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Topic: Christian Counseling

The Myth Revisited

by Darrel Cline

Does unilateral forgiveness resolve bitterness?

Since I wrote the original article The Myth that Forgiveness is a Solution to Bitterness(306), there has been somewhat of a backlash to my thesis in that article that has been responsible for a request that I revisit the issue with some clarification. This article is a response to that request.

This request arose, at least superficially, because of a concern that people might abuse the claims made in the first article by saying something like: "since I don't have to forgive anyone who has not repented to me, I can maintain a grudge as long as the person doesn't repent." This may be a legitimate concern because people do sometimes abuse parts of truth and manipulate them to suit their own agendas. So, in this follow-up article we will attempt to disabuse any who are using bits and pieces of truth to maintain sinful attitudes.

At the outset, it should be noted that the popular counseling technique of urging people who are bitter towards others to "forgive" them even if they are impenitent or dead has never had a legitimate foundation laid by the study of the Scriptures. Such a foundation requires a consideration of what the Bible has to say about bitterness, what it has to say about forgiveness, and what it does in terms of bringing those two issues together. Instead, what we find is people accepting the thesis that forgiveness is the solution to bitterness and then going to the Bible to "prove" the thesis is true. Everyone who develops their theology in that manner is susceptible to being in serious error while blithely believing in their own infallible understanding of God's Word. So, as we revisit this issue, we are going to show that the Bible does not link the solution to bitterness to forgiveness at all. Then we will show that the solution to bitterness is the same solution that the Bible gives to every kind of sin.

Perhaps it will be helpful if we first revisit the thesis of the article: Since bitterness does not arise from an unforgiving heart, one-sided (unilateral) forgiveness cannot be the solution to bitterness.

This thesis arises from several facts. The first fact is that in the first example of "bitterness" found in the New Testament (that of Simon Magnus, recorded in Acts 8) we have a man who is in what Peter called "the gall of bitterness" and he is in that state without anyone having sinned against him at all. His problem was that he had formerly been a "big man" in the eyes of the people, but the Gospel had reduced his "bigness" to nothing and he longed to be restored to greatness in the eyes of men. Thus, he was embittered by reason of the deflation of his ego and he was attempting to reinflate it by an extraordinarily evil means. There is nothing in this text or its context that indicates that Simon was a "victim", or that anyone had sinned against him in any way whatsoever. Thus, since his bitterness was not caused by being sinned against, obviously he could not resolve it by forgiving someone (unilaterally or otherwise). Those who refuse to allow this clear illustration of how bitterness develops to dominate their thinking typically run to the "victim mentality" and think that bitterness arises from being treated badly. It does not, as this illustration clearly shows.

The second reference to "bitterness" in the New Testament is found in Romans 3:14. In this context the apostle is pulling multiple Old Testament texts together into a "theology of fallen man." In that effort, Paul writes of fallen man as having a mouth "full of cursing and bitterness". This follows quickly on the heels of an enormously graphic illustration of man's deep depravity in that his "mouth" is described as a huge trap for the unwary. Picture with me the picture Paul painted. The depraved man's "throat" is likened unto an "open sepulchre." This is a picture of the man's throat as an opened grave seeking for a victim to kill and put into this grave. Then Paul says that the "tongue" is an instrument of deception. This furthers the picture in that the opened grave is given the hope of satisfaction (being filled with a dead victim) by the seduction of a deceptive tongue. In other words, the tongue is the "sucker bait" to lure the unwary into the trap. Then Paul says that the poison of asps is under the lips. This means that if the unwary can be suckered into the mouth by the deceit of the tongue, the poison will kill him...and the sepulchre will have its delight! This is one of the most graphic and ego-deflating statements to be found in the Bible about man in his unregenerate condition. It also says that "bitterness" is a fundamental characteristic of all men outside of Christ. Unhappily, it also characterizes many who profess to know Christ.

But, there is absolutely no indication in this context that the mouth's "cursing and bitterness" was "created" by someone else's sin against the person with such a mouth. So, just like Simon Magnus, the person described in this text is "bitter" without any indication that he/she was sinned against in any way. Therefore, to posit the idea that "unilateral forgiveness" will solve the bitterness problem is to simply bring an idea into the text that cannot be found anywhere in it. The fact is that bitterness is endemic to fallen man and carnal believers and it has nothing to do with being a victim. It has everything to do with being on a frustrated ego trip. Embittered people are simply people who want their way and cannot get it. The unilateral forgiveness teaching simply bypasses this reality and urges the "victim" to be "godly" and "forgive" the dastardly ego-frustrator. But what if the ego-frustrator is God? Interestingly, the very same "unilateral forgiveness" movement has been known to teach that "we must forgive God" sometimes in order to be free from bitterness. Forgive God!?

