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The Cost of Not Forgiving

By Ryan C. Bailey

Does someone in your life keep relating the same painful story over and over again? Is it getting old? Like you’ve heard it all before, and you wonder why they have to keep sharing it? Is there a part of you that doesn’t even want to be around that person?

Listen to your gut.

Oftentimes, when people share the same painful story over and over again, it is because they want human connection. They feel alone in their pain. Human connection is a legitimate need. Often, when a pain is really hurtful, we can’t resolve it on our own. But sharing that pain can help us get to resolution. 

Unfortunately, however, many times the person who is telling the painful story over and over again is not actually looking to resolve the pain. They are looking for others to commiserate with them and so prolong it. They want cheerleaders who say, “You are right. The one who hurt you is wrong.” They want to gain esteem through the wrong that was done to them.  

Sounds sick?

That’s why we want to pull away from them. It feels sick to be enabling someone to stay in their pain.

What if I told you that we are all probably doing some form of that very thing? Let me explain.

A person who hurts us is immediately in our debt, big-time. But if we don’t forgive, we can begin to see ourselves as the “righteous victim,” the valiant person who was wronged. There is a power in that belief. It feels good to see ourselves as the righteous victim. It makes us special. We can derive a sick pleasure from feeling that we deserve that label, even though it prolongs and often exacerbates pain.

It can feel so good that we don’t want to forgive. Instead, we wear that Righteous Victim title like a badge of honor.  

Want a clear way to see it in you? Just think of anyone you have not forgiven.

Now, what do you feel as you think about them?

For myself, when I think of a particular person I have yet to forgive, my emotions switch towards anger. Not a deep violent anger, but more of a righteous anger. I feel that I don’t deserve what they did to me. I find it hard to see that I had any role in what happened. It feels like it was all on them. And I still feel the pain and the hurt. So, in essence, I am saying that I am right and they are wrong. (And to some degree I am. But that doesn’t help me.) 

Another way to look at it is, I am saying I am more righteous than they are. I am in the one-up position. I can judge them. I can condemn them, but I do so only mentally. I rarely talk about them lest others see that I haven’t forgiven them, and then my Righteous Victim badge would be tarnished.

Now, what’s sick is that I have forgiven people who have created way more pain for me than this person has. Yet I want my pound of flesh with this person. 

I feel sick even writing this, but it is true.

What about you? Can you see how your lack of forgiveness gives you a Righteous Victim badge that you don’t want to let go of?

Now let’s look at the cost. How does carrying around that badge of Righteous Victim affect me? 

Ironically, the biggest thing is that it costs me my own ability to repent. No wonder Matt 6:14 says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”  

As long as I don’t engage the process of forgiving the person who wronged me, I find it hard to see my sin in the situation. Even if I see some sin, I minimize it. (“It doesn’t begin to compare to theirs.”) But as long as I do not own that sin, I can’t repent of it.

Then, what’s worse is that the sin then grows and affects other relationships.

Moreover, as long as I carry the badge of Righteous Victim, I will distance people in my life who remind me of the person who wronged me, just in case they ever try to do what the person who wronged me did.

The longer I go without forgiving, the more I will see people who have the potential to harm me, and I will distance myself from them as well. Eventually, I will have very few people in my life, and sadly, they too will probably be eliminated.

Finally, what’s even scarier is that I will then become the very person who repulses me. I will become the one who is longing for human connection, and so I will tell the same painful story over and over again to anyone who will hear. Then I will feel their “lack of caring” as they pull away from me, or as I read in their face that they don’t want to be around me.

Even if I don’t become that person, the longer I harbor a lack of forgiveness, the more my heart will close off. Life will start to lose its meaning. I will grow more and more discontent. I will constantly blame others for my discontentment. It will twist me. I will become untrusting, self-focused, and consumed with the memory of wrongs done to me.

Forgiveness is the only way to avoid this sad end.

We need to forgive, not for the other person’s freedom, but for our own. We need to stop the bleeding that the wound created. We need to prevent any more from being stolen from us.

We need to forgive because it is commanded by our Lord. We need to forgive because He forgave us. No matter what has been done to us, it pales in comparison to the cosmic treason we have committed against Him, our creator, the only One who has ever loved us perfectly.