An unforgiving heart is hard to live with and sometimes hard to give up. Although it often feels right to remain unforgiving toward an offender, it will ultimately keep you from experiencing the joy and fullness of life God intends for you.
I’ve lived long enough to realize how easy it is to get hurt in this world. I also know that sometimes it’s hard to let go of the hurts.
It’s possible to be hurt so badly that you feel buried under the pain from the past.
I read an account of a woman who was sexually abused and struggling to be free from anger and bitterness toward her abuser. In a powerful acknowledgment, she shared a key step toward freedom. “I had to get to the place,” she said, “where I refused to tie my soul to the one who hurt me.”
Wow! What a way of expressing it! She faced a decision about who would rule her life. Her abuser was a thief who took control of part of her life. But she decided that she would not allow him to extend his control by sending her into years of pain and anger.
Double the loss?
Resentment often comes with a blinding effect. It can be hard to recognize how anger and bitterness double our loss and send extended effects of the evil done against us to others.
It seems all too easy to spiral into a state of loss. Some people are unaware of these affects because they never deal honestly with the damage done to them. Others hold tightly to cherished resentments as a means of dealing with their pain. They choose a kind of emotional retaliation.
It can be even harder to see how these responses relate issues of ownership and Lordship.
The wake up call comes when we recognize that we are actually giving control to our offender and extending the effects of his evil. We are tying our soul to the one who hurt us instead of the One who bought us (see: I Corinthians 6:19-20).
The warning of Scripture is potent
“See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:15).
A little root of bitterness is personally troubling and poisonously infectious. When hurt, we become vulnerable to anger and angry people often turn to bitterness to deal with their pain. But bitterness is defiling and destructive to our relationships and our own lives. Bitter people are also difficult to help.
God pictured anger as a vicious animal looking to pounce its’ prey (Genesis 4:6-7). We must deal with our anger before it becomes bitterness (see: Hebrews 12:15; Ephesians 4:26-27). Bitterness is difficult to dislodge when it rules one’s hearts in place of God.
Path to freedom
To gain freedom from bitterness, we need to change the way we view it. We need to confess it as a protective mechanism used to guard our cherished resentments. We must see it as idolatry. If you’ve been significantly hurt, change is more than a one time decision. It’s often a season of repeated or reaffirmed decisions.
Part of this process is deeply connected to the way we view God. Those who understand God to be an all-powerful and loving Creator will struggle to understand how He relates to the evil things that happen to them. It’s important to work through this confusion to protect your heart from becoming resentful toward the greatest source of comfort in life’s trials (see: II Corinthians 1:3-4).
A bad attitude toward God?
Sometimes resentments are subtly directed toward God. This often happens when we feel God could have changed things. Christians typically conceal their attitude toward God behind a veneer of expected Christian happiness. I encounter this often when I travel and teach on forgiveness. People approach me with general questions about “why God would allow…?” As I probe, I find out that the issue is often more personal.
The dangers of allowing our hearts to become resentful toward God are real. The father in the book of Proverbs warned his son about the danger of a bad attitude toward God. ”My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves” (Proverbs 3:11-12).
The father wisely offered advanced notice to his son that life will not always turn out the way you think it should. The father had already told his son to trust God with all of his heart and acknowledge God in all of his ways (proverbs 3:5-6). But when trials and hardships come, and one feels helpless to change his circumstances, God becomes an easy target of a resentful heart.
Many centuries later the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews quoted this father’s advice as God’s enduring word to first century believers (see Hebrews 12:1-15). These early Christians were in danger of misunderstanding their hardships (v. 7 -“hostile treatment from sinful men”) and becoming resentful and bitter toward God.
Meditate on the gospel
The teaching of Jesus delivers a sobering reminder that an unforgiving heart contradicts the gospel and disrupts spiritual progress (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:1ff; Philippians 2:12-13). The way out of unforgiveness, resentment and anger is to meditate continuously on the greatness of God’s forgiveness of our sins— mediate on the gospel of grace!
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Don’t confuse forgiveness and reconciliation. Some people struggle to forgive because they wrongly think forgiveness always requires immediate restoration to an offender. See: Forgiveness is one thing but…