Why do some people hang onto bitterness?
They think that to forgive means letting the other person off the hook. To forgive means they must remove all consequences from the other person.
That, of course, is mistaken thinking.
For example, one can have a forgiving spirit while bringing the full weight of the law to bear against the other person.
Let’s take an extreme example. A mother can have a forgiving spirit toward her son who robbed a bank to get money for his drug addiction. Her forgiving spirit does not prohibit her from contacting the police to inform them of what he did.
She can say to her son, “I have forgiven you totally, but my love and respect for who I believe you to be compelled me to do what was clearly best for you and that was to allow you to suffer the consequences of your wrongdoing and be placed in a rehab facility.”
There is no contradiction with a mother’s forgiving spirit and the enactment of consequences toward her son.
This is huge to understand since some erroneously conclude that to insure justice they must be unforgiving in spirit. But it is a false idea to believe bitterness empowers us long term.
The truth is, we are empowered by wisdom, love, respect and the determination to do what is best for the other person. Bitterness will not do what is best for the other.
A key element to understand, of course, is not to allow a forgiving spirit to turn one into a passive person who enables the other person to keep on sinning.
So, too, we must focus more on ourselves. A forgiving spirit evidences the kind of person we choose to be.
This is important since, in our example, some boys will pull a guilt trip on mom saying. “If you really have forgiven me, you will trust me and won’t keep asking me what I am up to.”
She does not have to prove anything. He is the one who did wrong. If she needs to prove anything it is that she loves and respects her son too much to enable him to keep doing what he did wrong before. As President Reagan used to espouse: Trust, but verify.
“But Emerson, I struggle with having a forgiving spirit.”
Let me share two fundamental Biblical truths.
First, the Bible says in Hebrews 12:15, “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.”
Note that bitterness (i.e. an unforgiving spirit) does not eliminate trouble but causes trouble. In fact, a person becomes defiled by his own bitterness.
If you have ever had someone break into your home while you were gone and go through your belongings and steal things, you know what it feels like to be defiled.
Similarly, your own bitterness breaks into your spirit and defiles you. It also spills over onto friends and family members. It defiles many.
Nothing good comes of an unforgiving spirit.
Second, such long term resentment subjects a believer in Christ to demonic attack and undermines one’s close fellowship with Christ.
We read in Ephesians 4:26, 27,
“Be angry, and yet do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.”
Note that Satan takes advantage of prolonged and nursed anger.
Paul references the same idea with the Corinthians. We read in 2 Corinthians 2:10,11,
“But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes.”
Again, an unforgiving spirit gives Satan access to us in ways that he would not if we let go of the resentment.
Literally, at the end of the day (i.e. before the sun sets) this is not about the offensive party. This is about a believer in Jesus Christ letting the devil have a foothold in his heart.
Satan cannot possess a believer, but he can oppress the follower of Jesus. He can intensify anger, undermine relationships and reputation, and cause one to fall short of receiving all the grace from God that otherwise would have come.
I do not know how to paint an exact picture of all that painful realities surrounding a bitter soul, but I wouldn’t mess with bitterness just because I cannot fully imagine the downside.
For certain, a forgiving spirit need not let the offensive person off the hook, but an unforgiving spirit appears to put me on a hook. True?