From Broken To Forgiven

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NewBostonPost is publishing a regular weekly column by local religious leaders each Friday. This week’s article is below.


Louie Zamperini went from a 19-year old Olympian to an Air Force bombardier to a prisoner of war in Japan.  The early part of Zamperini’s story is narrated in Laura Hillenbrand’s biography Unbroken, made into a motion picture in 2014.   

For two and a half years during World War II, he was brutalized in a POW camp. The average Pacific POW lost 40 percent of his body weight. POWs were chronically malnourished and vulnerable to terrible diseases.

When this former Olympian returned to America, he weighed less than 100 pounds. Yet it was the emotional injuries POWs suffered that far outlasted the damage to their body.  In a 1987 research study, approximately 45 years after the war, 60 percent of American prisoners of war in the Pacific still suffered significant psychiatric impairment.  Time alone does not heal all wounds.


A Broken Life

Zamperini was gallantly portrayed by the media and the military as one with an “Unbroken” indomitable American spirit.  However, the truth is he was falling apart. He suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome. He had nightmares each night. He would wake up in a cold sweat.  One night he awoke on top of his wife, gripping her neck, screaming at the prison camp lieutenant, “I am still a man!” He became a heavy drinker. His wife asked for a divorce.  No longer running for Olympic gold, Zamperini was now pursuing darker aims:  He was determined to return to Japan in order to murder those who brutalized him.

If you watch the movie Unbroken, it glosses over the aftermath of his return to America. According to the movie, Zamperini is the great hero who fights off sharks for 47 days in the Pacific and has an unconquerable spirit while in enemy custody.

The movie entertains but misleads. As bad as his treatment was in enemy custody, the darkest part of Zamperini’s life took place after he came home. This man’s treatment as a prisoner broke him. Bitterness consumed him. His anger over it devoured his soul. He was ruled by a spirit of unforgiveness. His body was no longer in the POW camp, but the POW camp was in him.


The Unbroken Soul

At the heart of Jesus’s teaching is forgiveness. After Jesus had been falsely accused, condemned by a kangaroo court of religious “righteousness” and secular “justice,” he suffered unknown brutality. Yet as Jesus hung on a Roman cross, the first words he is known to have spoken were “Father, forgive them …” (Luke 23:34).  As Jesus’s body was ruined, his soul remained unbroken. 

While Jesus asked the Father to forgive, one important question is who are “them”? The obvious answer is the people crucifying him that day. The less obvious answer is all people in all history.

In fact, Jesus’s prayer for forgiveness was unprecedented in all of antiquity. There is no record of anyone speaking in this way before Jesus says these words during his murder. Something extraordinary happened, transcending the evil actions performed against him that day.  In fact, Jesus’s prayer fulfilled the prophecy about his death, written by Isaiah 700 years before.  “He bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).  Jesus’s “intercession” (which means “prayer”) was not for a few but for “many.”  The prophetic words for the sin of many are broad, and so Jesus’s prayer of forgiveness “for them” is likewise all-encompassing.

In other words, Jesus’s powerful prayer on the cross for forgiveness of sins was made for all willing to call upon him as Lord and Savior. As he speaks these unparalleled words, he simultaneously is receiving the penalty of sins of the whole world upon himself. This includes the sins of his murderers, but it also includes my sin and yours. This is a pivotal moment in history from which is the fount of all forgiveness. Jesus’s prayer and action on the cross is the source of forgiveness.  It is a forgiveness that changes our broken relationship with God, and our broken relationship with one another.


From Broken To Forgiven

For four years, Louie Zamperini was imploding under the weight of alcoholism, revenge, and PTSD, but underneath these, the deepest problem was unforgiveness.  Louie did not believe that he needed to be forgiven by God, nor did the thought occur to him that he could (or should) forgive his captors.

After much pleading from his wife, Cynthia, who was on the verge of finalizing their divorce, they went together in 1949 to hear an unknown preacher in downtown Los Angeles.  Cynthia gave her life to Jesus, overwhelmed with joy that she was forgiven by God.  Receiving God’s forgiveness helped her forgive Louie.  That night she announced to him that she no longer was seeking divorce.  Louie was elated, but skeptical about the God thing.  As he heard the preacher, he argued silently with him that there was no God who loved him.  Louie was alone, needing to make his own way in the world.  He scoffed as he left the revival meeting.

That night in his sleep, the same recurring nightmare returned. The POW camp lieutenant mercilessly whipped Louie across his face with the same leather belt.  But for the first time the dream changed.  The face of the Japanese lieutenant transmuted into the face of the devil himself.  Louie awoke stunned.  He realized that he was still captive, but to a far greater spiritual evil than he previously recognized.

Cynthia and Louie returned the next night to the revival meeting.  Louie had the same negative reaction to the preacher, Dr. Billy Graham.  Like the night before, he rose to leave the meeting in unbelief.  As he turned, Louie had another wartime flashback.  This would become the last of his life.  A forgotten memory bubbled up, one deeply suppressed.  His mind’s eye returned to the raft floating on the Pacific, three men shriveled, circled by sharks, dying of thirst.  He watched his parched lips utter a prayer whispered in desperation.  “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.”  That promise was long forgotten as it was swallowed by his own unforgiveness.  But now Louie faced a pivotal moment in his own history. Despite the arduous trek, God had answered his prayer to be saved.  For the first time, Louie realized he never had been alone.  God’s love was surrounding him.  His rage, which soured into unforgiveness, suppressed his memory.  Louie felt a longing to go to God, keeping an old promise.

Perhaps in the most courageous moment of his life, he stepped forward that night at the revival meeting.  He asked God to forgive him through Jesus.  He asked Jesus to come into his life.  The prayer of Jesus, “Father, forgive them,” became living and active in Louie. 

Everything changed.  Louie went home that night and dumped his alcohol down the kitchen sink.  He woke up the next morning in disbelief that the recurring nightmare did not return.  The forgiveness of Jesus entered into his soul.  The miracle of forgiveness dispelled revenge and all its consequences.  Louie lived to 97 years old, never having another flashback or nightmare. 


From Forgiven To Forgiving

The next year Zamperini was permitted to return to Sugamo Prison in Tokyo, which was now holding Japanese war criminals, including some of the same men who inflicted so much senseless violence against him.  When Louie got there, he hugged his former guards with affection.  Louie spoke to the prisoners that day, telling them about his own changed life.  Jesus changes the man from the inside-out.  Louie admitted to being utterly broken by the desire for revenge.  He told the prisoners how he had been looking for an opportunity to return with the intent to murder.  He told them that just as Jesus forgave him, so he freely forgave them.  Some of the Japanese men doubted, but others called upon Jesus that day.  Many were amazed to learn, not only of Louie’s heart of forgiveness, but by the Greater One, whose prayer from long ago was still transforming lives:  “Father, forgive them.”

This pathway was made by the one and only who is Unbroken, Jesus, who lovingly offers each of us the forgiveness of sins.  May each of us find the forgiveness of Jesus, experiencing this wonderful transformation, from broken to forgiven.  


The Reverend Dr. Michael J. Balboni is Associate Minister at Park Street Church in Boston.


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