Sometimes unforgiveness can be utilized as a tool for protection or a weapon for destruction in a relationship. It usually happens after a person has been hurting for a while, or has been significantly frustrated and disappointed with someone.
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When forgiveness is an option, the hurt person chooses to hold on to their weapon, which can serve a dual role:
- “I will not let you close to hurt me again.”
- “I will not let you be free from what you did.”
This strategy offers a false measure of security, which appears to protect the hurt person from future suffering. Unfortunately, this perceived means of self-protection will not work.
The person holding on to the anger and hurt cannot see (or is unwilling to see) how unforgiveness is a form of self-prescribed cancer; it will eat away at the unforgiving soul. No one should strive to hold on to any sin–which unforgiveness is–no matter how justified or insecure they may feel at the moment.
- Have you been tempted to withhold forgiveness from someone?
- I have.
If you have experienced temptation like me, please know that unforgiveness is a form of anger that will take its revenge on you. It will ensnare (Galatians 6:1) you if you persist with a desire to punish those who have hurt you (Luke 23:34).
The best thing for you to do is seek help from those who can walk you through the process of letting go of this method of self-punishment. No matter what has happened to you, a response like holding on to anger or unforgiveness will wear you down to a nub. It is as unwise as it is un-gospel.
The Drama In the Home
Enmeshed in unforgiveness is what happened to Biff and Mable. Their marriage was your typical looks okay on the outside, but the inside is full of loneliness and low-grade hostility toward each other–until the day all hell broke loose. That was the day the tables turned, and Mable became empowered by unforgiveness.
Biff was a likable guy. Every time they went to counseling he and the counselor hit it off, which would infuriate Mable. It was one of the reasons she stopped going to counseling. She later said,
Why go? He will go in, put on his people-pleasing smile, and within twenty minutes the counselor will be wondering why I have a problem. They like Biff because everybody loves Biff. They all come to the same conclusion: He is married to a nagging discontent. So why bother?
The consensus was that his perceived spiritual maturity and humble servant’s heart was something others should emulate. When he wasn’t running his moderately successful business, he volunteered at his local church by leading not one, but two men’s Bible studies.
The pastors loved him not only because he was free labor, but they saw Biff as a model Christian. It didn’t help that they were too busy to look beyond the surface of his life. And besides, the squeaky wheel got the grease, and Biff never squeaked.
All appeared to be going well except there was one glaring problem: Mable could not stand Biff. It was their hidden marital secret. She had been living with a low-grade animosity toward her husband for nearly twenty years.
The only reasons she would not leave him was (1) because of the stigma of divorce, (2) what it would do to their children, and (3) the hassle of starting over.
God hates divorce, you know, she said sarcastically.
Mable’s issue with Biff was pretty much straightforward: He was a hypocrite. Biff was a self-absorbed people-pleaser who learned how to manage the gap between who he was and the person he presented himself to be.
The problem for Biff and Mable was that he could not maintain his hypocrisy entirely, and as these things tend to go the one place where he could not keep up a front was in his home. That was okay with Biff. Mostly.
He counted on Mable not to spill the beans, and Mable acquiesced because living in a lie was the path of least resistance. With no public chink in his spiritual armor, she silently suffered through it all, though she had an occasional short fuse.
In the depths of her heart, she knew there was something more sinister in play. Give a hypocrite an inch, and he’ll take a mile. The problem was that she could not put her finger on where it all led.
Coupled with this low-grade anger toward Biff was her fear that whatever he was into would devastate her. That awareness gave her another reason to not look too deeply into Biff’s life. For her, ignorance was an uncomfortable but acceptable bliss.
The Nightmare Revealed
It was late on a Monday afternoon when Mable was emptying the home office trashcan that she noticed a receipt from a strip club. It was unmistakable. Her heart beat furiously, and her mouth went dry. Her ignorance became awareness.
The news crushed her soul.
Her tension was between walking out the door for good and confronting her husband with the truth that she found in the can. She chose to confront, and not surprisingly Biff was shocked, though he quickly regained his equilibrium and went into his people-pleasing routine. Mable was not impressed. She had seen that shtick too many times.
She stood firm.
After a few days of drawn-out arguments, denials, confrontations, and threats, Biff finally came clean. He told Mable what she later recalled as the worst news of her life. He was into porn.
She was devastated.
In time, Biff went to counseling and came completely clean about his sin. Remarkably he chose not to stick with his well-worn people-pleasing routine, and he received favor from the Lord (James 4:6), which gave him what he needed to walk out repentance.
Biff always wanted to be free from his sin. He later said he was glad it came out because he did not have the integrity or the courage to let others know how he struggled.
Mable, on the other hand, was struggling. Even a year later she was unwilling to forgive Biff. She was angry, critical, bitter, self-justifying, and self-righteous. Twelve months later she would not let it go in her heart or her marriage.
