Forgiveness: Healing The Harbored Hurts Of Your Heart
By Bill Elliff
Stockpiling hurts in our heart brings about the development of bitterness. Like a poisonous vine, bitterness can wrap itself around our emotions, penetrate our thoughts, and choke the life from our soul. Bitterness robs us of joy and peace. It hijacks us; taking us places we never wanted to go, doing things we never wanted to do, and making us people we never wanted to be.
Bitterness is subtle. I have rarely met a bitter man who realized his condition. No one wants to think of himself in this way. The very word “bitter” sounds appalling to our ears. It is a label none of us wants; yet by my own experience, I can tell you that many more of us are bitter than care to admit it. Passing through a bitter season in my life, I was oblivious to my condition. All the while, I counseled people who were bitter, and even preached about bitterness. I could recognize it in others, but not in myself.
Sometimes bitterness is misdiagnosed because there has been no massive tragedy or great pain. We erroneously think that only those who have been gravely hurt become bitter. In reality, the smallest particle of harbored hurt carries deadly potency, just as one cancer cell has the potential to fell the strongest of men. Would you be content to do nothing if you knew that just a few cancer cells had been found in your body? Are you also willing to look with indifference to the hurts of your heart? If Satan can keep you blinded to the presence of bitterness, however small and harmless it may seem, he has an open door.
Would you, before the Lord, keep a humble heart and mind as you read on? If you have been hurt at some point in your life, would you be honest enough to pause and sincerely pray, “Lord, if there is any bitterness in my heart, would You reveal it to me today?”
Although we often cannot see bitterness in ourselves, its effects disclose its presence to others. The writer of Hebrews uncovers for us three of the most damaging results of bitterness: “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled...” (Heb. 12:15).
Bitterness Always Springs Up
Even if we are aware of some hurt brewing inside us and intentionally try to hold it in check, it will find a way to seep through our soul. Hurts have a life of their own; and true to their nature, will always break through the surface and manifest themselves in some form.
Several years ago, a friend volunteered to mow my lawn while I was out of town. Before leaving, I forgot to mention to him that I had been nurturing a tiny sapling in our yard. When I returned, I discovered that he had accidentally stripped its tender bark with a power trimmer. The sapling appeared to be so badly damaged that I simply mowed it down. However, throughout the rest of the summer small sprouts continued to break through the soil. Even though I had cut away everything I could see above the ground, there was still life in its root system. The sapling kept trying to grow.
When hurts are not dealt with God’s way, bitterness roots itself in our soul. Like the sapling that refused to die, bitterness will continually spring up.
Bitterness Always Causes Trouble
...A bitter root in your heart will manifest itself in troublesome attitudes, such as depression and despair, anger and resentment, or fear and worry. Your reactions may become typified by criticism, slander, gossip, sulking, retaliation, or other caustic behavior.
Nobody likes to get hurt, especially for the second time. If a dog were to bite you, you would probably do your best to never meet that dog again! After being bitten by a painful experience, we sometimes develop strategies and adjust our behavior, thinking this will protect us from future hurt. Repeated often enough, this habitual behavior ingrains itself in our character. It becomes who we are and what we do.
Are you the type of person who has to control every situation? Do you frequently lash out in anger? Are you manipulative? Have you become so over-sensitive that others feel they must “walk on eggshells” whenever they approach you? Do you keep up a facade so others cannot really get close to you, or know whom you really are?
All these behaviors, and others, are methods we sometimes develop to shield ourselves from further hurt. As you can see, they are brimming with destructive consequences. The very strategies we use to avoid hurt only multiply the pain to others and ourselves.
When we harbor hurt – perhaps for years – it has the capacity to drive our every decision, and sour our every relationship. It will always make its presence known. And we will regret it.
Bitterness Always Defiles Many
Bitterness cannot be quarantined. Like an epidemic, it spreads. One bitter person has the capacity to infect an entire classroom, corporation, or congregation. Hurting people hurt people.
Entire families can be poisoned. Harbored hurts and bitterness can literally be passed from one generation to the next (Num. 14:18). I once knew a very bitter man. Upon investigation, I discovered a wound in his heart that was still festering after 40 years. His life manifested all the fruit of a bitter root. It did not surprise me when I witnessed his son and grandson also carrying a bitter spirit. Could there be any harsher judgment against the sin of bitterness than being guilty of infecting the ones we love the most?
