Two summers ago, Ike and I endured a situation that we never hope to relive. I can’t go into the specifics of it, but the bare bones of it is this: we were treated horribly by a person we could not escape. We were forced to be around him for a period of time while he disrespected us, degraded us, insulted us, and made our lives a living nightmare.
I tend to get along with most people very easily, so the experience threw me for a loop. Why did he treat us so badly? Why couldn’t we reason with him? Why did he refuse to show us the same respect we showed him? Those were the questions that kept me up at night, and before I knew it, it began to change me.
However, I didn’t understand just how much it was affecting me. Not until the day I woke up and came to this realization: I didn’t just dislike that man. I hated him.
Hate is a strong word, although I use it casually all the time. I “hate” Chicago winters and Ike “hates” beets, but usually we don’t mean hate. Not really. True hate is a violent emotion, so when I realized that I did, in fact, feel hatred toward another human being, it startled me.
It was also a wake-up call.
In Galatians 5:19-21, Paul includes “hatred” among a list of “acts of the flesh,” and in Matthew 5 Jesus warns against bearing hatred in your heart. So in that moment of clarity I had to take a hard look at myself, and what I saw wasn’t pretty.
There, under the guise of victimhood and self-righteousness, was festering the rot of bitterness and malice. I felt justified in those emotions because I had been wronged. Yet I had allowed them to turn my soul black in the process.
There’s a popular saying about forgiveness, that holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal and expecting your enemy to get burned. I agree, and it is a powerful truth. However that horrible experience taught me a second reason why forgiveness matters.
The problem with unforgiveness is not simply that it hurts me, but that it hurts others.
The person who has helped me to understand this concept the most is theologian Miroslav Volf. In his book Exclusion and Embrace, he explains that when we fail to forgive, we “mimic the behavior of the oppressors.” We become “shaped in the mirror image of the enemy.”
In other words, when we fail to forgive a sin against us, we are doomed to repeat it.
That’s part of the reason children of abuse go on to abuse, and why so many of us perpetuate the sins of our parents. Even if you don’t repeat the sin in its exact form, the seed of it still burrows into your soul and eventually bears fruit.
I was the poster girl for that formula: It began on an invisible level, as my my soul began to mimic the soul of my offender. While the bitterness seethed in my heart, it shaped the way I saw him and talked about him, which was less and less like a person made in the image of God. Then, over time, my spiritual sickness manifested into action–in the same way that he degraded me with his actions, I degraded him, privately, with my words.
The more I withheld forgiveness, the more I became like him.
As a parent, this cycle of unforgiveness hits home pretty hard. My son is little now, but as he gets older and watches my response to insults and wrongs, my actions will speak volumes. It doesn’t matter how often I tell my son to forgive and to honor the image of God in others. If I respond to insult by insulting in return–even if it’s behind closed doors within ear shot of my family alone–then I am perpetuating the sin, both in myself and in the example I set for my son.
That’s sobering stuff.
That’s also why God’s forgiveness is such a powerful act. God’s forgiveness isn’t just about individual salvation, but about redeeming our relationships with one another. As long as there is sin, hurt, and injustice in the world, we are bound to pass it on.
But God made a new way by unleashing forgiveness into the world. In Luke 7:47, Jesus says that forgiveness produces love, which means that God’s forgiveness causes a reverse chain reaction. Instead of perpetuating hate, we have been freed to perpetuate love.
The question is, which one will we choose?
I won’t pretend that I’ve got this down. Even now when I think about the crazy things that man did to us, I feel angry. It’s easy for me to get caught up in telling the story to people, delighting to mock his ugliness. Even now, it feels like he deserves it.
But there’s a lot at stake in my bitterness. It’s not just about me and the person who hurt me. It’s also about my soul, my son’s soul, and the hearts and minds of everyone I touch. It’s about the kind of world I want to live in, the kind of mother I want to be, and the kind of world for which Christ died to make a reality.
I’ve heard it said that hurt people hurt people, but forgiven people set the world free. That’s why I choose forgiveness.