By Charles F. Stanley
As a young man, Jim wanted to be a medical doctor. Yet when the time came for him to go off to college, his father forced him to stay on the family farm and work. By age 23, Jim had taken all he could. He packed up his belongings, loaded up his car, and left. He drove away with a heart full of bitterness and resentment towards his father.
Everywhere Jim went, he had a difficult time getting along with others. He seemed unable to make long-lasting friendships and suffered from rejection and isolation. Consequently, he found himself moving from job to job; he was never able to settle down.
Finally, he met a woman who really cared for him, and after a brief engagement, they were married. Yet within three weeks of the wedding, Jim had an unexpected outburst that marked the beginning of over 40 years of hell on earth for his loyal wife. Right up to the last days of his life—when he was senile, nearly blind, and unable to care for himself—the poison of bitterness continued to eat away at Jim’s heart. And all because he failed to deal with the rejection and hurt he experienced as a teenager.
Developing an unforgiving spirit
From years of talking to people, I have noticed ten common phases related to hurtful situations and forgiveness. Not everyone will pass through each stage, but most people with an unforgiving spirit will be able to identify with several of these scenarios.
1) We get hurt. The seeds of unforgiveness are planted when we are wronged or hurt physically, emotionally, or verbally. We may feel pain, abandonment, embarrassment, hatred, or some other negative emotion. But I believe all hurt has its roots in rejection. Feeling rejected, then, is the first stage in developing an unforgiving spirit.
2) We become confused. Often our first response to hurt is bewilderment. In this stage, we may think, This is not really happening. We may even have a physical reaction, such as a deep feeling of emptiness in the pit of the stomach. This phase is usually short-lived.
3) We look for detours. Since all of us have a desire to avoid discomfort, we find ways of avoiding painful thoughts and memories. We take mental detours. This drive motivates some people to drink heavily or become addicted to drugs.
We also take physical detours, avoiding certain people, places, and things. Anything that reminds us of the hurt becomes off-limits. For instance, a minister’s daughter, who was full of bitterness towards her father, told me, “I would never marry a preacher.” To her, clergymen were to be avoided at all costs.
4) We dig a hole. After rearranging our thought patterns and lives to avoid contact with any reminder of our hurt, we attempt to forget that the painful experience ever occurred.
5) We deny it. This phase is characterized by our denial that we were ever hurt or that we are covering up anything. We may say, “Oh, I dealt with that” or “I forgave him long ago.” Breaking out of this stage can be tough. I have met scores of adults who are carrying around a load of bitterness—it’s demonstrated through their tempers or other negative behaviors. But they see no connection between a turbulent childhood and their problems as adults.
6) We become defeated. Regardless of how successfully we think we have buried our hurt, resentment will still work its way out through our behavior. A short temper, oversensitivity, shyness, a critical spirit—all of these can be evidence of unresolved rejection. We can move, find a new job, change friends or spouses, make New Year’s resolutions, memorize Scripture, get counseling, or undertake any number of spiritual exercises, but until we deal with the root of the problem, transformation will not be possible.
7) We become discouraged. This is often where we seek professional help or bail out of our present circumstances altogether. In this stage, one might end a marriage because the spouse will not change or because the couple cannot rekindle the love they once shared. Furthermore, an unforgiving spirit destroys respect, which is critical to the health of a relationship (1 Peter 3:2). A lack of respect can dissolve the loyalty and dedication that hold a marriage together during tough times. Then divorce becomes a real option to couples who pledged an unconditional lifetime of commitment. Such is the power and poison of an unforgiving spirit. In fact, at this stage, people may begin to depend on alcohol and prescription drugs to make it through the day. Tragically, some choose to escape by taking their own lives.
8) We discover the truth. Through someone’s help or by God’s grace, we discover the root of bitterness. The pieces finally fit together, and we are able to see the connection between the past and the present.
9) We take responsibility. In this stage, we decide to quit blaming others or expecting them to change. We open our hearts for God to have His way, regardless of how it might hurt.
10) We are delivered. For those who are willing to deal with an unforgiving spirit, the final outcome is deliverance. My friend, you can be free of that embarrassing, inappropriate, family-splitting behavior. You say, “But you don’t know what has happened to me. You don’t know what I have been through.” You are right. But I have known people in all kinds of circumstances who have been delivered and restored.
Do you see yourself in any of these stages? If you find that unforgiveness still holds you in its grip, I pray that you will do whatever it takes to find healing. Talk to a pastor, get counseling, or simply ask the Father to show you how to find freedom. Getting started on the healing process will be worth the effort.
For more information, please see “Steps to Forgiving Others.”
Adapted from “The Gift of Forgiveness” (1991).
© 2009 In Touch Ministries® All Rights Reserved.
Bible Study "How To Handle Anger Pt. 1"
Sermon "Letting Go Of Anger Pt. 1: Are You Angry?"
Steps To Forgiving Others