When Unforgiveness Lingers, Resentment and Bitterness Enter

When Unforgiveness Lingers, Resentment and Bitterness Enter

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Supporter Question: As a full-time elder and pastor for twenty-seven years, I have seen and walked with people through many forms of offenses and relational conflict. Your articles are helpful and needed in the church today. In the following scenario, I wonder if you could address forgiveness and the need to walk free from resentment and bitterness.

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Bert and Biff’s Conflict

Bert, once a pastor, has been deeply offended and believes he has been stabbed in the back by someone he once cared for and mentored. He believes Biff gossiped, slandered, and convinced others to side with him, to oust Bert from leadership in the church. He thinks Biff has lied to the church and others. He says Biff is a snake.

Biff has legitimately sinned against Bert. Although he has confessed these offenses and agrees there were many things he did wrong, Bert will not meet with him or forgive him until he agrees in writing and publicly owns all the sins committed, according to Bert’s perspective of what those sins were. Bert also believes his viewpoint is 100 percent accurate.

Bert’s sin list regarding Biff also includes his motives, which Biff does not agree to be true. However, he is willing to meet and work toward reconciliation and agrees with some of the wrongs that Bert charged him with doing. Meanwhile, Bert is bitter, though he denies it.

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Concerns and Questions

He has even cut off all interaction with certain people—including family members who have continued to attend the church or those he ousted or who have not taken a stance against Biff. He sees Biff as his enemy and anyone else who sides with him. He has told family members—who have appealed to him—that he is justified for not forgiving Biff (or them) until he fully repents according to his stipulations.

  • Are we to forgive in our hearts or have “pre-forgiveness” for someone who does not see they’re wrong, confess it correctly, or ask for forgiveness?
  • What about an offended person who sets forth a list of offenses and a standard for repentance, confession, and forgiveness that the alleged offender can never meet?
  • Is Bert justified in his heart of unforgiveness?
  • Can the offended forgive from the heart without a full confession or repentance from the offender? Would that be “pre-forgiveness” from your perspective?
  • Will you also touch on the distinction between forgiveness and trust in a relationship where someone has broken the trust?

I look forward to hearing your perspectives on this scenario and my questions. I have been intentionally vague on some of the details so that you can feel free to use this scenario in any way that would be helpful to your readers. Would you please let me know if I have not been clear or provided enough information?

What Is Pre-forgiveness?

Pre-forgiveness is a term I coined as I reflected on the story of Joseph from Genesis 37-50, mainly as I observed his interaction with his brothers in the final chapter of the book. Joseph’s attitude toward his brothers was representative of what we would call Christlike in the New Testament. He did not show any bitterness, unkindness, or unforgiveness toward his brothers—even though they were not repentant or requesting his forgiveness at that time.

He had a heart of forgiveness toward his brothers before he ever had an opportunity to forgive his brothers. The implication here is that Joseph had spent time with the Lord and, in personal reflection, worked through the acute tragedies and disappointments that came at the hands of his brothers (Acts 2:23; Luke 23:34).

By the time the opportunity presented itself for Joseph to grant forgiveness to his brothers, God had prepared his heart for the exchange or what I call pre-forgiveness. I do not know how long his soul was free enough or out from under the control of his perpetrators because the Bible does not tell us.

Ready to Forgive

What is clear is that Joseph was a free man even while in bondage in Egypt—the place his sinful brothers sent him. Though they were not free from their crimes, Joseph was free from them in his heart.

The question is whether or not a person should come to the place of pre-forgiveness like Joseph, which would show evidence of an attitude ready to forgive the offender perchance the offender requested it. The answer is an absolute yes for three reasons:

  • We should always be willing to forgive anyone regardless of what they have done.
  • Whether the offender asks or not, the desire to forgive keeps the offended from a captured heart.
  • Forgiveness models Christlikeness.

Willing to Forgive

Being willing to forgive is not forgiving. A desire to forgive does not release the offender from his sin. For the offender to be free from his sin, he must ask someone to release him from his transgression. Otherwise, you could forgive anyone you wanted to forgive, whether they knew it or not or asked for it or not.

The idea of pre-forgiveness has very little to do with the offender. It is about the offended. It is an opportunity for the offended to keep from drowning in the morass of bitterness. Have you met that kind of person? A common occurrence is someone who was legitimately hurt, and the offender has not asked for forgiveness. All of us have been sinned against by people who have never asked forgiveness. Offended people come in two kinds:

  • Those who struggle with bitterness, criticalness, cynicism, suspicion, gossip, slander, unforgiveness, or other forms of anger.
  • Those who are free from those temptations, even though the power of the gospel has not nullified the offender’s sins.

The Steps of Christ

Humility, self-awareness, maturity, and contentment characterize this second group because they have learned to find peace in a fallen world. Jesus was the most impressive at doing this, and He is our example as we walk in His steps (1 Peter 2:18-25).

For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 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. —Peter

Because all sins committed will never be satisfactorily resolved, Christians must have a clear-headed, practical understanding and application of the gospel in their lives. If they do not, they will be susceptible to all kinds of pitfalls.

