“It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S.S. man who had stood guard…He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. ‘How grateful I am for your message…To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!’
His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often…the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side…I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not…And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give Your forgiveness…” (The Hiding Place, p. 247).
I’m not really sure how I lived to adulthood without reading The Hiding Place. While I was aware of Corrie ten Boom’s story, I had never actually read her most famous work until a year or two ago. Once I cracked the cover, I was riveted. Whatever else I had planned to do that evening, I left it undone as I was swept into the lives of a simple family in an unprecedented time. I wouldn’t go to sleep that night until I had soaked up each page.
Most of us are at least vaguely familiar with the ten Boom family story. Corrie ten Boom lived with her sister and elderly father, a watchmaker, in Holland as the Third Reich made its devastating sweep toward their country. When Hitler conquered Holland, the ten Boom home became a fortress for those who sought to do good while those in power did evil. Corrie and her family were quickly pulled into the underground resistance, organizing refuge for hunted people (and hiding many themselves), arranging clandestine meetings, and joining in other resistance activities.
One day a man pretending to be a Jew in distress arrived at the ten Boom home, and Corrie gave him incriminating information. It wasn’t long before the Nazis came knocking, and the three ten Booms, as well as other relatives, were arrested. Corrie’s father died within two weeks of his arrest, and, during their time in the concentration camp Ravensbruck, her beloved sister Betsie passed away as well. Eventually, Corrie was released, and after the war traveled as a speaker and helped rehabilitate sufferers from the tragedy.
We have all heard much about the Holocaust, the Third Reich, and Nazi atrocities. But here in our 21st-century American lives, as we enjoy an easier life than any generation before us—and than many of our modern brothers and sisters worldwide—we simply have no idea. The sufferings Corrie and her family faced are beyond our imaginations. Even when we have read the book.
Corrie endured extreme deprivation of food, sleep, privacy, and basic human rights. For months, her reality was filled with sickness, grief, pain, and unimaginable cruelty. She had done what was right when wrong was rewarded, and as a result she hourly struggled between simply surviving versus choosing to honor God in a place of hardship.
After “The Hiding Place”
Contrary to what many people might expect, Corrie’s difficulties didn’t end with VE Day. For millions of people, life was irreversibly changed by the horrors of World War II. For the young wives and fiancés whose dreams ended on the battlefield, for fathers and mothers whose pride and joy never came home, for survivors of horrific brutality—for people like Corrie ten Boom—life never went back to normal.
Much of Europe was ransacked. Buried amid the rubble and ruin of the cities were the grief and pain of many, many people—including Corrie. Through the tragedies of the early 1940s, she grieved the deaths of her father, sister, nephew, and some friends. The pain of those losses was not erased with a treaty or surrender.
In postwar Holland, as millions around the world began to pick up the pieces of their lives, Corrie continued to rest in the God who had sustained her through Ravensbruck. And the God of impossible places continued to sustain her. As Corrie traveled Europe, the ten Boom story shared hope and healing with many hurting audiences.
It was after one of Corrie’s postwar talks in defeated Germany that one of her former guards, now a Christian, approached her to thank her for her healing words. Although he didn’t seem to remember her, Corrie recognized him instantly.
“I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not…And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give Your forgiveness… (The Hiding Place, p. 247).
What do we do with a story like Corrie ten Boom’s? How could we ever live up to such a life?
Corrie played a valuable role in the local Dutch resistance to Nazi occupation. She arranged hiding places and provided them, passed along coded messages, helped obtain needed ration cards, and shared the light of Christ in a dark time. Even while in concentration camps, she worked to help others in need, despite her own trials and suffering. She grappled with grief for the cruel deaths of her friends and family members. No doubt about it, Corrie ten Boom’s example of faith and difficult obedience is a daunting one to follow.
But here she struggled. Corrie—the defender, the risk-taker, the survivor—couldn’t bring herself to shake his hand. She had suffered through cruelty and injustice, endured hunger and exhaustion, but forgiving that guard for what he did to her, to her sister, to many innocent people?
Corrie ten Boom couldn’t do it.
It’s easy to think of the ten Booms as spiritual super-warriors. It’s tempting to classify Corrie and her family in the impossibly-amazing-and-totally-overachiever category and try to write off any responsibility we may have to follow in their footsteps.
But Corrie was human, just like us. The difficulties she faced were exactly that—difficult. How many days she must have thought she couldn’t go on any longer? How many nights she must have cried herself to sleep? How her heart must have railed against forgiveness?
There were many days Corrie ten Boom just couldn’t do it.
At some point, each of us will face days darker than we think we can survive. Eventually we will find ourselves in situations it just isn’t possible for us to overcome. But we will find, as Corrie did, that God is with us there—and provides the strength we think impossible.
“As I took his hand 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 into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.
“And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives along with the command, the love itself” (The Hiding Place, p. 247-248).
What do we do with a story like Corrie’s?
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
We praise God for His presence in Corrie’s life. And then we live ours, knowing that, no matter what comes our way, His presence will shape our stories, too.
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