“Is there anyone in your life that you need to forgive in this moment? Anyone at all toward which you hold bitterness?” As I asked this question to a group of people, most every hand went up. The entire room was full of people who were struggling with resentment towards another person.
What about you? Have you been burned by someone? Has someone else offended you and left you to pick up the pieces? Sometimes these offenses are huge, but sometimes even small slights end up creating big problems in our heart. It has been suggested that if we want to protect ourselves that we should never choose to love and give our heart away. Surely this would seem to be safer, but it would also rob us of potentially deeper meaning and relationships. So we must continue to risk to love, and therefore risk pain and hurt that can be accompanied by bitterness.
Jesus knew that we would hurt others and get hurt by others. It is no surprise to him that we deal with negative emotions like bitterness so he gave us some directions on forgiveness. He called us to forgive others just as we have been forgiven by the Heavenly Father through Jesus. Forgiveness is not easy though. It implies a cost. Someone has to pay – either the person we are angry with, or we have to absorb the cost by displaying grace and forgiveness. Forgiveness means we let go of our right to be angry and the desire to punish them. Instead we release the offender into God’s hands for him to deal with – however he chooses to do so.
Why should we forgive? First of all, God commands us. We are told to “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13). Forgiveness is not a suggestion that God offers to us. It is a command that is for our good. We also forgive because Jesus has first forgiven us. Jesus didn’t just preach forgiveness; he practiced it. From the cross, he cried out, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
We also need to forgive because bitterness is a great barrier to experiencing God’s love in our own lives. Jesus said, “For if you forgive men (people) when they sin (do wrong) against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14 –15). Well that was pretty straightforward and clear, don’t you think? As the verse reveals, our willingness to forgive others directly impacts our personal experience of God’s grace and forgiveness in our lives.
What often happens when we are betrayed or hurt is that we put up a wall of bitterness around our heart to keep ourselves from being hurt again. But when we put up a wall to protect us from others, that same wall blocks our ability to respond to and receive from God. Walls of bitterness always affect our relationship with the Lord. The only way to remove those walls and to open our hearts to God’s love again is to destroy the walls through the act and process of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a choice – not an emotion – that I make in response to God’s mercy and grace in my own life. Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind to one another, … forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” God willingly forgives us without any strings attached as we invite Jesus into our lives to be our forgiver, leader and Lord. He forgives us completely without holding our sins against us, and then calls us to do the same to those who have offended us.
British pastor and evangelist John Wesley (1703 – 1791) was traveling with General James Oglethorpe, who was angry with one of his subordinates. The man came to the general and humbly asked for forgiveness, but he was gruffly told, “I never forgive.” Wesley looked the general in the eye and said, “Then I hope, sir, that you never sin.” What about you? We all need forgiveness desperately. May we learn also how to give it to others. And that’s the Word.
The Rev. David Yarborough is pastor of St. Simons Community Church. Contact him at email@example.com or 912-634-2960.