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Our salvation depends upon our acceptance of forgiveness, and we are also commanded to practise forgiveness. But the latter is so hard to do.

How many times have we glibly said the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), where Jesus says to ask God for forgiveness, and we have blotted out of our consciousness the phrase that says we want to be forgiven in the same way that we forgive others? A few verses later (Matthew 6:15) Jesus tells us quite bluntly that if we do not forgive our brother, God will not forgive us. It is in our own interest to forgive others. So why don't we do it?

There is something in our common sense world that teaches that forgiveness doesn't work. Moses' "an eye for an eye" approach appeases our sense of justice. We want the offender to pay for their crime. We tell ourselves that we have good reasons to hold onto our anger and bitterness toward someone who has harmed us in such a way.

If we even think about the person or incident that hurt us, we become incensed, and we feel anger welling up once again. Anyone around us at the time will be able to pick up our feelings of wrath, either through what we say, or through nonverbal cues. It has to happen, because whatever our heart is full of, we eventually have to express. (Matthew 12:34-35)

The object of our wrath may not even be present, but we will take out our anger on those nearby, or on ourselves. Stress chemicals surge through our bodies, punishing us and the ones we love, simply because we failed to forgive. Every time we indulge in our bitterness, it is like taking a swig from a bottle of slow-release poison. If we don't pour it out, it will eventually kill us... spiritually, if not physically.

But it's strangely frightening for us to pour out our toxic brew on the ground, instead of saving it for future use. Hanging onto our bitterness gives us the illusion that we are protecting ourselves against further hurts and injustices. This illusion keeps us from having to make changes within ourselves that are necessary before we can be truly at peace. Something within us fights to hold onto the hurts, in order to avoid further hurts.

We have a choice: We can choose to forgive, or we can choose not to forgive. But before we can forgive, we need to acknowledge that our bitterness itself is proof of a trespass within ourselves which needs to be forgiven and forsaken.

To forgive someone who has cheated us, we have to acknowledge that the love of money is rearing its ugly head in us (and not just in the person who cheated us). We have to forsake whatever we had hoped to hold onto. It's gone anyway, so we may as well let it go, forgive, and be at peace.

And what about the person who insults or ignores us? Here we have to deal with our ego. As Christians, our purpose should be to build the kingdom of God and fulfil his purpose... speak his words, and not our own. There is no room for pride in our lives. The Bible says, "Humble yourselves, and God will lift you up." (James 4:10) Our confidence must come from our walk with God, and not from what others think of us. There will always be someone with more power or influence, or who is better looking, smarter, more talented, or more likeable than us, if we want to make comparisons. Let it go, forgive, and be at peace.

Then there are circumstances that we need to forgive. The thoughtless driver who unknowingly cut you off, the appliance that broke down just when you needed it, the long queue at the post office. All of these things make our lives more difficult. But here the real spiritual issue is one of faith. Do we believe that God really cares about us and our tiny problems that are now looming so large in our minds? Can we trust that all things really do work together for good to those who love God and are called according to HIS purpose? (Romans 8:28). Let it go, forgive, and be at peace.

Tyrants of the world? These can range from school yard bullies and abusive partners or parents to political and military leaders who oppress those they have power over. Is it possible to forgive them? Jesus did. (Luke 23:34) He was oppressed by the powers of his day, as were his disciples and most of the early church. Jesus warned us that we would also suffer injustices if we followed him. (Matthew 5:10-11) But he told us to rejoice when it happens.

If we can forgive our oppressors, the love of God will shine through us, affecting the oppressors and giving hope to fellow oppressees. Studies within the U.S. have shown that oppressive living conditions have produced crime and lawlessness in some people and brilliance and excellence in others. It all depends on how they reacted to the circumstances as they were growing up.

There is a saying that experience is not what happens to you; but it's what you do with what happens to you. In the study above, those who chose bitterness became lawless. Those who forgave learned to overcome their circumstances. Let it go, forgive, and be at peace.

Whatever the source of your grudge, bitterness or anger, there is a corresponding inner work that you must do to enable you to forgive. It is not an easy process, but it's a necessary one to free us from the self-oppression that an unforgiving spirit inflicts upon all of us who harbour it. It helps to remember that we forgive those who transgress against us for our own good as much as for theirs. Pour out that bottle of poison, and receive the mercy that God has in store for you. (Matthew 5:7)

(See also Bitterness.)

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