by Charles Stanley
An unforgiving spirit does not develop overnight. It involves a process of responses and thus takes time to develop. In talking with people through the years I have discovered ten stages an individual is likely to go through. Not everyone will pass through each stage, but almost everyone I have known with an unforgiving spirit could identify several of them.
We Get Hurt
The seeds of an unforgiving spirit are planted when we are wronged or hurt in some way. It could be a physical, an emotional, or a verbal hurt. It could be a hurt we experienced in childhood or adulthood. It really makes no difference. Since we live in such a self–centered world, often we experience our first hurt as a child, and unfortunately, this early hurt usually comes from the people we love and respect the most.
All our hurts are really some form of rejection. We may not perceive it as rejection initially, but that is what happens when we are wronged by others. We may feel hurt, pain, abandonment, embarrassment, hatred, or some other negative emotion. But it all relates to rejection.
Feeling rejected then, is the first stage in developing an unforgiving spirit. That being the case, we all have the potential for problems in this area. Therefore, we must always be on our guard to stop the process in its beginning stages.
We Become Confused
Often our initial response to hurt, regardless of the form it takes, is confusion. We experience a sense of bewilderment; we are not quite sure how to respond. It is similar to being in a state of shock. In this stage we may think, This is not really happening. We may even have a physical reaction, such as a deep feeling of emptiness in the pit of the stomach. Many people have actually gotten sick after experiencing rejection. This stage is usually short–lived, and immediately, we move into the third stage.
We Look for Detours
We all have a desire to avoid pain. Because of that, when we are hurt emotionally, instead of thinking about it we tend to find ways of avoiding those painful thoughts or memories. We take mental detours. We don’t allow ourselves to think about certain things. We change the subject when certain topics are brought up. This desire to detour around past hurt motivates many people to drink heavily or to become addicted to both prescription and nonprescription drugs. The fact is, I have never counseled a drug addict or an alcoholic who was not trying to cover up the pain of the past. The root problem was never alcohol or drugs; it was always the inability to cope with rejection.
We also take physical detours. We tend to avoid certain people, places, and things. Anything that reminds us of the hurt becomes off limits. I will never forget one preacher’s daughter I counseled. She was full of bitterness toward her father. During our conversation, she made the statement, “I would never marry a preacher.” There was certainly no real connection between her father and every prospective preacher in the world. But in her mind there was. Preacher meant “rejection.” Therefore, preachers were to be avoided at all costs.
A college student in our church could not stand me, and I did not understand why. Finally, one of his friends explained. His father constantly quoted me, especially when he was disciplining his son. The young man’s problem was really between him and his father. But since he had been hurt by his father, he looked with disdain upon anyone or anything associated with his father.
We Dig a Hole
After we try to “schedule” around our hurt, that is, to arrange our thought patterns and lives in general so as never to come into contact with anything that reminds us of our hurt (an undertaking that is rarely successful), we attempt to forget the whole thing ever occurred. We dig a hole and bury it as deeply as we can.
We Deny It
The fifth stage is also one of denial. We deny that we were ever hurt or that we are covering up anything. We smile and say,“Oh, I have dealt with that.” Or “I forgave him long ago.”
This is a tough stage for people to break out of. I have met scores of adults who are carrying around a load of bitterness, as demonstrated through their tempers or other negative behavior, but they see no connection between a turbulent childhood and their problems as adults. One woman’s problems were so obviously connected to her relationship with her father that everyone who knew anything about her past tried to get her to see the connection. She flatly denied it.
I know of a lost friend who recommended that a church member get counseling to deal with his bitterness toward his father. The church member, however, just laughed when confronted with the notion that his relationship with his father was in any way connected to his present struggles. “I was just a kid when all that happened,” he said, referring to an incident in which he was clearly rejected by his father.
We Become Defeated
Regardless of how successfully we think we have buried our hurt, it will still work its way out through our behavior. A short temper, oversensitivity, shyness, a critical spirit, jealousy—all of these can be evidence of unresolved rejection. The tragedy is that when we deny that we are harboring hurt, we will look everywhere but the right place for a way to change the resulting undesirable behavior. We can move, change jobs, change friends, rededicate our lives, make New Year’s resolutions, memorize Scripture, pray long prayers, fast, or undertake any number of spiritual exercises. But until we deal with the root of the problem, we will ultimately be defeated in our attempts to change.
I see this in marriage counseling all the time. A wife will tell a horror story of how her husband (who is sitting right there) abuses her verbally and sometimes physically. She describes his violent and unpredictable temper in detail. She weeps as she gives account after account of how her husband has made her life and the lives of the kids unbearable.
Surprisingly enough, the husband in this situation often shakes his head in agreement with everything his wife has accused him of. I have seen husbands break down and cry in shame at the things they have clone and the pain they have caused. Yet, more times than not, they walk out the door at the end of what seems like a “life–changing” counseling session and repeat the same contemptible behavior. Why? Because even though they may be sorry for their behavior, they have not dealt with the root problem.
On the other hand, I have seen men and women deal with the anger and hurt they have been carrying with them. I have seen men deal once and for all with their tempers. I have seen women lay down forever the unrealistic expectations they had of their husbands. The quick turnarounds always came about after the root of bitterness was discovered, acknowledged, and dealt with. (We will discuss in a later chapter how this is accomplished.)
We Become Discouraged
This is the critical stage. It is usually the stage where we either seek professional help or bail out of our present circumstances altogether. After a while it seems as if things will never change or never get any better. Any little bit of progress we may see is always shattered by another incident that just confirms the suspicion that it’s hopeless!
This is the stage in which husbands leave their wives either because their wives will not change or because they are unable to rekindle that “loving feeling” they once had. This is the stage in which women begin to depend upon alcohol and prescription drugs to make it through the day.
An unforgiving spirit destroys respect. If allowed to go unchecked, it can dissolve the loyalty and even the sense of duty that are so necessary to hold a marriage together during difficult times. Extramarital affairs become a viable option to people who have publicly spoken out against adultery. Divorce becomes a real option to couples who pledged an unconditional lifetime of commitment. For those who can foresee no better circumstances in this life, they often choose to escape by taking their own lives. Such is the power and the poison of an unforgiving spirit.
We Discover the Truth
For some of us, there is a happy ending. Through someone’s help or by God’s grace, we discover the root of bitterness. We gain insight into why we act the way we do. We are able to see the connection between the past and the present. The pieces finally fit together.
We Take Responsibility
The ninth stage is closely associated with the eighth one. In this stage we own up to our responsibility. We decide to quit blaming others. We decide to quit waiting for everybody and everything else around us to change. We open our hearts for God to have His way, regardless of how it might hurt.
We Are Delivered
The final outcome for those of us who are willing to deal with an unforgiving spirit is deliverance. My friend, you can be free of that embarrassing, inappropriate, family–splitting behavior. You say, “But you don’t know what has happened to me. You don’t know what I have been through.” You are right. But I have known people in all kinds of circumstances who have been delivered and restored.
Charles F. Stanley, The Gift of Forgiveness (Nashville, TN: Oliver Nelson, 1991), 95–101.