It was during the era of the Viet Nam conflict that I sat down to talk with a Vietnamese student. He was completing his studies at Penn State and then planned to return to Viet Nam. What then? He told me that a relative of his had been killed and it would be up to him to settle the score. I listened to his embittered purpose then tried to tell him about a better way – the way of Christ’s forgiveness. It was a radical concept to the student. When I left him, he seemed to be thinking deeply. I don’t know the end of that story for I never saw him again. But I have watched other stories involving wrongs done and revenge sought. I’ve also seen some, where instead of payback, forgiveness was given. Those are the better stories.
A college student with whom I had shared the gospel and was endeavoring to be his friend asked me to loan him forty dollars. I had little income at the time, but was able to get him the money. After several days he gave me a check. It bounced. And he dropped out of sight. I admit that the episode started working on me in a negative sense. I had been taken! I experienced some unkindly thoughts regarding that student. It upset my spirit. Then I made a divinely-directed decision. Forget the money. It was not worth the inner turmoil to keep bringing up the wrong done. It was worth forty dollars to have peace in my heart. So I forgave him. And I was free!
I’ve had other times when the issues were much more important than forty dollars and I felt I had been wronged. I’ve felt the bitter bile rising in my mouth. On one occasion, I could drive through the night without getting sleepy by merely thinking about how I was right and the other person was wrong. The situation was really eating at me. I had no internal peace.
The Bible anticipates that we will experience wrongs. Sometimes they are grievous. People can do vicious things. Other times we imagine things worse than they are. God’s way is to follow peace instead of conflict. “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled” (Heb. 12:14, 15).
We cannot follow peace and at the same time pursue conflict. If we would be holy, we must choose to forgive. The alternative is that we will realize that the root of bitterness has sprung up. The fruit is not holy. Take a close look at who is first troubled when you allow bitterness to invade your heart. It troubles you first, then defiles others.
When I realized I was allowing bitterness to consume me, I became serious about the solution. I prayed. My prayer was specific. “Lord, show me what I have done wrong in this relationship. I will own up to it and ask forgiveness.” I was ready with pen in hand. The Lord showed me five specific things I had been doing that were promoting the conflict. I wrote them down. I asked God’s forgiveness. Then I went to the phone. I had heard advice on asking forgiveness that seemed right. Don’t blame the other person for anything. I saw that it was my responsibility to deal with my own problems, not with the other’s. “It’s me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.” I could leave the results in God’s hands. I forgave whatever I thought was done wrong to me because I needed forgiveness for my own errors. Hadn’t our Lord taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive…?” When I had acknowledged my wrongs on the phone, there was silence. And then he gave me forgiveness. I hung up the phone with a much lighter heart. Peace had returned. Eventually, that relationship that I had thought to be irreparable was restored.
Failing to forgive will open the door for a flood of bitter options. Cutting off friendships. Hoping for revenge. Malicious daydreams. These and many other daughters of bitterness trouble you. More than that, your relationship with God is greatly affected.
In Matthew 18 Jesus told of a man who was greatly indebted to his king. He was going to lose everything. Then he begged for mercy. The king forgave him his great debt. The man left and found someone who owed him a small amount of money. When his debtor could not pay right away, the man had him thrown into prison. This word got back to the king who delivered the man to his tormentors until he could pay his whole original debt. Then Jesus made an application to us. “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses” (Matt. 18:35).
There is a warning here that we could lose out on God’s forgiveness if we fail to forgive others. Even if the harm done to you is great, the greater harm is to allow yourself to be held hostage to a bitter spirit and to be mentally chained to the person you won’t forgive. And you lose your own sense of forgiveness. What if your past sins all came tumbling back on your conscience because of your bitterness toward someone? That is too great a price to pay for maintaining a bitter spirit. Our Lord has made it clear that we cannot allow these evil tempers to reside in our hearts.
“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:31, 32).
God has forgiven us because of what Jesus did on the cross. He suffered for our sins. He became our sin offering. What we could never have done, He did. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Forgiveness is not always easy. But it is possible through Jesus. We are made the righteousness of God in Him. In Jesus.
Let the forgiveness of Jesus flow into you and then through you to others. It is the holy way. It is the only way.