Bitterness will always spring up, always cause trouble, and always defile many. You may think you can hold on to your hurts and not be adversely affected, but you are wrong. You cannot fathom how a root of bitterness will influence your thoughts and decisions, and your attitudes and actions. Much of your life will be driven by bitterness if you permit it to develop in your heart.
Is it really worth holding on to your hurts? Is the pain worth the price? How much of your life are you willing to exchange simply to hold onto your hurt?
Who among your friends and loved ones are you willing to risk defiling with the poison of your bitterness?
The Remedy for Harbored Hurt
Having faced the options available to you – harbor your hurt, or heal it God’s way – you may have already decided to do nothing. Hopefully though, you have realized the potential fallout from that response and are ready to pursue God’s remedy.
So, where do you go from here? How do you overcome the hurts you have been harboring? What must you do to alleviate your bitterness and neutralize the acidic effects it has left in your soul?
God has a wonderful plan for complete freedom and healing. You will be amazed to discover (if you will fully follow His leadership) that God can take you beyond the mere removal of bitterness into the realm of genuine thanksgiving. He can even give “beauty for ashes” by using the pains of your past as a springboard of ministry for the future. Not only can the hurts be overcome, they can be a means of ministering to others for their good and God’s glory. Only God could do something like that!
The following principles can transform your life as they form God’s path to bring deliverance and usefulness, even in the midst of great pain. You cannot take these steps on your own. They are only possible through God’s enabling grace, which He gladly gives as we humbly cry out to Him. Ask Him right now for grace to understand and grace to obey.
1. Recognize and admit your own sin. “Admit my sin?! Don’t you know it was the other person who sinned against me? If anyone needs to admit their sin, it’s them!”
You are right, they do. However, your healing does not depend on their response. You cannot change the offensive person or the hurtful situation; but you can, by the grace of God, change your attitude. If in the midst of being hurt you have become bitter, angry, resentful, retaliatory, or critical, you have sinned. You can hold onto this – all the while shouting words of self-justification – and never find relief. Not only will you continue to suffer the results of bitterness, you will increase your burden with the guilt that comes whenever you cover and hide your sin. You will do nothing more than add to your pain. Instead, you could turn to the Lord in genuine humility and cry out for His cleansing.
2. Embrace God’s sovereignty. At some point you must release your rights over the situation, accept the circumstance, and embrace the fact that God has the right to do whatever He desires in your life.
If, in the economy of God, He desired to allow such a hurtful experience, then He had also promised grace to survive ...and to thrive. He was big enough to bring purpose in the midst of pain.
How are your fists...still clenched? Are you willing to believe that God is bigger than your problem and can work it out for your good and His glory?
3. Forgive – release the debt. If your bitterness has a face behind it, you will need to take the step of unconditionally forgiving the one who has offended you. There is no other way to remove the harbored hurt.
Paul tells us in First Corinthians 13:5 that genuine love “does not take into account a wrong suffered.” This is one of those word pictures in Scripture where something familiar is used as a metaphor. Here Paul uses an accounting term describing a merchant who keeps tally of what each customer owes him. He keeps these records because he fully intends to collect payment.
Many of us keep a ledger-book in our hearts. When someone hurts us, we enter their name in our ledger. We think they should not have treated us as they did (and we may be right), so we hold them accountable. “They owe me,” we reason, “and I will make them pay.” Then we set out to exact payment.
But listen to what God has to say about this practice. “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone...never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord...do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21).
When we are hurt, we have only two choices:
We can enter the hurt in our heart’s ledger and plan to get revenge. We are amazingly creative at how we collect our debts. We might withdraw from the relationship, criticize or slander the one who hurt us, erupt in anger, plot ways to hurt them or ruin their reputation, attempt to thwart their success, question their motives, ignore them, spread rumors – our options are endless. We can even put a mask on our revenge with a closed mouth and pious smile. If our heart is angry though, we have already murdered our enemy (Matt. 5:21-22).
The irony of record-keeping and revenge-seeking is that we end up hurting ourselves more than the one we hold liable. A vengeful attitude aborts the development of Christlike character, shackles us with chains of bitterness and anger, and can ultimately destroy our lives. Furthermore, it can cause God to “stand down” from disciplining and correcting those who hurt us. When we attempt to seek our own justice, we may obstruct God’s. God does not need vigilantes.
