The United States has been fondly referred to as “the land of the free.” It seems that’s changed; we’ve become “the land of the offended.” Many folks seem poised to take offense at just about everything, ranging from what someone believes, to comments casually expressed, to what ethnicity and gender they happen to be – or not be. Dare I continue wearing T-shirts of my favorite sports teams?
In some respects, this sensitivity is good. I’m old enough to remember when jokes and derogatory remarks about different groups or types of people were expressed without hesitation, let alone remorse. We as a society have learned a lot since then; such “humor” is no longer acceptable. When Jesus taught about treating others as we would have them treat us (Matthew 7:12), it’s unlikely He had impulsive or antagonistic posts on social media in mind. But His teachings transcend time and technology.
What bothers me most these days, however, is not just how quickly people take offense, even when none was intended. It’s how firmly they embrace the offense, almost like clutching onto a pet. A pet peeve, perhaps?
We’ve all been offended at one time or another. But when we hang onto negative feelings, they can cause great harm. They destroy relationships, create unnecessary divisions, and sometimes even inflict physical and emotional damage to ourselves. Living in the land of the free, we have become enslaved to debilitating emotions we won’t release.
Years ago, a relative became offended after I voiced my feelings about things she had said and done preceding an important event for a close relative. From my perspective, I had spoken only out of sincere concern, not malice. However, the hearer did not take my words in that spirit and began nursing a grudge. The resulting schism between us continued for years, long after I had apologized for my unintended offense.
Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar, either as offender or “offendee.” Failure to forgive can lead to what the Bible calls a “root of bitterness” (Hebrews 12:15). This amounts to emotional cancer – it starts small, but when left unremoved or untreated, grows and eventually dominates everything around it.
This is one reason the Scriptures teach the importance – and necessity – of forgiveness. During His “sermon on the mount,” Jesus included these words in the model prayer He offered: “And forgive us our debts (trespasses), as we also have forgiven our debtors (those who have trespassed against us)” (Matthew 6:12). We’re to forgive those who have sinned against us or caused some sort of offense, even if they don’t deserve it – as is often the case.
But why should we do this? A few verses later, Jesus explained, “But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:15). Sinning – against others, as well as against God – impedes any chance of a harmonious, healthy, growing relationship. The Lord commands us to forgive others, whether we like it or not. Failing to do so compounds the sin, because we’re disobeying His command.
In the Song of Solomon, the wise king wrote, “Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that are ruining the vineyards” (Song of Solomon 2:15). Unforgiveness can be one of these “little foxes,” a source of annoyance, even pain, that becomes a constant disruption in our lives, depriving us of the peace of mind we long to experience.
“But if I forgive him (or her), that means I’m letting them off. They deserve to be punished for what they did!” Therein lies the misunderstanding: To forgive doesn’t mean to exonerate, or “let them off.” What someone did wrong is still wrong, but to withhold forgiveness until they’re ready to ask for it often does them no harm. We’re the ones who suffer, aggravating a wound we won’t let heal. We dwell on an offense they might not be thinking about at all, have long forgotten, or don't even know they have committed.
It’s like an elderly woman, let’s call her Sadie, who still bears a grudge against her sister, Maddie, who died 15 years ago. Sadie has become bitter and unforgiving, harboring anger for the sibling’s wrongdoing, but that’s not bothering Maddie at all anymore. So who’s this unwillingness to forgive affecting? Who’s the one who suffers?
The apostle Paul summed it up this way, reminding us of how much we’ve been forgiven by the Lord: "Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Colossians 3:13).
If we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we’d have to admit no one has ever sinned against us, or offended us, as much as we’ve sinned against and offended God. Whenever I’m tempted to think, “But Lord, how can I forgive them for what they’ve done to me,” I can almost hear Him respond, “Um, would you like me to start citing all the things you’ve done against Me?” Then He adds, “Let me be the Judge of what they’ve done.”