By John Stapley
We are all guilty of it, unforgiveness. The relational and personal consequences of not dealing with an offence can be deadly. I recently heard a statement that painted a vivid picture of what it can be like when we choose not to forgive. “When we make the decision not to forgive someone, it's like us drinking poison and expecting the one who offended us to die.”
Because we live in a fallen world, our lives come filled with hardships. The most significant challenge many of us will face in life is those that involve relationships. And in numerous cases, it is with those we are closest to such as spouses, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers and even our children.
My personal, life-changing experience in dealing with unforgiveness struck close to home. I was cruising through life seemingly unscathed until reaching my early thirties. I always thought that my parent's marriage was close to perfect. Shortly after their thirty-fifth anniversary, my Father chose to become involved in an extramarital relationship. As expected, the outcome of his indiscretion imposed a devastating effect on our entire family. Due to the manner in which my Father chose to handle his infidelity, I felt my best response was to disengage with him entirely. By making this retaliatory decision, the seeds of unforgiveness and bitterness found some fertile soil.
As I look back, I see the detrimental toll my selfish choice in isolating my Father had on me, and how it impacted my family. The seed of unforgiveness was sown and became firmly rooted; the poison was taking effect; consequently, my common sense and judgement became impaired.
For over one year, I chose to have no contact with my Father. I wanted him to pay and pay dearly for the pain he inflicted on our family as a consequence of his moral failure. I used every weapon at my disposal to make sure he knew I was not pleased with his choice, even disallowing him to visit with his dearly loved, young grandchildren.
Ironically, it was through a discipline my Father taught me at an early age that I came face to face with the truth and the potential ramifications of my choice to live with unforgiveness. There is an antidote to the poison we ingest when unforgiveness takes root. The sooner we act on it, the fewer, long-term consequences will need to be dealt with down the road.
Throughout the ongoing fallout I experienced while the ordeal played out between my Father and Mother, I continued with my—Father taught—daily quiet time. Early one morning, while on my knees at the side of a bed in a spare bedroom, the answer came. A torrential flood of tears soaked the bedspread as I poured out my seemingly endless list of supplications from a confused, broken heart. Deep within my spirit, I became overwhelmed with a resonating impression of what I must do. The words were clear and direct. “If you can't forgive your earthly father, how can you expect your Heavenly Father to forgive you?” I broke—without hesitation, I asked for my Heavenly Father’s forgiveness and promised Him that I would make contact with my earthly Father before the sun went down that day.
By mid-morning, I called my Dad and asked if we could meet together. He agreed to see me the following day. For the next twenty-four hours, I experienced an enormous torrent of mixed thoughts and emotions. A battle of the mind was taking place and continued until I knocked on the door at my Father's home. Within seconds after stepping inside, we were both overcome with emotion. The tears began flowing as we embraced each other. It was difficult to get the words out, but between the heavy sobs, we asked each other for forgiveness. And with two simple words—forgive me—a father and son’s broken relationship was restored. However, the consequences for sin, in this case, unforgiveness, still needed to be addressed. Healing takes time. Within weeks after our reconciliation, we met with professional help who gave us wise counsel and direction.
Over the next fifteen years, up until my Father’s death, we made it a point to meet together a few times a week to break bread, have a coffee, or go for a drive and talk. Growing up, my Father and I were always close; however, as a result of the unfortunate circumstances that nearly destroyed our relationship, we formed a more intimate, deeper connection. The Speaker and Writer, Chip Ingram, described it this way; “In authentic relationships, we share the last ten percent." As time passed, and Dad and I spent more time together, we did just that. At the time of my Father’s death, I can honestly say that he was my best friend.
The lessons learned from this traumatic event in my life have been invaluable as I continue to navigate this road we call life. One does not need to look far or listen to many stories from those closest to us, to see the lifelong devastation living with unforgiveness produces. It’s a destructive force that can affect us all. It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when.’ By being vigilant and proactive, we can immediately confront unforgiveness and take the necessary defensive measures to guard against its ugly and lethal consequences.
Forgiveness is a character strength that is like exercise; when practiced, it has life-long benefits. When we learn to forgive, it improves our spiritual state, physical health, psychological well-being and longevity.
“When you are praying, if you are angry with someone, forgive him so that your Father in heaven will also forgive your sins. But if you don’t forgive other people, then your Father in heaven will not forgive your sins.” Mark 11:25–26 NCV