We are what we remember. The past, and what our mind does not let go of, does not necessarily determine who we are, but it clearly shapes our lives. Furthermore, if we do not recognize the baggage in our life from the past and deal with it, it can sabotage our life now and in the future. Particularly our relationships. So many people I encounter are not even aware of how their refusal or inability to reconcile with the past has messed up their lives. Many who are aware of it refuse to deal with it. The thought of having to deal with the past can be so frightening. It can paralyze us.
Anger, bitterness, and hatred are all linked together, and they are all about the past. Past hurts in which people have wronged us, injured us, abused us, mocked us, or betrayed us – they can combine to create a ton of pain. But if people wrong us in any way, only we are responsible for how we respond to them. We all need to be aware that anger and bitterness in our lives does not harm anyone but us. Only we are harmed. In fact, unresolved anger leaves a real mark on our souls, and so I am unsure that we really understand how this impacts us and our abilities to enjoy our lives.
Anger, bitterness, and hatred can truly enslave us. There is really only one way to be delivered from it, and that is to forgive. However, forgiveness is counterintuitive. To hate is a more natural response when we are hurt or wronged by another.
I have come to realize that, if we are not able to forgive, then we will have a hard time relinquishing our anger and bitterness. Consequently we are allowing those who have hurt us to ruin and poison our lives. We are allowing them to steal our joy, and our anger is doing nothing to hurt them.
Tim Keller, in his book, The Reason for God, tells the story of a sixteen year-old girl whom he was counseling about the anger she felt toward her father.
We weren’t getting anywhere until I said to her, “Your father has defeated you, as long as you hate him. You will continue to stay trapped in your anger unless you forgive him thoroughly from the heart and begin to love him.” Something thawed in her when she realized that. She went through the sufferings of costly forgiveness, which at first always feels far worse than bitterness, into eventual freedom.
As novelist William Young says,
“Forgiveness is for the forgiver, to release you from something that will eat you alive, which will destroy your joy, and your ability to love fully and openly.”
Probably the most wonderful story I have ever read on the power of forgiveness is from a letter written to Dr. James Dobson, from a woman who had been listening to his radio program. She shares her story with Dobson in these words (edited for brevity):
In 1991, my beautiful three-and-a-half year-old daughter was accidentally shot in the head and killed by the eight year-old boy who lived next door. Needless to say, my life came to a screeching halt. My daughter lay dead in my front yard, and my five year-old son had witnessed the entire thing. My life went from normal and routine and beautiful to a complete mess, filled with psychiatrists for both my son and myself, near divorce over the next couple of years due to stress, and thoughts of suicide for myself – as well as plotting and planning how I would kill not only the little boy who shot my daughter, but also the entire family. I felt justified. I felt that I should do it.
Well, it’s been almost four years now. I never did harm the family next door, nor did I harm myself. Instead, I got down on my hands and knees after trying to make it on my own, and I asked Jesus into my heart. I told Him I wasn’t the supermom, superwife, superhuman being that I thought I was. I couldn’t do it on my own anymore. Once I prayed that prayer, Jesus started to work in my life. He’s still there – so powerfully, in fact, that I can almost feel His breath sometimes. He’s that close to me.
I had had my tubes tied after my daughter’s birth in 1987. In 1992 I went into surgery to have them untied. After several procedures that didn’t work, I turned to in vitro fertilization. I was thirty nine years-old when they did the embryo (from my egg and my husband’s sperm) implant with five fertilized eggs. Three of them adhered to my uterine wall. It was confirmed. I was pregnant with triplets.
She goes into great detail to explain the complications of her pregnancy, and how she was advised to abort one of the children, which she refused to do. She then shares:
On June 11, 1994 (which was the anniversary of when we buried my precious daughter and said goodbye to her for the last time), I gave birth to three absolutely beautiful, perfect boys. Their birth weights were an astonishing 6 pounds, 14 ounces; 6 pounds, 6 ounces; and five pounds, eight ounces. “Baby A” is our son, Sean Michael. He’s gorgeous and full of life. Every time I hold him in my arms, I think that he would have been the one who was most easily accessible. He is the one we would have lost had I not stood firm on my convictions.
Oh yes, and one more thing. I mentioned that God is working so powerfully in my life. Let me just end this letter by telling you that the people next door – the parents of the little boy who shot my little girl – are now the godparents of Sean Michael. Tell me God isn’t alive and working in my life!
Jesus has the power to eliminate our anger and hatred, regardless of what has been done to us. John Ortburg says that there is only one place that you can take your grudges, and that is to the foot of the cross. He then says something that we all should take to heart:
At the cross, I remember that I, too, stand in need of forgiveness. At the cross, I remember that, for me to expect to receive forgiveness, purchased at the ultimate price from heaven, yet to withhold it from someone has hurt me, is the ultimate contradiction.