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The battle of unforgiveness

I’m writing this for me. If it helps you, great.
The concept of generational sin is something that I take very seriously and something that has great potential to affect the people around me in unpleasant ways. I think I can say without offending anybody that my grandfather wasn’t as faithful to my grandmother as he should have been, and that his son, my Dad, was an alcoholic.

Well, when I’m dating someone I can’t look at another girl without feeling guilty about it, and alcohol does nothing for me. I’d much rather have a cup of coffee. So I think my future wife and kids are safe from those. Unfortunately, I’ve been blinded by pride or something else, because I totally missed my signature sin. And it’s a serious one.


Unforgiveness is serious because it destroys relationships, but if that wasn’t enough, it’s one of only two sins that’s absolutely, positively guaranteed to keep you out of heaven. Matthew 6:14-15 states that if we don’t forgive the people who sin against us, God won’t forgive us either. Remember that line in The Lord’s Prayer? “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” A modern translation would say, “And forgive my sins the same way I forgive people who sin against me.” (The other, if you’re curious, is to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, which, I think, means to totally reject God and God’s work. The notes I have jotted down next to that verse in my veteran NIV Bible read, “If you’re afraid you might have, then you know you didn’t.” I recall The Rev. Dr. LaBore–yes, that was his name, and yes, he did bore some students, but I found him interesting–saying in Theology class some 11 years ago that it’s impossible for a Christian to blaspheme the Holy Spirit.)

Back to the topic: The really frightening thing to me is that I’ve walked people through the process of dealing with this before. I can teach what I have difficulty doing. Yes, that’s every bit as wrong as finding out your teacher can’t read and your preacher doesn’t pray and your president has no soul.

My unforgiveness manifests itself as bitterness. It doesn’t happen all the time. I’m pretty forgiving of minor stuff. I don’t yell at other drivers very often and it’s been years since I’ve given another driver the finger. In a recent softball game the pitcher, covering home plate, applied the tag harder than he thought he should have. I didn’t even notice. Not counting telemarketers, I’ve only hung up the phone on someone twice in my life. One was a college newspaper editor. I don’t remember who the other person was.

So I handle the small stuff pretty well. But if you injure me seriously, that’s usually another story.

I’ll tell you how I found out about this. I was out with my sister and we stopped in a store that sells a lot of beer memorabilia. At one point, she turned to me and asked me what was wrong, because I looked really miffed. I wasn’t comfortable there, but consciously, I wasn’t mad or anything. Then I realized there’ve been two other times this year that I was around something that really glorified alcohol and someone thought I was really mad when I wasn’t.

My dad was an alcoholic. I believe that his drinking contributed to his early death. His drinking absolutely affected our relationship. I never knew when I came home if I’d meet Cool Dad or Obnoxious Dad. I didn’t like having friends over because I didn’t know which of my Dads they’d see. And I think my relationship (or lack of one) with Dad has something to do with why I’m an extreme introvert, which has always made it a lot harder for me to make friends with guys and to talk to girls. At least on some level I know I blame him for it. After all, if my own father didn’t want to talk to me, why would a stranger?

There’s some baggage associated with alcohol.

Unfortunately, I’ve projected Dad onto other people. Remember what I said about unforgiveness destroying relationships? It doesn’t just destroy the relationship with the person who committed the sin. It can destroy relationships with people who remind you of that person too. Even if the attributes they share with that person are the good ones.

There are other red flags, but I think I’ve proved my point that unforgiveness can easily turn a respected, accomplished man into a pathetic wreck.

How to know if you’re harboring unforgiveness? Well, there are my earlier examples. Or negative thoughts that always get associated with a person. Going out of the way to avoid a certain person. Those are possible signs.

So what to do about it? In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis recommends practice, and he recommends practicing on things that are easy to forgive. I remember his advice being not to start off by trying to forgive Nazi Germany. Start by forgiving Camaro Boy for gunning it and cutting you off making a right turn in front of you from the left lane on your way home from work.

But I don’t think that’s enough. It’s been a long time since I’ve had difficulty forgiving people like Camaro Boy and Van Boy and Truck Boy and the other people seemingly bent on destruction that I encounter on my way to and from work. And yet I still had difficulty forgiving my own father.

Sometimes it helps to know what forgiveness is and isn’t.

