“And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love really is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is so great you will never fully understand it. Then you will be filled with the fullness of life and power that comes from God.” Ephesians 3:18-19
“Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8
Over the weekend, I read The Hiding Place for the second time and our family watched the movie together; and so, the incredible challenge and inspiration of the Ten Boom family has continued to fill my thoughts. I have found myself drawn into their story, marveling along with Corrie at her sister Betsie’s loving heart toward their persecutors during WWII, and learning along with Corrie about real forgiveness and sacrificial love from Betsie’s amazing example.
The Ten Booms were Christians who were imprisoned for hiding and helping Jews during Germany’s occupation of Holland. Corrie and Betsie, unmarried sisters in their 50’s, lived with their father and worked with him in his watch repair shop on the first floor. Together they had successfully hidden six Jews in a special hiding place in the top floor of their old house. They praised God from prison when they received news that these Jews had remained hidden and safe when the Ten Booms were arrested and the house was searched. Corrie and Betsie were grieved to learn that their father only survived ten days in the men’s concentration camp before he died, but they were also thankful that he was spared any further suffering.
Corrie and Betsie also came to thank God for the ministry that He opened for them among their fellow prisoners, as they read aloud words of hope from smuggled Bibles and boldly proclaimed the message that God’s love is deeper than any pit and stronger than the evil all around them. Corrie and Betsie endured three different concentration camps during that horror-filled year of 1944, and Betsie died just before their release. Corrie went on to live until she was 91, traveling the world and sharing the beautiful message of Christ’s deep love and forgiveness from their personal experiences.
Corrie, as a child and young woman, was greatly impacted by her parents’ faith and love. Her heart was broken in her early 20’s when her one and only boyfriend, Karel, who had led Corrie to believe that they would get married, then destroyed this dream one day by bringing his fiancée to meet Corrie and her family. (Corrie later discovered that Karel’s mother had not approved of his plan to marry Corrie, but he didn’t have the courage to tell her directly.) I love the way Corrie’s wise father counseled her after this terrible heartbreak.
He said, “Corrie, do you know what hurts so very much? It’s love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill the love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies too. Or, Corrie, we can ask God to open up another route for that love to travel. God loves Karel—even more than you do—and if you ask Him, He will give you His love for this man, a love nothing can prevent, nothing destroy. Whatever we cannot love in the old, human way, Corrie, God can give us the perfect way.”
I did not know, as I listened to Father’s footsteps winding back down the stairs, that he had given me more than the key to this hard moment. I did not know that he had put into my hands the secret that would open far darker rooms than this—places where there was not, on a human level, anything to love at all.(p. 47)
Corrie’s mother had always suffered from poor health, and after a cerebral hemorrhage, she was paralyzed for the last three years of her life. She did not live to see the devastation of the Second World War, but Corrie carried into the war the lessons that she learned about love from her mother.
She wrote: “Mama’s love had always been the kind that acted itself out with a soup pot and a sewing basket. But now that these things were taken away, the love seemed as whole as before. She sat in her chair in the window and loved us. She loved the people she saw in the street—and beyond: her love took in the city, the land of Holland, the world. And so I learned that love is larger than the walls which shut it in.” (p. 50)
Betsie, like their mother, also suffered from poor health, and because of her illness, was told that she could never have children; so she decided not to marry. Also like their mother, Betsie was full of compassion for people in need, and was constantly serving and giving to others. She had an amazing ability to see their lives from God’s perspective and to completely trust God’s hand of sovereignty over all of their circumstances.
When Corrie and Betsie were transferred from the Scheveningen prison to the Vught prison, whispers of hope reached them, that maybe they were being released. But when it became clear that freedom was not in their immediate future, Corrie was devastated and cried out to her sister.
“Betsie!” I wailed, “how long will it take?”
“Perhaps a long, long time. Perhaps many years. But what better way could there be to spend our lives?”
I turned to stare at her.
“Whatever are you talking about?”
“These young women. That girl back at the bunkers. Corrie, if people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love! We must find a way, you and I, no matter how long it takes…”
She went on, almost forgetting in her excitement to keep her voice to a whisper, while I slowly took in the fact that she was talking about our guards. I glanced at the matron seated at the desk ahead of us. I saw a gray uniform and a visored hat; Betsie saw a wounded human being.
