Bitterness can destroy us.
We understand that.
But do we understand why? Why does our refusal to forgive cause such serious harm to us?
Unforgiveness deforms us because it is rooted in a lie.
As with all sin, it binds us in spiritual enslavement because bitterness denies the truth that sets us free.
Resentment denies the truth of Deuteronomy 23:5, which says that God turns curses into blessings for us because He loves us.
It denies the truth of Jeremiah 29:11 and Job 42:2, which assure us that God’s plans for us are good and that they cannot be thwarted.
Bitterness also denies this startling truth: as forgiven Christ-followers, we do not have the right not to forgive. The liberating truth is that the spiritual work of atonement is finished. Physical consequences may still apply, but spiritual justice has been satisfied.
Bitterness cries out for justice. Forgiveness recognizes that spiritual justice has been served.
Forgiveness is not a matter of deciding not to press charges; it is a matter of recognizing that charges have already been settled. As I recognize that a penalty has already been paid, I can say to the one who has wronged me, “You do not owe me.” Spirit to spirit, there is no debt. Insisting on payment would actually be further injustice.
At the foot of the Cross, I stand next to those who have wronged me, for we are all sinners alike. If the blood flowing down from the pierced body of Christ is insufficient to reach my debtors beside me, then it does not reach me, either, for my sins against God far exceed the sins committed against me.
Forgiveness is full of power because it is full of truth: it is agreeing with God that the debt has been paid.
Justice has been written with whips and nails across the flesh of Christ. The full wrath of God poured out at Calvary even as red blood poured out.
Forgiveness is not something we choose to do as much as it is something we acknowledge: we recognize that the punishment for every wrong and every evil has been lashed and deeply striped across the back of Jesus.
The choice we must make is not whether or not we will forgive:
The choice we must make is whether or not we will be people of the Cross. If we choose to stand in the shadow of the Cross, then every facet of our lives also comes under that shadow of atonement.
Forgiveness, then, is not an isolated event or an extraordinary choice that we make. It is the air we breathe as believers; it is the rule of the Kingdom. It is the seamless way we live, for the Forgiving God lives within us. To deny forgiveness to someone else is to quench the Spirit within us.
It is not being wronged that disrupts the well-being of our spirits; the festering infection within us is our refusal to forgive. When I struggle to forgive someone, I am not wrestling with the one who wronged me as much as I am wrestling with the God who forgave me. My bitterness is my own rebellion against God.
God forgives us not because He denies our wrong or excuses it. He forgives our evil because He has paid the price for it. In fact, Hebrews 9:22 tells us that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. Every time we forgive, we are holding out the Cross and saying again, “It is finished.” The paying is finished.
It is the power of the Cross of Christ to move us from a place of punishment to a place of redemption. The work of transformation and restoration remains, but the work of atonement is finished.
As we forgive, we move from seeking punishment to seeking redemption.
Forgiving is the stamp of the Spirit upon our spirit, and it a powerful new proclaiming of the gospel. This “good news” declares that, although evil has been committed, justice has been satisfied. What remains is an invitation to healing and restoration.
Forgiveness says, “Although I have been hurt, I will not hurt you back.”
Forgiveness also says, “I will not feel sorry for myself.” This is possible because we know that God redeems our pain fully. “For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17, HSCB).
I do not have to deny my pain or someone else’s evil in order to forgive. I do not have to wrestle with my emotions. Instead, I simply lay down the stone that I had wanted to throw in punishment, I walk away from my pity party, and I stand in the shadow of the Cross. And suddenly, I realize that I have forgiven.
The apostle Paul asked his friend Philemon to forgive Onesimus, the slave who had stolen from Philemon. Paul made this remarkable promise to Philemon:
If [Onesimus] has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, PAUL, WRITE THIS WITH MY OWN HAND: I WILL REPAY IT. AND I WON’T MENTION THAT YOU OWE ME YOUR VERY SOUL![i]
Paul was saying, “You can forgive this debt, Philemon, because I will pay it.” Paul said this because he knew that God had said the same thing to him.
When we are wronged, we can hear God say these very words to us, too. We can forgive our debtors because God has promised to repay us. He will repay what has been taken from us—and even more.
(This is the third in a series on forgiveness. You can read Part One here: A Spiritual WMD, Part Two here: Forgiveness as Self-Help?
and Part Four here: Forgiveness as Resurrection.)
[i] Philemon 18-19, NLT