At the same time, we sometimes deny that we need to forgive someone for an offense even though our emotions tell a completely different story. Or, we simply refuse to forgive the offense and believe, falsely, that our lack of forgiveness will have no effect on our lives.
That assumption could be very expensive.
The story is told about the Franklin Expedition to the Arctic in 1845. The explorers were looking for the Northwest Passage. They went poorly equipped, with only enough coal to feed their steam engines for twelve days. But they did take along a 1,200 volume library, fine china and crystal and personalized silver cutlery.
The ships were trapped in the ice and after several months the men tried to make their way south to find help. No one survived. Later it was discovered that two of the officers had pulled a sled loaded with silver cutlery for over sixty-five miles before they finally died of hunger and exposure.
When we carry around what is useless, and even dangerous, we suffer the consequences. Anger and bitterness, the fruit of an unforgiving spirit, will kill our peace and sap our spiritual, physical and emotional energy.
Hebrews 12:1 tells us to: “…throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles….” This is good advice.
Paul has something to say about things that are associated with bitterness in Romans 3:13-18.
“Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Bitterness has friends. Bitterness internalized eats us up from the inside out. Eventually the “friends” appear: plotting revenge, slander, angry words, constant turmoil, et al. This passage is a description of the man of sin who chooses to sin because he has no fear of God.
That’s not where believers want to be!
Another emotional response that characterizes an unforgiving spirit is anger. James 1:19-21 has some practical suggestions on how to deal with it.
“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for a man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
The context suggests that, as believers, we need to practice what the Word of God says in relation to our responses especially, as James mentions specifically, to “keep a tight rein on [our] tongue” (vs. 26). Remember that ancient adage: There is a reason why the Creator gave us two ears and only one tongue.
As believers committed to that “righteous life that God desires” we need to deal with bitterness and anger and its root cause, the unforgiving spirit if we want to live out the life that God designed for us.
DEALING WITH THE DIRT
Both Hebrews and James tell us to dump the stuff that causes us to fail in our pursuit of the righteous life that should characterize the believer. How do we do that?
Hebrews 12:14, 15
“Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”
When an unforgiving spirit destroys the peace that should exist between brothers, the most serious consequence is the break this causes in the relationship that both enjoy with the Lord. Out of this break in relationship—sin—comes bitterness and bitterness entertains all its other “friends” and contaminates everyone it touches. God’s grace, or favour, does not rest on the person who refuses to cultivate all the characteristics of righteous living.
The passage does not assume that the other person involved in the problem will respond correctly, hence the “make every effort.” We can only do what we need to do and then leave the rest to the Lord.
Proverbs has much to say about the issue of dealing with feelings. Here is a sample. Anger and bitterness often give way to seeking revenge. Solomon writes: “Do not plot harm against your neighbor…Do not envy a violent man or choose any of his ways, for the Lord detests a perverse man but takes the upright into his confidence” (Proverbs 3:29, 31, 32).
Sometimes, though we might not plot revenge on those we have not forgiven, we enjoy it when something hurtful happens to them. It becomes our vicarious revenge on them. This is what the Scriptures say about that: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice, for the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him” (Proverbs 24:17, 18). The assumption here is that God has brought some kind of discipline into the other person’s life, but we are not to be happy about any suffering endured by those who have offended us. I am reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:1, “…with the measure you use, it will be measured to you”—a solemn warning indeed!
It is easy to believe that as long as we don’t act on our feelings and “put a good face” on the problem, we don’t have to deal with them. Proverbs warns us that eventually everything will be exposed—including what we have so carefully harboured in our hearts because of our unforgiving spirit. Proverbs 26:24-26 reminds us: “A malicious man disguises himself with his lips, but in his heart he harbors deceit. Though his speech is charming, do not believe him, for seven abominations fill his heart. His malice may be concealed by deception, but his wickedness will be exposed in the assembly.”
Perhaps the privotal passage on this subject is given to us in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Here’s what he says:
“You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”
This passage is loaded with lessons for us. But the bottom line is that harbouring the emotions caused by an unforgiving spirit, and the actions resulting from them, is characteristic of those who do not know the Lord. If we truly belong to the Lord and want to “live by the Spirit” we have to deal with those things that are not of the Spirit.
We have to abandon the negative emotions. Even when we have forgiven, Satan will bring those negative emotions back into our minds. But certainly when we haven’t forgiven, the first step in dealing with the emotions is to forgive. Then, each time we are tempted to relive those negatives, we can go back and lay them at the foot of the cross. Eventually Satan will give up trying to trip us up with them.
Paul’s words to the Ephesians remind us that no one could offend us as badly as we have offended God. But He forgave us because of Christ. Not only did He forgive us but He treats with love and mercy because of that forgiveness. This is our model.
“…do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children…” (Ephesians 4:30-5:1).
Is this easy? No, it isn’t. But it is directly commanded by God, who has given us the resources to do it and who will do it in us as we submit to Him.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ…it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Ephesians 1:3; Philippians 2:13).
We need to dump the junk that will kill us.