The problem of unforgiveness

(Photo: van Regus)

Someone once described unforgiveness as a poison you drink, hoping the other person will die.

It's a very effective way to look at unforgiveness as left unchecked, unforgiveness will cause the person offended to harbour destructive feelings that will cause them mental pain and in some cases, physical illness, while very often, the person or persons who gave the offence may carry on, perhaps completely unaware of having caused any hurt and will continue very happily with their lives.

There are some issues that we may endure during the course of our lives that are extremely traumatic. There are those of us who have suffered abuse, neglect, or a number of other deeply wounding life experiences. It may be difficult to come to terms with these experiences, let alone contemplate forgiving those who have hurt us.

As Christians we understand that forgiveness is the foundation of our faith. After all, God forgives us when we ask Him to and it is that realisation of our need of His forgiveness that starts us off on our journey with God.

Unfortunately, for many of us, our desire to live at peace with others and to please God may lead us to conceal our hurt, perhaps believing that in time the feelings of offence would go away.

There is a time to speak and a time to remain silent and sometimes it may be that it is better to remain silent, forgive the person, leave the matter and let it go. Sometimes it is enough to take this course of action and as we reflect on the matter, we may see that perhaps the person spoke truth to us and we did not like it, or perhaps the problem is that we misunderstood what they were communicating because of our own personal (and perhaps faulty) ways of mentally filtering what people say or do.

However, the problem arises when the offence continues to turn over and over in our minds. We wonder why we're still having an issue although we have said to ourselves that we have forgiven that person. Still, it's playing on our mind and, if truth be told, things are not improving.

Matthew 18:15-17 sets out the process of how to deal with problems we encounter with others. As a first step, it is always a good idea to speak to the person or persons privately.

"If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector." Matthew 18: 15 – 17 (NIV)

The first portion of Matthew 17:1 says that it is not possible that offences will not come, but we are encouraged to live lives free of offence to God and man.

"After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves." Matthew 17.1 (NIV)

Acts 24:16 is helpful in this respect: "So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man." (NIV)

The longer a matter remains unresolved, the more difficult it becomes to deal with. We may give the offence more air-time than it requires by speaking to everyone else apart from the person or persons involved.

It can be difficult to forgive, but unforgiveness can lead to a root of bitterness Hebrews 12:15 that will ultimately grow up to defile many.

"See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many." Hebrews 12.15 (NIV)

This root may manifest in many ways such as suspicion, anger, withdrawal from others and a lack of trust and inability to open up to others.

However, God makes it clear to us that He expects us to forgive.

"For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you." Matthew 6:14 (NIV)

We can choose with His help to forgive and let offences drop.

The effects of unforgiveness may be cumulative, with further offences compounding the issue and gradually eroding at a person's character.

Sometimes, the person who caused the offence is no longer in our lives. Perhaps they have simply moved on in life, or they may be deceased. In situations like these it may of great benefit to see a Christian counsellor or a trusted friend to receive the help needed to open up about the issue, pray about it and go through the process of forgiveness and, in time, find relief.