For many years, my childhood church was held in a finished barn, attached by narrow hallway to the parsonage. One warm summer’s evening, when I was four years old, our congregation gathered there to watch a film of Corrie ten Boom, who spoke of her book, The Hiding Place. We scrunched uncomfortably close, sans air conditioning, to make room for all members and visitors who had come to hear this woman share her survival story. As soon as the movie began, I was captivated.
Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch woman, who along with her sister and father, was caught sheltering Jews in a hidden compartment within the walls of their home in Holland during the Nazi terror of World War II. Because of their steep involvement in the Dutch underground resistance, Corrie, her sister Betsy, and their aging father were separated and herded off to a concentration camp. Their father died within days, but Betsy and Corrie survived to suffer starvation, humiliation, and torture under the Nazi prison guards. Betsy guided and encouraged Corrie to stand strong in faith, and together they shared Jesus with fellow inmates during nightly Bible studies. The guards remained providentially oblivious, due to a bedbug infestation in those very rooms. Betsy perished only days before Corrie was freed. It was later discovered that her freedom was due to a clerical error.
God had wonderful plans for sparing Corrie from death: one of which was to herald her testimony of the freedom found only in Christ. Once released from the concentration camp, she acknowledged a hardened place growing in her heart, a wide cavern filled with hatred and bitterness toward those monstrous guards.
Corrie dumbfounded the world by fully forgiving her tormentors, repeatedly sharing her testimony in her world-wide missionary travels. This was staggering in a time where nearly everyone was hand-feeding rage and bitterness due to the gut-wrenching atrocities inflicted by the Nazis.
One day, in her travels, a former German guard approached her and offered his hand, seeking her forgiveness. She immediately recoiled, recognizing him as the most debased guard of all, a man who had personally humiliated both Betsy and Corrie. As he stood directly before her, apologizing and speaking of his new faith, she yielded to the Holy Spirit’s promptings, choosing to radically forgive him.
Of course I knew none of these things that warm summer’s night in our barn-church, but I do remember, even now, the black and white film, and Corrie’s face: kind, peaceful, lovely. Her words were spoken clearly in her Dutch-laced accent, unmistakable in their pulsing love of God, and others; even her tormentors.
My little-girl heart stood transfixed: never had I seen the Lord so vivid in the being of another. So genuine. Corrie was not a dynamic speaker: she was direct, full of authority, both soft-spoken, and happy. Her face radiated calm. I was too young to know of her suffering, (those blanks would be filled in later), but her joy of Jesus was undeniable. Corrie was simply at rest in Him, and I could feel it in my bones: this was exactly what I wanted.
After the film, there were platters of finger foods and punch, and the children gathered outside to play tag, waiting for the fireflies to begin their flickering lantern-dance by dark. I romped and played, delighting in a summer’s night with an abandon that often eclipses adults. As we chased each other, my imagination soared with fantastic plans to build secret compartments and rescue people. I longed to be brave just like Corrie ten Boom, and I wanted to know the same Jesus that she did.
Suffering has a way of parting the heart, chiseling a highway straight down the middle, before offering grave detours; choices. I have yet to meet a Christian who radiates the image of the Creator, that has not suffered well, choosing to accept in peace the precise will of God.
It is easier, by nature, to suffer poorly: plunging into self-pity and complaining, nursing and rehearsing grievances to anyone who will lend an ear, growing bitter and sullen, storing up a record of seemingly justified wrongs. I have been guilty of these very things.
Years ago, God took me through a season of paramount suffering. Multiple heartaches within a two-year span, which at the time, felt like 200 years. I will not say that the details are unimportant, because details are always important. But more importantly, within a short time of this suffering, I reached the end of my workhorse self.
I awoke one morning, looked into the mirror, and bumped up against the ugly truth: I was a thoroughly exhausted people-pleaser, who could no longer patch things up for myself or others, while bowing to the whims of whomever, and hanging on to simmering grudges, festering yet silent, buried deep inside. I had gods before me, and the God, my jealous Heavenly Father, had had enough. He chose to unravel the entire mess.
I can see now, in hindsight, that God designs sufferings, created uniquely for his children. He does not toss hardships at random, like dreadful Christmas gifts from some Great Aunt who bestows the same matching, ill-fitting sweaters to each family member carelessly, with little care. Instead, God gives us our sufferings to fit his good and holy purpose: to grow and form and shape us in likeness to his Son. Our part is to trust and obey and follow our Father, knowing that there is nothing reckless or random in his plan. He is our perfect hiding place; the safest spot to dwell.
During those two years, suffering had blazed a deep highway down my heart, and I held two choices in either hand: obey God and forgive, or hug bitterness, and thus quench the Holy Spirit.
And then I remembered Corrie ten Boom. After searching, I discovered an old video clip, and I was suddenly four years old again, seated in a packed New England church. Her face was precisely as I had remembered: confident, soft, and joyful. Regardless of the consequences, we must forgive, she said.
And there it was: my next act of the will. A choice: obey God, or follow my own heart?
I could not change my suffering, I could not erase the sins of others inflicting harm, and I could not strong-arm anyone’s heart into biblical repentance.
But I could forgive, and leave all consequences in God’s care. (Forgiveness does not necessarily result in reconciliation. The Bible teaches us to guard our hearts and walk in wisdom. There are dangerous situations and dangerous people, who may be forgiven, but kept at a distance until time reveals a true heart change.)
So I forgave. Wildly, I might add. My list was embarrassingly long: silly little grievances and monumental ones, long-standing grudges and recent, ongoing hurts.
There was nothing gradual about the moment following: my newfound freedom was swift and delightful, and like Corrie ten Boom, I was flooded with warmth and peace. Absolutely nothing around me had changed; but I was now unchained, and free to live.
Corrie, godly and wise, was changed through her furnace of affliction. She understood that forgiveness is the heartbeat of Christ. Father forgive them for they know not what they do (Luke 23:24).
Corrie ten Boom and her family saved some 800 Jewish lives in that tiny hiding place in the heart of their Holland home, but her bold forgiveness of one guilty prison guard resulted in the rescue of so many more. I am one.
Psalm 32:7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.