At the top of my list for the most destructive of all sins is bitterness. I have seen bitterness destroy more people, families, and churches than most other sins combined.
It is difficult to go through a day without being offended! And with each offense comes a clear choice. We can choose to forgive the offender, or we can choose not to forgive.
Bitterness is an attitude that refuses to forgive offenses. And bitterness, like a cancer, grows and grows until it destroys everything around it. That is why Hebrews 12:15 warns: “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 be defiled.”
On the other hand, forgiveness is an attitude choice that honestly acknowledges an offense and then dismisses it on the basis of God’s forgiveness of us. The Greek word often used in the Bible for forgiveness means “to release.”
Bitterness holds on to an offense; forgiveness releases it. And such a release is absolutely necessary for our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. We can take some necessary steps of action to forgive someone who has hurt us.
1. Acknowledge you have been wronged. (Genesis 50:20a)
The more I counsel, the more I am convinced that one of the most potent forces in the universe is the power of denial. One reason we engage in denial is because often the experience is too painful to acknowledge, so we block it out. Or sometimes an offense leads us to the wrong conclusion that something must be wrong with us. We become obsessed with our offender’s motivation in hurting us.
I think that Joseph was tempted to feel this way. When Joseph first confronted his brothers, he made all of the Egyptians leave the room (Gen. 45:1). Why? I doubt that Joseph had ever revealed to his servants how he came to Egypt. Such a story was much too embarrassing. What flaw caused his brothers to hate him so intensely?
Yet when the time came for Joseph to speak to his brothers, he did not try to minimize the sin they had committed against him. “You meant it for evil,” he charged. Such a realization was necessary before Joseph could forgive his brothers.
2. View your hurt from God’s perspective. (Romans 8:28-29; Genesis 50:20)
Instead of asking, “Why did this person do this to me?” ask yourself, “What is God trying to accomplish through this event?” If we believe in the sovereignty of God, we have to believe that nothing happens to us apart from God’s divine plan. Everything that happens is not good. But God can take the worst things that happen to us and use them for His eternal purpose in our lives.
The key to understanding Romans 8:28 is properly defining “good.” Unfortunately, we have an extremely shallow understanding of “good.” We define “good” in terms of instant understanding or short-term happiness. But God has a much larger perspective concerning what is good. In fact, Paul goes on to define the “good” that God is trying to accomplish in our lives in Romans 8:29. Simply put, God has one purpose in your life—to make you like His Son. Thus, all things that happen in your life—especially the hurtful things—are being used by God to mold you into the image of Christ. Especially the hurtful things!
3. Acknowledge your failures and receive God’s forgiveness. (Ephesians 4:32)
Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to write a check when you have no money in your account? It is even more difficult to try to forgive someone when you have not first been forgiven.
How do you receive God’s forgiveness? Identify offenses you have committed—against your family, friends, other Christians, or against God. Confess those offenses to God. Then receive God’s forgiveness based on Christ’s death for you.
4. Choose forgiveness over bitterness. (Matthew 18:34-35; Matthew 6:14-15)
When we are offended, we have a clear choice to make. We can forgive the offender, or we can become bitter. Think what would have happened if Joseph had chosen an attitude of bitterness instead of forgiveness. He would have refused his brother’s request for food; his family would have starved to death; the nucleus of the nation Israel would have withered; and theoretically, the promise of a Savior would have been unfulfilled, and you and I would be left to suffer the consequences of our sins.
Our willingness to forgive others is evidence that God has forgiven us. Our inability to forgive others simply betrays the fact that we have never experienced forgiveness.
But there is also a relationship between our willingness to forgive and our quality of life today. Forgiveness leads to life; bitterness leads to emotional and sometimes physical death. Bitterness is a poison that not only defiles others, but also destroys us.
Are there hurts in your life which you have denied? Are there offenses which you have held on to? Acknowledge them, release them, and begin to experience the freedom that comes from choosing forgiveness over bitterness.