And I wondered, not for the first time, what sort of person she was, this sister of mine…what kind of road she followed while I trudged beside her on an all-too-solid earth.” (p. 161)
After arriving at the Vught prison, Corrie and Betsie learned the name of the man who had betrayed their family. Jan Vogel had pretended to be a Jew who needed money, and when the Ten Booms generously gave him what he asked for, the police had sufficient evidence to arrest their family for being involved in the underground movement. Once she learned his name, Corrie was instantly filled with hatred for this man, and was sick in her body and spirit for a week.
What puzzled me all this time was Betsie. She had suffered everything I had and yet seemed to carry no burden of rage.
“Betsie, don’t you feel anything for Jan Vogel? Doesn’t it bother you?”
“Oh yes, Corrie! Terribly! I’ve felt for him ever since I knew—and pray for him whenever his name comes to mind. How dreadfully he must be suffering!”
Once again I had this feeling that this sister with whom I had spent all my life belonged somehow to another order of beings. Wasn’t she telling me in her gentle way that I was as guilty as Jan Vogel? Didn’t he and I stand together before an all-seeing God convicted of the same sin of murder? For I had murdered him in my heart and with my tongue.”
“Lord Jesus,” I whispered. “I forgive Jan Vogel as I pray that you will forgive me. I have done him great damage. Bless him now and his family…” (p. 165)
And then, at the third and worst prison of all, Ravensbruk, Corrie was greatly tempted to think just of herself and of Betsie. She maneuvered the two of them into the middle of the roll call formation to seek some protection from the bitter cold. She tried to hoard the precious vitamins for only Betsie, as her health was getting worse. And, she discovered, there were many ways that she could justify her actions. The Ten Boom sisters had an amazing ministry to the women in the camp, and wouldn’t God want them to be able to continue it?
The camp was built for only 400 people, but 1400 women were squeezed into Ravensbruk, with more continuing to come in from other camps that had been shut down. One night, a new prisoner was assigned to their barracks who had no blanket.
Betsie insisted we give her one of ours. So that evening I “lent” her a blanket. But I didn’t “give” it to her. In my heart I held onto the right to that blanket.
Was it coincidence that joy and power imperceptibly drained from my ministry?
Then in the early morning, Corrie read in 2 Corinthians 12 about Paul’s weakness, and she understood.
The truth blazed like sunlight in the shadows of Barracks 28. The real sin I had been committing was not that of inching toward the center of a platoon because I was cold.
The real sin lay in thinking that any power to help and transform came from me. Of course, it was not my wholeness, but Christ’s that made the difference.
…to that group of women clustering close I told the truth about myself—my self-centeredness, my stinginess, my lack of love. That night real joy returned to my worship. (p. 193)
Corrie’s final challenge to love, before she was released from prison life, came in the hospital, as she was diagnosed with edema a few days after her beloved Betsie’s death.
The suffering was unimaginable. Around me were survivors of a prison train which had been bombed on its way here. The women were horribly mutilated and in terrible pain, but at each moan two of the nurses jeered and mimicked the sounds. Even in the other patients I saw that stony indifference to others that was the most fatal disease of the concentration camp. I felt it spread to myself: how could one survive if one kept on feeling! The paralyzed and the unconscious kept falling out of the crowded narrow cots; that first night four women fell from upper bunks and died on the floor. It was better to narrow the mind to one’s own need, not to see, not to think. (p. 202)
But Corrie did allow herself to see, to feel and to love those suffering women, even when they did not respond with love back to her. She chose not to narrow her mind to her own need in order to survive. Through all that she had experienced, God had shown her how to keep her heart open for His deep love to travel through her to others. It was not her own human love, which she knew was greatly limited, but the richness of Christ’s love in her that knew no end. God had built into her life the lesson her father had taught her when her heart was first broken:
Whatever we cannot love in the old, human way, Corrie, God can give us the perfect way.
How I too long to love others like the Ten Booms: with God’s deep and measureless love, in His perfect way, with His unlimited power, working through my imperfection and my weakness.
“My gracious favor is all you need. My power works best in your weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weakness, so that the power of Christ may work through me.
2 Corinthians 12:9