Colossians 3:13: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
Ephesians 4:31-32: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
We all have people we feel have wronged us; for some, our lists are longer than others. Maybe it was a loved one who rejected us, maybe it was a neighbor who acted self-righteously against us, or a faith community that mistreated us. Maybe we were cheated on by a significant other, abused or abandoned by family members — there are many possibilities to consider. But God has commanded us to let go of these lists, whatever they may include.
God knows our heartaches, our anger, our pain, He’s been through it all. His own son was mistreated, spit on, even killed by self-righteous zealots. God’s own people turned against Him, even cheated on Him with other gods of their own or others’ making time and time again. There is no injustice you can name that God has not suffered, whether personally or through his only son.
But God does not keep a list of our sins, he doesn’t hold grudges against us when we transgress. The Apostle Paul could probably testify to this better than anyone. As Saul, he personally saw to the torture and execution of many followers of Christ, he spoke vilely against the Church and its followers. He committed many hateful acts in the name of his version of God. Sound familiar?
But Jesus appeared to him in the street one day, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Jesus saw fit to make Saul, one of his most persistent enemies, into one of his most powerful advocates. Where Ananias could see only a murderer, God showed him the makings of a friend.
God humbled Saul and sent him Ananias to set him free, to “open his eyes.” God forgave Saul, He didn’t need to keep a record of the man’s past. Instead, He made a new man, the one who would be called Paul, and sent him out to reach others as he had been reached, to forgive others as he had been forgiven.
If we truly believe in the Word, we are called to be like Jesus and Jesus never holds a grudge. On the day of his execution Jesus looked on his persecutors and said “Forgive them, father, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
It is never easy to let go of harm that has been, or is still being done to us by others, often through no fault of our own. But that is precisely what we are called to do. Let’s examine the first half of Ephesians 4:31: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger.”
This is what our lists do to us, they fill us with bitter fruit for the people who’ve wronged us. And the fruit of bitterness is rage, it is anger, it is a poison we consume that eats at us from the inside. It does no harm to those who have hurt us, but it withers our spirit and pulls us away from God.
The fruits of the Kingdom are love, joy, peace and kindness (for the full list, see Galatians chapter 5). These are incompatible with feelings of bitterness and malice. Pain begets pain, anger begets anger; these are things that will swallow us whole if we let them. Keeping those lists of grievances stored up in our heads will never bring us the healing or growth we need. They will keep us stunted, grumpy, and emotionally and spiritually crippled.
“If you have a grievance against someone,” we are instructed in Colossians, “forgive that person, as the Lord forgave you.” Most days, this is not so difficult, how hard is it to forgive a friend for an accidental slight, or a well-meaning relative who stepped out of line a little bit? That’s easy; these people never really make our lists. But when it comes to forgiving those who are truly and honestly hateful to us, who seek to harm us, to make us hate ourselves or feel guilty about who we are, this is a much bigger challenge.
“If you love only those who love you, what reward are you getting?” (Matthew 5:46) Even Hitler loved his own kind. Jesus did not tell us to love our enemies because he knew it would be easy, anyone who thinks loving your neighbor all the time is going to be easy is a fool. In God’s eyes everyone is our brother, sister, and neighbor, even our enemies. As we have already discussed, holding contempt in your heart for your enemies only causes you harm, Jesus was fully aware of that when he said “love your enemies and bless those who curse you” (Matthew 5:44). When we keep a record of people who’ve wronged us and how they’ve wronged us, we do ourselves great harm while not affecting them at all.
But when we forgive them, even going as far as blessing them and showing them our love for them, we baffle our enemies. Love is a much more effective weapon than bitterness. Love brings healing, unity, and fellowship. Bitterness breeds anger, hate, and prejudice which in turn bring only division. I think Martin Luther King put it best when he characterized Jesus as an extremist for love, he was right and that is precisely what we should be. There are, as King put it, two kinds of extremism: extremism for hate and extremism for love, it is merely a question of which you choose to be. What crazier, more radical form of protest could we lodge against our enemies than showering them with love?
We cannot expect all of our enemies to stop being such simply because we love them and forgive all their trespasses — though what a brighter day will come for those transformed by love! — but we will certainly be much healthier people if we do. Why be bogged down by bitterness and resentment when you can be free to inherit love and joy? And the great thing about love is the more you give, the more you get back. Do you want to increase your love exponentially or would you rather add to your bitterness one grievance at a time?
Of course, this is all very nice to think about as a principle, but who among us is perfect in this principle every hour of every day? The lists will happen, as they always do. So here’s a little exercise we can all practice anytime we’re feeling bitter: think about what it is your feeling bitter about and call up who you believe to be the source of that bitterness. Then write your list of names and slights down on a piece of paper, study it very carefully and say, “God I give this list to you, take it away from me,” and rip the paper to bits. Forgiving those you feel are responsible in your heart is the next step, but the list has to go first. If you’ve truly forgiven them, the list doesn’t matter anyway.
This is a simple exercise we can all practice during the week, perhaps even daily depending on how stressful our daily lives happen to be. So let’s tear up those lists, before they poison us to death! Let’s free ourselves to be radical extremists for love, just as Jesus was!