Recently a really painful email arrived from a man in England. Here it is. “Pastor John, how can I forgive my parents? I’ve been a Christian for seventeen years but struggle with forgiveness of my parents for my abusive childhood. I know that the Lord teaches forgiveness, as does the Bible in many passages. I’m able to forgive others injustices and wrongs, but I really struggle with memories of my childhood. It brings resentment to mind.
“Not only is forgiveness taught in the Bible, but it also says I should honor my parents. I feel like a failure as a Christian. I’m 47 years old with a family of my own, and I feel such resentment, even hate and rage, sometimes at my parents for the physical and mental abuse I suffered at their hands. Please help me to understand how I can get peace over this matter and try to forgive them, a forgiveness that lasts for all time, not just until another memory surfaces.”
I have three practical suggestions based on Scripture, but first, let me say how utterly crucial I think this issue is. I’m glad, so glad, that it’s been asked. Jesus teaches that an unforgiving heart is an unforgiven heart. Let me say that again: Jesus teaches that an unforgiving heart is an unforgiven heart.
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Make it correspond. And he follows up with this: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14–15). Then, in Matthew 18, you remember, he tells the parable of the unforgiving servant, and that makes the same point. All that just to say, this is serious.
Here are my three suggestions.
1. The Lord Has Forgiven You
First, Colossians 3:13 says, “[Forgive] each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” In other words, being able and willing to forgive grows out from the root of being forgiven. How amazing, how precious, how humbling does being forgiven make you feel? In other words, if you’ve been forgiven, how amazed are you that you are forgiven?
Let me use a picture. Picture that you are a traitor to a gracious and good king. You’re a traitor. In your evil, you are planning to kill the king. And he’s a good king. He hasn’t done anything to bring this on you; you just don’t want to submit. You dig a tunnel under the castle and begin to stock it with dynamite. He finds out about your treachery, and on the day you plan to blow it up — blow the king up and kill him — he follows you into the tunnel.
“Jesus teaches that an unforgiving heart is an unforgiven heart.”
You light the fuse to the dynamite, but as you’re running to get out so you won’t be blown up, you fall and gash an artery in your leg. The bleeding is bad. As you try to leap your way out, you become faint and collapse. He sees you, and instead of running out himself to save his life, he picks you up and carries you toward safety. Just before you reach safety, the explosion looses a beam which falls on the king and kills him as he pushes you to safety.
There you are, standing free and your leg with a tourniquet on it, and the king dead, having saved your life. A sense of exhilaration at being alive comes over you, and a sense of shame at what you have done comes over you. My question is, in that moment of life — “I’m alive; what a horrible thing I have done” — in that moment, how would you feel about your parents?
My own experience is that in the moments of worship, when I feel most guilty at the horror of my own sin against God and against Jesus, and when I feel most amazed at my own forgiveness, and most stunned at the magnitude of what it cost in Jesus’s suffering, I am least likely to be angry at those moments with those who have wronged me.
It just doesn’t fit. I can’t do it. I can’t seethe with revenge and celebrate being forgiven. I can’t. It won’t work. My suggestion is to linger long and deep over the cost, the hope, the preciousness, and the amazing wonder of being forgiven at the cost of Christ’s life. That’s my first suggestion.
2. The One Who Judges Justly
My second suggestion comes from my devotions yesterday morning. This very question was on my mind when I read this. This is at the trial of Jesus. The high priest asked Jesus, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark 14:61). Then Jesus answered, “‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’ And the high priest tore his garments and said, ‘What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?’ And they all condemned him as deserving death” (Mark 14:62–64).
“Being able and willing to forgive grows out from the root of being forgiven.”
Then, we read these words: “And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ And the guards received him with blows” (Mark 14:65). I just paused, and I was on the brink of tears. This doesn’t usually happen to me when I’m all by myself. But I’m on the brink of tears, and I said, “How could he not strike back? How could he not strike back?” I get so angry when people do bad things to me that I want to strike back so quickly.
How could he not? This was a real question in the early church. How he could not? Peter gave one of the answers, and it goes like this:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21–23)
In other words, even when your own judicial sentiment rises up and demands that there be justice because of the wrong that’s done to you, you can roll that over onto the judge who judges justly. You don’t have to bear the awful weight of being the judge and the avenger yourself. You can trust that justice will be done. Punishment will happen in hell, or will have happened on the cross. Sinners will bear it, or Christ will bear it. You cannot improve upon the justice of God in Christ’s crucifixion or in hell. So you can let it go. Let it go. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
3. Bitterness Hurts Us Most
Here’s my third suggestion: Ponder that an unforgiving spirit hurts you more than anyone. It does no good; in fact, it does a lot of harm to you and not to others. You might say, “I’ve heard that kind of argument before. It just has no power. It’s a powerless argument just to tell me that my emotions that are rising up do me no good. That’s a useless argument, Piper.” My response to that is “Jesus didn’t think it was useless.”
“Ponder deeply that an unforgiving spirit hurts you more than anyone.”
You better be careful, because he used that very argument against the sin of anxiety, which has the same power rising up within as resentment does. He said in Matthew 6:27, “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” In other words, it doesn’t do any good to be anxious. It’s not going to do you any good.
If you will respond to Jesus by saying, “That’s a useless argument,” woe to you. Don’t talk to Jesus like that. He knows what he’s doing. It’s a useful argument. Don’t blow it off. Ask the Lord to make it powerful: “This is doing me no good. This is hurting me. God, use that insight to take the power of this resentment away from me.”
Those are my three strategies that God has given you to overcome the destructive effects of resentment and bitterness.
- Be amazed at your own forgiveness — the magnitude of it and what it cost.
- Let the all-wise judge settle accounts for you so you don’t have to bear that awful load.
- Ponder deeply that an unforgiving spirit hurts you more than anyone.