“If you think ‘revenge is sweet’ look into the faces of those who have lived on it for years.” What a wise saying. It highlights the effects of retaliation on an individual. Dr. Michael Barry, in his book, The Forgiveness Project, stated that of all cancer patients, 61% have forgiveness issues and of these, more than half are severe. He explains that hate and anger generate chronic anxiety which makes the body produce excess adrenaline and cortisol which deplete the body’s production of natural killer cells, its soldiers in its fight against cancer.
While the physical effects of unforgiveness are quite obvious, its spiritual, mental and emotional effects may not be readily obvious but can have more devastating consequences. Some 12 years ago, a church member publicly shared some tormenting nightmares she was having; she was seeing corpses around her when she slept. Though I was still new in the Lord at the time, I knew what those dreams signaled – the spirit of death was hovering around her. She was quite zealous in church and often talked about walking in holiness.
Four months later, she collapsed and died in her home. It was sad, but we quickly consoled ourselves that she had gone home to her reward. Weeks after her death, however, I heard disturbing facts from her former neighbours. Though they all lived together in their apartment, this woman had been keeping grudges with most of them for months (perhaps years) before her demise. In fact, the main reason why no help came to her when she slumped was because they were not on speaking terms. It then made sense. The demonic attacks succeeded because there was already a leeway for them – unforgiveness.
After I became saved at 15, my life was caught up in problems. My school grades were poor, my life lacked a moral anchor and my mind was besieged by hostile forces. After months of searching and self-evaluation, I saw that I needed to pray fervently about my life. After some sessions of spiritual warfare, I had a revelation. In it, I was spraying what looked like an insecticide on an army of spiders attached to my bed. They were many, but as the spray touched them, they dropped to the floor dead. There were many of them still untouched at a corner, then I woke up.
As naïve as I was at the time, I knew God was trying to tell me that the battle was only half won. Later that day, a word flashed into my mind: “You’re walking in unforgiveness.” That why the missing key. Truly, at that time, there were several people I had vowed not to forgive. I had not talked with two in particular for 4 years, even though we lived not too far from each other. I restituted, and the yoke over my life was completely broken.
There are blessings that elude Christians when they wallow in unforgiveness. I once heard a Christian man say “Even if God comes down from heaven to beg me, I’ll not forgive him!” That is unforgiveness and arrogance. During my NYSC, I was asked to exhort fellow Christian corpers one day at the Corpers fellowship and I felt led to speak on forgiveness. After my short talk, a guy got up and openly admitted bearing a grudge against two other Christians in the house – I didn’t even know. They reconciled and peace was restored.
It doesn’t matter whether one is a walking Bible encyclopedia, a super-duper theologian or lava-hot prayer warrior, unforgiveness can reduce our activities into mere theatrics. Some Christians try to live in an unrealistic world. They don’t expect anyone to offend them, especially fellow Christians. When this happens, they become bitter and even stop going to church. The truth is, people are imperfect and they will always offend us. It will continue this way as long as we are here on earth, therefore, extending forgiveness must a life-long virtue.
Some try to shy away from forgiving others by not admitting their hurts: “I wasn’t offended, I don’t easily get angered, I’m above that level,” they would say. But part of being realistic in our approach to life is admitting our hurts. We need to take off our “tough masks.” God understands our feelings and we need to open up to Him.
Many people have this idea that if they nurse a grudge against a person it will make bad situations befall him/her. Self deception goes by no other name. Forgiveness is not really about “the other person,” it’s about you. When you tenaciously hold on to an offence and stew on bile juices, among other things, you will suffer internally while the object of your grudge breezes through life happily. It’s for our own good that we forgive. If we don’t, we can’t receive God’s forgiveness either and we know the eternal implications of this (Matt. 6:15).
There are some people we can never forgive by our natural ability. I read in the Voice of Martyrs about Mary Khoury who was 17 when her village, Damour, in Lebanon was raided by Muslim jihadists. They gave Mary and her parents one choice: “If you do not become a Muslim you will be shot.” Mary stood for Christ and refused to deny Him and she was shot. Two days later, Red Cross workers found Mary and her family where they had been shot – she was the only one still alive. But she was now paralyzed; the bullet had severed her spinal cord. Her paralyzed arms were extended and bent at the elbows.
