A number of years ago, a ministerial colleague (a friend, I once thought) sought to undermine me and sully my reputation among both fellow ministers and church members. When I discovered what he was doing (think: gossip, lies, and distortions) I was shocked. The man was old enough to be my older brother and all I ever did was show him respect both in and out of church.
The more I learned about what he was saying and doing, the more disappointed and disturbed I became. This minister told other clergy of the same denomination things that were simply untrue. It was the first, but by no means the last, time I would encounter petty, jealous, unscrupulous men who wore nice suits and ties and preached God’s word while, at the same time, throwing people under the bus for their own gain.
The identity, details, and circumstances really don’t matter. I was young with just a few years in ministry under my belt and he was established and respected by his associates. When I drove halfway across the state to see the state leader in that denomination, I found there was nothing he could do. My word against his. His reputation against my lack of one. He said he believed me, and I think he did. Big deal.
I was not accused of any moral failure but that couldn’t have stung any more than what was said. My true sin? Thinking about planting a church in a neighboring town that did not have a church of that denomination. Apparently, he thought I was a threat to him and his church, which I most certainly was not. I was then, and am now, a loyal person … sometimes too much so, I have been told.
The bottom line is that I moved away … more than half the country away. There really were no other options available at the time. With distance and time, I knew I needed to forgive him and move on. Someone once told me that, “Unforgiveness is the poison we drink in the expectation that someone else will die.” To forgive is to transfer the repayment of a debt out of our hands and into God’s. I was, at that time, comforted by the scripture that says, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. I will repay.” I was eager for that to happen.
Yet it didn’t quite go as I expected. The move across the country was one of the best things that ever happened to me as far as ministry and the family were concerned. I missed my family “back home,” but I was able to do things with the boys that would have been impossible otherwise.
Periodically, I would become aware that I still held resentment toward this person. So, I would forgive again. It was like peeling off the layers of an onion. Just when you thought you had arrived, there was another layer. The good thing I discovered is that God was okay with the layer approach. The betrayal of a man I truly thought was my friend and even admired, hit me deeply.
Eventually we moved to Georgia, and I didn’t think about him for years. One day, out of the blue, he called me. He needed a favor, and could I help? What he needed would cost several hundred dollars but, he said, he would pay me back. I thought about where I had been over the past few years and realized, if not for him, I would have never attempted most of what I was forced to do. As Joseph said in Genesis, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”
I spent the money and refused to be repaid. The lessons I had learned “in exile” were well worth the price of a few hundred dollars. Sometime later, we even met for dinner in the town where I used to live. He was doing well, and I was glad. Today, I think of him fondly though we haven’t communicated in years.
Unforgiveness and bitterness is a terrible way to try to live. It’s true: Unforgiveness really is the poison we drink in the expectation that someone else will die. But they won’t. They will go on with life and never give us a second thought. Life is filled with too many good things, experiences, and people to continue to drink from the cup of bitterness.
[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). Worship services are on Sundays at 10:00 a.m. and on livestream at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life). He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]