Forgiving your Offenders
The number of Christian workers who have become spiritually disabled as a result of bitterness and anger is increasing daily. This is especially true among missionaries on the foreign field. The pressures, living conditions and close company are perfect breeding grounds for dissension and discord.
It doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong in a conflict. If you hold resentment, bitterness or anger toward the other party, you are sinning. More important, however, you are crippling yourself spiritually and rendering yourself ineffective.
I can’t emphasize the importance of not allowing bitterness and anger to build up. I have seen many missionaries leave the ministry because of marital problems or conflicts with their fellow workers. Churches and even missions have had massive splits because of unresolved disagreements. The Bible is full of examples of how anger affects our prayers and service. In Matthew 5:22-25, God says He does not want you to bring Him gifts (or service) if you are holding something against your brother. In Peter 3:7, God warns if you do not treat your wife with consideration and respect, your prayers will be hindered.
All of us have to deal with forgiveness from time to time. This is just a part of life. While most conflicts are relatively small, occasionally we are faced with more challenging conflicts. I have often wondered how I would deal with a major violation, such as a family member being raped or murdered. When I read about how lives were utterly shattered by the Nazis during WW II, I have to admit most of the violations against me seem small.
Although the problems you’ve encountered may pale in comparison to some of the world’s most violent atrocities, it still does not diminish the impact it has on your life. If a particular event is the worst thing that has ever happened to you, the impact may seem devastating. In such cases, the pain you feel may seem worse than with someone who is accustomed to pain.
"Small" offenses should never be left unattended. If they are, bitterness can arise and ulcerate into a deep spiritual infection. Small violations are just as capable of destroying a Christian’s spiritual walk as major ones. The "little foxes" referred to in Songs of Solomon 2:15 highlight how the little issues can be just as problematic as large ones.
I’m a Correction Officer at a prison and, as you would expect, I’ve had my share of abuse. Although I don’t appreciate it, I realize it comes with the territory and I deal with it accordingly. Having to deal with forgiveness at work has helped me to deal with it outside of work. I must admit the problems I have encountered are small compared to the experiences of some, but I have been victimized. For example, my house has been burglarized twice. My locker at the gym was broken into twice. I had $2,400 stolen from me. I was jumped and beaten by two guys trying to steal my motorcycle, and I had a double murderer threaten to kill me.
Although none of these incidents caused me to be consumed with bitterness or unforgiving anger, I had an incident which did cause me to wrestle with forgiveness. A while back someone grievously wronged me, and I was really hurt and offended by what happened. Although the offense itself was quite serious and painful, what hurt me more was a friend had done it. The feeling of betrayal was intense.
Emotional wounds, like physical wounds, take time to heal. The wider and deeper the wound, the longer it will take to heal. While the wound is healing, you must constantly guard against infection setting in. In fact, in some situations, infections are often more of a concern than the wound itself. This is because infections can spread quickly and ravage a healthy body. It is important to note that once an infection sets in, the healing process of the actual wound slows down or stops. The "infection" in emotional wounds is bitterness and anger.
Before we cover the steps necessary to speed the healing process of the actual emotional wound, let us first look at how to keep the infections from starting. Rule number one is never dwell on the incident! Dwelling is different than constructive thought. Constructive thought is carefully evaluating the situation to determine what responses are appropriate. Dwelling is rehashing the incident and feeling the pain over and over again. Dwelling stirs up very powerful emotions. Every negative emotion you allow to grow becomes one more hurdle you have to cross before you can start the healing process.
Divorce counselors are people who try to help you emotionally get over your divorce. They try to get you to fall "out of love" with your former mate. Dwelling on the wrong someone has done you is so powerful, many divorce counselors use it in their therapy. To help their patient get over the love they have for their former mate, they have them dwell on all of the bad their former mate has done. Eventually, hate and anger replace the love, and they are no longer "in love." Of course, this type of therapy does more harm than good. It does, however, show the damaging power of dwelling on past offenses.
"Mental imaging" is rehearsing an event over and over in your mind. It is so powerful many sports and martial arts use it in their preparations. In these activities, the person mentally rehearses the moves they want to make over and over again. Although imaging is not a substitute for physical practice, it has proven to be a valuable tool for conditioning. Incidentally, this is one reason why fantasizing about sexual encounters is so dangerous. This mental rehearsal makes you vulnerable to responding incorrectly when sexual temptations arise.
There is another reason why you should not dwell on an incident. Each person has a limited amount of energy to deal with things they encounter during the day. Bitterness and anger consumes a great deal of energy. If you continually dwell on an incident and stir up those emotions, you won’t have any energy left to deal with the wound itself. In my case, I knew I had to watch my response very carefully. My situation involved many issues and, as a result, I had to deal with a great deal of stress as well as the emotional hurt.