The third reference to "bitterness" in the New Testament is found in Ephesians 4:31. In this context we find our first connection between "bitterness" and "forgiveness". But we also find a similar connection to "kindness" and "tenderheartedness". So, why is it that we are not told that the solution to "bitterness" is being "kind" and "tenderhearted" [This is not the typical counsel to the embittered!]? If we assume that "bitterness" arises from being sinned against (an assumption clearly denied by the Simon Magnus illustration), we will easily skip over the issues of kindness and tenderheartedness. The truth is that Ephesians 4:31 in context posits no definable link between "being sinned against" and "bitterness", nor does it teach that "bitterness" is to be dealt with by unilateral forgiveness.

Then, there is the last reference in the New Testament to "bitterness": Hebrews 12:15. In this text in its context there is, again, no indication that "bitterness" arises from being sinned against. In fact, the text says that "bitterness" arises from a failure to properly apprehend the grace of God. What does this mean? It means that anyone who is not operating out of a grace orientation will become bitter. So, what is the "grace orientation" that is required to block the development of bitterness? Is it unilateral forgiveness? Well, forgiveness certainly is a function of grace! However, there is nothing in the immediate context to even slightly suggest that "forgiveness" was in the author's mind when he wrote of "failing of the grace of God". In fact, the immediately prior context emphasizes the fault of becoming discouraged (bitter?) by reason of the discipline of God. Add that to the fact that the person who is used in the context as an illustration of the root of bitterness is Esau who sold his birthright for a single and simple meal to fill his belly. He then had the "gall" (of bitterness??) to blame his brother for his own sale of his birthright! Then, as we mentioned, the larger context involves the Lord's discipline. The only way we can posit the claim that "bitterness" arises from being "sinned" against is if we say that Esau was sinned against (rather than doing the sinning) and that the Lord is sinning against us when He disciplines us. Otherwise, what we have is the reality that "bitterness" arises from not being willing to accept the circumstances that the discipline of God has brought into our lives. This boils down to a bitterness that arises from not being permitted to be the "god" in the circumstances of our lives, i.e. ego-frustration. Bitterness, then, has little, or perhaps nothing, to do with being sinned against. Rather, it has a lot to do with our refusal to yield to the distasteful issues of divine discipline and training. In the texts of the Bible where bitterness is addressed, the issue of ego-frustration is the issue, not being sinned against.

Thus, there is only one context of "bitterness" in the New Testament in which forgiveness is even mentioned. The overwhelming implication is that there is no necessary linkage between being bitter and being sinned against. In fact, the apostle Paul said that "bitterness" is part and parcel of the warp and woof of man's nature outside of Christ. This means that there is no solution to bitterness to be found in "forgiving". If a person can be bitter without being sinned against, the truthfulness of our thesis should be obvious.

This brings us to the concern that people will use my former article to justify sinful attitudes and actions. No one can read all that I wrote in the first article and legitimately remain embittered. It is a sin to be bitter. By the same token, no one can read what I wrote in the first article and refuse to seek the opportunity to forgive someone who has genuinely sinned against you. It is a sin to be unloving so that one wishes for their adversaries to perish. We are supposed to love our enemies and pray for those who treat us badly.

Now let me say this: since there is little discernible linkage in the biblical records regarding bitterness and forgiveness, we are actually dealing with two somewhat separate subjects. The first subject is bitterness. The second is forgiveness. Bitterness has its roots, but they are not to be found in being "sinned against". They are, rather, the result of having our ego deflated. Bitterness also has its fruits and they are to be found in "sinning against others". There is a solution to bitterness and it is found in respect to being forgiven, not in forgiving (as Acts 8:22-23 pointedly reveals). Likewise, forgiveness has its roots, but they are not to be found in legal demand (i.e. the law -- you must forgive!). Forgiveness also has its fruits and they are to be found in providing motivation to godliness in others. The lack of a forgiving spirit also has its solution, but it is not to be found in imposing a law that says you must forgive in order to refrain from becoming embittered. Rather, the Scriptures say that a person obtains a forgiving spirit by being forgiven ("...forgive as you have been forgiven..."). The only part bitterness plays in that is if the person who has a problem with bitterness does not repent of his/her bitterness and does not, as a consequence, obtain forgiveness for sinning by turning to bitterness instead of grace, then he cannot develop into a forgiving person. Being unforgiven leads to being unforgiving.

