“If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.”  Matthew 6:14-15.

Louie Zamperini made a prayer while in a lifeboat adrift in the Pacific Ocean that would change his life. He prayed “if you will save me, I will serve you forever.”

He’d been saved from death on the high seas and death at the hands of his tormentors. He’d made it through the endless humiliations and indignities of life in a rat-infested prison camp. He made it through the first part of the prayer, but it was too much to give up revenge against the Japanese soldier, the Bird, who had tortured him. But when Louie accepted Jesus at a Billy Graham crusade all that changed. He lost his desire to kill the Bird.  He no longer hated the guards who’d tortured him.  All the anger and bitterness was gone. He wanted to do the right thing, but could he do it. Could he go back to Japan, to see the people who’d tormented and humiliated him? What if it meant talking with the guards who’d beat and starved him?  What if it meant … forgiving … them?

Louie decided he had to return to Japan and to visit Sugamo Prison. Many of his former guards were serving sentences there. Louis forgave his former captors and during a speaking tour in Tokyo in 1952, Louis had the opportunity to meet with prisoners at Sugamo prison, which was filled with 850 Japanese war criminals. After speaking to the prisoners,  Louis had requested to meet with his former guards personally. “I looked out and saw them coming down the aisle and, of course, I recognized each one of them vividly. I didn’t even think of my reaction—I jumped off the stage, ran down and threw my arm around them, and they withdrew from me. They couldn’t understand the forgiveness. We went in the room and there, of course, I continued to press the issue of Christianity, you see. And all but one made a decision for Christ.”

One former Japanese soldier wondered how he could forgive these men who treated him so badly. Louis responded, “well, Mr. Sasaki, the greatest story of forgiveness the world’s ever known was the cross. When Christ was crucified He said, ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.’ And I said, ‘It is only through the Cross that I can come back here and say this, but I do forgive you.’” Then he responded to the invitation to become a Christian. 

Louis even attempted to meet with the Bird, but he refused. Instead, Louis sent him a letter which expressed his forgiveness. Here are the words that he wrote to The Bird, the man that tortured and dehumanized him as a POW for so many months:

To Mutsuhiro Watanabe,

As a result of my prisoner of war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post-war life became a nightmare. It was not so much due to the pain and suffering as it was the tension of stress and humiliation that caused me to hate with a vengeance. Under your discipline, my rights, not only as a prisoner of war but also as a human being, were stripped from me. It was a struggle to maintain enough dignity and hope to live until the war’s end.The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love has replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, “Forgive your enemies and pray for them.”As you probably know, I returned to Japan in 1952 and was graciously allowed to address all the Japanese war criminals at Sugamo Priso.  I asked them about you, and was told that you probably had committed Hara Kiri, which I was sad to hear. At that moment, like the others, I also forgave you and now would hope that you would also become a Christian.”

More than just a tale of courage and resilience, Louis Zamperini’s life is a powerful look at the transforming grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are your current impressions of forgiveness? (A one time event? A forgone conclusion? Something you earn? Always available? Something you offer? Impossible?)
  2. What puts you off or draws you in about forgiveness?
  3. Do you think you could forgive the Bird if you were in Louie’s shoes?
  4. Do you believe that forgiveness can also bring healing?