Knowing what is best for us, our Heavenly Father commands us to forgive: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). Unforgiveness can be very destructive.

For many years, I saw a deep, unresolved hurt eat at my husband’s psyche little by little. An argument with a family member had festered so deep, the wall the two had built between them was almost impenetrable. He became soured by it ― bitter, untrusting of others, cynical, and sullen.

I talked to him about it off and on over the years. No, nagged is more accurate. But he would only shake his head, work his jaw, and stomp off with his hands in a gesture of surrender, muttering, “Not until she says she is sorry.” She never did. Now they are both gone.

I often wondered how this grudge could possibly have been more important than the chance for us and our son to have a relationship with this family member. What a waste. Then, God brought to mind Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:3, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

I realized I, too, after all these years, harbored an unforgiving spirit toward the kids I grew up with who relentlessly bullied me for five years in school. It affected my self-image, and thus my self-worth. It made me hesitant to speak in a crowd, and always conscious of what others thought. These emotions became stumbling blocks to having a closer relationship with God and being used as his servant to lead others to know and love him. My focus remained on me, my worthlessness, and my hurt ― not on God, who makes me worthy through his healing love.

A short time later, my publisher asked me to write a sequel to a novel series involving a minor character who had been abused. As I wrote it, God used it as a catalyst of healing for me. This fictitious woman couldn’t move on with her life and embrace the fact that God could love her for whom she was and had the potential to be, until she learned to let go of the hurt and anger toward those in her past who did anything but love or respect her. Her bitterness shackled her.

As my character’s chains slowly loosed and fell in the plot’s development, so did mine. A newly discovered freedom to be who God created her to be emerged in her life, and began to be mirrored in mine. I started, for the first time, to glimpse how God saw me ― a person worthy to be used in the ministry he had called me to because his love defined my worth. It was not to be defined by how people treated me in the past.

Forgiving someone who has not asked to be forgiven isn’t easy. It is not what you instinctively want to do. It may be the most difficult thing you can ever think of doing. Your heart cries out for justice and vengeance. You have been deeply wounded. You want God to punish them, smite them, or cast them away. I understand. I still battle those feelings.

But Jesus commands us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48) for a reason. I think he stressed this not only so we can be a witness to God’s forgiveness and love to others, but so we can begin to let go of the residual hostility that can block the flow of that loving forgiveness from God to us.

The Lord’s Prayer states, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In other words, the proof of a truly repentent heart is the choice to forgive others. To the degree that we can forgive others, we can allow God’s forgiveness into our own hearts. As contemporary Christian artist, Matthew West, sang in his song Forgiveness, the real one imprisoned by bitterness is the one who has not yet forgiven.

Until we learn to forgive others who have wronged us, how can we fully understand why God wants to forgive us, imperfect sinners as we are? How can we see ourselves as children of the King, when bitterness over someone else’s mistreatment of us has impoverished us?

As soon as we begin to peel the grip of resentment from our souls, we can grasp the grace and mercy our Lord waits to give us. Then in turn, as that loving forgiveness floods our hearts, our outlook will change. We will start to see events and people through the eternal glistening eyes of mercy, not the red-rimmed ones of hate and hurt.

If a wrongdoer has embedded hurt and hatred in your soul, he or she has won. You can’t heal with such a knife stuck in your back, no matter how familiar the pain has become. It is time to no longer let it define who you are.

It will take time and faith. But our loving Lord is ready to help. It’s okay to pray, “Lord, I cannot forgive _____ on my own. Help me to do it. Amen.” Nothing will give him more delight than to assist you in this task ― for the other person’s sake, but even more so for yours. Eventually, you will be freed to forgive, just as my character was, and I am learning to be.

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Photo Credit: Matthew Henry