That said, let me also say this: what people do with truth is not the responsibility of the truth-bearer. What people do with the truth rests upon themselves. The blame game that began in the Garden of Eden has found its apex in a culture like ours where no one is responsible for their own attitudes and actions. In that culture we have a strong willingness to blame the wrong person. If a person is bitter and wishes to remain so, such a person will always look for articles of "truth" to enable their sinfulness to continue unabated. That my former article might have been used in such a way in no way makes my article the culprit. The culprit is the person who is using bits and pieces of truth as a cloak for evil.

Actually, the danger involved in the issue of bitterness involves two things. First, it involves a direct willingness to sin by resisting the command of Hebrews 12:15. Second, it involves a search for a solution that does not require personal responsibility for this sin. Generally that opens the door to the notion of unilateral forgiveness. This door is opened because unilateral forgiveness means first of all that "I am a victim" (otherwise there is no need to forgive). And second, it means that I now have someone to blame so that I can actually feel good about myself when I "forgive" them. Any person who is willing to both sin by fueling bitterness and then practice a "unilateral forgiveness" will grasp parts of what my first article said and use those parts to justify their disobedience and may even react in anger to my denial that their approach will work.

So, what about the person who says, "if my brother does not repent, I do not have to forgive him and that means I can hold a grudge against him until he repents"? Actually, this response would not have ever even come up if we had not been culturally immersed in the misguided teaching that bitterness is caused by being sinned against and, thus, resolved by unilateral forgiveness. The Bible is as clear as it can be that holding grudges is evil. We do not purge ourselves of evil by manufacturing a "just" cause (such as being sinned against) and then "forgiving" the one who sinned against us. We purge ourselves of evil by one response: repentance in view of faith in the fact that if we confess our sins, God will forgive us (I John 1:9). Peter told Simon Magnus, who was in the "gall of bitterness" to repent. That is always the legitimate message to anyone who is sinning. It matters not if the sin is maintaining bitterness, being hateful, being deceitful, being unforgiving or anything else. Sin is dealt with properly by repentance. Perhaps the major problem that bitter people have is that they refuse to see their sin as a failure to walk by the Spirit so He can produce love in them. As long as they refuse to see themselves as sinners, they will always look for someone else to blame. In this world of sin, the search for another to blame won't take long at all. But, blaming and then "unilaterally forgiving" will not solve the problem because the problem is the unwillingness to accept the responsibility for sinning by being bitter. As long as one refuses to accept his/her responsibility for his/her sin, there is no forgiveness from God and it is then sure that there will be no solution to the sin problem.

So, what about being forgiving? It is a requirement of Scripture. Any who refuses it as a requirement is abusing Truth. But do we properly understand this requirement?

Let's take a closer look at this issue. There are several biblical issues related to forgiveness. First, there is the issue of the desire to be able to forgive. I do not mean by this my desire to find it possible in me to forgive someone else. That would mean that I am not willing to forgive and I desire to come to the point of such willingness. The ability to be forgiving is not innately man's; it requires the power of the Spirit of God as He becomes the source of forgiveness. So, when I say that the first issue in forgiveness is the desire to be able to forgive, I am not talking about a desire to be able to have an ability in myself that only the Spirit of God actually has and imparts to those who walk in the Spirit.

What I am talking about is having a desire, created by the indwelling Spirit of God, to be able to forgive someone who has sinned. This desire is, as I mentioned in my first article, the essence of the cries of both Jesus and Stephen that the Lord "forgive" those who were killing them. It is often expressed as "I have forgiven so-and-so in my heart". But, in actuality this is not forgiveness. It is the prelude which consists, not of forgiveness, but of a love that sees a sinner in serious danger of reaping a horrible dividend for sin that is pursued impenitently. In other words, the first aspect of forgiveness is a desire for a situation to come to the point where forgiveness can be applied to a relational breakdown. This is a part of the demand of Scripture that we bear no grudges, seek no vengence, do good to those who have done evil to us, evangelize, teach, reprove, rebuke, exhort, etc. The failure to desire to be able to forgive is a monumental failure at the specific point of permitting the Spirit of God to produce the first aspect of His fruit: Love.

Then, the second aspect of forgiveness is the issue of confrontation. A sinner (whether a child of God or an unregenerate man) who remains unconfronted normally cannot even see his sin with enough clarity to be concerned about it. This is the "rebuke" aspect involved in forgiveness. It is not forgiveness. It is also prelude. As prelude it is the second step in a love that sees a sinner in serious danger of reaping a horrible dividend. A failure at this point is a monumental failure at the specific point of permitting the Spirit of God to put feet to His earlier production of the desire to see a person forgiven.