A friend once told me, when I was tempted to seek revenge from a person who had wronged me, “Bill, God only allows two people at a time in the boxing ring. If you want to get into the ring and try to fight your own battles, God will let you. But He will get out. If you want God to fight your battles for you, then you must get out of the ring...and stay out.”
We can release the debt, and transfer collection rights to God. Forgiveness is not an act of our emotions, but a choice of our will. Just as a merchant can cancel a debt from his ledger, you can erase every debt you are holding against those who have wronged you...regardless of how you feel.
Essentially, forgiveness is an act of faith. When we choose to abandon the role of judge, jury, and executioner, we are acknowledging that God is sufficient to handle those who have hurt us. We transfer all collection rights to Him. The case is no longer in our hands, but entirely in His.
If we choose this biblical path, we will never be disappointed. God is good enough, just enough, and wise enough to deal with our offender in the proper manner. He always does it right! We seldom do.
To your amazement, you may discover God’s name recorded in your ledger. Are you angry with Him over some injustice done to you? A good indicator would be to check your proximity to Him. Have you withdrawn from His fellowship? If so, it may be because you have wrongly concluded that He is not to be trusted. God could have prevented the hurt from coming your way, but for whatever reason He did not. Now He may be the one toward whom your bitterness is aimed. As you release your debts, you must fully repent of what you are holding in your heart against God.
As you review the ledger-book in your heart, what names are entered there? Perhaps there is one that appears many times, with several documented offenses. Their debt to you is great. How long do you plan to hold them in contempt?...Until they die?...Until you die?
What must someone do, what price must they pay, in order to be restored to your good graces? Or, have you already determined that whatever they do will never be enough? Full repayment cannot be achieved.
Will you, by a choice of your will and as an act of faith, release every debt in your heart?
4. Ask God to fill your heart with His purifying love. We are clearly commanded to love everyone, even our enemies (Matt. 5:38-48). You may think this is impossible, and it would be if God were not involved. If you have come into a genuine relationship with God through faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit resides in your heart. All the love that He is dwells within you (1 John 4:7-8). Therefore, if you are willing to fully surrender to Him, in addition to removing the hurt, God can miraculously pour out His love in your heart. Love is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22), and can replace the acid of bitterness with the sweetness of compassion. What an amazing and healing exchange!
Would you ask God to fill your heart with His love – particularly for the individual who hurt you? If you cooperate with God, you will discover an outpouring of His power in your life. You may find yourself looking and acting very much like the Christ who lives within you!
5. Thank God for the experience. There is a difference between “thanking God” and “being thankful.” Thankfulness is an emotion that we sometimes feel and sometimes do not. We may not feel thankful about a situation that has come into our lives, but we are called by God to continually give thanks (1 Thes. 5:18; Eph. 5:20; Phil. 4:4).
Why would God make such a seemingly impossible command?
Our Great Physician knows that thanksgiving has amazing remedial properties. Giving thanks reminds us of God’s might, and lifts us up to view the situation from His perspective. The obedient response of thanksgiving takes our mind off the pain and focuses our thoughts on the purposes of God.
Such faith-based thanksgiving is able to say, “Lord, even though I do not understand it, and may not feel like it, I believe You are sufficient for this situation...and I thank You. You have not left Your throne. This did not take You by surprise. You have ample grace and sovereign purposes for me in the midst of my hurt.”
6. Keep continually and instantly forgiving. Do not think for a moment that your enemy, the devil, will take defeat lying down. You may encounter a multitude of additional opportunities to exercise faith and forgiveness – sometimes involving the same person. Satan may even parade the past hurt through your memory and try to revive your former emotions of anger and revenge.
When this happens, you could choose to relive the situation and pick up the hurt of the past. Or, you could realize that God is developing you into a godly man or woman, and that your character is strengthened by every act of the common day. Each hurt that comes your way is a fresh opportunity to forgive and love like He forgives and loves (Eph. 4:32).
The continued presence of difficulty is an indication that God has not given up on teaching you how to be like Him. And if you have any desire to be like God, you must learn to forgive.
– Taken from Forgiveness: Healing the Harbored Hurts of Your Heart by Bill Elliff with Tim Grissom. Copyright © 1998 by Dr. Bill R. Elliff. Used by permission. Copies of the booklet may be ordered at www.billelliff.org.