when they get caught up with
wanting to understand the reasons for the offense.
They think, if only they could understand why
the other person did what he or she did,
they could get over it and let it go.
– David Stoop, Forgiving the Unforgivable, pg80
In Forgiving the Unforgivable, David Stoop also offers us a diagram of what he calls the Path of Bitterness, and this path is often deceptive. On this path, people can actually believe that they're pursuing forgiveness but arrive at a much different destination. David Seamands explains that anger is closely related to a person's sense of justice which God instilled in us as part of His master design, but in our own strength alone, our human nature makes this bitter way of earthly justice our most common vice. We are created in the image of a pure and holy God, but our limited and fallen version of justice apart from God works the wrath of man, not righteousness. “Without Him we can do nothing” We can neither find the ultimate, restorative result we desire, nor can we forgive – not ourselves or others. We have only human justice, and apart from God or virtue we borrow from Him, only the incomplete justice of sin and death can result. And no one really wants justice for themselves. (Consider Matthew 18:22-35.)
Stoop explains that, in the general sense, the people who choose this route after an offense tell themselves that they are trying to understand the person who offended them, but they are actually on a fact finding mission of seeking justice for themselves. It's really quite creative, another quality imparted to us as creatures made in God's Image. This path of vice only ever turns up additional evidence of guilt, suggesting that the offender should make good on what Stoop calls an “emotional IOU” that the quest serves to draft. “Here's the case against you, so sign it and make it right!”
Here, anger comes in, as Stoop and Masteller describe in Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves: Healing Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (pg 228):
Anger that is left unresolved, or that is buried in the darkness of denial, takes root and produces bitterness and resentment. The longer we postpone dealing with anger, the more bitterness and resentment it engenders, and the harder it becomes for us to get in touch with its existence and purge it from our hearts.
This process of bitterness traps us. When the offended person begins searching for reasons why the other person is guilty, they're actually trying to exonerate themselves. This self-serving quest for more knowledge about the person and the circumstances ends up feeding into the blame game, and it becomes a repetitive and self-perpetuating cycle. They're driven by their desire for personal absolution and the type of restitution that earthly effort brings, turning themselves into court investigator so that they can stand as judge, jury and executioner., too. They become deeply emotionally aroused by the negative emotion, and because there is no other satisfying solution apart from forgiveness, they get very stuck in the replaying and rehearsing of all the reasons why they are not to blame and the other party is completely at fault, getting what they deserve.
The person on this path never gets any closer to really softening their heart towards the offender, missing the point that forgiveness cannot be earned or merited. The offense cannot be undone, and the person on the Path to Bitterness misses the point that finding more cause for offense just means that they will have to eventually offer that much more forgiveness. It is important to establish justice which God requires us to establish, but in forgiveness, Jesus calls us to visit His higher court of sentencing where mercy triumphs over mere justice. In that court, He becomes the intercessor for all offenses of mankind, pleads our case, then takes our sentence in our stead. He beckons us as Christians to remember this and asks us to share with other the pardon He already paid, but to freely give it away with joy and tenderness and He has done with us.
"We are to forgive so that we may enjoy God's goodness
without feeling the weight of anger burning deep within our hearts.
Forgiveness does not mean we recant the fact that
what happened to us was wrong.
Instead, we roll our burdens onto the Lord
and allow Him to carry them for us."
– Charles Stanley
But the vice of the Path of Bitterness doesn't lead to this place of loving pardon.
People often develop an idea of what forgiveness is, basing their understanding on general ideas without considering Scripture. Curiously, the Old Testament doesn't speak much about forgiveness, as the mindset of the age focused on justice and consequences. We recall the frequently quoted concept from Deuteronomy of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as an example of this focus. When Jesus came on the scene, He didn't discourage personal responsibility and reasonable justice, but He offered a different alternative for solving the problem. The rather than demanding payment, the offended person could cancel the debt. In contrast to the iconic eye and tooth standard, Jesus offers us a better one wherein we “turn the other cheek.”
Consider what Corrie Ten Boom wrote about the connection between redemption and the process of forgiving those who have wronged us in The Hiding Place: “...[I]t is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world's healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives along with the command, the love itself.”
The Burning Emptiness of Bitterness
So much anger ensues in this phase of the progression that isolation and withdrawal become inevitable. Forgiveness joins estranged people together again, and lack of it drives people apart. Rather than working to soothe and heal the wounds, the demanding obsession becomes tantamount to scraping wounds open again, over and over. Those wounds never heal, and the pain that they create becomes intense. Unrealistic expectations result in chronic disappointment which turns into bitterness like a hidden abscess inside of that wound. What could be more unrealistic than expecting justice and restitution and satisfaction from someone, the offender, who ultimately can provide none of these things anyway? Bitterness springs up and affects many in sundry and profound ways we do not anticipate (Hebrews 12:15), particularly when we are primarily concerned with ourselves, a blind justice, and our own comfort.
Escape from the Path of Bitterness Rests Only in Christ
Through the analogy of God's higher court where Jesus takes our place in the punishment that the Law and justice require, we can just begin to fathom the deep and intimate connection between Christ's redemption of us and our forgiveness of one another. As Charles Stanley has so well stated it, “Forgiveness is never complete until, first, we have experienced the forgiveness of God. Second, we can forgive others who have wronged us. And third, we are able to forgive ourselves.” But that statement also reveals our hearts and the heart of our troubles. True, Christ-like forgiveness must flow out of us from a heart that has fully experienced the fullness of what God has done. For this reason, Paul prays for believers in Ephesus to comprehend the full, expansive and limitless measure of all God extends to us in abundant love. We spend our lifetimes learning about the smallest measure of this loving forgiveness, and if we don't, we really don't have that bounty in ourselves to extend to others. In an inability to forgive others, God reveals that we have not discerned the full measure of what God has done for us and bestowed upon us.
He that cannot forgive others
breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself;
for every man has need to be forgiven.
More to come on the complicated process of forgiveness,
and encouragement to help you find the way
of the paths of mercy and love
while honoring justice and providing for safety.