Walls have been used throughout human history, for both protection and separation. Perhaps the most impressive one ever constructed is the Great Wall of China, which is an amazing 13,170 miles long. However, the most famous one in modern times was the Berlin Wall, a barrier that cut a city in half and prevented German citizens from traveling freely.
But physical walls aren’t the only ones humans build. Because of our need to feel secure, we sometimes erect invisible boundaries to keep other people from getting too close. Unforgiveness is one of these walls. It’s meant to keep out the one who wronged us, but it also keeps us imprisoned in the self-destructive consequences of bitterness.
When Jesus was asked how many times to forgive a brother, He told a story about a slave who owed an exorbitant amount of money to the king (Matt. 18:23-35). Although the king forgave him, that man then refused to excuse the debt of a fellow slave who owed him a small sum. When the king heard about it, he imprisoned the unforgiving slave.
Why is unforgiveness a problem?
At times it’s obvious when someone is harboring unforgiveness: Mention the offender’s name, and all sorts of negative emotions bubble to the surface. But other times an unforgiving spirit may not be so apparent because it’s been repressed or denied. A person might wonder why he feels critical or distrustful, without realizing these emotions are symptoms of something deeper.
Unforgiveness is like a balloon. If we try to suppress it in one area of our life, it will pop out in another one. This is no way to live, and it’s certainly not what God intends for us. According to Ephesians 4:31, we are to put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice—each of which is evidence of an unforgiving spirit. And in Hebrews 12:15, we are warned not to let a root of bitterness spring up, causing trouble and defiling those around us.
Why should we forgive?
The biggest problem with forgiveness is that it doesn’t seem fair. After all, justice requires that a guilty person pay for his offense. Therefore, if the wrong cannot be undone, then holding a grudge seems like the best option. But doing so disregards God’s will and results in devastating lifelong repercussions.
• Jesus calls us to forgive. In the Lord’s Prayer, He says to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). Then He adds a warning: “But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matt. 6:15). Now, this doesn’t mean we’ll lose our salvation if we hold onto grievances, but unforgiveness brings sorrow to the Holy Spirit, is contrary to Christ’s lavish pardon of our sins, and hinders our communion with God. (See Eph. 4:30-32 NLT.)
• Forgiveness is a Christlike characteristic. No one suffered more unjustly than Jesus or forgave more freely. Although He was sinless, all our sins were placed on Him as He hung on the cross and paid the penalty we deserved. When we forgive others as Christ did, His life is displayed in us, and He gets the glory (Gal. 2:20).
• Unforgiveness is harmful to us. It not only causes emotional, mental, physical, and relational problems, but like any other sin, it also stifles us spiritually because we’re not walking in the Spirit. John warns that anyone who claims he’s in the Light but hates his brother stumbles around in the darkness of sin, and his eyes are blinded to his true condition (1 John 2:9-11).
How can we recover from an unforgiving spirit?
Through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we Christians have within us the ability to obey God’s commands. And that includes forgiving whoever has wronged us—no matter how great the offense. However, working through forgiveness requires time and healing, much like recovering from an illness.
• Repent of the sin of unforgiveness. Repentance means a change of mind and direction. The first step is to take responsibility and confess our sin to God. Then we must change the way we think about our offender so we can begin to respond differently. This is exactly what Paul told the Ephesians to do: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).
• Release the offender. The Greek word for forgive means “to let go or give up a debt.” Unforgiveness is an attempt to make the other person pay for what he’s done, and that is what we must release. Instead of demanding justice, we are called to trust God as the Judge. Peter says a person who patiently endures mistreatment finds favor with God (1 Peter 2:19-21).
• Recognize that God will often use an offense to reveal a weakness. An unforgiving spirit is an ugly part of us that the Lord wants to bring into the open so we can repent and be free of it. Although we’re focusing on the wrong done to us, God wants to use the situation to produce in us what we are lacking: Christlike character and humility (Col. 3:12-13).
• Remember how often and how much God has forgiven us. Whenever we come, confessing our sins to the Lord, we have His promise of forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1:9). Considering how God has so graciously forgiven us, what right do we have to hold anything against others (Matt. 18:32-33)?
So much is at stake when it comes to forgiveness. We either hold onto our “right” to have vengeance, or we release it to God. The first choice leads to a miserable prison of our own making. But the second results in glorious freedom, restored joy, and restful peace in God. Which will you choose?
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