What forgiveness is: It’s accepting the pain that someone has caused you, and giving up your right to retaliation. You hand it over to the proper authorities. In some cases that’s the legal system. Sometimes that’s God.

What forgiveness isn’t: It’s not forgetting, it’s not ignoring it, it’s not acting like it didn’t happen, and, contrary to what it feels like, it isn’t letting the person off scot-free.

I’ve heard the saying: What goes around comes around. That’s almost Biblical. Deuteronomy 32:35 reads as follows: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. I will repay.” (I wonder how many pastors stay up nights worrying what to do if someone picks that as a confirmation verse?) God forgives our sins, but God doesn’t necessarily shield us from the consequences of them. And God knows the proper balance of justice and mercy. We may think we know our offenders, but only God knows what our offenders are living with, so only God can truly hand out what’s appropriate.

But I know what forgiveness is, and I’ve practiced on the small stuff. How do you forgive when you still just can’t? See Philippians 4:13. It reads: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

When I finally noticed the problem, I didn’t have to pray that God would make me want to forgive Dad. But that might be a good first step, for those times when we just don’t want to. I already wanted to forgive, because, well, it’s my Dad. That’s reason enough, let alone I’d had enough of the consequences of not doing it for all these years. So I prayed that God would enable me to forgive Dad. That’s a prayer that I can know God will answer affirmatively, because what I’m doing is asking God to enable me to do what He told me to do.

I came up with this exercise a number of years ago. It may help. I’ll close with it.

Picture that person that you just can’t forgive. Put that person on trial in your mind. The crime doesn’t matter, because the punishment is crucifixion: the most painful, vile, slow death ever concocted by mankind. And of course the person is guilty, because you’ve been harboring the unforgiveness. You’re fair, aren’t you? Watch the condemned carry the cross down the street, the crowd on either side, mocking, taunting. Watch as that person collapses under the weight of the cross. Two soldiers unstrap it, and they pull some guy out of the crowd. He looks vaguely familiar. They make that guy carry it. Slowly, the two of them march down the street and up the hill. The soldiers take the crossbeam and put the cross together. One of the soldiers beckons for you to come up the hill. He hands you a hammer and a big nail and asks if you’d like to drive the first one. And as the other soldier grabs the condemned, the man who carried the cross speaks.

“Wait! I’ll go instead.”

The soldiers give one another a puzzled look and mouth the words, “Did he just say he’d go instead?”

Then he lays down on the cross and looks at you. “Whenever you’re ready.”

And then you recognize the man. It’s Jesus.

Jesus finished your unfinished business and mine nearly 2,000 years ago.

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4 thoughts on “The battle of unforgiveness”

  1. Well said, but you should add forgiveness is a process of self-healing as well. Un-forgiveness holds us back and stunts our own spiritual growth. I know you’ve mentioned ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) before, I have my own experiences with the group and can highly recommend it. Learning about ACOA can be helpful too for anyone from a family with dysfunctional parents. The best part is learning, that unlike a drug or alcohol addiction, you can eventually “graduate” from the ACOA issues that hamper your life. Persons from a similiar background might also consider Al-Anon which is usually for other family members (spouse, parents, siblings) affected by the alcoholic. That could help you understand the issues that affected your mother’s behavior. Forgiveness in this case will help you re-assess yourself. Your father’s problem was not you, it was alcohol. Nothing you could do could change your father’s addiction unless he was ready to change it for himself. All you could do was support him in steps he had to take for himself. His addiction was not your failure. Often times in learning to forgive others, we learn how to forgive ourselves.

  2. Dave, thanks – this was very timely. I’ve been struggling with forgiving a minister in my (now former) church over lots of hateful stuff that’s come up there recently. It’s been especially hard for me to do this, seeing as how he ‘s a spiritual leader that many people trust. However, I’ll keep plugging away at it till I get it right… 🙂

    For any who don’t know, it’s over the stuff going on lately in the Episcopal Church USA. News summaries can be had at the Episcopal News Service.

  3. Joseph, A big AMEN to that! Matter of fact, your comment has alot to do with the “issues” I have with this priest (i.e. being non-inclusive in a real mean spirited way).

    Seems to me that I remember our Lord ministering to the poor, the outcasts and the people on the fringes of society – not with the “in crowd”…

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