How easy it is to let anger, bitterness, and hatred rise in our hearts when we think we have been unjustly treated! Not only do we shape our sense of right and wrong to justify the ways we behave toward others; we also shape it to condemn the behavior of others who hurt us. Then, with right supposedly on our side, we feel obliged to try somehow to right the wrong.
For example, a father and mother have worked and sacrificed to rear and educate a son. But now when they want him to help them in the increasingly difficult years of later life, he instead devotes his time and energy mostly to his own work and family. Because the son does not come by very often, the parents feel deprived. But what really hurts is the conviction that out of gratitude for all their sacrifice for him, he ought now to make sacrifices to help them. In the words, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,” Shakespeare captured the pain parents feel when they think their children don’t fully appreciate all that’s been done for them.
But in such cases there is really nothing parents can do. They may chide their son for not giving them more of his time. Yet even if in response to their scolding he allots more time for them, they cannot be sure that this extra time represents the gratitude they feel they deserve. Perhaps he is now spending more time with them only to avoid further scoldings. So in addition to the sharp pain of thinking they are not duly appreciated, there is also the pain of not being able to right the supposed wrong.
Life is full of situations where our hearts can be filled with anger for supposedly being wronged and with frustration over our helplessness to set these wrongs right. But if we allow such anger—which is really an unforgiving spirit—to remain in our hearts, we will suffer the direst consequences. Neither will your Heavenly Father forgive you, Jesus said, “if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). Some people believe that they can go on harboring an unforgiving spirit because, as they argue, “I am saved simply by believing that Jesus died for my sins.” But trusting Jesus means not only believing his promise to forgive our sins but also his promise, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” Consequently God commands, “Never avenge yourselves … If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink” (Romans 12:19–20). So if we retain an unforgiving spirit against another person, we are not believing God when he says that, in due time, he will right all wrongs, and that we are to leave that task wholly to him.
No one has the option to choose which of God’s promises he will believe. We can’t believe God’s promise to forgive our sins and not believe his promise that at the proper time he will set all wrongs right. If we disbelieve his promise to right all wrongs, and continue to nourish an unforgiving spirit, then we are regarding God as generally untrustworthy, and therefore we have no right to believe in him for the forgiveness of sins. So when Jesus said we must forgive others in order to be forgiven ourselves (Matthew 6:14–15), he was not saying anything contrary to the teaching that salvation is by faith alone. To believe in Christ means to bank our hope on all his promises.
Another promise of the Lord’s which is extremely helpful when we feel we’ve been wronged is Isaiah 49:15: “Can a woman forget her sucking child? … Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” So when people do things which seem to make our lives harder, let’s remember how much God loves us. As we trust him, we will see him taking care of us in wonderful ways. “With the Eternal on my side I do not fear. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6).
Daniel P. Fuller