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The Power of Unforgiveness When Used as a Weapon

The Power of Unforgiveness When Used as a Weapon

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Sometimes in some relationships, a person will utilize unforgiveness as a tool for self-protection. They weaponize unforgiveness, even if they do so unwittingly. They might hold on to unforgiveness because they have been hurt so many times by the same person, usually a spouse. They are frustrated and disappointed and believe there is no other recourse but a self-reliant means of self-protection. Suppose you sense this is happening with a friend. In that case, you must tread courageously and carefully as you help them see how they are complicating—even self-sabotaging—an already complicated matter.

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Self-Prescribed Cancer

When forgiveness is the right option, but the hurt person chooses unforgiveness, it could be a false security measure to protect themselves from future suffering. It won’t work, at least long-term. The person holding on to the anger and hurt cannot see (or is unwilling to see) how unforgiveness is self-prescribed cancer; it will eat away at their unforgiving soul. Their unforgiveness suggests two things: “I will not let you close to hurt me again, and I will not let you be free from what you did.” It is both protective and punitive. No one should hold on to any sin, no matter how justified or insecure they feel. They must understand that unforgiveness is a form of anger that will take revenge on the soul. It will tangle their soul in knots (Galatians 6:1) as they punish those who have hurt them (Luke 23:34).

Have you been tempted to withhold forgiveness from someone? If you have, the best thing to do is seek help from those who can walk you through letting go of self-punishment and punitive anger. No matter what has happened to you, holding on to anger and unforgiveness will wear you down to a nub. It is as unwise as it is un-gospel, something our friends—Biff and Mable—learned the hard way. Their marriage was your typical looks-okay-on-the-outside relationship. But the inside was full of loneliness and low-grade hostility toward each other—until all Hades broke loose, 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. She later said, “Why go? He will go, put on his people-pleasing smile, and the counselor will wonder why I have a problem within twenty minutes. They like Biff because everybody likes Biff. They come to the same conclusion: He married 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, leading not one but two men’s Bible studies. The pastors loved him because he was free labor, and they saw Biff as a model Christian.

Spilled the Beans

It didn’t help that they were too busy to look beyond the surface of his life. “Besides, the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” and Biff never squeaked. Except for one glaring problem: Mable could not stand Biff. It was their hidden marital secret. She had lived with a low-grade hatred toward her husband for nearly twenty years. The only reasons she would not leave him were the stigma of divorce—”what it would do to their children”—the hassle of starting over, or “God hates divorce, you know,” she said sarcastically. Mable’s issue with Biff was pretty 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 something more sinister was in play. Give a hypocrite an inch, and he’ll take a mile. The problem was that she could not pinpoint where it all led. Coupled with this low-grade anger toward him 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 knowledge, and the news crushed her soul. Her tension was between walking out the door for good and confronting Biff with the truth she found in the trash. 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.

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The Wounded’s Weapon

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 he 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 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 wanted others to believe she was. She felt people did not understand. How could they? They did not live with Biff, and only a few knew the soul-rending effect porn could have on a spouse. 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 he probably would have never confessed his sin if she had not found the strip club receipt. She was more than likely correct. Biff even said as much. Though he wanted 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 and actions that would support her claim. During counseling, Mable’s counselor talked to her about her unwillingness to forgive. The actual truth eventually came out: her belief that she lived alone her entire marriage and that 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 had 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 about what a person could do to her. She was like an institutionalized convict who couldn’t live in any other place but the prison of unforgiveness.

Power of Unforgiveness

Biff indeed repented of his sin even though he did not initially confess it. 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 was unwilling to let him off the hook. She knew enough about God and the gospel to realize that forgiving someone was like saying,

I will obey God and forgive you for your sin regardless of what you have done to me. Because the power of forgiveness neutralizes 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, 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.

Her unwillingness to forgive Biff was a common-sense, human-centered way of protecting herself—an understandable temptation (1 Corinthians 1:25). Though she would not say it, Mable believed she would not be vulnerable as long as she could hold Biff’s sin over his head. She was not grasping how her unforgiveness was forcing her head under the waters of bitterness. The power of the gospel is freely extending forgiveness to offenders either transactionally or attitudinally. The power of unforgiveness is choosing not to release yourself— attitudinally—or the other person—transactionally—from what happened. Mable essentially was saying that since God did not come through for her for twenty years, she would take matters into her hands. Her self-protective shield of unforgiveness was an attempt to accomplish three things:

  • She was punishing Biff for all the years he punished her.
  • She was protecting herself from ever being hurt again. (Of course, she was not protecting herself at all.)
  • She was perverting the gospel.

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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. Mable was playing god. She was holding Biff’s sin over his head while mocking the cross. The Father’s punishment of His Son on the cross was insufficient for Mable. While genuinely believing 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. The infinite Father punished the Son for an infinite crime. The Savior paid an infinite price for the infinite crime. Biff and Mable received infinite forgiveness for their infinite crimes. 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. The irony in this story is that Biff is free as he walks out repentance, but Mable is in prison. Forgiving Biff does not say that what he did to her does not matter. It also does not let him off the hook because Biff needs help. Sin had captured 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 must work to do it God’s way and forgive him. Being his enemy worsens matters, complicating his temptation, their marriage, and her soul. Forgiving Biff 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. Who has hurt you? What did they do? How do you think about them? Are you free from what they did, or do you continue to harbor a sinful attitude toward them?
  2. Are you holding onto any unforgiveness toward anyone? If so, what does unforgiveness reveal about your understanding of the gospel?
  3. Will you talk about the irony of an offending person being free from their sin, but the victim of their sin continues to harbor sin because of what happened to them?
  4. Do you see how unforgiveness hinders receiving the help the offended needs and hinders the offender’s need to mature in Christ?
  5. If you’re hurting from what someone did to you, will you find help today to begin walking through any unwillingness to forgive—either attitudinally or transactionally—the person who hurt you?

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