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There are times when forgiveness is the right option, but the hurt person chooses unforgiveness because it serves a dual role. This strategy offers a false measure of security that 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. Here is the dual role:
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. 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.
Enmeshed in unforgiveness is what happened to Biff and Mable. Their marriage was your typical looks-okay-on-the-outside presentation. But the inside was 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 were 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 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 gets 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 hatred toward her husband for nearly twenty years. The only reasons she would not leave him were:
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 not to look too deeply into Biff’s life. For her, ignorance was an uncomfortable but acceptable bliss.
It was late on a Monday afternoon when Mable emptied 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 Biff with the truth that she found in the can.
She chose to engage, 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 Biff 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. Mable was angry, critical, bitter, self-justifying, and self-righteous. Twelve months later, she would not let it go in her heart or her marriage.
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 that she was right.
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 powerful 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 actual truth that eventually came out was her belief that she lived alone her entire marriage and God never intervened in the nightmare.
Mable was hurt and felt it wasn’t proportionally equitable 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 in prison.
Biff indeed 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, and Psalm 51:1-19). Mable was not impressed by his remorse, 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. Mable 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.
Mable was essentially saying that since God did not come through for her for twenty years, she was going to take matters into her hands. Her self-protective shield of unforgiveness was an attempt to accomplish three things:
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 effortless. For her to have the grace to forgive, it cost Jesus Christ His life.
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 temptation continues to lure him into 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.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).