Can you guess the one thing that threatens all relationships? Bitterness! It affects marriages, churches and pretty much everything else. Bitterness is one of the most dangerous plagues to healthy Christian living. Spreading even faster than the common cold, it eats away at the vitality of one’s spiritual life. It is the “cancer of the soul” and claims millions of victims each year.
Yet, there is a cure for this plague. And this cure is found in one of the most beautiful words in the English language—the word “forgive.” Although the word is a common one, the real essence of the word lies in the last part, “give.” To for-GIVE means to give someone a release from the wrong they have done to you. It means to give up any right of retaliation and to refrain from developing bitterness in one’s heart.
The Bible not only expects, but also commands Christians to be forgiving people. In fact, it entertains no other healthy option. We are called to the highest standard of practicing forgiveness. We are called to forgive as God forgives, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” [Ephesians 4:32, see also Colossians 3:13].
Yes, forgiveness is not an easy process. At times, we may struggle with thoughts such as, “It is no use. They will hurt me again. I should have never forgiven them in the first place. They will never change, etc.” We need to be watchful of such sinful thinking! God has promised to help his children to forgive others and it is “impossible for God to lie” [Hebrews 6:18]. So, we don’t need to give up. We must believe that God is working in our hearts and that he is making us strong through these trials. He wants to build us up—not break us down. However, at times, breaking is necessary for building. We will have victory if we persevere by leaning on the Holy Spirit’s power.
We must strive to seek God’s forgiveness for cherishing bitterness in our hearts. That’s the first step to overcoming this sin. Then we must keep asking him for strength to forgive the ones who have hurt us. And every time the thought of bitterness comes as we are reminded of the sins of others, we must think long and hard about our own sins.
Someone wrote, “Those with forgiving hearts have a long memory concerning their own sin, but a short memory concerning the sins of others. The long-lasting memory of their own sin is grievous, but the remembrance produces joy as their hearts reflect on the new-found freedom of forgiveness in Jesus. Equal joy fills their hearts when they are able to extend that same forgiveness to others who have sinned against them.”
I remember reading about one wife who went to her pastor to address the issue of her husband viewing pornography. She had confronted him and he repented and sought her forgiveness. Yet, she could not overlook that sin and so went to her pastor to describe how evil he was in committing this sin and how she was thinking of leaving him. The pastor who wrote the article said that her heart was so bitter against her husband who had repented of his act while all along she failed to see her own sin of cherishing on-going bitterness in her heart. That’s the danger of sin, isn’t it?
We have such a clear vision and reminder of other people’s sins [even after they have repented of it], yet so blind and forgetful of our own sins! That is why we must consciously make it a habit to reflect more over our own sins than the sins of others! There is no other cure for a proud, self-righteous and an unforgiving heart!
Indeed, it’s amazing how forgiveness is a beautiful word when we need it, but such an ugly word when we have to give it. Equally amazing is “how fast we forgiven prodigal sons can become self-righteous older brothers” [Keith Mathison]!
Unforgiveness is a characteristic of unbelievers [Romans 1:31, 2 Timothy 3:3]. Scripture repeatedly says that a merciful and forgiving spirit ought to characterize the Christian [1 John 3:10, 14-15]. If the pattern of our lives exhibits a bitter and unforgiving spirit, we need to sincerely examine our life to see if we have personally tasted God’s forgiveness for sins. Thomas Watson said “We need not climb into heaven to see whether our sins are forgiven. Let us look into our hearts and see if we can forgive others. If we can, we need not doubt that God has forgiven us.”
As we stand on Mount Calvary, looking at Jesus hanging on the cross, bleeding, bruised and pierced for your sins, crying out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” [Luke 23:34] or looking at Stephen, who as he was being stoned to death saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” [Acts 7:60], can we still hold on to bitterness? Can we still say “I will not forgive that person?” Are we so foolish to think we can take God’s forgiveness, abuse it and get away with it? Let us humble ourselves, truly repent and cry out for God’s grace to forgive others. If not, we can be sure, we will face a severe chastening from God.
You may ask, “What if people don’t repent of their actions, do I still forgive them?” The answer is this: If people do not repent, that is not in our hands. All we can do is protect our hearts from developing bitterness and cultivating a heart that is always willing to forgive. Obviously, if people do not repent, there cannot be a healthy relationship. Even in our relationship with God, if the sinner does not repent, he or she cannot have a relationship with God. My point is simply protecting ourselves from falling victims to bitterness even if the other person does not repent. God will deal with their sins―he is the Judge. Therefore, we must not take judgment into our own hands. And at the same time, we must keep doing as much good as possible to the ones hurting us in keeping with the teachings of Romans 12:17-21 and Luke 6:27-28.
Is there anyone in your life that you are unwilling to forgive? Perhaps, it’s a husband or a wife or a parent or a church member? Whoever it may be, why not sincerely ask God right now to help you forgive them? Tell God you are truly sorry for holding bitterness against them. He will help you.
Remember, when you forgive that person, you are doing it for “Christ’s sake”—for the sole purpose of pleasing him. And forgiveness is the promise of never taking revenge and never bringing up past sins—especially sins that the offender has repented of. Forgiveness will help you to move away from the pain of internal turmoil.
The alternative to forgiveness is a never-ending process of hurt, bitterness, anger, resentment and self-destruction. Is it really worth it?