A master-class lesson in forgiveness
“The first step on the way to victory,” observed Corrie Ten Boom, “ is to recognize the enemy.” She should know, having been incarcerated in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Amazingly she escaped the gas chamber, she later found out, only through a clerical error. There’s a lot of talk about the enemy at the moment, not least when it comes to the Russian pointless invasion of Ukraine. And it is Vladimir Putin who is the enemy-in-chief. We pray for his downfall – although the danger is that he could so easily be displaced by someone even more hard-line and ruthless. So we need to pray intelligently, for God to loosen the bolts which hold together his security apparatus. However, we need to be highly sensitive in our use of the word enemy, such is the power of language. My grandmother would recall how she witnessed the anti-German violence during the Great War as shop windows in Scotland Road were smashed on the slimmest pretext of the owners having German ancestry. It’s so easy to be caught up in crowd violence against the enemy, especially in social media. For while Russia is being targeted in a whole range of economic sanctions, we realise that many Russian people are themselves innocent victims of their President’s malevolence. So we applaud the bravery of broadcaster Marina Ovsyannikova and especially opposition leader Alexei Navalny, now facing an extra nine years imprisonment. And so many others like them. Thankfully the West’s response to this outrage is for the most part targeted at individual Russians, those who our intelligence services have deemed complicit in Putin’s foolish adventure. But it has to be said, clearly and repeatedly, that the Russian people – even though many choose to believe their government’s false narrative – are not the enemy. Each day I read a Psalm- except for Psalm 119 where I allow myself three days to cover the 176 verses. And when I reach Psalm 150, I start all over again. Which means I get to read those Psalms which do not make it onto lovely picture calendars or coffee mugs. Like today’s: Psalm 56. “Be merciful to me, my God, for my enemies are in hot pursuit; all day long they press their attack.” (verse 1) So many Psalms in this part of the Psalter, Book II, plead for God’s help against the enemy: “All day long they twist my words; all their schemes are for my ruin. They conspire, they lurk, they watch my steps, hoping to take my life.” (Psalm 56: 5f). This reflects, I assume, the experiences of a national leader, such as King David, to whom many of the Psalms, are attributed. But whatever their background they have been compiled as a worship resource for temple worship in Jerusalem. And also for us in their gritty realism. But as I read these Psalms, I’ve been asking “Who is my enemy?” Who is, using the language of the Psalmist, lurking in the shadows, watching my steps, hoping to take my life? Well, thankfully, for me: nobody. And I guess this is your experience too. Okay, there may be those eyeing your job or jealous of your status – but not the kind of enemy as portrayed in the Psalms who is out to get you, full-on. Even so, says Jesus, whoever may qualify as being your enemy, you are to love them. “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.” (Matthew 5:43f) Jesus calls us to refuse to allow others to determine how we are to behave, how to conduct ourselves before those who would demean, even destroy us. Loving our enemies means seeing them as human beings in need of our Father’s love. What makes Christians different is our understanding of reality, of who is the enemy. For “our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” (Ephesians 6:12). As I blogged a few weeks back, we do not inhabit a morally neutral universe. The enemy are “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12). And wonderfully our enemy has been defeated at the cross of Jesus. As the apostle Paul declares using the language of the Roman victory parade: “(Christ) stripped all the spiritual tyrants in the universe of their sham authority at the Cross and marched them naked through the streets.” (Colossians 2:15, Message translation) And so in spiritual warfare, we are to use spiritual weaponry – such as the power of forgiveness, confident of their efficacy. . But for people like Corrie Ten Boom, to forgive those who have inflicted such terrible suffering is no easy ask. Corrie recalls how just after the war she encountered one of her concentration camp guards, at a Christian meeting of all places. It was a battle but the love of Christ gave her no alternative but to forgive this guard, who, plagued by guilt, offered his hand. She recalls: “And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. Jesus, help me! I prayed silently. "I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling.” In fact, she was able to embrace her persecutor. “For a long moment we grasped each other's hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God's love so intensely as I did then.” As disciples of Jesus we are called to be holy, which means being different, even to everyone else.