We teach our kids that it’s the right thing to do. We encourage others to do it so they can heal. We know the Bible tells us to do it and we’re only hurting ourselves if we don’t. So why do I backtrack when I’m faced with the fact that I need to extend forgiveness?
There are some situations where it’s relatively easy to forgive another person, like when my five-year-old tells me she’s sorry for being sassy. I forgive her immediately. It helps that she has red hair and is beyond adorable.
But then there are situations that leave me so wounded that the act of forgiveness is beyond comprehension and even repulsive.
I spent most of my life in one church. It was my home. I knew most everyone and they knew me. At one point both my parents were on staff. My husband and I were married there, dedicated our three babies there, and spent countless hours serving in various ministries. There were high points and low points – just like with any church.
During a very low point, some things happened that grieved me very deeply. There were situations along the way that signaled something wasn’t right but I didn’t put the pieces together until much later. When I did finally learn the truth, I crumbled. And that’s when my husband and I felt released from the church. We didn’t want to leave if God wanted us there because it wasn’t our choice. It was His. But He let us know that He was releasing us.
For those of us who are really invested in our churches, this is a big deal. It’s painful. It’s like breaking up with someone you’ve been dating for thirty years – which was how long I had been there. There were some nights I lay on the bathroom floor, trying to stifle my sobs so I wouldn’t wake the family. I was sad and felt hopeless. I was really angry and for many reasons, reconciliation was not possible at that point.
It’s been two and a half years since we left that church but I’ve been recently hit with a 2x4 regarding everything that happened: I still haven’t extended forgiveness. I still harbor anger and bitterness toward those who hurt me. Sometimes I think I’ve moved on, but then something triggers a memory and the bitterness that I thought was gone rears its head again.
Here’s what I’m learning: For many reasons, there’s a good chance I will never be able to reconcile with those who hurt me, but I cannot continue to live with bitterness and anger. It’s strangling my heart and mind, affecting my eating habits, and I’m so very weary.
But I still don’t want to forgive because that feels like I’m letting them off the hook. I’ve been asking myself why I have to forgive at all. Why can’t I just keep living like I am – not forgiving isn’t really doing any harm, is it? “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (ESV Eph 4:32). There’s my answer. I am to forgive because Christ forgave me. It’s the right answer, but I still struggle to accept it.
My parents have a small garden on the side of their house. My mom plants cucumbers, tomatoes, and pumpkins. I love the free cucumbers. The tomatoes? I’m not a raw tomato fan so my husband eats his fill of those.
One year my mom noticed a vine growing in the garden. It had white flowers and crawled and weaved its way through the growing plants. What she didn’t realize is that while this vine was pretty, it was a killer. It was a Bindweed. It wound itself around the other vegetable plants until it strangled and killed them. What appeared to be harmless was deadly.
The bitterness of an unforgiving heart is like this vine – deadly. I’ve known it was there, but I didn’t think it was doing any harm because as time has passed, I’m not as angry or bitter. But it’s still there, under the surface, slowly strangling my heart and the only way to kill the vine is to forgive and cut off its supply. I need to forgive even when those who hurt me haven’t apologized. I’m not responsible for them. I’m responsible for me and having an unforgiving spirit is not biblical or Christlike. It’s not what I want my kids to emulate and it’s not the example I want to set for others.
“Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:13). The ESV says I MUST forgive. It doesn’t give me a loophole. There isn’t a clause attached to it that says I must forgive only if the other person has apologized.
I haven’t been able to completely release my anger and bitterness. It’s something I have to work on daily. But now I’m more keenly aware of it and its effect on my life – family, work, service, health. Even if I never hear a sincere apology, I will answer to God regarding my part – have I forgiven? If I don’t forgive, I’m not getting even with those who hurt me. If I don’t forgive, I’m only hurting myself.