One of the primary causes for chronic, bitter anger is simply a lack of forgiveness. This is a topic I address very often in my office. Unforgiven hurt or offense creates the poor-me state of mind; that leads to bitterness, and bitterness often ends in serious depression. It’s a dark and gloomy place to live, and no one wants to go there with you. Angry, bitter people are lonely people. Negative, critical, angry, bitter–it all goes together and often starts with a sense of not getting what a person feels entitled to, whether in material possessions or emotional satisfaction. We are all creatures of appetite. When that appetite, whatever it craves, is not satisfied, we are angry. Unforgiving anger is toxic.
Forgiveness is a primary teaching of Jesus. Matthew 6:12, a verse in what we often call The Lord’s Prayer, teaches us to ask God for forgiveness in the same way in which we forgive those who have hurt us. Stop a minute and consider: Do you really want God to forgive you the same way you forgive others? Or do you have some work to do in that area before you can safely ask God for forgiveness?
Verses 14 and 15 in the same chapter teach us that God can forgive us when we forgive others; however, He cannot forgive us when we withhold forgiveness from others. This is such an important issue!
We forgive others not for their sake, but for our own. It is only through forgiving that we release ourselves from the prison of bitterness and hatred. When we do not forgive, the person who hurt us continues to control our emotions and our behavior, even over time and distance. And the irony is that the offender is rarely aware of this terrible power he has over us because he is not still stuck in the moment in which the offense occurred.
“But,” you may be thinking, “If I forgive, then the person who hurt me gets away with it!”
First, that really isn’t your problem. Your problem is that you have allowed previous hurt to continue to influence every moment of your life.
Second, the person who harmed you is answerable to God. Never think for a moment that your desire to “get even” is more powerful than God’s ability to deal with sin. Let it be. It’s killing you, not the person who hurt you!
So what, exactly, is forgiveness?
Okay, that’s amusing, but there’s also a good principle involved. Forgiveness, in it’s original meaning, was to choose to erase a debt. It was to wipe out the debt and all its details, to mark it as “paid in full” even when the debtor was completely unable to pay.
Sometimes, we just need to learn to swallow.
Jesus paid our debt in full when He sacrificed His life at Calvary. His blood was the payment; His suffering and death absolved me of the debt of my sin. His triumphant victory over sin and death makes my release from the prison of anger and bitterness a reality when I accept His salvation, His forgiveness, and His unending love. As I develop the character of Christ in my walk with Him, forgiveness becomes a part of my thinking, behavior and emotions. It frees me of the need for vengeance. It makes it possible for me to walk in light and to enjoy loving others, because I no longer need to establish my own prominence.
I found an emoticon of a bitter person that was perfect for this post, but then I lost it and can’t find it again. It was the yellow “smiley,” but not smiling. The face was angry, with the mouth open and tongue flapping. On its head was a little golden crown.
Do you get it? One of the reasons we’re often angry is because we see ourselves as the king or queen, and we didn’t get our way–which, of course, we are entitled to get! So bitterness sets in.
Forgiveness. There are some parallels I use in counseling that I find very helpful:Three things forgiveness is not, three things forgiveness is.
1. Forgiveness is NOT just saying, “Oh, it’s ok, don’t worry about it.” It is not okay when someone hurts you. It is not okay when someone behaves abominably toward you, and it should never be brushed under a rug. However, sometimes the offender never apologizes. You can’t wait for it, because if it never happens and you never forgive, then you are the one who will suffer.
Forgiveness IS choosing to give up your right to demand justice. It is giving up your right to hurt me for hurting you. It is releasing blame and choosing to rise above the mistreatment, not allowing your bitterness to spill out over onto innocent people who surround you. Think of some of Jesus’ last words from the cross: “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”
2. Forgiveness is not an event. It is not once and done. Only God has the infinite ability to forget our sin when we confess and repent. We, unfortunately, seem to have an infinite ability to remember wrongs done against us.
Forgiveness is a process. It is ongoing, repeatedly choosing to release the debt. When Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how many times should we forgive? Seven times?” Jesus’ response was, “No, Peter. Seventy times seven.” Seven is the number of perfection and infinity in the Bible. Our forgiving others must be ongoing, repeated infinitely. The wonderful thing I’ve learned over the years is that the more often you forgive, in the beginning of this process, the less often you have to deal with it as times goes on.
3. Forgiveness is NOT a feeling. If you wait until you feel like forgiving, you’ll never do it. Emotions change on a dime. We can’t ever rely on our hearts to tell us when to forgive. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that our hearts are deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. How can I rely on my sinful heart to guide my behavior?
Forgiveness IS an act of the will, a deliberate choice. It is an act of obedience to God. So here is a suggested prayer for you:
“Father, I’m so angry at what ____________ did/said to me. I’m hurt, and I’m confused. I don’t understand why _____________, who claims to love me, could treat me that way. But I know You have said I must forgive. I don’t want to; I want to get even. I want to show ____________ how much he hurt me. Lord, please help me to obey You and to begin the process of forgiving __________, and of letting go of my hurt and anger. Help me to show Your love, grace, and mercy. And help me do it again in two hours, or in two day or months or years. Thank You, Father, that You alone have the power to help me forgive _____________ as You have forgiven me. Amen.”
Next week, we’ll talk about what forgiveness means in situations of abusive behaviors. Stay tuned.