If you forgive those who sin against you,
Your heavenly Father will forgive you.
But if you refuse to forgive others,
Your Father will not forgive your sins.
Every day we hear about horrible family, personal and national tragedies. To my knowledge there are not many people who have experienced the loss of several family members at one time – as did many of us who lost loved ones at Jonestown – but many people have experienced pain, hurt, rejection, and broken promises from family members, friends and associates. With that kind of emotional and physical pain there are times when forgiveness seems nearly impossible.
We are all in need of healing and forgiveness. We all also need to express or extend it to others. But how can we do it? Well, in our own strength we cannot do it. We need the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives.
Corrie ten Boom, one of my heroes and a great hero of the Christian faith, found herself in such a dilemma. She lost her sister and father in Nazi death camps and nearly lost her own life too. Years after her release, she began to speak publicly on the merits of Christian forgiveness, but her own ability to do so was challenged when she confronted a former death house guard following one of her presentations:
He came to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,” he said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!”
His hand thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often about the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. I tried to smile; I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so I breathed a silent prayer, Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.
As I took his hand in mine, the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand, a current seemed to pass from me to him, while in my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.
And so I discovered that it is not our forgiveness any more than our goodness that the world’s healing hinges on, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself.
I have been hurt by many people, beginning at age three when I was sexually abused by an uncle, and at nineteen by the pastor of church we were attending. That abuse caused me to run away from the Baptist church and embrace Jim Jones, a man I loved and respected, a man who eventually destroyed my family. That turned out to be the most devastating abuse of them all.
Because of my loyalty to Jim Jones at that time, I could not bring myself to hate him for the murder of my family. I had been a member of the Peoples Temple for five years, I had given my all to a man I called, “Father.” I believed in Jim Jones and the work he was doing. I had never seen anyone do the things he was doing. He was feeding the hungry, providing homes and education to all who needed or wanted it, he was bringing people of all races and colors together in love. He promised us a better life here on earth. It seemed too good to be true, but we gave up everything we owned to follow this man.
I never found out who the man with dark sunglasses and long robes was, the man behind the humanitarian deeds. What were his motives? I had been deceived, but it was too late! He had many people fooled, and not just his followers, but politicians, community activists, social workers, and other preachers. How could we have known death was in the future for 913 dear souls?
I felt a lot of guilt over the loss of my mother, and the rest of my family. I was the first to join the group, the first to tell my family about the work of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones. I saw Peoples Temple as a safe haven for me. My mom saw it as a safe haven for my younger brothers, to keep them away from drugs, off the street and out of jail. She probably thought if I was willing to stay on even after being brought up on the floor on false charges and paying a fine, there had to be something good there. We were both wrong. But they paid the real price. If I had stood up for myself against false accusation, if I had resisted, maybe they would still be living right now.
When my mom left to go to Jonestown, I was assigned as the nurse and one of the counselors for the bus. I did not spend any time with her or my younger sister and brothers. I let them walk off that bus and out of my life without even a hug or kiss goodbye. I did not find out how my dad felt about them leaving. You cannot imagine the pain I felt when I found out my mother had made an agreement with my dad to bring the children back to the States after six months. When she went to Jim to honor that agreement, though, he would not let her go. He said, “I paid your way over here. I am not paying your way back.”
I left San Francisco in February 1979 – two months after their deaths – filled with anger and bitterness for the man and cause I had loved and supported. I struggled to find answers to why this had happened to me and my family. My life was going downhill fast. I felt so far away from God, I thought there was no way He could – or would – help me. Jim Jones had been my source for answers for five years. Now that he was gone, who would be my source now?
In the midst of my struggle I started drinking and living a very promiscuous lifestyle. In July 1981, I found out I was pregnant. The man I was dating said he did not want another baby, and I thought I would not be able to support a child by myself. I could not handle the shame and guilt of being single and pregnant. On September 16, 1981, I had an abortion. On November 11, 1981 – less that two months later – my dad died of a massive heart attack. I thought God was punishing me for killing my baby by taking my dad away from me. If anyone had a reason to give up and end their life, it was me. I felt so all alone!
I struggle with God sometimes about sharing some of the things that have occurred in my life. God said, “Many people will hear your testimony and it will be used to touch lives, it will show that I am a merciful God and that there is healing and forgiveness to all who call upon My name.” Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature, old things have passed away, behold all things have become new.”
Forgiveness does not come easy. I would never say it does. God is the only one who can help you forgive someone. It took me several years to come to the point that I could forgive the uncle who molested me when I was a child, the pastor who abused me when I was a teenager, and the cult leader who murdered twelve members of my family.
I buried my feelings deep inside, never bringing them to the surface. When I started sharing my testimony, God brought these words to my mind, “Have you forgiven those men?” I had not. I bowed my head right then and there and prayed, “Lord help me forgive these men who have hurt me.” As the tears flowed, I sensed God’s healing and forgiveness in my own life.
This does not mean I have forgotten those incidents, but my heart does not burn with anger when I speak about them. Instead I speak of them as a source of encouragement for others. Because Jesus Christ now lives in me, I am able to deal with the pain and heartache from my past. He gives me strength to deal with the trials and storms now and in the future. He truly is the one who is the source of answers for my life.
Of course it is difficult to forgive terrible hurts and perhaps you, like Corrie ten Boom, cannot even think of forgiving in your own strength. So, what can you do? Try these three steps:
* Grieve: Acknowledge in your mind and heart that you’ve been wronged. Tell God how you feel about it. Let your emotions pour out. Shakespeare said, “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.” Cicero said, “There is no grief which time does not lessen and soften.”
* Forgive: Even if you can hardly bring yourself to speak the words, acknowledge in your heart that God desires you to forgive. Ask for His forgiveness to envelope your life. Be totally honest with God about your feelings. And remember, forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note, torn in two and burned up, so that it can never be shown against the man.
* Let Go: If you’ve grieved your situation from every angle you can think of and asked the Lord to let His forgiveness flow through you, you’ve pretty much done all you can do. Now you have to let it go and trust that God is true to His character. Trust that He is a just and loving God who has the power to release you from your prison.
I do not minimize the pains and hurts of others, and neither should anyone else. This is what has happened to you, and you will work on it in your own time. I just want to encourage you with these words: the sooner you let go of the anger, bitterness and unforgiveness, the sooner you will start to experience healing and forgiveness in your own life.
Remember, God loves you and offers the best for you. Only you can decide whether or not you will claim it. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and that more abundantly.” Are you living the abundant life?
Dr. Billy Graham tells this story, “A little child playing one day with a very valuable vase put his hand into it and could not withdraw it. His father, too, tried his best, but all in vain. They were thinking of breaking the vase when the father said, ‘Now, my son, make one more try. Open your hand and hold your fingers out straight as you see me doing, and then pull.’
“To their astonishment the little fellow said, ‘Oh no, father. I couldn’t put my fingers out like that, because if I did, I would drop my penny.'”
Smile, if you will, but thousands of us are like that little boy, so busy holding on to the world’s worthless penny that we cannot accept liberation. I beg you to drop that trifle in your heart. Surrender! Let go, and let God have His way in your life.
Grieve, forgive, and let go. God bless you!
(Hattie Newell is a nurse who lives in Highland, California. Her collected articles appear here.)