The Power of Unforgiveness When Used As a Weapon

August 18, 2011

Bill was a likable guy. Every time they went to counseling he and the counselor hit it off, which would infuriate Mary. 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 Bill because everybody likes Bill. They all come to the same conclusion: He is married to a nagging discontent. So why bother?”

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Mary’s issue with Bill was pretty much straightforward: He was a hypocrite. Bill 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.

He counted on Mary not to spill the beans, and Mary 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.

Coupled with this low-grade anger toward Bill was her fear that whatever he was into would devastate her. That awareness gave her another reason to not look too deeply into Bill’s life. For her ignorance was an uncomfortable but acceptable bliss.

The Nightmare Revealed

It was late on a Monday afternoon when Mary 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.

She was devastated.

In time, Bill 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.

Mary, on the other hand, was struggling. Even a year later she was unwilling to forgive Bill. 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

She saw Bill 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. Bill even said as much. Though he wanted to get help, he was too weak in his faith to trust God enough with the biggest and darkest secret of his life. Plus he enjoyed his shiny Christian reputation.

Mary did say that she had forgiven him, but there was nothing in her attitude or actions that would support her claim. During counseling, Mary’s counselor talked to her about her unwillingness to forgive Bill.

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. Mary was hurt and felt it wasn’t proportionally inequitable for her to forgive after a year when she repeatedly suffered for two decades.

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 becoming like an institutionalized convict–a person who can’t live any other place but prison.

The Power of Unforgiveness

It is true that Bill 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).

Mary 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 from 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.

Mary’s unwillingness to forgive Bill 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 Mary could hold Bill’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.

  1. The power of the gospel is freely extending forgiveness to offenders either transactionally or attitudinally.
  2. The power of unforgiveness is choosing not to release yourself (attitudinal) or the other person (transactional) from what has happened.

Mary 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:

  1. She was punishing Bill for all the years he punished her.
  2. She was protecting herself from ever being hurt again. (Of course, she was not protecting herself at all.)
  3. 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. Mary was playing god. She was holding Bill’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 Mary. While she genuinely believed the gospel, she could not fully embrace its cleansing and freeing power. Grace seemed too easy.

Mary was unwilling to accept the death of Christ as a sufficient payment to cover Bill’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 God.

Bill is now free as he is walking out his repentance, but Mary is in prison.

Forgiving Bill is not saying that what he did to her does not matter. It also does not let him off the hook because Bill needs help. Sin has him for many years (Galatians 6:1-3), and he is still tempted to sin.

If Mary 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 Bill will release both of them from what has been hindering them while positioning them to begin the process of actual restoration.

Call to Action

  1. Are you holding onto any unforgiveness toward anyone?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?

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2 thoughts on “The Power of Unforgiveness When Used As a Weapon

  1. It is obviously hard to adequately address a situation like the one described above in a short article. The thing I find among many Christians is a failure to distinguish forgiveness from reconciliation. 
    Differing from forgiveness, reconciliation is a process that is conditioned on the attitude and actions of the offender. While its aim is restoration of a broken relationship, those who commit significant and repeated offenses must be willing to recognize that reconciliation is a process. In many cases, even if the offender confessed his wrong to the one he hurt, and appealed for forgiveness, the offended person could justifiably say, “I forgive you, but it might take some time for me to regain trust and restore our relationship.” The evidence of genuine forgiveness is surrender of a vindictive or vengeful response (see: Romans 12:17-21), but it’s not always found in an automatic restoration of relationship.When forgiveness has to do with minor offenses, restoration does not need to be drawn out. But when trust  has been deeply betrayed, forgiveness does not necessarily grant the same level of relationship back. Even when God forgives our sins, He does not promise to remove all consequences created by our actions. Being forgiven, restored, and trusted again is an amazing experience. Yet it’s important for those who hurt others to understand that their attitude and actions will affect the process of rebuilding trust. Words alone are not enough to restore trust.When someone has been significantly hurt and feels hesitant about restoration with her offender, it’s both right and wise to look for changes in the offender before allowing reconciliation to begin. This is especially true when the offense has been repeated. Reconciliation requires us to offer a repentant person an opportunity to demonstrate repentance and to regain trust (unless a clear issue of safety is involved).When a person has repeatedly behaved in a sinfully harmful and irresponsible manner, he must accept the fact that reconciliation will be a slow and difficult process.The timing of the process of reconciliation:Three main considerations1.     The attitude of the offender2.     The depth of the betrayal3.   The pattern of the offense (often repeated offenses)When an offended party works toward reconciliation, the first and most important step is the confirmation of genuine repentance on the part of the offender (Luke 17:3). An unrepentant offender will resent your desire to confirm the genuineness of his confession and repentance. He might resort to lines of manipulation. “I guess you can’t find it in yourself to be forgiving.” “You just want to rub it in my face.” “I guess I should expect that you want your revenge.” “Some Christian you are, I thought Christians believed in love and compassion.”These lines reveal an unrepentant attitude. Don’t be manipulated into avoiding the step of confirming the authenticity of your offender’s confession and repentance. Carefully and prayerfully use the seven signs of true repentance listed below. It’s advisable (in difficult cases) to seek the help of a wise counselor (only one who understands the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation). This counselor can help the injured person to establish boundaries and steps toward reconciliation that are restorative rather than retaliatory.It is hard to genuinely restore a broken relationship when the offender is unclear about his confession and repentance. You must be as certain as you can of your offender’s repentance—especially in cases involving repeated offenses. Even God will not grant forgiveness to one who is insincere about his confession and repentance. The person who is unwilling to forsake his sin will not find forgiveness with God (Proverbs 28:13).Of course, only God can read hearts– we must evaluate actions. Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16a). We must not allow superficial appearances of repentance to control our responses. Displays of tears or appearing to be sorry must not become substitutes for clear and demonstrated changes in attitude and behavior.Christian counselors must be careful not to rush to reconciliation (wrongly equating it with forgiveness) without gathering the right amount of information. Otherwise, it might end up compromising the gospel in a different direction. For further consideration of this perspective, see: Cornell

  2. Rick,

    So true! You’ve described what I see in so many counseling cases with couples. Forgiveness sounds so basic, but is so hard for most people to truly forgive. The flesh wants revenge… And too often even Christians are guilty of looking just like the world on this. Great article.

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