By Chris Adsit
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See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.
An Epic Battle
I live in the Great Northwest, and most of us in this part of the country have a love/hate relationship with an almost omnipresent, resilient vine: the blackberry. The fruit of this vine is sweet, pleasant to the eyes, and excellent on granola or in a pie. But if you don’t let this green invader know who’s boss early on, it’ll take over your property as completely as homeless squatters in San Francisco.
We have a small field in the woods on our property, and one spring I noticed a few blackberry sprouts poking their cute little heads up out of the soil. “Sweet! Before long, we’ll have a good crop for jams, ice cream, and awesome smoothies.” And by late summer we did. The next year my little vineyard had gotten noticeably bigger, and our harvest was bountiful. But I got busy with life and didn’t check on that field for a couple of years, and when I did, I wondered who had put that mountain in my field??? Seriously! My blackberry garden was now as big as a house – and growing by the minute!
I had a neighbor with a bulldozer, and he scraped up the mass of vines into a gigantic pile, and we burned them. Phew! The blackberry invasion was crushed! But the next spring there was a counter-attack – hundreds of shoots were popping up all over the clearing! I got out my pruning shears and clipped off every one of them. But within a month each clipped shoot had produced five or ten babies, mocking me with their little green leaflets and sharpening their thorns.
I was reluctant to employ the nuclear option, but I sensed an imminent takeover. Time for Mr. Herbicide. I gave each rude little rebel a good drink of Roundup – which doesn’t just wither the upper part of the plant, it goes deep into the weed’s roots and kills it for good.
The next spring, there were about a half-dozen lame little shoots, but I gave them the same welcome I had given their predecessors and from then on there was peace in the land.
What Bitterness Does
When someone has trespassed against us and there is no justice, bitterness is often born within us. This bitterness usually turns into indignation, and if left unchecked it will eventually result in anger, rage, and may even manifest itself in outright violence. And guess who gets hurt the most? Not the trespasser. The bitterness can consume the one who has been violated – just like those blackberries tried to consume my field.
This bitterness is one of the main causes of depression in someone who has been traumatized. In most cases, the trauma was caused by a particular person or people-group. We get them in our crosshairs, and if we don’t get the chance to pull the trigger and witness revenge, we get frustrated and bitter, and spiral down into depression.
Too often, a person who has been wronged won’t do anything about it – except sit and stew. We incubate the bitterness, and after a while it begins to eat our soul. But still we do nothing – except meditate on dark, destructive curses we’d like to inflict upon our violator. And this doesn’t harm the offender one bit – but it destroys the inner peace, purpose, and general well-being of the victim. It’s like me taking a big swig of Roundup and waiting for the blackberries to die. I’m pretty sure this has never worked.
What WILL work? Forgiveness.
What It’s Not
Now wait a minute. I hope you don’t misunderstand what I mean when I use that word. Many people are confused about what forgiveness IS and IS NOT. It is not…
- Forgetting – Deep hurts can rarely be wiped out of one’s awareness. You can’t pretend that the evil never happened. “Forgive and forget?” You can do the first, but not the second.
- Reconciliation. You may or may not be able to eventually reconcile with the person who has harmed you. But you can forgive someone without restoring your relationship. Even Jesus as He hung on the cross forgave His murderers with no chance of reconciling with them.
- Agreeing with your abuser. Some think that, “If I forgive, I’m letting them get away with their offense.” To forgive is not a sign that the offender has won, it’s a sign that they’re wrong, and you finally figured it out.
- Dismissing. To forgive does not mean to condone. It’s not passing the offense off as inconsequential or insignificant. It doesn’t trivialize the wrong – just as God didn’t consider our sin trivial. Sending His Son to pay the price for our salvation indicates just how un-dismissive He was.
- Pardoning. A pardon is a legal transaction that releases an offender from the consequences of an action. Forgiveness is a personal transaction that releases the offended from the on-going torture of the offense.
- Justice. Justice involves reciprocity of some kind. “An eye for an eye.” Forgiveness is an unconditional gift given to somebody who does not deserve it. That’s not justice – it’s love.
- Emotional. A loss of anxiety and a gaining of joy may or may not be immediate byproducts of forgiveness. Over time most people see this change, but it’s not automatic. Forgiveness is an objective act of the will. You may not “feel” forgiving, but that’s not a necessity.
- A one-shot deal. Forgiveness may begin with a single decision, but that won’t be the end of it. Forgiveness is a process – like peeling off the layers of an onion. I forgive my offender today by an act of my will, but I may have to do it again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. As many times as those shoots of bitterness pop into your sight, hit them again with the Roundup.
What It Is
One’s merciful response to someone who has unjustly hurt them. Rather than to seek vengeance and justice, one releases the offender from the consequences of their behavior, thereby decoupling the offended from the on-going psychological and spiritual torment of the offense and offender. It’s a response to wrongdoing by doing good, rather than to demand the justice that is actually deserved.
This is not to say that, when someone has committed a harmful act against you, you are supposed to just take it and become a doormat. What’s the chance that by doing nothing the offender gets the idea that what he or she did is OK, and is emboldened to do the same thing to others? Probably high. That’s why Jesus instructed us in Matthew 18:15-17 that when your brother (or sister) sins against you, you are to go to him or her privately, and point it out (speaking the truth in love – Eph. 4:15). Communicate! If they refuse to listen, bring two or three others and go over it again. If the offender still blows you off, then it’s time to bring the case to your fellowship, if you both are involved in the same one. Finally, if there’s no change, you break fellowship with the perpetrator. The objective is repentance and restoration. But that may not always happen.
Fighting Fire With Fire
All through that process, and especially after fellowship is broken, work on forgiving the offender in your heart. If you try to fight fire with fire, you will generally end up with more fire. When trying to extinguish a fire, use a different substance that is highly recommended by firefighters all over the world: water. As the Bible says in Romans 12:21, “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” The good is always going to be stronger than the evil.
Adopt a mindset that says, “I recognize that there is evil here, and I choose to break the cycle of hurt and violence. Rather than to add to the evil I will contain it, starve it out, and kill it – with good.” As Dr. Martin Luther King once said:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.“
The Act of Forgiving
As I mentioned earlier, your emotions won’t always go along for the ride when you decide to forgive someone. Forgiveness is an objective, willful act, and your emotions are just going to have to sit in the back seat for a while. In prayer before God – keeping in mind how freely He has forgiven you – make your pronouncement of forgiveness to Him. You could say something like this:
Lord, as an act of obedience, I choose to forgive ____________ for his/her offense of ___________. I release him/her from my judgment. I won’t hold their sin against them. I step out of the way so that you can go into direct action for _____________.
Knowing the Bitter Root is Dead
You may have to pray this prayer many times over many days, weeks, or months. But eventually, your bitterness will be siphoned off and your peace will return. How do you know when you’ve come to the point of truly forgiving someone? Here are three tests:
- If you can pray for those who have hurt you.
- Matthew 5:44 – “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
- If you can pronounce blessings on those who have hurt you.
- Luke 6:28 – “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
- If you can do good to those who have hurt you.
- Luke 6:27, 35 – “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you… Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.”
Get Your Blackberries Elsewhere
An occasional blackberry smoothie isn’t worth the hassle of an aggressive mountain of brambles. You may be desperately hanging on to your bitterness, thinking you don’t want to miss an opportunity to get even. But it’s not worth it. Spray that Roundup, and plan on getting your blackberries at Safeway from here on.