“We may indeed thank our Heavenly Father that even our poor human love is inexhaustible, like the Norse drinking cup of old that none could empty, for its base was open and reached to the sea. So the love we have to give to those among whom our Lord has placed us, if it is the true heavenly gift and not a shabby human imitation, is inexhaustible, for it too reaches a sea truly more ‘boundless than Ocean’s tide.'” The Letter “M” (from El Couffa the Algiers Mission Band’s in-house magazine)
Years ago, Joyce Landorf wrote a book, Irregular People, which seemed to strike a chord if books sales are a reliable indication of interest. She defined an “irregular person” as “that person who is blind, deaf, and mute to your deepest needs, no matter how hard you try to communicate.”
She went on to surmise that most people have at least one “irregular person” in their lives. Furthermore, it was most likely someone close to us – perhaps even in our own family or workplace. It seems that nothing we do or say makes a difference to that person or to our relationship. For all apparent purposes this person has been placed in this world to make our lives miserable. Life would just be better if that person could – well, move away. . . .
My father often talked about a gentleman in his first congregation who, predictably, was for whatever he was against – and against whatever he was for. He became immortalized in our family as the embodiment of Joyce Landor’s “irregular person” and, through the years when we experienced such a person we would say, “He (or she) is our John Doe.” (fictitious name, of course.)
Missionaries are not immune to frustrating relationships. Lilias wrote specifically about such in their in-house publications, El Couffa. While she acknowledges a limit in our capacity to truly love the unloveable – irregular person – in our lives she does not stop there. Her corrective was to draw upon a limitless source of love: “We may indeed thank our Heavenly Father”. . . that while our poor human love has limits – “the love we have to give to those among whom our Lord has placed us. . . is inexhaustible. . .” I am at once comforted to know that I am not alone in such feelings – and that there are resources beyond my human limitations.
Still, love needs some handles to grasp when things are emotionally out of our control. When a situation seems intolerable. When we don’t even want to love. When it seems to “love” someone is a violation of our integrity.
At the heart of loving the “unloveable” – the person that has wronged me. . . or continually misunderstood or misrepresented me. . . or just for some inexplicable reason habitually “gets under my skin – involves some form of forgiveness. True “forgiveness,” as I understand it, involves giving up my rights to hold someone accountable to me. It involves release.
This can be a radical form of release or something quite simple, really. It can lead to greater understanding – as we release our expectations for another – or it can lead to nothing at all. As if the person in question had no idea of the great “gift of forgiveness” we have given them thinking they have nothing for which to be forgiven. But, at the end of the day, it is really ourselves that have been liberated through the act of forgiving.
This begs the question: Are there limits to loving? Aren’t some situations simply beyond such deserving? Sins or crimes beyond forgetting much less forgiving? How can we ever trust someone who has so betrayed us – or humanity, in general, considering crimes of mass proportions?
Love is not trust. Trust must be earned. But love is a gift given – not necessarily merited.
This was Corrie ten Boom’s delemma when she came face to face with the Nazi guard who shamed and devalued both herself and her sister at Ravensbruck where they were imprisoned for hiding Jews in their home. She had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message of God’s forgiveness. “When we confess our sins,” she said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.”
And then she saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment she saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush of shame of walking naked past this man. She could see her dying sister’s frail form ahead of her, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin.
He came to her, hand thrust out: “A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea! You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk. I was a guard there. But since that time 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 his hand reached out.
In that moment, that seemed an eternity, Corrie stood there frozen. She wrestled with the most difficult thing she ever had to do. She considered her words of encouragement. . . God’s words of forgiveness. . . and Christ’s words of warning: “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father in heaven forgive you your trespasses.”
“‘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.”
I have never had to forgive anyone at that level. I doubt that I ever will. But I do know this: If God’s love was sufficient for Corrie’s mortal wounds it certainly is enough for the minor bruises and cuts that I experience along the journey.
“O God, fountain of love,
Pour Thy love into our souls.”
Painting: Diary 1907