By Jason Frenn
Is there someone in your family who can ruin your entire day with a single word? Maybe your sister sees every pound you’ve gained this past year. Perhaps your crazy uncle flies off the handle at the mention of the latest political whim. Maybe your in-laws help you ‘parent’ your children. The heart of the conflict isn’t a personality clash though. Most likely, that person said or did something long ago that inflicted pain.
The Christmas season is the only time of the year when people who don’t necessarily like each other decide to converge on a very small living space and spend too much time with too many high expectations. And although we do this year after year, we somehow convince ourselves that this year will be different. Is there something you can do to change the outcome? Absolutely!
Christ felt that one of the most powerful things we can do is forgive. He felt it was so important that he made it a part of the Lord’s Prayer. Why? Because it’s the only anecdote for the sickness of bitterness. He also understood the long-term consequences for those of us who decide to harbor bitterness. There are three things that lack of forgiveness does to destroy our lives and families.
First, bitterness is like a venom we inject into our own veins with the hope of killing someone else, but it winds up destroying us instead. Harboring bitterness always does more damage to us than to the people we hold in contempt. Like a cancerous tumor that eats away at vital organs, if left unattended, bitterness and anger consume our soul.
Next, it’s contagious and passes from one person to another. We pick it up from our parents, coworkers, friends, family, and other influential people. And if we can pick it up, we can inadvertently spread it to those we love including our children.
Third, bitterness is binding. It keeps us firmly bonded to those who have offended us until the day we make a choice to release them. People say that time heals everything. Not so! We experience healing from bitterness only when we make a conscious choice to be free. Have you ever been at a family reunion where someone there has been through a divorce? If you ask that person about his or her ex, you’ll see just how much healing has come as a result of time.
Lack of forgiveness destroys marriages. It destroys families, friendships, neighborhoods, cities, states, and even nations. I am convinced that one of the great tragedies in history is the lack of forgiveness that exists between Jews and Muslims. The turmoil we see today stems from an unresolved conflict 4,000 years ago that originated between Sarah and Hagar who passed it onto their children and the generations that followed. True peace in the Middle East can only come when Jews and Muslims mutually and genuinely say, “I forgive you.”
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we continue to put ourselves in harm’s way. It doesn’t mean that we continue to be victims of abuse, violence, or neglect. It simply means that we choose to release the bitterness that keeps us in bondage and emotionally tied to those who have offended us. When we forgive others, ourselves, and yes, even God, then we can discover one of the greatest gifts God gives us through His Son. That’s when true freedom comes.
You’re probably asking, “How do I forgive someone who doesn’t seek my pardon?” Forgiveness isn’t about letting other people off the hook. It’s about letting us off the hook. So when the family begins to gather in the weeks to come, remember, forgiveness is not an emotion. It’s a choice. When we choose to forgive, it releases us from those who we have given the power to keep us in contempt.
So my advice to you is this. The next time those feelings rise to the surface when you’re around someone who has rubbed you the wrong way, repeat the words of the Lord, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jason Frenn is the author of “Power to Reinvent Yourself: How to Break the Destructive Patterns in Your Life.”