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Unity and the Need for Forgiveness

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Why do Christians have such a hard time forgiving one another? Why, instead of bearing with one another in love, do we let small resentments build into a flood of bitterness that defiles everyone? Is it true, as John Stott says, that Christians have a pathological tendency to split? In my experience, splits are almost never over theological issues. They are usually over resentments that build up over small differences in philosophy of ministry or personal conflict.

I have been thinking about bitterness and forgiveness all week in the wake of the conflict at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, the famous church pastored by D. James Kennedy for 48 years. This past March, Coral Ridge called Tullian Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham, to be their senior pastor.  Less than six months later, at a congregational meeting, over 400 members voted for his resignation; two-thirds voted to retain him. What had gone wrong? How did the unity of this church get so badly broken? How did this disagreement get to the point where it was spilling out into the public and getting coverage by the local media?

It is not my goal in this article to sort out who is right and wrong. Frankly, I am not sure. There are always two sides to a story, and usually both sides have contributed to the mess. For something to get to this point,  people on both sides of the argument have failed to love one another, bear with one another, speak the truth in love, and confront one another properly (Eph. 4:2, 4:31-32; Col. 3:13). Bitterness has taken root, and it has defiled everyone (Heb. 12:15). Unity is broken, and the church's witness to a watching world has been compromised. That much is clear.

I am reminded of a certain Dallas church that decided to split and then fight over the property. They both filed lawsuits against the other, ignoring the Scripture injunction against suing other Christians. Thankfully, the judge referred the case back to the denomination to handle. During the hearing, the church courts discovered that the conflict had begun years before at a church dinner when a certain elder was served a smaller piece of ham than the child seated next to him. Sadly, this choice tidbit of news was reported in the local newspapers for everyone to read and laugh at.  But it is no laughing matter. Sometimes the smallest slights turn into the biggest roots of bitterness that can defile a whole church.

As pastors, we have experienced this. People hold onto bitterness for years before it finally comes out—typically in an explosion, opposition to our leadership, or a split.  I once had a man call me to tell me he was leaving the church; I asked him to tell me why. He said he had a whole list of grievances. "Really," I said. "How far back do they go?"

"At least three years," he said.

"Why did you not come to me when the first incident happened?"

"Because I was doing the Christian thing—bearing it in love," he answered.

"But," I asked, "How is that possible if you are bringing it up now? If you had borne it in love, it would be forgiven and not on your list." He did not get what I was saying. So I asked him, "Why don't we start at the top of the list with the grievance that is the oldest."

Jim Belcher, Five Multi-Site Lessons for Your Single Campus Church

Deep Church, Sweet Church, Your Church?
Unity and the Need for Forgiveness

Jim Belcher »

"Well," he said, "I have never forgiven you for allowing your wife to attend the Christmas Eve service in jean-overalls. It was disrespectful to the congregation and to God."

"Really?" I asked. "That is at the top of the list of why you are leaving?" Honestly, I think I laughed out loud on the phone and then quickly apologized. But I could not help myself. It was a funny reason to leave a church.  I asked him if it made any difference that my wife had just had our third child, and her overalls were the only clothes that fit her! He did not buy it. A little while later, he left the church.

As I thought about this conversation later, I realized that he thought he was bearing with me, but he actually just stuffed the hurt deep inside. He was putting it on a list to bring up later. This perceived slight shifted the way he saw me. It was like putting on a different pair of glasses. From that point on, everything he saw about me was tainted. What started out small grew into a long list of grievances—the root of bitterness grew into a huge tree. But the tree was completely dead, dry timber ready to ignite. All it took was the right circumstances, and it burst into flame.

I don't think there is a more urgent topic to teach in our churches than bitterness and forgiveness. Whenever I preach on this topic, I always ask my congregation, "Can you think of one person who has hurt you? Can you think of one person at whom you are still angry, so that when you remember what they did to you, all the old emotions of anger, bitterness, and resentment come flooding back?" Most heads nod. The truth is that most of us do have a person in our lives that we have not forgiven, and we continue to nurse bitterness and maybe even anger against them. But the Bible makes it clear that bitterness is the enemy of peace, so we need to deal with it if we are going to experience peace—not only personally, but in our relationship and church as well.

Tim Keller says that Christians struggle with being easily offended, hurt, put off, and slighted.  He says that churches struggle with this more than other organizations such as your typical YMCA. Much of our struggle is because we get the morality part of Christianity, but not the grace part. But we need forgiveness, because even our morality is tainted with imperfection. Keller, in his book The Prodigal God, says that the church is filled with "older brothers" who are judgmental, have a strong sense of entitlement, and demand from God and others that things work out the way they see fit. And when they don't, we older brothers get mad at people and God. In these cases, we need to learn to forgive, because God has forgiven much.

But what do we do when the hurt is real and it cuts deep, when the pain is legitimate and even biblically validated? Often we want the offender to feel the same amount of pain we feel. We want them to know how much we are suffering because they hurt us. We want vengeance—the pleasure of seeing someone who hurt us get it back and then some. Justice is secured when someone pays a fair penalty for wronging another, even if the injured person takes no pleasure in the transaction. Vengeance is full of personal satisfaction. This is why Hollywood vengeance movies are so popular; they satisfy our natural desire to get even.

But the Bible speaks against vengeance. Not only is vengeance to be reserved for God, but it turns victims into perpetrators, as Croatian Miroslav Wolf says.

