His name was Karl, a 21-year-old German soldier who wanted to be forgiven by a Jew for the atrocities he committed against Jews during World War II. As he lay dying in a dark, isolated hospital room, he told his story to Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish inmate from a nearby concentration camp. In a Russian town, several German soldiers were killed by booby-trapped doors. In retaliation for the German deaths, Karl’s commander had his unit place several cans of gasoline in a small three-story house and then herd approximately 200 Jewish men, woman, and children into the house before setting it on fire. One Jewish family, a mother, a father, and their small child, tried to jump to safety, but the soldiers shot them as they fell to the ground.
Several weeks after this incident, Karl’s unit advanced further into Russia. One day as Karl charged out of a trench during a battle, he froze because he saw the Jewish family that jumped out of the burning house coming toward him. As he stood there motionless and afraid, a shell blew up beside him, severely wounding him. Karl’s physical pain was excruciating, but his conscience produced an even greater pain because it constantly reminded him of those innocent Jews he killed. Wanting to die in peace, Karl asked Simon to forgive him on behalf of the Jewish people he killed.
Simon believed that Karl was truly repentant, and as he looked at this helpless, young man with the blood of innocent people seared into his conscience, Simon asked himself what he should do. When Simon decided what to do, he stood up, looked at Karl, and left the room without saying a word. Simon recorded this incident in his book The Sunflower and ended his story with these words: “You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, ‘What would I have done?'”1
Like Karl’s story, Manasseh’s story is one of tragedy and human depravity. During his reign, Manasseh encouraged idolatry, practiced and encouraged child sacrifice, practiced sorcery, divination and witchcraft, and consulted mediums. When he was suspected of being involved in plotting a rebellion against Assyria, the Assyrians put a hook through his nose and yanked him all the way to Babylon (
Honestly, we do not know how we would have responded to either man because they committed heinous acts. As Christians, however, we must ask ourselves whether we should forgive people like Karl and Manasseh or at least point them to God’s forgiveness. Let’s look at three reasons why being able to forgive the Karls and Manassehs of the world is something toward which Christians should strive.
Reasons for Forgiving the Unforgivable
One reason for forgiving the unforgivable is that God calls us to be ambassadors (
Ananias illustrates the struggle of proclaiming forgiveness to the unforgivable. When called to minister to Paul after Paul’s Damascus Road experience, Ananias balked because of Paul’s persecution of the church. Nonetheless, as Christ’s ambassador, Ananias delivered the Lord’s message of reconciliation to Paul (
A second reason for forgiving the unforgivable is that God calls us to be priests (
Jesus said that if we are forgiven people, we must be forgiving people (
Four Principles of Forgiveness
First, when Jesus challenges us to forgive, he asks us to do something God-like. All of us have heard the proverb, “To error is human, to forgive, divine.” Indeed, forgiving is God’s business, and He has forgiven some pretty dastardly people. Manasseh, for example, committed many heinous acts, yet even he was not beyond the reach of God’s mercy. We read in
Second, when Jesus challenges us to forgive, He asks us to focus on forgiving, not forgetting. People are often counseled to “forgive and forget,” but such advice is futile. Forgiveness is not the same as “forget-ness.” We cannot pretend that the past never happened, and we could not forget the past even if we wanted to. People can never forget the terrible things done to them. Forgiveness, however, is as necessary as suturing an open wound. If the wound is not closed, either that person will bleed to death, or the wound will become infected. When the wound is closed and then heals a scar remains as a constant reminder of the wound. Likewise, forgiveness helps to alleviate the pain of a painful experience. Once we forgive, however, our memory reminds us of the deed.
Third, when Jesus challenges us to forgive, He asks us to do something that is difficult, but not impossible. Preaching and teaching about God’s wonderful and forgiving love is easy. Practicing and living God’s love is difficult, but not impossible. Even though Corrie Ten Boom’s father and sister perished in a Nazi concentration camp, she was determined to forgive the Germans. One day after preaching about God’s forgiveness, a man approached her, stuck out his hand, and said: “Ja, Fraulein Ten Boom, I am so glad that Jesus forgives us all of our sin, just as you say.”3 Corrie could not reciprocate because the man had been a guard at the concentration camp where she had been incarcerated. After silently asking God to forgive her for her unforgiving spirit, Corrie grasped the man’s hand, symbolizing forgiveness. Just like Corrie, we must eventually move from theory to practice; we must move from discussing the Karls and Manassehs of the world to dealing with real people in our lives. Has someone killed a loved-one, murdered your marriage, or stolen your dreams? Have you done something for which you cannot forgive yourself? For your own sake, mentally reach out and offer that person the hand of forgiveness. Such an act is painfully difficult, but not humanly impossible.
Finally, when Jesus challenges us to forgive, He asks us to embody the “Golden Rule.” We all have met people whom we could consider unforgivable. Unfortunately, and quite possibly, every one of us might be on someone else’s unforgivable list. Thus, Jesus’ words take on new meaning: “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins …. So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” (
1Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower, (New York: Schocken Books, 1976), 99.
2Quoted by Philip Yancey, “An Unnatural Act,” Christianity Today, 8 April 1991, 36.
3June 7, 2001 Quoted by Louis Smedes, Forgive and Forget (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1984), 120.