John Studebaker
Reality of Conflict and the Root of Bitterness

Remember the story of Little Red Riding Hood? Upon arrival at grandmother’s house, Miss Riding Hood encountered a big bad wolf disguised in grandmother’s clothing! The wolf had one intention to deceive her, so he could eat her!

Now obviously there’s a conflict of interests here. Miss Riding Hood wants to see Grandma, but the wolf wants to eat Miss Hood!

It seems that conflict is the theme of almost every book we read. Indeed, conflict is all around us. Almost every movie centers around some major human conflict otherwise we would find it pretty boring. The nightly news is basically a documentary on the human conflict of the day. It never seems to get old. And our everyday lives and relationships seem to bring continual opportunities for conflict. We often find ourselves on the receiving end of injury. And yet there are many ways to handle conflict. We can be angry, bitter, vengeful, hurtful, passive–or we can forgive. Though conflict is inevitable, the level of human misery is dramatically increased by our lack of forgiveness. Divorce, crime, resentment, war, racism, possibly even physical illness all point to a root of bitterness.

So how we handle conflict is very important. According to Dick Keyes, “Your life-story is the way it is and not something entirely different in part at least because of the way you have handled conflict.” (Dick Keyes, “Forgiveness,” audiotape by L’Abri Fellowship, Southborough, Mass.)

You could make a pretty good argument that forgiveness is necessary to hold a society together. If every small conflict in a society were avenged, the society would break down very quickly. Likewise, you could make a case that forgiveness is necessary to hold our own lives together. One look at a man’s face can often show how that person is doing in the area of forgiveness.

Jesus Christ also told a story about some big bad wolves. In Matthew 7 He tells us that while some men will come to us in sheep’s clothing, inwardly they are ravenous wolves!

Who was Jesus talking about? He was speaking of those who would deceive people into thinking that they can control their own lives. For example, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were teaching that (by becoming very religious) people could earn God’s favor and thus control their own eternal destiny.

But there’s one problem here. To actually have control over our lives, we’d have to control the entire universe! But it soon becomes obvious that we don’t! Things often don’t go our way. So what do we do when our expectation of heaven on earth is interrupted by broken relationships, abusive people, accidents, conflict?

This is where bitterness begins to grow and take root over time. We’ve come to expect the finest, royal treatment from life, and so we often get let down. This is particularly true in America, where we have such grand illusions of the perfect life.

And so we get bitter. Bitterness has gripped America like a plague. It is usually expressed at those closest to us or those who have hurt us. But ultimately we are bitter toward God. He hasn’t allowed things to work out the way we think they should have. One woman who had been sexually abused as a child said, “When God did not intervene to stop the abuser He lost any right to require me to do anything. He owes me, I owe him nothing.”

The Bible warns us in Hebrews 12:15 to “See to it that no root of bitterness springs up to cause trouble and defile many.”

Our Need for God’s Forgiveness

Do we need to be forgiven by God? Many Americans don’t seem to think so. More than ever, people in our society seem to be saying, “What has God got against me?” “What could I have done that is so inexcusable?” Most of us see little connection between the way we live our lives and the mess our society is now in. It’s not our fault! In fact, it may well be God’s fault! Sigmund Freud once wrote, “If I should ever meet God, He would have more to answer for than I would!”

One of the greatest obstacles of the church today is this very issue. We no longer see ourselves as “sinners” in need of forgiveness. Maybe sin used to be a problem, but now we’ve outgrown that. So while the church has a solution for the problem of sin, it’s a non-problem in the eyes of most Americans–at least not a serious problem.

As a result, Christ’s death on the cross has become superfluous. Christ came to solve a problem that nobody has! This is sort of like having an auto mechanic out in the desert who only works on Hudsons and Edsels! He only fixes the cars that people used to drive. Or it’s like giving a lawnmower to an Eskimo. You’re giving him the solution to a problem that he doesn’t have!

So why don’t we see sin as a real problem? Romans 1 and 2 tell us that we are all excuse-makers. Romans 1 describes the situation of the “Gentiles” (those without moral upbringing): they are “honest” but still immoral. Romans 2 describes the Jews (those with a moral upbringing): they are “self-righteous” but dishonest about their heart condition. Romans 2:1 sums it up well: “You are without excuse whoever you are.” And this is a hard pill for most Americans to swallow.

