Forgiveness is one of the most powerful demonstrations of how the Gospel transforms us. I want to share an example from my gran (we always called her Oma) who became a Christian in her 80s.
Oma’s life was spent with one foot in Asia and
another in Europe. She was born into one of the wealthiest families in
Indonesia. Her father was a Baron from the Netherlands and her mother was from
a leading Indonesian family.
Her privileged childhood was interrupted by the Japanese
invasion during World War II. Many decades later, Japan again disrupted her
family life. Her grandson planned to marry a Japanese woman.
Surviving war times
Oma lived in one of the most exclusive houses in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. She could never have imagined the house she grew up in would become the headquarters for the invading Japanese army in March 1942.
The Japanese army captured her father and took him
to a prisoner of war camp. The rest of the family fled and their house was
seized. Overnight they had gone from a house full of servants to a life of
danger and poverty.
Oma was only in her mid-teens but was the eldest
child and even then had an irrepressible nature. She became the bread-winner.
Somehow, the family survived to the end of the War. All except Oma’s father. He tragically died a few months before the end of the Second World War. He had been slowly starved to death to prolong his suffering.
Oma met my granddad when he was stationed in
Indonesia after the war. As a military family, they travelled to many places
including Yemen and Singapore before settling in the UK.
Life in the UK
When Oma entered a room, everyone knew it. People
used to nickname her Tina Turner in her older years because of her dark skin
and highlighted hair. But also because of her love for music, dancing, and her
Despite the vast differences between Jakarta and
Belfast, Oma easily settled to the UK. She always did everything with 100%
commitment. Oma loved Britain and learned to speak English without a trace of a
foreign accent. She was as skilled at Roast Beef, Yorkshire puddings, and apple
pie; as cooking with the intoxicating spices of South East Asia.
Indonesia and the Japanese
However much she loved the UK, Indonesia never left Oma. Her cooking became legendary. Aromas from the kitchen transported us from cold grey England to the sunny Tropics.
The smell of garlic, galangal, ‘stink beans’, and trassie (fermented shrimp paste) filled the air. As we ate our eyes streamed, our mouths burned, our taste buds danced. We mourned the return to English cooking after she left.
Oma took seriously her
family’s motto nil desperandum — never despair. No crisis or
challenge was beyond her. Except one. Her father’s death led to a hatred of the
Japanese she could not shift.
She would often speak of Indonesia. How much she
loved her father. Many decades later, the pain was still etched on her face as
if it had happened yesterday. She could never face returning there, no matter
how often I asked.
I grew up in the 1980s when all my classmates had a
Sony Walkman. Their families switched to the more reliable and better value
Our family refused to buy any Japanese products.
All our electronics were from Phillips. Our cars from Europe.
I remember once my uncle bought a Daihatsu car and
tried to convince everyone it was made in South Korea! Oma rolled her eyes
As children, we knew if we didn’t eat our dinner,
we would hear a familiar phrase:
“Three and a half years under the Japanese and
you’ll eat anything.”
Becoming a Christian
Oma would tell us fascinating stories of witch
doctors and black magic in Indonesia. But we were a secular family, weddings or
funerals were the only time we went to church.
However, in my final year of university, I became a
Christian. With the zeal of a recent convert, I tried to steer every
conversation to the Gospel.
Despite my insufferable attempts to reach out to my
family — Oma became a Christian in her 80s. She loved the rational arguments of
Paul in Romans, and the reflectiveness of John’s Gospel, particularly these
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who
believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children
born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but
born of God (John 1:12–13, NIV).”
Oma knew that as a Christian
she needed to forgive the Japanese. But how do you get over 60 years of hate?
Forgiveness gets more personal
Although her bitterness towards the Japanese
lessened over time, Oma would often joke:
“Nick, I don’t mind who you marry. But please, just
not a Japanese girl.”
God has a way of making these ‘never say never’
promises come to be. The first time I met my wife, I remember thinking how
perfect she was for me.
She was serious about her
faith, gentle, kind, smart, and pretty. But there was only one drawback, a very
important one, she was Japanese.
I kept our relationship secret from my family until
I could put it off no longer. My heart thumped as I told my parents we were
Their congratulations were tinged with shock. This
could be a serious issue. It could tear the family apart.
A final mission from God
My mum phoned Oma to smooth things over. There was
no need, Oma called me right away.
She cried, but they were tears of joy, she knew
this was from God. He called her to forgive the Japanese, not only as an
abstract people but to accept her grandson’s Japanese wife.
Oma was then living in the Netherlands. She
immediately came to the UK to meet my fiancee, Mami. It was such a precious
time, I knew how hard it was for Oma it meant everything that she did this for
Mami keenly knew the wartime atrocities committed
by the Japanese. She lived for several years in Cambodia and Singapore both
occupied by Japan.
Mami understood the struggles Oma was wrestling
with. They got on well together, sharing stories of Singapore and Indonesia.
The next time Oma came to visit she bought an early
wedding present — a teapot and some cups. Another way of affirming that she
approved of the marriage and welcoming Mami to the family.
That was to be providential. Oma never made it to
our wedding. A few weeks later she had a heart attack from which she never
It was a crushing blow to us all. Oma was the
central figure in our family that kept everyone together. How I longed for her
to get to know Mami better.
What I learned
I think I took it for granted at the time, but it was a privilege to see Oma come to Christ in her 80s. People often say, “I’ll wait to become a Christian at the end of my life”. But I remember a pastor’s insightful comment that our hearts don’t work like that.
It’s not easier to become a
Christian once you’re too old to enjoy the sensual pleasures of youth. It’s
actually harder because we’ve spent a lifetime hardening our hearts to God.
I also learnt God brings change in His own
timescales, not ours. We can battle with sin, bitterness and trauma for decades
without success. It took Oma over 60 years, but she finally forgave the people
who killed her father, the people who had torn her idyllic life apart.
I also learnt about the mystery of God’s providence. Why did He take Oma a short time after she met Mami? Why did she not get to see our wedding, a few months after her death? I think God’s plan was to heal Oma’s heart of the trauma of those early teenage years. To heal the bitterness towards the Japanese she had harboured for over 60 years. When she accepted Mami, her final mission on earth had been completed. It was now time for God to call her home.