Bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
I remember hearing this quote years ago when I was struggling to forgive a friend who had hurt me deeply. During our years of friendship, I often felt like I was the one to give more: more forgiveness, more patience, more gentleness. But years of life, laughter, and forgiveness were eventually met with apathy, bitterness and hatred. When our relationship began to crumble, resentment quickly rushed towards the surface of my heart. In my sin, I recounted all I had done for her, and I felt justified holding onto bitterness. At least for a little while. It felt like, if I offered forgiveness too soon, it would excuse all the hurtful things she had done and said. After all, how do you forgive someone who has wronged you time and time again? How do you forget years of apathy, hurt and disappointment?
Culture doesn't help us on this front. We live in a time when words like "toxic," "boundaries," and "self-care" run rampant without any guide rails. We're told by modern psychology to "let go of guilt," to "make our expectations clear," and to "detach with love" when someone hurts us. If someone offends us, we can simply delete them. If someone is difficult to love, we easily avoid them. We measure our relationships to make sure they are fair, and that people aren't taking advantage of us. When our relationship ledger is judged uneven, we declare we deserve better and move on. All this while we cite justice and self-preservation: "We need to protect ourselves at the end of the day, don't we?"
And still, the bitterness remains. Even after we've deleted someone on social media or ignored them at work, we're still mad (even if we don't think about it as often). We replay their numerous sins against us as justification for being passive aggressive or rude, and we secretly harbor their wrongdoings like a weapon, ready and willing to use if they ever try to take advantage of us again. Yet Scripture is overwhelmingly clear about this. We're called to "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, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (Ephesians 4:31-32). As Christians, we are told to forgive as Christ forgave us–but how? And what about when a person has hurt us so bad or for so many years? Isn't enough, enough?
Forgiveness is hard, and thankfully a topic that Jesus talked about a lot. One of my favorite, most convicting stories during this time was the parable of the unforgiving servant. Though I'd read this story before, during this season, it fell on fresh ears, melting away my bitter heart and replacing it with worship. In it, Jesus reminds us that we extend forgiveness not because someone deserves it, but in response to the outstanding forgiveness we've received by God.
It all starts in Matthew 18 when Peter asks Jesus, "How often do I need to forgive my brother when he sins against me? As many as seven times?" Jesus responds saying, "Not seven times, but seventy-seven times" and continues to tell this famous story:
Once there was a king who decided to settle his accounts. So one by one, he called in those who owed him money. One of these accounts was from a servant who owed him ten thousand talents (the equivalent of 200,000 years of work; he could never have paid it back!). The king demanded his money, and when the man could not pay, he declared that the man was to be sold, with his wife, children and all he had-- a common practice at the time.
The man fell on his knees and begged his master, "Please give me time! I will pay back everything I owe!" Out of pity for the man, the king let him go and forgave his debts.
When the man came out of his master's presence, he found another servant who owed him a hundred denarii (the equivalent of four months' salary). He began to choke him saying, "It's time to pay me back, now!" The servant asked for mercy just like he had, saying, "Please be patient with me. I'll pay you back!" but the man refused, and put the servant in jail until he could pay be the debt.
The other servants who saw this were deeply bothered and reported it back to the master. Upon hearing this the master said, "You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?" In anger, the man was delivered over to jail. Jesus concludes the story by saying, "So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."Matthew 18:22-35
Ouch. Because the man had been forgiven such an extravagant debt, it was expected that he forgive a man who owed him much less. The man's lack of mercy showed that he didn't really understand the lavish mercy of the king.
As I reflected on this story, I saw that I was like this man, with a cosmic debt against the King that I never could have paid. I was guilty before Him, unable to ransom myself or pay my debts. I deserved eternal damnation and punishment. I was guilty. Yet according to his great mercy, God cancelled my debt through the sacrifice of his Son. My debt has been paid; I owe it no more. I have been set free!
Now, having been forgiven such an enormous debt, how could I not also forgive my friend who offended me? My greatest debt has been paid -- how could I not forgive another? After all, no matter how much that person offended or hurt me, it pales in comparison to the offenses I have committed against God. My bitterness towards my friend dissolved into worship of God when I remembered how much I'd first been forgiven.
As we look to the cross, we see the most extravagant display of unjust punishment, the perfect Christ dying for our sins. And so, when we forgive another person, we forgive because Christ forgave us, not because they deserve it. To offer forgiveness doesn't justify what someone did. It also doesn't mean that we act unwisely in the future, or that we have to trust the next promise of the person who has lied to us time and time again. Rather, it means that we extend mercy, not using their wrongs against them or harboring resentful thoughts.
As we see in Scripture, after being so lavishly forgiven, the only appropriate response for the Christian is to forgive those that sin against us. Unresolved anger towards someone always turns into bitterness, but extending forgiveness offers great freedom for our souls. '