Today we see these excuses working in two ways. If I see my life as a mess, it’s not my fault. I’m a victim. The other attitude is, “Hey, my life is pretty good; in fact it’s going very well. I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.” Either way we excuse ourselves. Romans 7 gives us a response to an excuse-ridden society: the law. What does the law do? It serves to arouse our anger! That’s because God’s standards and demands for perfection are impartial to our personal circumstances, struggles, backgrounds, etc. The law is unrelenting and unmerciful to your particular situation.

The law arouses and exposes our anger and sin. So, with the law, we can begin to see for ourselves that we are sinners. Then we can agree with the Bible. The Bible tells us that we have all sinned and fallen far short of God’s glorious plan for our lives. That original plan was to create people who would reflect His character on planet Earth. He would thus be the source for our very life and existence, while we would experience the joy of representing Him by living our lives as perfect reflections of His glory and honor.

But we have not done our part. As a result, we need forgiveness from God, forgiveness for trying to live independently of Him as our creator, forgiveness for trying to become self-sufficient, as only He is. And forgiveness for evil deeds we have committed while living independently from Him.

Understanding God’s Forgiveness

Alexander Pope said that “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Is that really true? Is God really a forgiving God?

To understand God’s forgiveness, we first need to understand what forgiveness is. Forgiveness actually has three parts to it. First, there is the hurt, or the harm, that which we experience due to some moral or emotional wrongdoing we have suffered. When forgiving someone, we will usually recognize that there has been an injury to our spirit, and we will experience emotional hurt.

Second, there is a moral or emotional debt involved, that which is charged to the other person against how that person should have treated us. That person owed us the honor of treating us with greater respect, more love, higher dignity, or whatever, and having not treated us in such manner, they are morally indebted to us.

The third element of forgiveness is the act of forgiving itself, the act of canceling the debt. Perhaps it is saying to ourself or to the other person, “I forgive you.”

Notice that forgiveness isn’t saying, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad” or “It didn’t hurt that much” or “I know you didn’t mean it.” That would be excusing the debt by acting as if there never really was a debt.

It’s obvious these three aspects of forgiveness apply to our relationships with people. But how well do they apply when it comes to our relationship with God?

Earlier we discussed how clearly the Bible presents our need for forgiveness from God. The idea is that, in our sin and rebellion against God, we have actually harmed or hurt God. We have done damage and injury to His name and His cause on planet Earth. We have done this by neglecting our purpose for being created by Him in the first place to know Him intimately and to glorify Him here on planet Earth through all that we do, say, and think.

And so we owe a debt to God. We have broken His moral standards, and we stand in judgment before Him until we can pay the debt we owe for how we should have lived.

And so it is a very good thing that God is also a forgiving God! How do we know that He really is? Simply because God has done something to cancel our sin! Though God cannot just ignore or excuse our sin, the Bible says that God has done something to it! What has He done? The wonderful story of Christianity is that God came to earth in the form of a man and made “atonement” for our sins. To atone means “to cover.” Through Jesus’ death on the cross, our sin has been covered. In other words, it has been buried or canceled out. God provided Jesus as a substitute for our sins, to bear the force of our sins, so that we could go free.

This cancellation of sin should result in great rejoicing. We see this in the Bible in the parable of the prodigal son. If you have not read this account in Luke 15, let me encourage you to do so. One thing you will note is that, in this story, there are no excuses offered on either side. The son is straightforward about his sin. And the father doesn’t say, “You didn’t really mean to do it.” Jesus’ forgiveness is like that. It deals in a straightforward manner with our sin and cancels it.

Forgiving Others

“Love Hurts!” was the name of a popular song in the early eighties. Its message was simple: to love someone means to make oneself vulnerable to be hurt. To love another person can be a very big risk!

It seems that in America we have developed a strategy to minimize the risk of love. By learning to isolate ourselves, we have learned to avoid going through the potentially messy work of being hurt and then having to forgive.

By keeping our distance, we create a sort of artificial padding between us so that we don’t have to see what is inside us. Then we can continue to see each other as nice, decent people. And yet how would we treat each other if some of the things we take for granted were suddenly removed from us? Most of us, for example, have never been forced to miss even a single meal. What if, suddenly, because of a food shortage or lack of money we had to miss three meals? Or six meals? Or more? How civil would we be then?

We might recall just a few years ago how frantic some people became when there was a temporary shortage of Cabbage Patch dolls around Christmas time. One woman was actually killed because of the shortage of Cabbage Patch dolls!