Then, the third aspect of forgiveness is the issue of repentance. This is what is sought by the love of God in a believer who wants to be able to forgive and who confronts the sinner so that the sinner can respond in a way that allows forgiveness. But, repentance is not forgiveness is more prelude. However, at this point the issue moves away from the ministry of the Spirit of God in the person who is loving and confronting. It moves to the issue of the ministry of the Spirit of God in the person who is being unloving and being confronted. It is no more possible for the sinner to repent apart from the ministry of the Spirit than it is for the person who seeks to forgive to do so properly apart from the ministry of the Spirit. In other words, the ministry of the Spirit is fundamentally crucial to the entire process in the lives of both the one who seeks to forgive and the one who needs to be forgiven. But, though that ministry is crucial to/in the process, the process is also crucial. We cannot dismiss the process without dismissing the ministry of the Spirit.

A fourth aspect of forgiveness is the actual dismissal of the judicial requirements that came into play when the sin was committed. When a person sins, justice makes certain claims that rest upon the sinner. The only way justice can be blunted is for forgiveness to be extended. Without forgiveness in the picture, violators of the righteousness of the law are subject to the penalties assigned by the law. Thus, when a sinner repents, justice can be suspended by the victim -- if he so chooses. Repentance does not create obligation; it seeks grace. [This is crucial. Forgiveness is a grace-action. God is not obligated to forgive. He forgives because He is gracious. But, a sinner's repentance does not create obligation. If God were not gracious, repentance could not bring any kind of legitimate requirement upon Him to forgive. There is no justice-based demand that a person be forgiving. The biblical emphasis upon being forgiving arises from the New Testament emphasis upon grace and the development of a people who are gracious.] If a person steals $1000 from me and spends it, justice demands that he repay me even if he cannot do so. The thief is only free from the law of repayment if I extend forgiveness to him. If I choose not to do so, the repayment is due. Thus forgiveness remains a gracious action; not a compelled action. In other words, I never have to forgive: I can let the law stand. But, when I refuse to forgive, two things happen. First, I deny that I ever wanted to extend forgiveness in the first place and that means that I have refused the Spirit of Grace at that level. Second, I put myself under law also. What that means is that I cannot dismiss grace to another without dismissing it from myself at the same time. Just as sinners cannot demand to be forgiven, victims cannot refuse a request for grace in the form of forgiveness without putting themselves under the same law they are imposing upon their antagonist. And that's not automatically bad. Justice is not a bad thing. The problem is that justice is without grace, and people who refuse grace end up being ground to bits by the demands of justice for their sins. If I refuse to forgive the thief and insist that he repay me, I will find that others will refuse to forgive me when I create debt and I will be compelled to repay them in the same manner as the person whom I refused. God Himself operates in this way toward us. He says that if we want to be treated with grace, we must value gracious treatment enough to actually extend it to others (i.e. if we want to be forgiven, we must be willing to become forgiving). If I only want grace for myself, I will not get grace. My desire for grace must be inclusive of a desire to extend it to others. Legalism says there is no grace. Antinomianism says grace is only for me. Christ says there is abundance of grace for those who wish to become gracious people, but there is no grace for legalists or antinomians except for the stalling mercy of God Who puts off the final day of reckoning until the end.

And, then, there is a fifth aspect of forgiveness: the restoration of the broken relationship that sin broke. This is not forgiveness, but aftermath. This is the entire goal of forgiveness. Nowhere in the Bible are we told that forgiveness is designed for any other goal. To make "forgiveness" a solution to bitterness is to turn a tool designed to restore broken relationships into a tool designed to solve my bitterness sins. This is the classic perversion of a process designed for love into a process of "me-ism". As long as I am using "forgiveness" to assuage my own conscience, my real concern is not the one who sinned. This cannot be overstated: the love of God is other-centered; unilateral forgiveness is me-centered. As long as my eyes are on Jesus, I cannot be concerned about myself, and as long as my eyes are on myself, I can be neither loving nor forgiving. In our latter day cultural religion, it is normal to turn divine principles of love into human principles of manipulation, but it is not godly. Anytime forgiveness does not result in a restored relationship, something has broken down along the way. Either forgiveness was applied me-istically where relationship was not even in the picture, or the repentance was lip-only (to conform to the required standard at the appearance level), or the forgiveness was lip-only (I forgive you, brother, just don't come around here any more!).

So there it is: the myth revisited. Those who want to carry on the unilateral forgiveness tactic should at least give us a solid, exegetically developed, biblical connection between bitterness and victimhood and victimhood and unilateral forgiveness. My claim is not that it cannot be done; rather, my claim is that it has not been done.

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This is article #265.
If you wish, you may contact Darrel as darrelcline at this site.