The Weapon of the Wounded
Mable had been hurting for two decades. Twenty years! She also had been stewing in anger for most of that time. From her perspective, forgiveness seemed too easy for Biff. Even when others made heartfelt appeals for her to let it go, she would not relent.
She knew she was right–or at least wanted others to believe she was right, though Mable’s heart was not convinced. She felt people did not understand. How could they? They did not live with Biff, and only a few of them knew the soul-rending effect that porn could have on you.
She saw Biff for who he was–a hypocritical fool, which soured her belief in his genuine repentance. As she said, “He did not willingly confess his sins; I caught him!” She believed if she had not found the strip club receipt, he probably would have never confessed his sin.
She was more than likely right. Biff even said as much. Though he wanted to get help, he was too weak in his faith to trust God enough with the most significant and darkest secret of his life. Plus he enjoyed his shiny Christian reputation.
Mable did say that she had forgiven him, but there was nothing in her attitude or actions that would support her claim. During counseling, Mable’s counselor talked to her about her unwillingness to forgive Biff.
The real truth that eventually came out was her belief that she had been living alone her entire marriage and God never intervened in the nightmare. Mable was hurt and felt it wasn’t proportionally equitable for her to forgive after a year when she repeatedly suffered for two decades.
The more sinister side of Mable believed that if she forgave Biff for his sin, it would be like he never sinned. From her perspective, he would get off free and clear, and the door of her nightmare would close as though it never happened. That was not tenable for Mable. She was bitter and not ready to forget her hurt.
In some ways, her hurt was a form of security. It was a reminder that kept her vigilant to the possibilities of what a person could do to her. She was like an institutionalized convict–a person who can’t live any other place but prison.
The Power of Unforgiveness
It is true that Biff repented of his sin even though he did not initially confess his sin. Once it was in the open, he admitted everything. (See David’s lack of confession until confronted by Nathan in 2 Samuel 12:1-12; Psalm 32:1-4, 51:1-19).
Mable was not impressed by his contrition, and she was not willing to let him off the hook. She knew enough to know that to forgive someone was like saying,
I will be obedient to God and forgive you for your sin regardless of what you have done to me. And after the power of forgiveness neutralized the sin, we will work on the damage done. I realize that what I have done to my Savior is far worse than what you have done to me or could ever do to me, even though what you have done to me has been devastating.
Nevertheless, I will not hold this over your head any longer, but I will make myself vulnerable to the Lord while knowing that you could hurt me again. In essence, I trust God’s sovereign care over my life and His method of conflict resolution rather than my own. I choose to be obedient to Him.
I forgive you.
Mable’s unwillingness to forgive Biff was a common sense man-centered way of protecting herself (1 Corinthians 1:25). That is an understandable temptation. She believed, though she would not say it, that as long as she could hold Biff’s sin over his head, she would not be vulnerable. What she was not grasping was how her unforgiveness was forcing her head under the waters of bitterness.
- The power of the gospel is freely extending forgiveness to offenders either transactionally or attitudinally.
- The power of unforgiveness is choosing not to release yourself (attitudinal) or the other person (transactional) from what has happened.
Mable was essentially saying that since God did not come through for her for twenty years that she was going to take matters into her hands. Her self-protective shield of unforgiveness was an attempt to accomplish three things:
- She was punishing Biff for all the years he punished her.
- She was protecting herself from ever being hurt again. (Of course, she was not protecting herself at all.)
- She was perverting the gospel.
The Power of the Gospel
Sin disorients and distorts our thinking. Sin does not let God be God but entices us to assume the role of god-ness. Mable was playing god. She was holding Biff’s sin over his head while making a mockery of the cross.
The Father’s punishment of His Son on the cross was not enough for Mable. While she genuinely believed the gospel, she could not fully embrace its cleansing and freeing power. Grace seemed too easy.
What Mable did not understand fully is that grace has never been easy. For her to have the grace to forgive, it cost Jesus Christ His life.
- The infinite Father punished the Son for an infinite crime.
- The Savior paid an infinite price for the infinite crime.
- Biff and Mable received infinite forgiveness for their infinite crimes.
Mable was unwilling to accept the death of Christ as a sufficient payment to cover Biff’s sins. She was treating her husband in a way that God did not treat her when she asked for forgiveness for the crimes she committed against Him.
Biff is now free as he is walking out his repentance, but Mable is in prison.
Forgiving Biff is not saying that what he did to her does not matter. It also does not let him off the hook because Biff needs help. Sin had him for many years (Galatians 6:1-3), and he is still tempted to sin.
If Mable wants to keep from being hurt again, she will have to work at doing it God’s way; she will have to forgive him. Forgiving Biff will release both of them from what has been hindering them while positioning them to begin the process of actual restoration.
Call to Action
- Are you holding onto any unforgiveness toward anyone?
- Do you see how unforgiveness hinders the process of receiving the help you need and hinders the other person of their need to mature in Christ?
- Will you find help today to begin the process of walking through your unwillingness to forgive either attitudinally or transactionally the person who hurt you?
Also published on Medium.