About a year after my mother passed away, I vividly remember sitting in one of our many old cars, a 1955 Ford Victoria, overcome with emotion. While looking at the strip of metal holding the carpet down underneath the door---only visible when the door was open---I marveled at the craftmanship and the ornate detailing on this insignificant part of the vehicle; and I began to cry…hard.
The reason for my tears was that while this piece of art was truly remarkable, my memories with my mom in that in car were not. What I remember most was my mom’s constant complaining about it. Granted, it was not an easy car to drive. In the mid 1970’s this car was still one of our primary vehicles. It was a 20-year-old, manual shift, manual-drive, non-air-conditioned, black tank! The passenger side door had this tendency to open randomly while turning corners. Mom almost sent me sailing out of that door one sunny afternoon, had I not grabbed the roof and hung on with all my might!
However, my tears weren’t for the car at all; they were for my mom. She complained about the car, about the dishwasher, the air-conditioner, and all the other things that needed replacing, but ultimately, she complained about my dad. My dad did not believe in replacing anything until it was beyond ALL repair. He also didn’t like to call repairmen. Fortunately, my parent’s commitment to one another and love for each other was much greater than their annoyances. However, I realized that moment sitting in the car how much my mom’s complaining reflected the discontent in her heart. Her discontent was a bitter root that robbed her of joy. And that revelation just made me so very sad for her.
Hebrews 12:15 warns us, “Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.”
God calls bitterness a poison. And He calls it a root. I know we have all heard about the root of bitterness and multiple analogies comparing it to invasive weeds…think kudzu! But being informed or aware of a potential problem in your heart is vastly different than experiencing it.
A few months ago, I felt this root of bitterness starting to grow. I literally felt it creeping over me, like that invasive weed, or a slow poison. I knew it was tied to unforgiveness. The problem was that I had tried to forgive, multiple times. But not wanting to be controlled by this bitterness, I followed the steps to forgiveness that I have learned and use in Freedom Prayer sessions.
After drawing near to Jesus, I began to count up the debt of what was owed to me. This concept comes from Matthew 18:21-35. The King who wanted to settle his accounts, first counted up what was owed. In the process of forgiveness, this is saying out loud to God what a perfect person should have done in this situation, rather than what he or she did. It is also asking Jesus to reveal all the ways that failure affected me; the spiritual, emotional and physical toll it took on me. Then after all the debt is counted, I cancel it, just like the king cancels the debt of the servant who owed him 10,000 talents of gold. And just like Jesus has canceled ALL of my debts and completely forgiven me. Then I ask Jesus to take that debt list from me. If I can’t see or feel assured of this important piece, I may still be harboring some unforgiveness.
The next steps are equally important. I must confess and repent of my judgment of that person and release them from the expectation that they can ever fill the legitimate need that I have. Finally, I ask God to meet that need for me. When I do this in the context of a conversation with Jesus, it is powerful. I ask and wait for Him to answer those all-important questions and I usually feel 100 pounds lighter after these forgiveness exercises.
So, imagine my surprise when God revealed to me a few weeks later that I still needed to forgive this same person. What happened? I had started to rehearse the hurts all over again. I agree with the concept that forgiving someone doesn’t excuse what they did. But it is not my place to expose their offenses; my struggle was in giving up my right to complain about the offense. That’s when my friend STRONGLY suggested I pick up the book called Total Forgiveness by R. T. Kendall.
I confess that I have only just started this book, but I am already reaping the benefits. Just reading about Kendall’s journey to total forgiveness for an individual has challenged me to want to do the same. I was particularly convicted by his explanation that true forgiveness is exhibited in graciousness. “Graciousness is shown by what you don’t say, even if what you could say would be true,” (p. 38). Sounds a lot like Proverbs 17:9: “Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.”
Jesus was gracious, all the time. On my best days, I might be gracious in short spurts, maybe a few seconds here or there. If I want to have the right to extend the grace of God, I cannot also hold onto my right to rehash an offense. Especially if it involves a brother or sister in Christ. The path to releasing that “poisonous root of bitterness” is through total forgiveness.
Total forgiveness is work. It’s an event, like the intentional sitting down with Jesus and prayerfully going through the steps outlined above. But forgiveness is also a process. It’s making a daily choice to be gracious, to cover an offense and to entrust any and all judgement to God.
And it is also a choice to let go of bitterness.
I find it interesting that the scriptures don’t give any clear how-to steps when it comes to removing bitterness. The Bible simply says, “watch out” or “see to it” depending on which version you read. So, on this issue, I am asking Jesus how to let go of bitterness. He is showing me that my route includes making the choice to stop rehearsing the hurts. I also know that it involves a choice to stop complaining!
Purge and Pursue
Bitterness not only clouds our perceptions, but it can also “corrupt others.” My mom’s complaints about our family car led me to see it through her eyes; a slightly dangerous, hard to drive, out-of-date vehicle. I couldn’t appreciate the craftsmanship of it. I know that if I don’t deal with my own bitter roots that I could corrupt others as well. What a terrible thing it would be for me to cause anyone else to not appreciate the beauty of another person because I complain about them!
This conviction is spurring me on to purge bitterness and pursue total forgiveness.
Kendall says, “The absence of bitterness allows the Holy Spirit to be Himself in us. This means that I will become like Jesus. When the Spirit is grieved, I am left to myself, and I will struggle with emotions ranging from anger to fear. But when the Holy Spirit is not grieved, He is at home with me; He will begin to change me into the person He wants me to be, and I will be able to manifest the gentleness of the Spirit. Relinquishing bitterness is an open invitation for the Holy Spirit to give you His peace, His joy, and the knowledge of His will.” (Total Forgiveness, p. 42)
I want to relinquish bitterness. I want to experience total forgiveness. I want to extend forgiveness to any and all who hurt me, but mostly I want to become more like Jesus, gracious and full of His peace and His joy. Oh, and to fully admire the craftmanship of our God, reflected in His masterpieces: the not-yet perfect people that we have the privilege of doing life with.
I wish I could have shared these things with my mom. I think she would have agreed with my assessment of the car situation, and that her complaining was well-rehearsed in some areas. However, both of my parents modeled and passed on many great qualities as well. They were committed to one another, unwavering in their support of their children, careful in budgeting, and generous with their time. I could go on and on. But the last trait I need to mention is one about my dad; he is PATIENT! He did eventually go on to buy many more cars to fit the changing needs of our family, but he held onto that first car he purchased. His appreciation of the craftmanship of old cars is paying off – that 1955 is now worth 20 times what he paid for it!
I wonder how much our relationships would appreciate in value if we practiced total forgiveness? I bet it would be far, far greater.
If you want to join in reading and discussing the book Total Forgiveness this summer, comment below or on our Facebook page!
Or, if you need help in prayerfully working through forgiveness, contact Freedom Prayer here: https://freedomprayer.org/contact/ and ask to sign up for a session.