The story is told about the couple that decided they needed to get a divorce. Counseling with their pastor, the husband was asked, “Why do you want a divorce? Does your wife beat you up?” “No way,” he responded. “I’m always up at least half an hour before her.” “Well,” continued the perplexed pastor, “do you have a grudge?” “Yeah,” he said, “it’s big enough for two cars, but what’s that got to do with this?” Exasperated, the clergyman finally said, “So what’s the problem?” With arms folded, the husband smugly replied, “We just can’t seem to communicate!”
Unfortunately, when it comes to conflict and divisions, many people do trace it to grudges they hold toward others. Like ships passing in the night, they harbor those grudges.
It’s truly unfortunate, especially because in many instances, the most grievous victim of grudges – the unwillingness to forgive – is the individual clutching the grudge in a death grip. Speaking recently on the topic, author and pastor Alistair Begg observed, “Forgiveness is setting a prisoner free – when it turns out that prisoner is you.”
Putting it into another metaphor, holding onto a grudge or refusing to forgive another person is like drinking poison and expecting the person you’re mad at to die.
Although I don’t there’s been a scientific study done to prove it, I suspect much of the hostility we witness in the world around us is due at least in part to unforgiven wrongs, grudges that have been nursed for a long time. The musical, “The Sound of Music,” taught that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but just a drop or two of bitterness can kill even the healthiest of relationships.
Hebrews 12:15 speaks to that directly, admonishing, “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.” And this word,“defile,” offers another vivid image for the negative and often long-lasting effects of unforgiveness.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning wrongs that have been committed, whether in deed or in word. Nor does it mean we must force ourselves to forget those wrongs. Forgiving, however, does mean refusing to let anger and animosity imprison us, or “defile” our spirits, not only toward the offending party but also to many others we encounter from day to day.
There’s a second important reason for doing what might seem impossible by extending forgiveness to someone who doesn’t deserve it. As the apostle Paul exhorted his readers, “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). Keep in mind, forgiveness is something that none of us deserves.
How did the Lord forgive each of us? He stretched out His arms, allowing His hands and feet to be impaled on a cross, and declared, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). At that moment He might have been referring specifically to those responsible for putting Him on the cross, but if we’re honest, we must acknowledge we each shared in that responsibility.
So when we forgive, we’re in effect freeing ourselves from the prison of pain, anger and negativity. We’re recognizing that no one could wrong us as much as we have wronged the God who has provided us with His forgiveness.
And there’s one more reason for consciously resolving to forgive others even when it seems impossible. If our goal is to become more and more Christlike, more “godly,” then forgiveness can’t be excluded from the equation. As a wise man has stated, “We’re most like beasts when we kill each other; we’re most like men when we judge each other; we’re most like God when we forgive each other.”
If we bring up the excuse, “Well, I just can’t do that,” Jesus understands. He told His followers, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). But as Paul wrote, drawing from much personal experience, “I can do everything through him (Christ) who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).
As the Lord has shown me more times than I could ever remember, whenever I decide “I can’t!” He’s quick to respond, “Yes, I know – but I can. Through you.”