People write songs about love — usually the romantic kind — and make it the centerpiece of a great deal of fiction. Christ said there is one chief commandment but another close behind, and both of them involve love.
Paul narrowed things down to faith, hope, and love, only to conclude that the greatest of those is love.
Jesus said the greatest love was for someone to give his life for another:
Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)
Donald Maass in his writing instruction book Writing The Breakout Novel identified two character qualities that “leave a deeper, more lasting and powerful impression of a character than any other” (pp. 121-122). One trait is forgiveness and the other self-sacrifice.
Maass, who to my knowledge doesn’t profess to be a Christian, went on to say, ” As for self-sacrifice, is there a higher form of heroism? It is the ultimate expression of love and as such is about the most powerful action a character can perform” (p. 122 – emphasis mine).
Love draws us. It lures us and entices us, woos us and wins us. We are moths to its flame. If we can’t look away from an accident, we can’t stay away from love. It is compelling.
The world is moved by amazing love. Some years ago Kent Whitaker, a man I met at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference, appeared on Oprah to talk about Murder By Family, the book he’d recently published.
Kent’s wife and son had been murdered and he himself had been wounded in the attack. In the days that followed, he came to realize that he needed to forgive the man who had taken those he loved. Only later did he learn that this person was his surviving son.
What caught Oprah’s interest in his story? Was it the irony? The tragedy? Or was it the amazing forgiveness of a man who knew himself to stand in need of forgiveness too.
Oprah Winfrey used Kent Whitaker’s story to highlight forgiveness even under the worst possible scenario. If Kent Whitaker could forgive his son for murdering his family then surely we can learn to forgive those who’ve done much lesser evils. (from “Kent Whitaker on the Oprah Show”)
But this brings us to the point I want to make. As compelling as love is, trying harder doesn’t make it possible for us to forgive.
Corrie ten Boom testified to this when she came face to face, after World War II and during her talk on forgiveness, with one of the guards involved in her Nazi internment.
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’
And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course — how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.
‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I 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. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out — ’will you forgive me?’
And I stood there — I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven — and could not forgive. (excerpt from The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom)
Of course the story doesn’t end there. Corrie could not forgive, but God did. What’s more, He could provide Corrie with the wherewithal to forgive as well, and He did that too.
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. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’
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. (excerpt from The Hiding Place – emphasis mine)
Love is compelling, but a self-sacrificial act or the forgiveness offered to the sinner who has wronged us does not come from within the human heart. We can’t try harder. We can’t learn it through a twelve step program or even follow the example of someone else who’s forgiven greater things than we know.
What comes naturally to us is pay back. When we’ve given as good as we got, then we’ll forgive. But that’s not forgiveness at all. That’s retribution.
Sometimes we’ll “forgive” because we’re not the one who suffered. We think it’s time to let a criminal out of jail because he’s getting old and probably won’t hurt anyone any more. So out of a magnanimous sense of mercy we let the prisoner go free. Apart from the most general sense of being wronged because we’re part of the society whose laws were broken, we’re not the injured party and therefore not in a position to actually forgive.
It seems to me, the best we can do humanly speaking is tolerance. We don’t have in us the selfless kind of love that sacrifices or forgives, so we tolerate. And we preach tolerance as if it is an answer to the hate of the world.
It’s not. Love is the answer. And there’s only one source of true love. He who knew no sin, He who gave Himself up for us all. He who IS, also is love.