The harm that unforgiveness and bitterness can do

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From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 13 – Some common errors and areas of confusion about what forgiveness is and how, and why, we are to do it

There are many harmful consequences that follow if we will not forgive others.  One major problem is the ongoing emotional effect that it has on us.  If the many wrongs done to us are not forgiven and handed over to Jesus to judge (and punish if need be) then they won’t go away.  Instead, they will fester within us and grow into a ‘tumour’ of bitterness.

That build-up of unresolved grievances will have a very damaging effect on us.  We know that from our own experience.  There is even a nasty chemical reaction within us when we feel pent up anger which is not properly dealt with and has no outlet.  When that reservoir of accumulated grievances isn’t dealt with it turns into bitterness.  That then flares up into fresh anger (i.e. of the carnal variety, not righteous anger) every time we remember what was done to us. 

Sometimes we remind ourselves of the grievance by ‘nursing’ it and forming a grudge.  We get the sense of grievance out, from time to time, to dwell on it and think about it again and again.  Every time we do that we cause another dose of damaging chemicals and hormones to be produced within ourselves.  These then linger in our system, doing physical harm to us, as well as emotional and spiritual damage.

In fact, these chemical responses are the cause of many literal cancers.  I was speaking to a throat and mouth cancer specialist some time ago.  She sees a regular pattern among her patients.  Many of them are heavy-drinking men who are also embittered and angry, and have been so for years.  Cancer appears to be one of the end results of all that. 

I recall a very unfortunate woman whose son was brutally murdered in the 1960s by the ‘Moors Murderers’, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.  For decades the mother held on to all of her bitterness and campaigned for the murderers never to be released from prison.  She would often appear on TV saying “I will never forgive them for what they did“.

One really can understand her reaction and sympathize deeply with her.  Who wouldn’t?  Her 12 year old son had been tortured and killed by two sadistic people who had done it all purely for ‘fun’ and showed no remorse.  Yet, despite the appalling injustice of it all, the undeniable fact is that she caused severe additional damage to herself by holding on to all the bitterness, instead of handing it all over to Jesus. 

One could see in her face, and hear in her voice, what her unforgiveness was doing to her.  She eventually died, never having managed to forgive the killers, and never having got free of her own bitterness.  The final 40 years of her life were blighted by it.  By contrast, another man had a daughter who was killed by an IRA bomb at Enniskillen. 

He decided, to forgive the men who did it.  He was a mature Christian and had an accurate understanding of what forgiveness really is.  His life from then on was totally different to that of the mother of the Moors murderers’ victim.  He still had to bear all his grief, but he was capable of carrying on living hislife. 

So, he still suffered all the sadness and loss, but the point is that those things did not destroy him, because he refused to let them do so.  The same effect is seen, in either direction, in our own lives.  We can choose to allow the bitterness to remain.  If so, we will be harmed by it.  Or, we can let it go, hand it over to Jesus (i.e. forgive the person in the narrow, basic sense) and have peace of mind.  

Bitterness, rage and hate will also create major obstacles to your own progress, i.e. spiritually and otherwise.  You will not be able to grow as a Christian, or serve God as you should, if you are harbouring such feelings.  They prevent us from being of any use to God and create boundaries, beyond which we cannot go until we deal with them. 

However, that can only be done by forgiving.  There is no other way.  There is no form of counselling or psychological technique or medication which can achieve what real forgiveness achieves.  If we refuse to forgive the wrongdoer, the initial wrong done to us can end up having an exponentially increased impact upon the whole of the rest of our lives, even in eternity. 

It seems unfair, in a sense, but that is the way it is and we have no alternative but to face that fact.  A wise person will therefore do whatever is needed to remove from his life anything which hinders his own spiritual progress, regardless of whether it seems ‘fair’ to him.  In particular, we need to prevent any “root of bitterness” from developing:

See to it that no one fail to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” spring up and cause trouble, and by it the many become defiled;

Hebrews 12:15 (RSV)

Unforgiveness makes us hard and sour.  It also causes us to lose our sense of proportion and perspective.  If so, we may become unjust to others, as the indirect, but foreseeable, result of the original wrong done to us.  We are not to blame for that original wrong, but we are answerable for our reactions to it. 

Thus a wrong can be endlessly multiplied in its effect, i.e. in the harm it causes, if we fail to forgive.  Conversely, forgiveness, especially if it is done early, puts a stop to that chain of causation.  It prevents the escalation of harm that would otherwise have resulted.

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