A Forgiving Spirit Safeguards Our Well-Being and Influences Others
Rarely do we consider forgiveness much of an issue in our life until something happens that leaves us feeling wronged and offended. It is in these times when we discover something about ourselves and our default reactions. We feel hurt, angry, and resentful. We feel the other does not deserve forgiveness. We conclude that hanging on to bitterness and unforgiveness best safeguards us and hopefully punishes the person who wronged and offended us.
Sadly, for too many of us, our default reaction of bitterness and unforgiveness causes us to:
- rancorously voice grievances,
- forcefully assert our rights,
- vengefully seek justice,
- ruthlessly apply consequences to the transgressors, and
- obsessively secure self-protection.
There is nothing wrong with voicing grievances, asserting our rights, seeking justice, applying consequences to the transgressor, and securing self-protection. But bitterness pushes us beyond what is reasonable, workable, and winsome. Our extremes overshadow our worthy aims.
- When voicing our grievances, with rancor we overly complain and blame to validate our offense.
- When asserting our rights, we forcefully make excessive, coercive, and threatening demands on what we are owed.
- When seeking justice, with vengeance we become vindictive and retaliatory to make the other pay.
- When applying consequences to the transgressor, we ruthlessly wish for the other to be harmed and in pain, believing they don’t deserve an ounce of mercy but deserve instead to be discredited.
- When securing self-protection, we obsessively fixate on building walls around us to keep others from wronging us and have no interest in building bridges.
Even more, some are offended when encouraged to forgive the offense. They feel they are being coerced to suffer doubly. They suffered the first transgression that insulted and aggrieved them. And then they must suffer again by letting the offending individual off the hook? That riles and infuriates them. All of us can empathize. The innocent person was victimized and now is told to forgive. Why would they do such a foolish thing?
What Our Bitterness and Unforgiveness Are Actually Doing Inside Us
However, holding on to offense, bitterness, and an unforgiving spirit can harm our emotional and physical well-being. Hate and contempt are toxic to our health. Research confirms that an unforgiving spirit weakens the immune system, elevates blood pressure, and negatively impacts our relationships. Furthermore, they perpetuate a cycle of negativity that harms relationships. For example, our bitterness toward a spouse spills over onto the children (Hebrews 12:15). Is holding on to the offense worth the collateral damage?
We read in the New Testament multiple warnings about harboring bitterness and unforgiveness toward others, including:
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)
See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled. (Hebrews 12:15)
What these wise writers knew was that holding on to resentment and seeking revenge perpetuates a cycle of negativity that ultimately harms our well-being and relationships. With this in mind, every one of us needs to decide if our default mode of bitterness and unforgiveness, which typically overshadows everything when offended, actually helps us.
In the overall scheme of things, when we embrace the idea of having a forgiving spirit, we safeguard our well-being and influence others. Contrary to what we intuitively feel, possessing a forgiving spirit best enables us to advance our healthy self-interests and positively influence others.
The First Step Is to Properly Define Forgiveness
Forgiveness does not mean condoning the wrongdoing or forgetting the injustice. It is important to distinguish between a legal form of forgiveness that absolves a person of all wrongdoing and a forgiving spirit that may not absolve the person entirely. While consequences may be necessary to prevent future wrongs and protect those involved (i.e., bringing the full weight of the law to bear), forgiveness allows us to approach these actions with civility rather than harboring resentment.
To do this, we must describe forgiveness as having a forgiving spirit. It is an inner disposition, not just an act of absolving someone by letting them off the hook. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a constant attitude.” We must choose to release the bitterness and walk with forgiveness like King. Each of us must come to that place in our lives where we choose to be a certain type of person despite the bad choices and demeanor of others.
A Forgiving Spirit Does Not Render Us Powerless
As counterintuitive as this may sound to some, in most cases a forgiving spirit enables us to protect our well-being best, wisely voice our grievances, humbly assert our rights, accurately seek justice, and apply necessary consequences for the transgressors. In addition, a forgiving spirit fosters our character development, betters all relationships, and pleases God.
A forgiving spirit enables us to speak the truth with tough love, free from bitterness and resentment. Truthful confrontations are robbed of their convicting power when we communicate with ugly bitterness. We may be true and right in what we mouth but are wrong at the top of our angry, unforgiving, and screaming voices. By cultivating forgiveness within ourselves, we can constructively address conflicts and grievances, preserving the dignity of both parties involved. It empowers us to break free from the cycle of negativity and create healthier, more fulfilling relationships.
In his book Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela wrote, after his imprisonment for twenty-seven years because of South Africa’s apartheid laws, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Though forgiveness entails a process wherein we must revisit the hurt and indignation we feel, there needs to be a big, initial yes to forgiving, as Mandela modeled.
Yes, this can be a struggle depending on the severity of the wrong, the depth of emotional wounds from the offense, what you believe about bitterness and forgiveness, and your choice of a coping mechanism that you prefer. But each of us must consider the wisdom of the ages. There is nothing new under the sun, and this topic of bitterness and forgiveness is not unique to any of us.
Mandela’s initial decision to have a forgiving spirit enabled him to protect his well-being by letting go of the chains of bitterness. He experienced inner freedom. But his forgiving spirit also enabled him to voice his grievances wisely and peacefully advocate for justice and human rights. He did so with civility and, in time, dismantled apartheid and established a democratic South Africa. Despite facing significant obstacles, Mandela’s forgiving spirit demonstrated his mature character, attracting people worldwide and igniting the belief in forgiveness’s power to bring healing and better relationships.
We, too, can apply these truths that Mandela applied, and we can do so as he did at a point in time. Ephesians 4:31 teaches that bitterness can “be put away from you.” Other translations use words like “banished,” “removed,” “get rid of,” “to lift up off you,” “make a clean break,” “and stop.” The Bible applies this to any and every reason for bitterness.
Bottom line, embracing forgiveness is a powerful tool for safeguarding our overall well-being and improving our relationships. We can experience greater inner peace, personal growth, and healthier interactions with others by letting go of resentment, hate, and bitterness. And, as followers of Christ, we please God since possessing a forgiving spirit reflects Him and His forgiveness of us.
Questions to Consider
- What have you discovered about yourself and your default reactions when you are hurt and offended by others? Is this a healthy response? Why or why not?
- In what ways have you seen or felt how an unforgiving spirit has harmed your or someone else’s emotional and/or physical being?
- Share what Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote means to you: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a constant attitude.”
- Is there any resentment, hate, and/or bitterness you need “put away from” you? Why have you been holding on to it? Will you ask God to give you a forgiving spirit?