Over Easter weekend, I made it a priority to visit friends and mentors from back home as Chris and I were staying in Southern Oklahoma a few days. Of course life was busy for me and I didn’t really “have” the time to make all the stops to merely sit and chat.
Yet, my soul craved that human connection. I had been longing for deep conversation, catching up with others’ and being challenged in my own faith. The time I did make for friends had such a huge impact on my heart. God is unbelievable – how he uses us to encourage and minister to one another.
I was thrilled to share with friends and family that I would be completing my seminary degree (finally!). My biggest cheerleaders throughout my seminary education have been older, and much wiser, adults that I have looked up to because of their extraordinary faith.
One man in particular works with my dad. For several years, I’ve visited their workplace, a machine shop, to help out when I needed extra cash, to bring them lunch, and to talk about theology, missions and how God is moving in my life. It didn’t take me long to realize that when I visit my dad and his friend, I’m going to get asked the tough questions.
These visits usually being with small talk…”How’s the boyfriend/fiancé/now husband?” “Are you still taking seminary classes?”
But, before long, questions take me to the heart of matters. “What do you think about this passage in Ephesians and how does it affect your theology?” “Are you making time for prayer?” “Why do you feel God is calling you to minister in this way?”
As I’m preparing for a possible career in full-time ministry, this inspiring man of God offered encouragement. This time around, it wasn’t necessarily a question that I was personally asked that struck a chord within. It was story about a minister and his unforgiveness that truly hit home. He mentioned that unforgiveness in our hearts can be crippling to our ministries.
He asked the believer, “How can you pray with such hatred filling your heart?”
“How can you stand before a congregation and share the Gospel when you hold that bitterness and unforgiveness within you?”
Forgiveness has been a constant struggle in my life. In my heart are deep roots of bitterness and anger. It’s not that I’m constantly full or rage or hatred, actually the opposite. For me, loving people has never been difficult. God has filled my heart with compassion for those in need, a desire to share his name with those who have not heard, and an unexplainable love the people he has placed in my life. A majority of people I meet, I can love unconditionally. But, unfortunately, there always seems to be an exception to every rule.
My sins are buried within. Out of sight most of the time. Not really that big of a deal, I thought. Yet, I was reminded that those sins can be the most dangerous.
If I dig too deep within my heart and my past, I discover unresolved tension and slices of bitterness against those who have hurt me. Most of these people are out of my life at this point. I haven’t seen them in years. I’m not impacted on a daily basis by the anger I hold against them.
My bitterness arises in spurts. Occasionally I will be reminded of a story from my past or asked about a person who used to be a friend, and that’s when it hits – the intense pain and scars left over from years ago; the rage of wanting justice and not being able to do anything about it; the unforgiveness that lingers in the tiny spot in the depths of my heart. There are still sins I have not forgotten and people I have not forgiven.
When I heard the story of the believer harboring unforgiveness in his heart, God began asking me…
“Sara, how can you pray with such hatred filling your heart?”
“How can you, Sara, stand before a congregation and share the Gospel when you hold that bitterness and unforgiveness within you?”
Forgiveness is such a tough issue because so many of us have been legitimately hurt. Example after example comes to my mind.
…the family member that you trusted to take care of you, but instead they put their own needs first and you were neglected
…the best friend who promised to keep your secrets, but instead shared with others for personal gain and betrayed you
…the significant other who you thought was “the one,” but instead they manipulated and abused you
…the co-worker who appeared to be your friend, but instead took advantage of your willingness to help and disrespected you
It almost seems that if we forgive, we justify what our enemy has done, and in some twisted way, we are telling them that it was okay. To forgive feels exposing, as if I’m opening myself up to be hurt all over again. It’s not easy to “forgive and forget,” then continue living as if it never happened.
Yet I know, without a doubt, I can no longer hold onto my unforgiveness. The above statements are lies I have believed and God is calling me to be rid of it, once and for all!
Forgiveness isn’t telling a sinner that their sins against you were right. Forgiveness is setting the sinner free from the strongholds of that sin and allowing the sinner to walk in the freedom of Christ. We forgive to give them a second chance at living, despite what they truly deserve. Which is exactly what Jesus has done for us!
We cannot forget the indescribable forgiveness that Christ lavished on us. While we were sinners, he died for us. While we betrayed him, he took us back. While we hurt him time after time after time, he has never withheld his grace and mercy.
It’s easy to play the victim card and hold back forgiveness. And I don’t say this to make light of anyone who has been victimized. Please don’t misunderstand. Sins are serious. They hurt. Sins damage lives forever. But, we allow that damage to continue to dwell within us as long as we hold a grudge.
We allow our witness and our ministry to be damaged as long as we cling to unforgiveness.
How can we represent the God of the universe who gave us knew life, when we hate our brothers and sisters? How can we proclaim the saving power of our Lord Jesus when we refuse to forgive the ones who have hurt us? How can we walk in the forgiveness of Christ, yet withhold it from those around us?
We can’t. And I from here on out…I choose not to.
I’m not saying it will be easy. I don’t believe it will happen over night. There may be tears and rage and confusion. In fact, I expect there to be. But, I serve a God who overcomes. I know with him and through him I can overcome this bitterness that resides in my heart. It may be a daily battle for the rest of my life, but I’m ready to face it. I’m ready to let him take it.
I am choosing to forgive when it is hard and when it hurts, because my God forgave me.
Will you join me?