  • Who has sinned against you and has not come to you seeking your forgiveness?
  • Is your heart more controlled by the peace of God or by the sin of others?
  • What do you need to do to have a heart of forgiveness—like Joseph—regardless of whether your offender has sought forgiveness?

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Pre-scripting Forgiveness

You asked if Bert should prescribe the depth and extent of Biff’s forgiveness. That is an interesting question because the Lord did that for us. He specified how we are to repent and the conditions for our repentance but with a gospel-ironic twist: He set the standard for repentance so high that none of us could meet it.

He did this on purpose so that we would not be tempted to rely on ourselves for rescue (legalism) but on His works as the only means for salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9). Therefore, you could say there is a precedent for your question, but an example does not mandate a pattern. As to your question, is it possible for a person to set forth a sin list regarding how the person sinned and how the offender should repent?

I suspect many of us parents have done this with our children. They sinned, and we told them—in essence—to repent. Then they begrudgingly grunted out an “I’m sorry” under duress. It was precisely according to the parent’s prescription, but what did the parent accomplish?

Being Sober-minded

Mandated repentance is not necessarily repentance. True repentance is when the offender experiences convincing by the Spirit of God of the sins committed. He then tells the offended person the reason that he is seeking forgiveness. We call this confession—to agree with God (and others) about what he did.

In our home, we regularly ask each other about our offenses so we can “agree” with each other about what happened. That is typical Christian behavior. It requires humility from the offender and the offended to agree with the sins committed. Any Christian offender should have enough self-suspicion to ask the offended for help in seeing the offense. Why not?

Asking the offended for his perspective does not automatically mean complete agreement with their assessment. If you were sick, you’d want a doctor’s input so you could be free from what was ailing you. It is an act of humility born out of a sober self-awareness that self-deception is real.

Spirit-led Cooperation

After collecting all the data, the Spirit of God convinces the offender of the offenses, which is the Spirit’s work, not hurt-centered, man-centered manipulations.

  • Do you regularly ask those close to you for their observations about you?
  • Do you actively respond to the Spirit of God’s illuminations?
  • Are you practically speaking into the lives of your friends, helping them to repent well?

Bert is not justified in holding on to a heart of unforgiveness. To be justified is to be declared not guilty. Justification is a courtroom term where the judge declares someone guilty or not guilty. If he slams the gavel down and says, “Not guilty,” the person is justified. Only God determines actual guilt.

Right But Wrong

You asked if Bert was justified. The best answer is yes and no. He is partially correct, and he is somewhat wrong. Biff has admitted (confessed) that he has sinned against Bert while owning his need for forgiveness. There is no question about this; they both agree.

Thus, Bert is right (justified), and he should grant forgiveness if Biff asks him. However, it appears Bert has not stewarded his forgiveness problem biblically. He does not have the attitude of Christ regarding those who have sinned against him (Luke 23:34).

He is hurt, which you would expect, so you don’t want to judge him uncharitably. But he has not submitted his hurt to the power of Christ, as Peter instructed us about walking in the steps of Jesus. Peter continued by saying, “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.”


Though it would be nice if all offenders sought to make amends with all offended people, it is unrealistic to hold to such an unreasonable expectation. To do so is a temptation to anger or despair. We must deal with this reality in our fallen world, one of the more remarkable things about the gospel.

Christ loved me while I was sinning (Romans 5:8). And He would never let me off the hook—not until I humbled myself before Him and asked for His mercy. Stunningly, even though Christ held my sins against me, He loved me to death. If that kind of gospel expectation (and privilege) does not change and control our hearts, the power of our offenders will always hold us down.

Let’s suppose Bert and Biff could legitimately experience forgiveness by the power of the gospel. God neutralizes all the sins committed between them. The question then centers on whether their future relationship could function as a trusting one as though there was no sin between them.

It’s a Wisdom Issue

In most situations like this, it is possible. For example, my wife and I sin against each other consistently, and we trust, love, and adore each other consistently. Then there are other relationships where it’s impossible to have that level of access and intimacy. Sexual abuse comes to mind.

If someone sexually abused one of our daughters and if by some extraordinary act of the grace of God there was forgiveness requested and granted, I would do all I could to keep the forgiven abuser from our daughters. Forgiveness of sin does not necessarily mean the removal of future wrongdoing.

The doctrine of progressive sanctification informs us that we will never experience sinless perfection in the here and now. Though a person receives forgiveness, it does not mean they will never commit that sin again. It would be cruel to suggest the offender and the offended pursue an ongoing relationship in a situation such as sexual abuse.

Call to Action

The lack of ongoing relationship is a sad consequence of our fallenness. I am not saying this should be the case between Bert and Biff. But it appears Bert is not interested in reconciliation at this time. It seems the best hope for reconciliation would be third-party intervention to help Bert come to a more reasonable attitude and response.

Sin hurts deeply. We know this. I am sure Bert is hurting deeply, and though forgiveness is the proper response, it may take him a while to come to that place in his heart. I would ask the Spirit of God to bring restorative care to his soul with the hope for future reconciliation.

As for your application, I would appeal to you to work through the questions I presented here as a restorative way to care for them (and you). We’re all like Bert, and if it’s been a while since being sinned against, then beware: we are fallen people living in a fallen world, falling all over the place. Also, watch my two webinars:

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