Written By Ching, Singapore
We all react differently when people hurt us. Some of us lash back, some of us brood quietly, and some turn to other sources of comfort for solace. Sometimes, we can become bitter after being hurt, and it eventually destroys our relationships.
Are there any broken relationships in your life? Is there anyone you cannot forgive, such as a family member who has said hurtful words?
I know what it feels like; bitterness and unforgiveness are the norm in my family. To cut a long story short, it took me all 28 years of my life to learn to forgive my own family members. Over that time, I discovered a few things about my inability to forgive:
A. Not forgiving is a choice.
A mother once scolded her child for holding a grudge against his sister for years. He retorted, “If it’s so easy, why don’t you forgive your own brother?” Shocked at his impetuousness, the mother exclaimed, “Never! Do you know what he did to me?” The child then asked, “Then how would you expect me to forgive my sister?” The young boy was simply mimicking his mother’s decision to not forgive.
Consciously or unconsciously, we often choose to withhold forgiveness as a way to “punish” the person who has hurt us. Unfortunately, this ends up becoming a poison to ourselves.
B. An unforgiving spirit chokes us.
An unforgiving spirit is a weed that saps our strength and drains life out of our souls. It wears on us physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. However, so often we still choose bitterness over forgiveness, and so fertilize these weeds that end up choking us.
C. An unforgiving spirit feels awful but is almost impossible to let go
Isn’t it strange that we hate to be bitter (after all, it describes the most repugnant taste!) but find ourselves drawn to it? Why do we want something that saps our energy and “dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22)? If bitterness and an unforgiving spirit are so unpleasant, why are they so hard to let go of?
Jesus preached a radical message of forgiveness. He told His disciples to forgive people who sin against them over and over again (Matthew 18:22). This message jarred with the prevailing worldview then, as it is now—payback was and still is the norm. But Jesus was a model of forgiveness to the end, and even gave His own life so that we can be forgiven and can in turn, forgive others.
In my own journey to forgiveness, here’s some things I learned that helped me:
1. Forgiveness is impossible on our own.
Throughout my life, I had come across countless sermons, books, and conferences about forgiveness. But I could not—and did not want to—forgive the people who had hurt me. Over the years, I would make feeble attempts to forgive them, but each attempt lasted only a few hours before bitterness came back with a vengeance.
Forgiving others on our own is not only difficult, it is impossible.
A supernatural outcome requires supernatural means. When we cannot accept that our offender deserves to be let off with forgiveness, ask the Holy Spirit to help you overcome. Rely on Him and surrender your inability to forgive.
2. Forgiveness is easier in a safe environment.
In her book, Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores, Christian psychologist Diane Langberg wrote that she was once asked why a woman who was still living with her habitually violent husband could not seem to get over the trauma of his abuse. Langberg replied, “You cannot ‘get over’ something still happening.”
We know that when we go through a bout of flu, all we can do is to keep the fever, chills, and sniffling from getting worse. We must wait until the illness is over before we can begin the work of recovery and regaining our strength.
Likewise, if our bitterness stems from a traumatic, abusive or violating relationship, seek safety and stability. This may involve living separately or taking other actions to ensure our safety, such as seeking protection orders or reporting to the appropriate authorities. Living in a safe refuge, away from the trauma, will make it easier to begin the healing process of forgiveness.
But it may not always be realistic or practical to move out, especially when there are other loved ones in the picture. Also, the bulk of us may not face such extreme situations. More often, it could be a matter of us struggling to forgive our loved ones for their unreasonable behavior. In such instances where we cannot pluck ourselves out of the situation, seek help from a trusted friend, a professional counsellor or qualified pastoral staff who can aid us in our journey.
3. Forgiveness is best done in a community.
Bitterness can deepen and fester when we remain isolated. But in a Christ-centered community, we can learn from our spiritual mentors or fellow believers who have forgiven others. A spiritual mentor can help us identify where the bitterness stems from and keep us accountable as we resolve to break the unforgiving spirit in our lives.
This however, requires us to be vulnerable and authentic. It takes courage to open up to another person but this may be a necessary step.
If we’ve yet to find such a community, let’s pray that God will be gracious to provide us godly individuals who can journey with us.
4. Forgiveness is a daily choice.
We all have times when we attempt to forgive, but then something triggers a memory and we experience the hurt all over again. Forgiveness is a constant, conscious, daily choice. Each time I am tempted to withhold forgiveness and choose bitterness, I need to surrender again and let God’s Spirit work in me.
Walk with Christ daily. Pray for the desire to forgive. And rely on His strength in forgiving.
5. Forgiven people forgive.
“Hurt people hurt” is a common saying in the social service sector where I work. It means that sometimes people who have suffered some form of hurt pass that hurt on to others, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Christ came to break this cycle, and in fact, to reverse it. His death and resurrection redeemed broken people and enabled them to become forgiven people, and to use their lives as a blessing and a channel of forgiveness for others.
Forgiven people forgive.
Sometimes, those closest to us are the hardest to forgive. My mentor used to say that “ministry starts at home”. I would like to add that ministry at home can be the most difficult.
But at the end of the day, I know that bitterness and an unforgiving spirit can lead to a lesser life and immense pain. I also know that by God’s grace, we are able to forgive the people who have hurt us, and to live a life free of bitterness.
There is sweetness in forgiving. It may take years or decades, but let God help you let go, as you embrace your identity as “forgiven” and then a “forgiver”.
I have started this process, and am still in the middle of this beautiful journey. Will you join me?
The following works are where a lot of my ideas for this article came from. I encourage you to read these articles in your own journey to forgiveness.
“Battling the Unbelief of Bitterness” by John Piper. The article offers good theological grounds for not being bitter
“I Am Forgiven” by Mark Driscoll. This is a very practical and biblical sermon series on the theme of forgiveness.
Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores, by Dr. Diane Langburg. This is a fantastic book by a veteran psychologist and counsellor about trauma and suffering.