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Why is forgiving others so hard?

Posted on Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 12:56 pm

A teacher once told each of her students to bring a clear plastic bag and a sack of potatoes to school. They were instructed to call to mind every person they had a grudge against. For every person they refused to forgive, they chose a potato, wrote on it the name and date, and put it in the plastic bag. They were told to carry this bag with them everywhere, putting it beside their bed at night, on the car seat when driving, on their lap when riding, next to their desk during classes. Some bags became quite heavy. Lugging this around, paying attention to it all the time and remembering not to leave it in embarrassing places was a hassle. Over time the potatoes began to sprout “eyes” and became moldy and smelly.

Often we think of forgiveness as a gift to the other person, but it clearly is a gift to ourselves. If one of the sweetest words in the Bible is forgiveness, why do many Christians find it so bitter?

The answer is plain, brief, and painful: The kind of forgiveness we love to sing about—that flows down from God to us through Christ—is not the only forgiveness that matters. We are called to another forgiveness that often tastes bitter, the kind that flows from us to other people, especially other Christians.

God forgives us because of what Jesus has done for us; but then He obliges us to forgive others because of what Jesus is doing in us. The proper match to Jesus’ prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive them,” is Jesus’ imperative, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25).

The first and most obvious reason Christians need to be forgivers is the simple command of Jesus Himself. Not only are we told to forgive anyone who has provoked us; we also learn we cannot enjoy forgiveness ourselves if we are not exercising it toward others.

In the most universal prayer Jesus gave His disciples (Matthew 6:9-15), He makes it clear that we can pray for forgiveness only as we forgive those who trespass against us.

But consider a second reason why we should forgive: When we refuse to do so, we in effect try to keep God from forgiving someone else. When we withhold forgiveness, we are really saying that the person who has offended us is no proper object of God’s forgiveness. After all, if that person is not worthy of our forgiveness, how could he or she possibly merit God’s forgiveness?

Or worse, we say (in effect) that the other person is no person at all, but subhuman. Persons can be forgiven; but if the object of our hatred or mistrust is not worth the trouble of forgiveness then what else can that mean but that they’re not persons? In that case, we not only “kill” another person, we kill a little bit of ourselves, too. By withholding forgiveness, we deprive another person of what could lead to repentance and eternal life, and we deprive ourselves of the inner healing and wholeness that could come from being part of that renewal.

And yet, despite all these seemingly obvious reasons why Christians need to be forgivers, the secret truth for many Christians is that we find it infinitely easier to be forgiven by God than to forgive others. The reasons for that cold reluctance are as varied as Christians themselves. There are Christians who were hurt years ago by the breakup of their parents’ marriages, and hurt is buried so deep, or festers so close to the surface, that they see no way to forgive. There are Christians who have been wronged on the job or who have been gossiped about in the church. And all of them together think, “I cannot, I just cannot, find it in me to forgive them.”

We struggle to extend forgiveness because the wrongs done to us by others hurt so much. At the same time, we are not completely sure what forgiveness really is or what it might involve. It is not that we cannot forgive someone, but that we are afraid of what it might cost.

The word Jesus uses in Mark 11:25 for “forgive” literally means to release, to hurl away, to free yourself from something. To forgive, as Jesus intended the word, means willingly to throw away our resentment at being wronged. This entails not just containing or restraining our resentment, but letting go of it entirely so we can be truly free of its influence. That means we need to hurl away that moldy, smelly bag of potatoes that we have been lugging around. A great weight will be lifted from you, when you release that resentment and forgive the other person.

This season of Lent is to remind us of the sacrifice Jesus gave for us by personally giving up something meaningful. Let’s give up resentment and bitterness and experience God’s love, joy and peace.


Submitted by Keith Barnhart, pastor of Edgewood Baptist