by Lenny Cacchio
In Matthew 18 Jesus teaches a lesson about forgiveness with an interesting twist. This is a tale forgiveness that is not paid forward, and ends with the rich man, who represents God, condemning the unforgiving soul to be handed over to tormentors.
This strikes us as a bit harsh for a loving God, but Jesus was actually teaching a fact of psychological health validated by modern psychology. To illustrate this point I want to relate the story of Louie Zamperini, made famous through Lauren Hillenbrand’s biography Unbroken and lately in a movie of the same title directed by Angelina Jolie.
Zamperini was a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team and achieved some worldwide notoriety due to his performance. A few years later, after Pearl Harbor, he was a bombardier in the Army Air Force in the Pacific Theater. His plane went down while on a search mission, and he spent the next 47 days in a raft in shark-infested waters, drifting westward with the current toward Japanese occupied territory.
On the 47th day he was picked up at sea by a Japanese ship and was transferred to a POW camp where he faced beatings and indignations the likes of which are too grotesque to explain here.
Of particular interest to us is a camp commander whom the POWs nicknamed “The Bird”. At the end of the war The Bird’s name was on the 40 most-wanted list for war crimes in the Pacific Theater. His mission was to break as many of the POWs as he could, stealing from them as much of their dignity and humanity as possible. His word was law without appeal, and he had the power of life and death over every inmate. He was especially bent upon destroying the former Olympic runner Louie Zamperini.
In Zamperini’s dreams he fantasized lashing out at the Bird, including beating him and strangling him to death. These feeling of outrage and hate stayed in Zamperini’s head for years after his liberation and return to Southern California. The Bird was a constant fixture in his dreams and nightmares. Long after the war the lingering effects of psychological abuse allowed the Bird to torment Louie’s psyche across the years and the 5,500 miles that separated them.
One night Louie was wrestling with this phantom Bird in his head. In his nightmare Louie overcomes the Bird and he is strangling the Bird to death, and as he squeezes his hands around his enemy’s neck, he awakens from his dream to find that he is strangling his wife.
You see how unforgiveness can torment your soul.
It’s in the midst of this turmoil that Billy Graham has his first major crusade, and it happens to be in Los Angeles, where Louie and his wife live. She convinces him to go.
After just a few nights Louie has a religious experience, goes home, dumps all his booze down the drain and destroys all his cigarettes. But there is something else he knows he must do.
He goes to Japan.
The former prison guards at this time are for the most part still in custody, and Louie especially wants to see the Bird.
It is here where we see the promise of the Proverb fulfilled. Proverbs 25:21. If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
Louie greeted the former guards, his former enemies, now inmates themselves, as friends. He forgave them. But there was one who refused to meet with him. It was The Bird. The Bird would not accept his forgiveness nor even admit that he had done anything wrong. But Louie, instead of brooding over it, felt sorrow and sadness over a lost soul. He had let his hate and anger go.
Thus the Bird lost his grip on Louie’s psyche and his life. The nightmares went away forever.
When Jesus said that an unforgiving spirit allows you to be handed over to the tormentors, he wasn’t talking about a band of demons with flamethrowers. He was talking about the torment of mind that grips us when we gunnysack our hate and anger and feed on it. If we allow The Birds in our lives to get into our heads and stay there, they will continue to torment us just as Jesus said they would until we let go. When Jesus tells us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, it might just happen that it will bring about a change in their lives. But if not, it will surely bring about a change in yours.