Thirteen years ago the question of forgiveness became a very real one for me. Every summer my whole family (me, Mum, Dad and younger brother and sister) packed into a caravanette full of aid, including food, clothes, medicine and Bibles, and journeyed off to Eastern Europe for six weeks.
My parents had been doing it since they were first married — they had even been in Prague when the Russians invaded — but as we kids got older, we tended to stay behind in the UK.
This particular year, when Mum and Dad approached the Romanian border, the lights failed on the vehicle. They stopped in a lay-by to wait for daylight, but were soon disturbed by a loud knocking on the door.
A young man dressed in black and holding ID stood before them, claiming in Hungarian that he was a policeman and they were illegally parked.
Mum and Dad doubted his authenticity, but paid the fine of £14. They would go to the police in the morning. However, the lads had seen inside the vehicle. Here was a western van, loaded with aid, in a remote place. It looked ripe for robbery, and so they returned an hour or so later.
As my parents were awoken by loud bangs once again, Dad clambered into the cab and put the key into the ignition.
Suddenly a masked man smashed through the driver’s window with an iron bar and began beating Dad to death. There was nothing Dad could do. He was trapped in his own seat, receiving blow after blow. And it was there he died, suffocating on his own blood. The men fled the scene, leaving Mum to try and resuscitate my father.
Having realised there was nothing she could do for him, Mum hid all the valuables — passports, money, her wedding ring etc., and then sat down to find comfort from the Bible. She said afterwards that she knew a tremendous peace; she knew that God was with her and watching over her, even if the lads did return.
Well, return they did, and in a further two attacks beat Mum up, left her for dead and stole items from the vehicle. Help finally came in the morning, when Mum was taken to hospital.
I was working in Kent at the time, and when the police had tracked me down, it really was like I was watching on from elsewhere, floating above the room or seeing things unfold on TV.
At that stage I merely felt numb, obliged to cry, but not really upset. And all the time I just kept on thinking ‘God works for the good of those who love him’, so please God, do something!
‘They beat Mum up, left her for dead and stole items from the vehicle’ — but still the penny hadn’t dropped. Still I hadn’t realised my Dad was dead. And it remained that way, until I walked into my Mum’s hospital room and heard the blow-by-blow account of what had happened a couple of days before, as she did a TV interview.
Until I saw with my own eyes what they had done to her, how they had bruised and mangled her face; until I listened to all my father had gone through; it was only then that I grasped what had happened.
Then pure hatred flowed through my veins; I wanted to lash out. It was then that my Mum uttered the most amazing words: ‘I don’t bear any malice towards them; in fact, I actually pray they will become Christians’.
It was the final straw. I stormed out of the room and onto the balcony. I was absolutely furious. How on earth could she say that?
And then, other questions began to flood my mind; questions like, ‘Do I really believe God exists and is in control?’, ‘Do I really believe God is good and his plans are perfect?’, ‘Do I really believe God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world?’, ‘Do I believe Jesus died in my place, to take the punishment I deserve?’
And as I answered yes to each and every one of them, I was then left with the question: ‘Well, how am I going to respond?’
I knew that I had accepted that God was the loving creator and ruler of the world, and that Jesus was his Son. I knew he was the king of my life and so knew in my head that I had to accept phrases like ‘Forgive one another’ and ‘Turn the other cheek’. But I didn’t know how I could do that.
How can I turn hatred to love, anger to peace, revenge to forgiveness? It wasn’t humanly possible and so I just prayed and begged God to change me. Instantly he answered.
My mind was stilled; my emotions transformed; I was able to forgive. And that transformation has stayed in place over the past 13 years. Through university, teaching and church work, through long, dark days and even longer, darker nights; through pain and confusion; through good times and bad; God’s help has remained constant, his enabling the same.
Mum visited the lads in prison and kept in touch with two of them. She gave them each a copy of the Bible and told them how she had forgiven them.
Then, many years later, we received a letter. Inside the envelope was a note from Istvan Dudas — the man who had killed my father.
He titled his letter ‘I caused death but had received life in exchange’. Istvan explained that he had realised for the first time that Jesus Christ had died on the cross in his place and even though he had killed someone, God could forgive him.
Istvan wrote: ‘That night I prayed to God as to my Father. I asked him to forgive me. As soon as I declared myself sinful I started to cry and the Lord Jesus lifted the burden off my heart. I also asked him to stay with me for ever’.
It was truly fantastic to read. God had forgiven another person. Istvan realised he had sinned. He asked the Lord to change him and take over the running of his life. God heard and answered that prayer, just as he heard and answered my balcony prayer for forgiveness.