I didn’t know my neighbor’s name until the day he murdered my uncle.
Early one Tuesday morning, a neighborhood feud between the two men escalated into a firefight. Courtroom testimony told us that the neighbor kicked down my uncle’s front door and methodically shot him — twice in the ankles, twice in the knees, and once in the heart.
And he never spent a night in jail.
Freed on bond because he was an “upstanding citizen,” the court cleared him of all charges on the basis of self-defense. He went back to his wife, his home, and his job while our family picked up the pieces. We shampooed the blood from the carpet, but nothing could cleanse the horror from our minds.
On morning walks with my young daughter, I avoided the street where my uncle’s murderer lived. Only a few blocks from my own, I couldn’t bear to see the evidence of life as usual at his house. It stood in stark contrast to the shuttered windows and empty driveway of my uncle’s. Only a strip of grass separated their property, but an eternity separated their souls.
After a few months I resumed my familiar route, which led me past his house. Sometimes I would see him leaving for work or returning home. Bitterness began to grow in my heart. What right does he have, I asked myself angrily, to live as though nothing happened? Doesn’t it matter that he killed a man? Why should he go about his daily life while my uncle will never laugh, love, work, or play again?
Bitterness, along with its cousins, hate and anger, began to grow deep roots and sprout poisonous fruit in my heart.
I hope your story doesn’t include a murderer who escaped justice, but you probably have people in your life who have sinned against you. A person who molested you or someone you love, an abusive or neglectful parent, an unfaithful spouse, or a friend. If we live long enough, we can acquire an impressive collection of hurts that can leave us bitter and angry.
My story came to a head late one night about six months after my uncle’s death. Unable to sleep because of the thoughts swirling in my brain, I sought comfort in the Scriptures. I opened my Bible to the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. As I read the verses describing the rich man’s torment, I realized that while my uncle’s murderer had escaped his earthly punishment, no fast-talking lawyer would ever be able to protect him from the justice he would face in eternity.
Don’t begrudge him his life here on earth, I sensed the Lord saying. It may be the only heaven he ever knows…
That’s fine with me, I thought. He deserves to spend eternity in hell.
“But if it wasn’t for the grace of God,” the Holy Spirit whispered, “this would also be true of you.”
Suddenly, instead of bitterness and resentment, I felt an overwhelming sense of pity for this man — this man who so desperately needed a Savior — just like I had.
“Tell him,” the Lord said. “Tell him that ‘very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’” (Romans 5:7-8).
Because of safety concerns, I knew I couldn’t just knock on his door and tell him about Christ, so I did the next best thing. I shared my heart in a letter. I expressed the pain his actions had caused our family. I told him how bitterness had stolen my joy and disturbed my nights. I described how God had saved me from an equally sinful nature, and how he extends this forgiveness to all. And I offered my own forgiveness. “Because God has forgiven me,” I wrote, “I forgive you.”
I’ll probably never know if my uncle’s murderer received God’s gift of salvation, but that’s not my responsibility. My responsibility was to tell him. What he did from there is between him and God.
I still sometimes feel angry and bitter, but now when I walk past his house, I pray for him. And I sincerely hope, one day, my prayers will set him free.
You may also be struggling with bitterness. You may wonder how you can forgive someone who has sinned against you or someone you love. From my experience and the Bible, I’d like to share seven things to remember when you’re struggling to forgive.
Forgiveness doesn’t deny that the offense happened, nor does it absolve the person of the guilt associated with the act. We can and should hold others accountable for their actions or lack of actions, but we ultimately release our right to revenge to God.
Bitterness and unforgiveness hurt us more than the one who has sinned against us.
Lee Strobel said, “Acrid bitterness inevitably seeps into the lives of people who harbor grudges and suppress anger, and bitterness is always a poison. It keeps your pain alive instead of letting you deal with it and get beyond it. Bitterness sentences you to relive the hurt over and over.” A Bantou proverb agrees, telling us, “The bitter heart eats his owner.”
Unforgiveness hinders our prayers.
In Psalm 66:18, the psalmist tells us, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” To cherish means to hold something dear, which is a strange way to describe what we do with sin. But when we hold onto something tightly and refuse to let it go, we are, indeed, cherishing it. By stubbornly clinging to anger, hurt, and bitterness, we make a home for the very emotions that can destroy us.
Every sin is offensive to God, even our own.
It’s easy to be self-righteous when someone has sinned against us. “I’d never do anything like that,” we tell ourselves, but Scripture tells us differently. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:23 says. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” Because God’s standard is perfection, none of us can please God on our own.
In God’s eyes, we’re just as lost as the murderer on death row and just as desperately in need of a Savior. When we begin to see our sin as God sees it, we acknowledge that we have no righteousness of our own in which to stand. It is only God’s mercy that has kept us from committing the horrible sins others have committed.
Unforgiveness hinders God’s desire to forgive us.
If we, who have no righteousness of our own, withhold forgiveness from another, we elevate ourselves above God, who freely extends forgiveness to all who ask for it in sincerity and truth. The Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11 tells us that God’s forgiveness hinges on our willingness to forgive others: “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.”
God’s mercy and forgiveness extends to us and those who sin against us.
Psalm 103:10-14 tells us, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions for us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”
It is only when we fully grasp the depths of our own sin and the mercy God extends to us that we are able to extend forgiveness to others. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God, through Christ, forgave us,” the Bible tells us in Ephesians 4:32.
We can trust God’s sovereignty and justice.
We live in a fallen world, and sin and Satan have wrapped their poisonous tentacles around everything good. But it won’t always be this way. One day, God will right every wrong, punish every unrepentant sinner, and call every wicked soul into account. The Bible tells us in Romans 12:19, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
We cannot experience the abundant life God has for us if we’re carrying stones of bitterness and unforgiveness around. They weigh us down, slow our steps, and steal our joy.
It’s been more than 20 years since the first time I forgave my uncle’s murderer. I say “the first time,” because I’ve had to forgive him again and again, every time the feelings of anger and bitterness return. To combat these thoughts, I picture myself carrying my burden of unforgiveness to the cross of Jesus Christ and leaving it there, trusting him to take it away.
If you’re struggling to forgive someone today, don’t try to do it in your own strength. Do it in Jesus’ name. Ask him to give you the power to forgive, and then step out in faith to do it. You’ll be very glad you did.
[written by Lori Hatcher]