“Everyone has a vocation” she said, “I can never marry or do any physical work. So I will offer my life to the Muslims, like the one who cut my father’s throat, stabbed my mother while cursing her and tried to kill me. My life will be a prayer for them.” Only Christ could have given her the power to forgive those Muslims. Her persecutor could neither take away her faith nor steal her heart with bitterness. Many of us have not experienced half of what this lady passed through, yet we refuse to forgive. Forgiveness requires inner strength. This is why weak people hardly forgive.
I heard of a lady who was sexually abused by a Catholic priest in her teens. She is married today and unable to have children as a result. She vowed never to forgive that priest for defiling her. I believe her healing is tied to forgiveness. I also knew a guy who was unable to overcome the perverse cravings plaguing his heart because he persists in bitterness and unforgiveness.
How can you forgive a person who sexually abused you? How do you forgive a person who rejected you and made your life a living hell? How do you forgive the one who murdered your family or loved ones? How do you forgive those who falsely accused you or betrayed you deeply? You need the grace of God to forgive them. This grace is received by faith in Jesus. Philippians 4:13 says “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” This includes the ability to forgive.
How to detect Unforgiveness
Unforgiveness is destructive. It separates friends, destroys marriages and divides churches. It has turned nation against nation, tribe against tribe, race against race with consequences reaching far beyond human control. It’s imperative for us to be able to detect it in our lives in order to deal with it.
The story of the prodigal son is a quintessence of God’s love and mercy towards repentant backsliders. Yet in this parable, the Lord shows us how unforgiveness can rear its ugly heads.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing …The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” (Luke 15:25-30)
This older brother showcases certain features of unforgiveness:
1. It keeps scores. He said “Look! All these years…” This is a hallmark of unforgiveness. It makes people keep an account of what someone did to them yesterday, last week, last month, last year, last 10 years. Some even record these in a book. There was a time I use to kept a journal of events. Initially, my intention was to cherish good memories, but I steadily began to record negative things people have said or done to me as well. At times after going through the diaries, I would start to remember past offenses and become angry. One day, I tore these journals and threw them away. A good memory is not always a good ability. Love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5).
2. It boasts of its own record. The older brother said, “I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” Unforgiveness blinds us to our own faults and makes us always feel like the suffering one, the “better” one, the “always innocent” one, the more “tolerant” or “wiser” one. It makes one justifies one’s actions while condemning others for doing the same. Sometimes when I listen to two people narrating a quarrel ensuing between them, I try to sense which of the two is desperately trying to appear spotless and paint the other as horrible. It tells a lot.
3. It complains. The elder brother said “Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.” Unforgiveness makes people oblivious of all the good a person has done but makes them focus only what he/she has left undone. I never cease to be amazed at how trivial things can seriously offend people (yes, Christians). They are angry because you disagreed with their opinions. They are bitter because you didn’t tell them you got a job offer. They are angry because you didn’t greet them on social media. But Jesus even with all He suffered in the hands of men still forgave. If He could forgive, then we can too.
Unforgiveness makes people become accusatory: “They hate us!” “You’ve never kind to me,” “Your people are wicked and evil!” Some may not verbalise their inner protests, but their body language will convey a sort of disdain: “Leave me alone, go and meet ‘your folks’.”
4. It fosters division and alienation. He referred to his brother as “this son of yours.” He made him out as a stranger. Unforgiveness brings separation. It makes you “feel uncomfortable” interacting with those you have issues with. It makes a husband and wife live like strangers under the same roof. It makes relatives cut one another off for no reason even to the point of not informing one another of significant events (like wedding, burial etc). Unforgiveness is when a church splits and former members avoid one another in the streets like a plague.
5. It repeatedly brings up the offence. Even though the sins of the prodigal son were known to the father, his brother still brought them up to make himself appear better. Unforgiveness makes you think and talk about an offence to everyone you meets to the extent that people begin to shut their doors and windows once they see you approaching. Even when the offending party is dead, an unforgiving person will always be thinking and talking about the offence. There is a part of us – our carnal nature – that enjoys talking about how we have been hurt and makes us feel like a martyr.
6. It is always angry when the object of hate is blessed. The elder brother was “angry and refused to go in” because he expected his younger brother to be harshly dealt with, not celebrated. Unforgiveness makes you wish evil on the person who hurt you and rejoice whenever something negative happens to him/her. If he/she is blessed and looking good, it makes you angry. Anger, hate, pride and bitterness walk together with unforgiveness.
God wants us to lay aside our pride and forgive others. Tell Him what they did to you, tell how you feel. Ask for His grace to forgive, now go to that person, send that message, make that phone call and work it out. Forgiveness is like opening a prison door only to realise that the prisoner was you.