating only feels good because I do not realise what the love of forgiveness feels like yet. I do not realize that this is a freedom better than this feeling of hate. I do not realize that the hate is hurting me too. I believe the lie that hatred will create a solution to this problem, I believe the lie that hatred will stop the hurt of the past.
St Maximilian Kolbe knew a thing or two about hatred, and also a lot about love. He spent the last months of his life in Auschwitz, witnessing some of the most barbaric acts known to man. He offered his life in the place of a married man with children who was being sent to the gas chambers. In that moment he placed into the violence and death an act of love. An act that said, ‘I will not be part of this hate. I will put into this moment something that will create, instead of destroy’.
What we don’t realize is that often forgiveness has very little to do with the other person who hurt us and a lot more to do with ourselves. Forgiveness is like God’s medicine. It heals us. When we are able to forgive, we actually free ourselves from the prison of hurt and pain the other person put us in.
Forgiveness speaks right to the heart of another person, and it takes compassion to do it. It says: ‘I know you have fallen totally short of the beautiful plan God had in store for you, but so have I in many ways. I do not want you to stay in that place of darkness forever. What circumstances or darkness lead you to do that to me? I want something better for you too’.
We are all suffering, we are all wounded and we are all inflicting our wounds on other people too. So something, someone, like the young woman in the advert, has to step in and stop the cycle of suffering. In the advert, the woman pays a high price for her tiny act of compassion. But what it brings about in the life of Gordon is an enormous gift to him. By accepting her gift and using it to better the lives of many others around him, he is also making a statement of forgiveness. He is also saying that violence and hatred does not get the last word. He is also choosing to put into the situation of his own pain and bitterness another way – a way of love, a way that brings hope.
Sometimes forgiveness can come in a moment, other times forgiveness is the work of a long time, helped by new experiences and friendships. The soul moves slowly at its own pace towards healing and wholeness. God works with us in that because we never forgive alone. If you have been really wronged, if you have had some precious part of you taken away by someone else, if forgiveness is impossible for you, turn to the One who can put more than just His hand into yours. Ask Him to forgive through you, so that your pain and suffering can be healed and so that you are free to go on to give life to others. Pray for the person who wronged you, or at least pray that you can want to pray for them. The ultimate act of compassion and forgiveness is Christ on the cross. Here, He suffers with us (which is the literal meaning of compassion) and here His gift of laying down His life gives us new life. He paid the price of death and His resurrection shows that death is never, ever the end.
“He didn’t believe there was goodness in the world anymore.”
Just as the act of the young woman’s compassion changed Gordon’s life and gave him hope, so does the act of forgiveness change our lives and give us hope. Forgiveness is not a feeling. It is an act.