“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which bind them all together in perfect unity.” Colossians 3:13-14 NIV
Most Christians will agree that forgiveness is the right thing to do. After all, there are over 100 verses in the Bible that talk about forgiveness or forgiving others. And yet, forgiving other people can be extremely hard to do. It seems to come easily for children. I know my children will quickly forgive each other and move on about their day. They never bring up infractions from a week, a month, or a year ago! Why does this get harder to do as people move into adulthood? As we become adults, the wrongs levied against us become more severe, we build up walls over time, and we can analyze a scenario to judge if someone is deserving of our forgiveness.
A recent Barna study1 among practicing Christians said that:
76% offered unconditional forgiveness to someone else
55% received unconditional forgiveness
27% identify someone they don’t want to forgive
23% identify someone who they can’t forgive
22% struggle to receive forgiveness for something
We can learn a lot about forgiveness in the Bible. Let’s take a look at the story of Jacob and Esau.
Jacob had God’s favor, but he was not a good brother to Esau in the least. He took advantage of Esau when he was weak and traded him some stew for a birthright (although Esau was not very smart to have agreed). Jacob also betrayed his brother by stealing the blessing from his father by dressing up like his brother, with his mother’s help nonetheless! This was a double betrayal for Esau from his brother and mother.
Jacob brought about division against him and his brother and he had to flee for fear of repercussion. The interesting thing is that the brothers meet up again, many years later in Genesis 37. Jacob is justifiably scared of this encounter. He does not know if Esau will attack him and steal everything. Jacob separates out his wives and children into groups so that if one group is attacked, the other can flee safely. Jacob also prepares a generous gift for Esau when he arrives.
Surprisingly to Jacob, Esau embraces his brother and even rejects the gifts that Jacob brings saying, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.” (Gen. 33:9 NIV) The brothers are reunited despite the past. God blesses both of them as they grow in livestock and wealth that they eventually have to split up because the land cannot support both groups.
Esau made a decision to forgive his brother. Jacob did not ask for forgiveness before it was offered. Esau had every “right” to stay bitter and even steal his possessions back from Jacob. Esau chose the high ground.
Esau was betrayed by his own flesh and blood. How often does family betray their own? This hurt can be harder than others to recover from. If a stranger hurts me, it may make me sad, but I can move on. When family hurts you, it sometimes makes the relationship irreparable and can cause devastating psychological damage.
The same can be said for our church family. Too often I hear and have experienced fellow Christians who hurt and betray their own, either through differences of belief or petty arguments. This can result in unforgiveness and someone choosing not to go to church or not let another Christian brother or sister close to them again in case of future hurt. In an effort to control your surroundings, you end up taking extreme measures that hurtJ you in different ways, such as the lack of fellowship and community. We are meant for relationship with fellow believers and to meet together regularly (Heb. 10:25).
Forgiveness does not forget the past. It does allow you to keep the past from controlling your future.
Forgiveness does not excuse or condone previous actions, and it does not mean you have to sign up to get hurt again.
Forgiveness should be given even when it is not asked for. The person you forgive does not even need to be present in cases of death or abuse. You can still forgive them before your Heavenly Father.
Forgiveness is more an act of release for YOU than the other person. We hold on to unforgiveness because it gives us power, but it also destroys us in the process and steals our joy. They say power corrupts, I would say that unforgiveness corrupts our spirit.
There’s an old saying that says, “Harboring unforgiveness or bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
“But we only forgive those who deserve it, right?” “After all, there are some actions that are reprehensible, that cannot be forgiven even if I wanted to?” “I don’t want to judge but I also can’t forgive because of what this person did to me…”
If anyone “deserved” to hold on to unforgiveness it would have been Holocaust survivor, Corrie ten Boom. She tells of an amazing story of one of her captors after the war, coming to a camp where she was preaching about Jesus. She chose forgiveness there on the spot when he told her who he was and what he had done.
Corrie ten Boom then told of not being able to forget this incident. She had forgiven the person, but she kept rehashing the incident and so couldn’t sleep. Finally, Corrie cried out to God for help in putting the problem to rest.
“His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor,” Corrie wrote, “to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks.” “Up in the church tower,” he said, nodding out the window, “is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding, then dong. Slower and slower until there’s a final dong and it stops. I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness.
When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.” “And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in my conversations, but the force — which was my willingness in the matter — had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at the last stopped altogether: we can trust God not only above our emotions, but also above our thoughts.”2
What unforgiveness in your life do you need to let go of today? Like letting go of a helium balloon, let unforgiveness float away from your life and allow the Holy Spirit to heal broken wounds as only He can.
Discerning Reflection: What areas of my life do I have unforgiveness? Do I forgive as quickly as Jesus commands? Who do I need to pray about forgiving today that God is placing upon my heart?
Prayer: Lord, thank you for your immense gift of forgiveness that you gave us through your Son’s sacrifice on the cross. Help me to not hold on to unforgiveness, which can lead to bitterness. Reveal to me today who you would like me to forgive, even if they are not asking for forgiveness.
Featured Image By Anastasia Sklyar