Some concepts are almost impossible to define; words like hope, love, happiness, or faith. And while these are terms we are all familiar with – we use these words every day – we sometimes struggle to say what they really mean. They are simply too intangible and abstract to communicate properly. It is easy to find ourselves in the shoes of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. Fifty years ago Justice Stewart famously said of pornography: “I could never succeed in defining it, but I know it when I see it.” Such a characterization applies to much more than obscenity.
Take another word as an example: Forgiveness. It is far more than an idea, more than a theoretical concept or a definition inside a dictionary. It is nothing less than a miracle best understood by seeing and experiencing it, not simply talking about it. I first “saw” forgiveness in a woman named Corrie Ten Boom. No, I never met her, but as a child I heard about her at least once a month in my Sunday School class. She and her family were Dutch Christians who hid Jews in their home during the Second World War. Corrie’s memoir, The Hiding Place, records those events. Eventually the Nazis discovered the Ten Boom’s secret and the family was arrested. Corrie and her sister Betsie were sent to Ravensbruck. By the end of the war, only Corrie had survived. Corrie came out of that awful experience saying, “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still” and “God will give us the love to be able to forgive our enemies.” Those words were put to the test a few years later.
After the war Corrie Ten Boom began traveling around Europe speaking to faith groups about her experience. She was in a Munich church sharing her message of forgiveness when she recognized a man in the crowd. He was a balding heavy-set German in a gray overcoat, clutching a brown felt hat in his hands. Corrie knew immediately that this man had been a guard at the Ravensbruck concentration camp. The man walked up to Corrie and admitted his past sins and his past vocation. He said, “I have become a Christian and 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.” He extended an open hand and asked Ten Boom: “Will you forgive me?”
Here is where words fail, for in that moment, Corrie could not forgive. In her memoir she wrote, “Betsie had died in that place; could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? While only seconds, it seemed like hours passed as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do…the coldness clutching my heart. ‘Jesus, help me!’ I prayed silently. So woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place…This healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, my brother!’ I cried. For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love as intensely as I did then.”
What Corrie Tem Boom did that day cannot be found, explained, or otherwise described in a dictionary. It can only be witnessed, marveled at, and experienced. When one suffers an incalculable loss and is able to respond with compassion and grace (there’s another indescribable word) rather than revenge or resentment, it is a miracle performed by God himself. Thus, such forgiveness is not achieved by trying harder, studying more, or understanding the whole notion a little better. It’s achieved by God – sometimes in spite of us – when we simply extend our empty hands and let God’s mercy flow through to others. No, I can’t explain it. I don’t have words for such an experience. I can’t always understand it; but I certainly know it when I see it.