Lifewise Faith: Avoiding Bitterness, Finding Forgiveness

Unhappy senior couple, wife in foreground
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People face many challenges as they enter the last lap of our earthly race, and one of the most dangerous is a refusal to forgive. A counselor friend found an illustration of this through nature: A fly landed on a caterpillar, leaving a tiny spot on its back. The spot grew larger and larger until a swarm of newly hatched fly larvae poured over the caterpillar’s body.

“That,” my friend concluded, “is exactly what happens when unforgiveness and bitterness are allowed to grow in the human heart.” The next time you meet a disagreeable, older man or woman, try looking at him a bit differently. Ask yourself who might have hurt this person. Imagine the many different reasons he may have for holding on to bitterness. Then ask yourself why you are unwilling to release others — those from years ago, those you meet today or family members — from how they have treated you poorly.

It can be hard to forgive — extremely hard. Many of us are afraid because we think that by letting go we will lose control. In reality, the longer we allow unforgiveness to grow inside us, the more we let others dictate our moods — and that can be damaging to our souls.

The heart of forgiveness is maintaining a realistic, God-centered perspective. How can you do this when you are overwhelmed by negative emotions? Here are some practical steps to help you move in the right direction:

Make a choice

Jesus stated very clearly that unless we forgive others, we wouldn’t be forgiven (Matthew 6:15). This is a serious issue since without forgiveness we will not see God.

If you need to forgive someone, don’t allow feelings to control your choices. Forgive simply because Jesus said so. Your emotions will follow in time – even if it’s a very long time.

Try to forget

It’s a mistake to say, “I’ll forgive you, but I’ll never forget what you did.” Remember that God removes our sins from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). You can gain wisdom from a situation so you don’t step back into the same circumstances; but by not forgiving and forgetting the offense, you don’t hurt the other person — you’re only hurting yourself.

To let go of those offenses, meditate on the mercy God extends to you. Jesus sacrificed for you before you even felt remorse and earned forgiveness for you by dying on the Cross. The person who has sinned against you may not appreciate your choice to forget the incident, but you should forget it regardless.

Practice an “attitude of gratitude”

To be hurt or offended is another way of suffering loss. Part of forgiveness is learning to accept that loss, grieve and then let it go.

Instead of complaining, be thankful for the small things in life. Learn to be present in the moment and be aware of the good things around you. Focus on God’s gifts. Pick something specific to be thankful for and express that in brief prayers throughout the day.

Bounce forward

Psychologist Shawn Achor says that there are three ways we can react when we are hurt: a) We can be crushed; b) We can bounce back; or c) We can bounce forward. Bouncing forward means to find ways to use the experience for growth.

Perhaps you can start by building positive relationships. If you want to be hopeful, kind, compassionate and flexible, spend time with people who have these traits. Remember the words of Paul: “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33).

Know the difference between trust and forgiveness

Then distinguish between trust and forgiveness. In some cases — for example, with a spouse, a sibling, or a very close friend — it can be important to rebuild trust after a falling-out. But in others it may be wiser to avoid a situation where you could be hurt again. You may, for instance, forgive the debt of a former business partner but decide not to confide in that person again. In the cases where you decide to trust again, state your expectations clearly.

If you find it hard to walk through this process, don’t be too proud to ask for help. God “knows your frame and remembers that you are dust” (Psalm 103:14). He doesn’t expect you to do this alone. So if you’re struggling to let go of the past, look to Him — and to others who have walked this path before you — for the support and encouragement you need in order to forgive.

Daniel P. Huerta is a licensed clinical social worker and the vice president of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family.
Copyright © 2017 by Focus on the Family

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