I will, upon occasion, read the latest articles on The Gospel Coalition. As an evangelical Christian, I like to keep up with theological trends and conversations. This morning I read an article by Dane Ortlund called “The Psychology of Resentment“, wherein he talks about the response people have to wrongs, and particularly grievous wrongs perpetuated upon ourselves done by others and he details the bitterness we often harbor as a result:

So what happens? Where does a gospel-vacuous heart go in such a case? Instead of doing something externally to harm them you do something internally to harm them. You harbor bitterness. This is the psychology of resentment. You exercise emotional punishment toward them internally when actual punishment can’t be exercised externally. You set up a law-court in your heart, since an actual law-court is unfeasible.

But here’s what happens. The bitterness you harbor, the emotional punishment you exact in your heart, has precisely the opposite effect, over time, than you think. Bitterness does nothing to the offender, while it quietly destroys the offended. Resentment kills, hollows out the resenter, not the resented.

I realize that not all of you are Christians and you may not share my theology. But, I want to take you through some of the things I’ve been dwelling on and thinking through regarding bitterness and forgiveness. As the father of a 3 year old, I’m doing a lot of teaching right now. I’m working to mold my child’s morality – to help him learn how to deal with anger and disappointment when he’s wronged, and to help him deal with guilt when he’s done wrong. The latter is a lot of what we’re working on with right now. After wrong has been committed, how do things move forward? Are mom and dad still disappointed in him? When does that stop? The answer is forgiveness.

Forgiveness in the American culture is so often misunderstood.  When we are on either side of the sin, whether the perpetrator or the receiver, I see that the solution people want is an “I’m sorry”, or some other expression of regret. In this circumstance, no restoration has taken place; neither party has moved dealt with the issue and no forgiveness has taken place. So let me start by telling you what I believe forgiveness is NOT.

  • Forgiveness is not simply allowing time to go by and your anger to subside.
  • It is not an event that should be repeated over and over again for the receiver of the wrong. For instance, if I say I forgive my son for disobeying me, I shouldn’t keep bringing it up. I shouldn’t perpetuate the guilt for my own gain or for submission from the offender.
  • Forgiveness must not be contingent upon the offender asking for it.
  • Forgiveness does not mean that the receiver of wrong must continue to receive that wrong; you don’t have to put yourself in a position where that offense will continue to be perpetrated.

So, then, what is forgiveness? I, personally, would define it as choosing to remember the wrong no more, particularly in the interactions with the person who has offended you. Don’t let it color how you view the person. Don’t let yourself become bitter because of the wrong. I base this upon my reading of Isaiah 43:25 about how God treats us when He has forgiven us for our sin, “…I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” C.S. Lewis also wrote about forgiveness, and I encourage you, whether Christian or not to consider this:

To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you. This is hard. It is perhaps not so hard to forgive a single person great injury. But to forgive the incessant provocations of daily life—to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son—how can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say our prayers each night “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.” We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves.

When I said that forgiveness must not be contingent upon the other party asking for it, it is for good reason. As the article I referenced earlier stated, unforgiven issues between you and another can lead to bitterness and resentment, which hurts you more than it could ever punish the offender. This point I believe in on a very personal level. Earlier this year, I had to make some drastic changes in the way my business worked. A gentleman and friend whom I had associated my business with very closely took some actions in our business relationship that I disagreed with and said some extremely hurtful, untrue things about me and my business.  To this day, he still hasn’t asked forgiveness for these things. I had a choice. Do I become bitter and allow those things to poison our interactions? Or do I choose to forgive him, to put the hurt behind me and retain the ability to speak with this man without discomfort or awkwardness? I chose the second because I believe it is what God wants.

Forgiveness does not, however, always remove the consequences of the actions of the offender. Should victims of physical abuse continue to subject themselves to the the aggressor? Should a boss, whose employee has stolen from them allow that employee to be in the position to do so continually after forgiveness has occurred? I don’t believe so. Such circumstances would be enabling the wrong to continue. In my personal circumstance, I have chosen to not associate my business with the gentleman whose actions I disagree with, largely because there was no repentance, no change, no agreement that wrong was perpetrated.

True forgiveness means that we hold no bitterness or  anger towards an offender. We let go of the hurt and move forward, choosing to not allow it to color our views or interactions with the person we’ve forgiven. I encourage you, if this concept is new to you, to try and implement it, even on a basic level in your life. If you are married, practice intentionally forgiving your spouse for the stupid little things they do that upset you. Don’t talk about your forgiveness or use it as a manipulation. Choose to let go of bitterness. If you work with other people, you will inevitably get frustrated. Practice forgiveness and don’t let wrongs taint your interactions with your coworkers. I firmly believe that it will free you. It will take the internal pressure, big or small, of bitterness away from you and you will see it drastically improve your life.

Please, I welcome comments and discussion. Feel free to chime in!