Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
-Colossians 3:13 (NIV)
This guy in my neighborhood drives a van that’s obviously been in an accident. It has a crumpled front bumper and dented fender, but that’s not what you notice when you first look at it. What you notice is the message painted on the side: the name of a well-known insurance company, the word “Hate”, and the words, “I don’t love this insurance company.” The message also appears to be written in Korean characters as well.
It takes some commitment to do that, doesn’t it? It looks professional — I guess he paid someone to paint the words, so it had to cost something. And then there’s the commitment of driving around in, let’s face it, a pretty unsightly vehicle. I’ve never actually met the guy, and so I don’t know the story, but I bet he’d tell me if I asked. I bet he’s passionate in his outrage, certain he was wronged, and anxious for justice.
Thing is, I’ve seen this van in my neighborhood for at least 10 years, maybe longer. Ten years. Seems a long time to advertise your grievances on the side of your van.
And yet my neighbor’s hardly the first to advertise his grievances for what seems like an awfully long time.
There’s the guy I know who has never gotten over the slights he received from his brother. He’ll tell anyone who’ll sit still long enough all about them. It’s been decades since they talked, and though he needs some family around him right now, he prefers to be alone in his bitterness.
There’s the woman I know who, after more than a decade, still carries around her anger toward her ex-husband. It’s poisoned every other relationship in her life, it seems, because she demands that those she keeps around her share and reflect her anger back to her. Anyone who won’t is cut off.
There’s the gentleman disappointed by the church so many years ago, who refuses to consider the idea that maybe it’s time to let those hurts go and reconnect. All he has to say about the church, based on that one disappointment, is bitter and angry. The grievances he bears have made it impossible for him to see with any kind of clarity the other churches that didn’t hurt him, churches where he’d be welcomed and encouraged and made strong again.
But that’s what carrying grievances around for so long does. It makes you blind. It becomes so all-consuming that it destroys healthy relationships. Though we carry them, in part, because we’re looking for sympathy, carrying them is ironically isolating. There’s a commitment required in carrying our grievances, a cost paid in love and friendship and relationships.
Carrying grievances around keeps us locked into the past. It makes us unable to live in the present or look forward to the future with any hope or anticipation.
Worse, carrying grievances around affects our spirits.
A person with grievances prays almost entirely about those grievances. When she reads the Bible, all she sees is condemnation for the person who hurt her. A person with grievances can’t live in relationship with the church. He can’t thank God for what he has, can’t praise him joyfully. Nursing grievances is the end to spirituality. That’s why Paul calls hatred, discord, jealousy, and fits of rage “acts of the flesh” and contrasts them with the “fruit of the Spirit.” If a person is clinging to their grievances, it’s not the work of the Holy Spirit in his life.
But that’s not even the worst of it. When we carry grievances around, we fail to glorify God.
Remember Israel in the desert? Their besetting sin out there wasn’t idolatry — that was just a symptom. Their problem, articulated over and over again, was “grumbling.” The last straw seems to have been their refusal to believe that they could take possession of the land God had promised them. And in that story you see why holding to your grievances is ultimately so destructive.
God’s anger against the people comes from the fact that they treated him with contempt. “How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them?” he asks Moses. That’s the real problem with holding on to our grievances, carrying them around with us for everyone to see. It’s faithless. It obscures the message of the glory of God that our lives are supposed to communicate, and replaces it with another message: a message about the hurts and slights we’ve received.
That’s why the message of Jesus regarding grievances is consistently one word: “Forgive” — not just generously, but extravagantly. Holding tightly to our grievances gives them power. It witnesses to the truth that those grievances are the strongest power in our lives. It lets the world see their power as they strangle our relationships and rot us spiritually.
But to forgive is to show the power of God to redeem and renew even the worst of circumstances. It shows that where there is death, God can create new life. It shows that the evils of the world to do not disrupt God’s plans, even in our minds. It witnesses to the forgiveness we have received in Jesus, and the hope that we have for others — even those who have hurt us — because of him.
That’s why Jesus forgave those who crucified him, even while they were doing it. That’s why he asked God to forgive them. It wasn’t because the nails and the lash and the thorns didn’t hurt. It wasn’t that the crucifixion was a show for our benefit. It wasn’t because he was somehow immune to agony and anger and humiliation. He “learned obedience by what he suffered,” said one New Testament writer. Part of that obedience was the requirement to forgive.
I don’t know what your grievances are. I don’t want to pretend they’re trivial. I know that they aren’t. But I also know that they will poison your life if you carry them around with you. I know that they will kill you spiritually. And I know that they will compromise the message of the glory of God that your life is intended to embody.
I also know this: if you’re in Christ, you have experienced forgiveness. And the Holy Spirit lives in you, and will give you the strength to let those grievances go. The marks carrying them has left on your life might not go away overnight. But, by forgiving, you can begin the journey of getting rid of them and embracing the new life God has for you.