"Backward living," I call it. Holding on to our past with emotional super-glue that keeps us bound to bitterness. Living in a mental prison confined by steel bars of hostility. If you've allowed yourself to dwell on ways you've been hurt, maybe it's time you unlock the shackles and set yourself free. Maybe it's time to follow Jesus' example: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Words our Savior cried as He struggled to breathe while hanging on the cross. Important words. Life-changing words. Forward-thinking words.
Great concept ... just not the way we're wired, we tell ourselves. Or we cavalierly dismiss our defense with thoughts like, "Yeah, well that was Jesus. Forgiveness was no big deal to Him," or "Jesus didn't have the inconsiderate co-worker I have," or "Jesus had great parents; mine are straight from the loony bin." Whatever our rationale, whatever it is we choose to cling to, we permit our past to become our present. And when that happens, it also can become our future.
A couple of years ago I was speaking at a women's retreat. A breakfast preceded my second talk and while standing in the buffet line, I tried to make conversation with the woman in front of me. "How are you doing?" I asked. Her scowl complemented her response. "Well, it's just LIFE, isn't it?" she hissed. Not what I had expected. "Sounds like things are pretty tough," I pressed. She glowered at me as she responded, "You have no idea." Giving it one last shot, I continued, "Want to talk about it?" "Nope," she answered, turning her back to me.
As "luck" would have it, we were seated at the same table. The conversation centered around my first talk which had dealt with my son's rebellion. When the woman across from me asked how I had dealt with it, I answered that it was an incredibly painful time in my life. Once I said that, the bitter one turned and exploded. "Oh, you think you've got problems! You don't know what problems are! At least you have a son!" With that, she bolted from the room.
We all sat there, speechless. The sweet, Christian lady who had brought her was embarrassed, both for me and for her friend. After apologizing, she went on to tell me what a sad life this woman had endured, that following her divorce, her only son had died, and that she had let this pain consume her.
No doubt this woman had been asked to endure much. But what made her bitter? What made her lash out at others whose pain did not equal hers? What prevented her from allowing God to offer her hope?
"Dear Abby" recently carried responses to a woman who couldn't decide if she should forgive her dying father who had disowned her following her divorce from an abusive husband. The answers came from individuals with similar backgrounds, each encouraging the woman to make contact with her father. Two answers were particularly potent. "To forgive someone is a decision to let go of the hatred, hurt and resentment, even when the other person doesn't deserve it or ask for it. When we can do this, the terrible deed loses its hold on our lives. Forgiveness is an act of strength, not weakness. It is healthy for us."
The second response came from a counselor: " ... resentment hurts the resenter far more than it hurts the offender. Grudges are cancers in our souls. Forgiveness isn't a gift we give to others, but a gift we give ourselves."
To break the shackles of bitterness, we must determine to do a little forward-thinking instead of backward living. How do we do that? We look to Jesus. We turn to the One who, even in His death, modeled how to live.