Some concepts are almost impossible to define. It is easy to find ourselves in the shoes of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who 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 this as an example: Forgiveness. It is far more than a theoretical concept. 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. Eventually the Nazis discovered the family’s secret and all were arrested. Corrie and her sister Betsie were sent to Ravensbruck, and only Corrie survived.
After the war Corrie Ten Boom began traveling around Europe speaking to faith groups about her experience and speaking specifically about forgiveness. She was in Munich sharing her message when she recognized a man in the crowd. This man had been a guard at her concentration camp. The man walked up, admitted his past sins, and said, “I know that God has forgiven me…but I would like to hear it from your lips. Will you forgive me?”
Here is where words fail, for in that moment, Corrie could not forgive. In her memoir she wrote, “While only seconds, it seemed like hours…‘Jesus, help me!’ I prayed silently. So woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. 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. I had never known God’s love as intensely as I did then.”
What Ten 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 rather than revenge or resentment, it is a miracle performed by God himself. 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.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.