Perhaps we have reduced the risk of hurt, but at the same time we have lost the joy of love! Truly that price is too high! And yet that price is paid every day through divorce, infidelity, revenge, addictions, etc. What is the remedy for our lovelessness? The remedy is forgiveness. Only forgiveness can overcome our bitterness, that which says, “I’ve been hurt before and I’m not going to let it happen again!” Forgiveness can cancel the debt owed to us by those who’ve hurt us.

In Matthew 18, Jesus relates a parable which demonstrates how and why we are to forgive others. A certain servant was forgiven a huge debt by his master. But then, when it was this servant’s turn to forgive one of his borrowers who only owed him a fraction of his previous debt he was unbending. When the master found out, he threw the servant in jail until he could pay his entire original debt.

The most important issue in this story is the huge debt the servant owed to begin with. For the Master to forgive such a large sum should have made any other debt dwarf in comparison.

We can easily apply this parable to our earthly relationships. Forgiving another person who has hurt or betrayed us should be relatively easy when we recognize how great a debt God has forgiven us.

The word forgive comes from a Greek word which means “to send away” or “to release.” It implies that we let go of the debt we’ve incurred. We do this by choice. As we do, we become channels for God’s grace to people who may have never experienced it before. And thus, through forgiveness, we might lead those we forgive to a saving knowledge of Christ.

We should remember, however, that forgiveness does not guarantee reconciliation. It simply makes it possible from our side. So indeed, forgiveness is costly. According to Neil Anderson, “forgiveness is agreeing to live with the consequences of another person’s sin.” But the truth is we are going to have to live with those consequences whether we want to or not. Our choice then is whether we will live in the bitterness of unforgiveness or the freedom of forgiveness.

Forgiving Ourselves

As a young adult, Tim found himself involved in several immoral relationships. After becoming a Christian, Tim realized the forgiveness of God. And yet even today he continues to struggle to forgive himself for some of the specific things he has done. What should he do?

The need to forgive ourselves is sometimes a real issue. Paul, for example, tells us in 1 Corinthians 6 that adultery is a sin against one’s own body. So how does one in such a situation forgive oneself?

First we must realize that our greatest need is for forgiveness from God. Some “Christians” have tried to reduce Christianity to a self-improvement program, saying that forgiving and accepting ourselves is the main problem we face. For some, Christianity is a means, perhaps the best means, of feeling good about ourselves, and finding self-esteem. But this is a perversion of the gospel of Christ.

Just as God’s forgiveness leads the way to forgiving others, it also must precede self-forgiveness. This is because the Bible distinguishes between guilt and shame. Guilt is experienced when we violate God’s moral standards (that is, if we have allowed His standards to become our standards). Our conscience tells us that we did something we should not have done. And in that case, we need to approach God and receive His forgiveness based on what Christ did for us on the cross.

Sometimes we must deal with personal shame. Shame has to do with who we are rather than what we’ve done. That’s why it is entirely possible to know that God has forgiven a particular sin, and yet still feel shame for being the type of person who would do such a thing. And this feeling can get in the way of forgiving ourselves.

Shame often occurs when we violate some ideal of goodness or heroism we have of ourselves. We may see ourselves as a very godly or strong person. Usually these images have been embedded into our minds by the world or by some authority figure, such as a teacher or a parent. In such a case, we are experiencing “false shame.” The picture we have of ourselves is not realistic. We may need to ask God’s forgiveness for holding on to such illusions, for thinking we didn’t need to rely upon His grace and strength. We may also need to forgive others who have hurt us by promoting these false images to us.

When we see that with God all things are forgivable, we can begin to forgive ourselves for even the “big” sins. We can cancel the debt we owe to ourselves because we see that the debt was not too great for God. We can let ourselves go and begin to confront our feelings of self-disgust. We can experience “true shame” before God, which is humility.

We may need the aid of a friend at times to help us sort through our images of ourself that cause our anguish of self- disappointment. We often try to come before God with a list of excuses, or of all the things we’ve done right. Can you imagine, though, coming before God with the information on our resume? “I accomplished,” “I achieved,” “I,” “I,” “I”!

The Bible tells us that Christ endured the cross and despised its shame because of the joy He found in reconciling people to God (Heb. 12:2). We too should not let feelings of shame hinder us from knowing and serving God. As we allow His grace to confront our shame, we can become channels of His grace to a world that needs to see a living portrait of His love and forgiveness.

Copyright 1995 John Studebaker