There are only two options for responding to a personal injury that we did not deserve—vengeance or forgiveness. Any other way of responding is to deny the injury. Lewis Smedes said that hate is the most self-righteous of all emotions. We feel deliriously righteous when we hate the evil creature who viciously assaulted us. We love this kind of hate; we coddle it, feed it, stoke it, and above all justify it, says Smedes. If this is the case, we don't always know when we are bitter or revengeful.

Jim Belcher, Five Multi-Site Lessons for Your Single Campus Church

Deep Church, Sweet Church, Your Church?
Unity and the Need for Forgiveness

Jim Belcher »

But a spirit of vengeance is fairly simple to recognize if you know what to look for. Vengeful people tend to slander, gossip, and tear down (in their mind or with others). We triangulate and resent the wrongdoer in our hearts. When we resent or hate someone, we place ourselves in the position of Judge of that person. But when we sit in judgment and condemnation of others, we forget our own sinfulness and weakness ("Let the one without sin cast the first stone…" John 8:7).

Thus, slander is a key diagnostic tool to know whether the root of bitterness has sprung up. If we slander someone, we are not "paying the price" ourselves; we are not forgiving them. We are still making them pay. And, as I said earlier, when we do this, we begin to keep a record of everything—big or small—the person has done against us. These things, even the petty things, become the interpretive grid through which we assess everything the person does. So is it any surprise that, no matter what he or she does afterward, they can't do anything right in our eyes? Everything becomes distorted, and we begin to distrust even their motives.

Once this happens, bitterness has taken root. We replay the tapes in our minds of what they did to us in order to justify our anger and hostility. When we can no longer hold it inside, we run them down to others under the guise of seeking sympathy, sharing our hurt, venting, or "warning" people about them. And when we are around the person who has hurt us, we can be far more demanding and controlling with the person than we are with others, all because "they owe us." We punish with self-righteous "mercy" which makes them feel small, or we coldly avoid them in overt and/or subtle ways. In the worst case scenario, we actively seek or scheme to harm them somehow.

I just watched the documentary, As We Forgive by Laura Waters Hinson, about the reconciliation process in Rwanda. The documentary tells the story of Chantel, whose Tutsi father was murdered by Hutu neighbors. Fourteen years later, she was still filled with bitterness and anger toward the killers and the Hutu population. Not surprisingly, she had not been back to church since the murder. She was alienated from God.

The documentary tells the gripping story of her killer, who sought her forgiveness so he could be freed from his own prison house of guilt. But she refused; the pain is just too great. As she sat in front of her Father's killer, she told him, "No, to forgive is impossible."

Yet, as Lewis Smedes said, if we cannot free people from their wrongs, then we ultimately enslave ourselves to our own painful past. And by fastening ourselves to the past, we let their hate become our future. One can reverse their future only by releasing other people from their pasts. As Bishop Tutu writes, "There is no future without forgiveness." Chantel needed to heed this message; she just could not.

So how do we as Christians pursue forgiveness? Where do we begin? We start by being clear that when someone has wronged us, it means they owe us—they have a debt with us. They have taken something from us by hurting us. By this, we admit the hurt is real, and we do not just brush it aside and say, as so many Christians say, "It is just not a big deal." This is more often pride; we'd like to appear that no one can hurt us because we are spiritually strong, or we just don't care about such things. But we do care, and brushing it aside is how we begin to keep track of the wrong and nurture it into bitterness.

The only antidote is to forgive, to absorb the cost of the debt yourself. We pay the price ourselves and refuse to exact the price out of the other person in any way. It frees the offender from the penalty for a sin. We don't require them to pay it; instead, we pay the price ourselves.  I love how Dan Hamilton in his book, Forgiveness, explains it:

"If a careless friend breaks a lamp at my home, I will forgive him. That means I will not make him buy a new lamp. I have set him free from the penalty of [the] sin ... I ... say, 'I release you from your debt ... ' But when the offender has walked away ... we are not finished. We have dealt with the penalty, but the damage remains. There is still a price to be paid. The lamp is still broken ... who will pay for it? ... I must pay for it myself. A lamp is easy to price and pay for. But what about damage that is intangible, unpriceable ... broken relationships? Ruined reputations? [missed opportunities? ... [there are payments that can be made]."

The Bible tells us that our forgiveness must imitate God's forgiveness in Christ. "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Eph.4:32). When we forgive in this way, we honor God and demonstrate Christ-likeness to one another. We stand side-by-side with sinners like ourselves before a holy God, unified in our resolve to live out the sacrifice of Christ in our day-to-day lives. We acknowledge our need for a Savior, we agree that His sacrifice was enough for all sin, and we show the world that God's people live under the influence of a supernaturally greater power than is available to them otherwise. In short, the issue stops being about our pain and starts being about the healing love of God in Christ.

At the end of the documentary, Chantel is given one more chance to forgive. She refuses; the anger and hatred is too great in her heart. But the story does not end there; the postscript tells us that six months later, miraculously, Chantel forgave her father's killers and returned to church. As one pastor in the documentary said, "Forgiveness is not natural; it is supernatural." It is my prayer that the church of the 21st century learns this message.

Jim Belcher (M.A., Fuller; Ph.D., Georgetown) is founding church planter and lead pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California. He has served as adjunct professor at Azusa Pacific University and co-produced the docudrama, From Earth to Heaven: The Life and Art of Vincent Van Gogh. Find out more about Jim's ministry and read the introduction to his book, Deep Church, at