The poison we drink

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“I don’t care. I will never forgive him for that!” I always cringe when I hear someone say something like that. I understand hurt, betrayal, being back-stabbed, violated, and all the rest that goes with being on the receiving end of someone else’s misdeeds but to say, “I will NEVER forgive that person,” causes me to feel pity for the person who uttered that phrase.

Years ago, I met a man who was very bitter about his relationship with his father. Nearly every time I was around him, this man, in his mid-50s, would get around to the subject of his father and how he had mistreated him and how much he despised his dad. Mostly, I just listened and nodded. He was so angry that I was pretty sure that his anger could be turned on me if I said anything that was counter to his feelings, words, and attitudes. Finally, however, I said something.

“Listen,” I said, “have you ever told your dad about this? Have you even tried to discuss these things with him?”

“No,” he said. “Why not?” I inquired.

“Because he’s been dead for six years.” Every day since his father’s death, this man had been tormented by whatever had happened in the past.

“You know,” I shared, “if you want to move on from the place where you are, you’re going to need to forgive him for whatever it is that he’s said or done.”

Sure enough, his anger turned on me and he yelled, “I will NEVER forgive him? You understand? Never!” And he never did. When he died some years later, he was still consumed with bitterness and hatred. He let a dead man ruin his life.

We often think that, if we forgive someone, it means the offense wasn’t real or that the offender gets off scot-free with no accountability. That’s not true.

In the Bible, St. Paul wrote this to the Christians at Rome: “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

Notice two things: (1) Do not avenge yourself, and (2) Vengeance belongs to God.

Long ago, someone owed me money … a goodly sum at the time. As time went on and the loan continued to not be paid back, it affected my relationship with that person. I didn’t want to see him, be with him, or talk to him.

Finally, in my home office, I took the promissory note and wrote on it “paid in full — debt forgiven.” I then prayed and said, “God, I transfer this debt to you. If you want to collect it, it’s up to you but he no longer owes me this money.”

In fact, I decided that, if he ever did try to repay the loan I would refuse. After all, by forgiving the debt, it was no longer owed to me. I had, and still, have peace about the situation and the relationship was restored.

I have done the same over the years when someone has wounded me in some way. I have a choice. I can forgive or I can hold on to my “right” to be offended and, like my friend, become bitter.

Forgiveness is not an emotion. It is a choice. Whatever my feelings, I can choose to nurse and nurture those feelings of anger, unfairness, hatred, or whatever — or I can choose to forgive. To transfer, as it were, that obligation that I feel I am owed, to God.

What forgiveness does — true forgiveness — is free the one who forgives. But forgiveness is not the same as trust. One husband, who betrayed his wife, said, “I thought she was supposed to forgive and forget!” Well, no, not necessarily. Trust is a fragile commodity. Once it is broken or betrayed, it has to be re-earned.

Let’s say I loan someone money and they don’t pay it back. Let’s also say that I forgive that debt. Would I continue to loan them money? Not very likely. I would be foolish to trust them unless and until they proved themselves trustworthy over time. When one of my sons was a teenager, he betrayed my trust with the car. Later, when I withheld its use from him, he said, “What? You don’t trust me?”

My response was, “Of course I don’t trust you!” Trust betrayed must be re-earned. Forgiveness can and should be freely given.

Matthew 6:15 (NASB) says, “But if you do not forgive other people, then your Father will not forgive your offenses.” That’s pretty serious. God’s forgiveness toward us is dependent and contingent on whether we forgive those who do us wrongly.

It’s called “sowing and reaping.” If we desire forgiveness then we must sow the seeds of forgiveness by forgiving others.

Sound easy? Of course it doesn’t. One man, a man I thought was a true friend, betrayed me many years ago by telling outright lies and deliberately seeking to destroy my credibility as a minister. And he was a fellow minister! When he was caught, he lied again by denying everything. After I moved away, he continued lying to people I knew.

It took me ten long years to truly forgive him. It was like an onion. I thought several times that I had forgiven him but there was always, it seemed, another layer to go through. Finally, I was able to truly forgive him and all anger, bitterness, and the hope he would pay for what he did was gone, replaced by peace.

Is repentance on the part of the other person necessary? Well, it may help but, no, it is not. Forgiveness is not about them. It is about you. About me. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). He forgave those who were in the process of murdering him, unrepentant though they were. He chose to forgive them and, like Jesus, we always have a choice.

As someone once said, “Unforgiveness is the poison we drink in the expectation that someone else will die.” Don’t drink the poison. Forgive everyone, everything.

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the pandemics, the church is open at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays but is also live streaming at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life) He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]