Put away from you all bitter-ness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Our conflict compromises the mission of Jesus.
Do you believe this?
Isn’t this at a minimum why Paul would urge us to put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you?
The effectiveness of our mission to the world is in direct proportion to the quality of our relationships with each other. Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he prayed for us, “That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21 niv)?
Isn’t Jesus saying they will see God in our relationships or not? We can contend for the divinity and the uniqueness and the unconditional love of Jesus all we want, but if our relationships are characterized by bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, and malice, our arguments will fall flat.
Our conflict compromises the mission of Jesus. Is this not why forgiveness figures so prominently in the gospel? Jesus or no Jesus, conflict is a given. The problem for Christians is the way we tend to see forgiveness as optional. Pushing further, we see it as optional to the extent that we see it as conditional on some prior response from the person who has hurt us.
See the problem in that way of thinking? Paul said, Forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Jesus does not forgive us because we confess and repent. We confess and repent because he has forgiven us. Jesus died for us, as Scripture says, “while we were yet sinners” (Rom. 5:8). To be clear, Jesus’ forgiveness of me and my receipt and appropriation of his forgiveness are two separate things.
My forgiving you means I no longer hold your trespasses against you. It says nothing about you and everything about me. When I hold onto your trespasses against me, it actually serves to hold me down. In fact, whenever I withhold forgiveness from you, God’s forgiveness is withheld from me. I recognize this last statement offends our notion of grace being unconditional, but there is no reference to Jesus stuttering when he said, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt. 6:14–15 niv).
So is Jesus saying that if I withhold forgiveness from another person, my soul is in danger of hell? I don’t think so. I think he’s saying my refusal to grant forgiveness blocks my ability to receive forgiveness. My refusal to forgive reveals nothing about the person I am not forgiving and everything about me. It reveals my bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice. This is why Paul tells us to put it away.
Now here’s the really interesting part to me. If we are honest with each other, and I know we try to be, we will have to admit that at least half the time what is making us bitter and angry is not what we are bitter and angry about. In other words, it’s the bitterness in me that I brought to the conflict at hand that keeps me from forgiving you for whatever it is that we are at odds about. Sure, maybe I’m genuinely bitter about something you’ve done to me, but chances are I’ve been carrying that for years and my conflict with you is just bringing it forward and adding to it.
It’s what we in the industry call “baggage.” And yes, we all carry some. It’s part of the old, false self Jesus wants us to exchange for the new creation self he is already giving us. So how do we put away our bitterness and all the other stuff? It begins by asking the Holy Spirit to bring it to our awareness and then asking questions like, “So self, what are you really angry about?”
Abba Father, we thank you for your Son, Jesus, whose grace is unfathomably amazing. Teach me this way of grace, that forgiveness precedes confession, the way confession precedes receiving, and the way receiving precedes cleansing and wellness and being able to forgive others. Now come, Holy Spirit, and reveal to me what I am really angry about and show me how that might connect to my own failure to forgive. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
Do you identify with this’that what you are mad about is not what you are really mad about?
How might bitterness or anger in your life point to your own withholding of forgiveness toward others?
Have you thought that someone must confess their wrong to you before you forgive them? How does today’s reflection challenge this thinking?
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