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When Unforgiveness Lingers, Bitterness Enters

When Unforgiveness Lingers, Resentment and Bitterness Enter

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A pastor asked, “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 resources 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. I see so many folks who do not do forgiveness well, and when that happens, anger, resentment, and bitterness captivate them. How would you help a person like this? Let me share a case study with you.”

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Case Study

Once a pastor, Bert 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. Bert 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 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.

Bert also believes his viewpoint is 100 percent accurate. Bert’s sin list regarding Biff includes his motives, with which Biff disagrees. However, Biff is willing to meet and work toward reconciliation. Meanwhile, Bert is bitter, though he denies it. Bert has even cut off all interaction with certain people—including family members who have continued to attend the church, or those who have not taken a stance against Biff. Bert sees Biff as his enemy and anyone else who sides with him. He has justified his unforgiveness toward Biff to certain family members and will not relent until Biff 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?
  • Will you touch on the distinction between forgiveness and trust in a relationship where someone has broken the trust?

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 book’s final chapter. Joseph’s attitude was Christlike toward his brothers. He did not show bitterness, unkindness, or unforgiveness toward them—even though they were not repentant or requesting his forgiveness. Pre-forgiveness is a heart of forgiveness before Joseph ever had an opportunity to forgive them transactionally. 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 for Joseph to grant forgiveness to his brothers, God had prepared his heart for transactional forgiveness.

I do not know how long Joseph’s soul was free enough or out from under the control of his perpetrating brothers because the Bible does not say. 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 per the offender’s request. The answer is an absolute yes for three reasons:

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

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Willing to Forgive

Being willing to forgive is not forgiving. A desire to forgive does not release the offender from his sin. To be free from sin, the offender must ask someone to release him from his transgression. Otherwise, you could forgive anyone you wanted, whether they knew it or not or asked for it. 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 bitterness. Have you met that kind of person? A common occurrence is someone legitimately hurt, and the offender has not asked for forgiveness. All of us have been sinned against by people who have never asked for forgiveness. Offended people come in two kinds:

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

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 (1 Peter 2:19-21).

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. We cannot satisfactorily resolve every sin. Thus, Christians must have a clear-headed, practical understanding and application of the gospel in their lives. They will be susceptible to all kinds of pitfalls if they do not.

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

Pre-scripting Forgiveness

Should Bert 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: perfection. He set the standard for repentance so high that none of us could meet it. He did this purposefully so that we would avoid the temptation 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 to what Bert is doing, but an example does not mandate a pattern.

I suspect many parents have scripted repentance with their children. The child sins and the parent asks them to repent. Then they begrudgingly grunt out an “I’m sorry” under duress. It was precisely according to the parent’s prescription, but what did the parent accomplish? Mandated repentance is not necessarily repentance. True repentance is when the offender experiences convincing by the Spirit of God, according to the Word 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.

We regularly ask each other about our offenses in our home so we can agree on what happened. That is typical Christian behavior. It requires the offender’s and the offended’s humility to concur with the sins committed. Any Christian offender should have enough self-suspicion to ask the offended for help to see the offense. Why not? 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. However, asking the offended for his perspective does not automatically mean complete agreement with their assessment.

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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. 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. Thus, the question is about Bert’s justification for holding a strict protocol for forgiveness. The best answer is yes and no. He is partially correct in that Biff did some things wrong.

Of course, Biff has admitted (confessed) that he had sinned against Bert while owning his need for forgiveness. Thus, Bert is right (justified) and 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, 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 (1 Peter 2:23).

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). He would never let me off the hook 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.

Wisdom Issues

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 trusted one as though there was no sin between them. In most situations like this, it is possible. For example, my wife and I sin against each other occasionally, and we trust, love, and adore each other. Then there are other relationships where having that level of access and intimacy is impossible. Sexual offenses come to mind.

If someone sexually abused one of our daughters and 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.

The lack of ongoing relationships 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, hoping for future reconciliation.

Call to Action

  1. What is the benefit of pre-forgiveness if the person who has sinned against you never asks you for forgiveness?
  2. Do you regularly ask those close to you for their observations about you? What are the advantages of speaking with those you sin against to understand the depth of the offense or any blind spots you may have?
  3. Do you actively respond to the Spirit of God’s illuminations as He guides you through the Word of God? What is something you have learned about yourself lately?
  4. Are you practically speaking into the lives of your friends, helping them to repent well? Why is it necessary to build a relationship bridge for them to have these in-depth conversations?

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