The first couple weeks after a person has been offended, they are particularly vulnerable to bitterness and anger because the emotions are so strong and often overwhelming. Therefore, I determined not to dwell on the incident at all for the first two weeks. I can honestly say I was not bitter or angry for the first two weeks. Of course, the following months were a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Once I was able to get past the original flood of emotions, I knew I still had to deal with the wound. Ignoring or suppressing the hurt will not make it go away. In fact, the only thing suppressing does is temporarily remove the problem from your view. Sooner or later, all of that suppressed hurt and anger will rise up and overpower you.
Refusing to dwell on an offense keeps the wound from getting infected. The wound, however, is still there. Something must be done to start the healing process. The first step in healing a wound is to seek God and ask Him to work in your life. True forgiveness has to come from Him. This may seem too simple, but it is often overlooked.
The next step is to pray for your offender. The Bible clearly commands us to pray for our enemies. I started praying for the friend who wronged me. I did not pray that he would see the errors of his ways, but rather I asked God to bless him and make him prosper. I must confess that this was really tough. As I prayed out of obedience, I found my attitude beginning to change. There were times when I actually meant the prayers. Praying for him was therapeutic. The healing process began. I found you cannot earnestly pray that God would bless a person and still remain angry and bitter. The two cannot coexist.
The third step is to address the issue head on. You must relinquish all rights to the offense. As believers, God has instructed us to commit our possessions, body and life to God. All of these things actually become the property of God and we are only stewards of them. If something happens to them outside our control, we are not to fret. We must do the same thing to the offenses that have been done to us. We must commit all rights and control to God. We are to view it as though the offense was actually done to God, not us.
There are two advantages to viewing an offense this way. First, God is much more capable of correcting a wrong deed than you or I. Second, doing this means you have relinquished all rights to dwell on the incident. You have no right to hold a grudge. The offense was no longer done to you, but to God. Since dwelling causes the emotional wounds to become infected, this part is very important.
When we truly give all rights of an offense to God, we can actually start viewing it as a bystander. For example, if I hear of something happening to a stranger, I may feel saddened, but it does not affect me personally. My emotional response is quite different than if it had happened to me. Likewise, when we are only stewards of this life, the offenses against us are not as personal.
I wish I could say the wound I sustained healed quickly. It didn’t. For months, I went through a roller-coaster ride of emotions. I caught myself thinking about the incident several times a day. This surprised and disappointed me. My personality is not one that holds a grudge. Once an issue has been resolved, I am usually able to put it behind me and move on. Yet, this betrayal plagued me.
In a sense I am glad it didn’t heal quickly. It made me much more compassionate toward those who are struggling to forgive a violation. It helped me realize some wounds run deep and take time to heal. It is not necessarily a reflection of the person’s "spirituality."
In Corrie Ten Boom’s book Tramp for the Lord, she has a chapter called The Blacks and Whites of Forgiveness (chapter 33). She says even though she has survived the German concentration camps and has been able to forgive the abusive guards, she still finds forgiveness for new incidents difficult. She mentioned an incident with an American that took her years to truly forgive. It is encouraging to see I am not alone in my struggles. Even the "spiritual giants" struggle with these issues.
One day when I was thinking about what was done to me, I thought about what was done to Christ. He was wronged and betrayed more than anyone else in the world. If anyone had the right to complain or hold a grudge, He was the one. Yet, He did not. We should follow His example.
As I thought about this, I was startled by a realization. It was so simplistic, but the thought had never occurred to me before. We all know Jesus died for the sins of the world. But, what I failed to realize was the actual sin my friend had committed against me was one of the sins Jesus was punished for. That specific sin was already paid for and forgiven by God. The offense no longer has an outstanding debt. It has been dealt with and I must act on that fact.
In summary, the basic steps of forgiveness are:
The following paragraphs are for those who are already consumed with bitterness and anger from a past offense. The emotions of these people are like a run-away train that can’t be stopped. They know they need help, but what can they do?
For months or years the emotional infection has run unrestricted throughout your body. The anger is so overwhelming you are not even able to take the first simple step of praying for the offender. For you, professional Christian counseling is recommended. However, a couple things can be done in the interim.
The first thing you need to do is stop fueling the fire. You should make a commitment not to think about the offense at all for two weeks. This will allow some of the emotions to subside. During this time you should be honest with God. Tell Him you lack the desire to do what is right and ask Him to give you the desire to work on it. Also, you should ask Him to raise up others to pray for you. After the two weeks you may have enough energy to start dealing with the problem.
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