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Stop being imprisoned by our anger or bitterness

The passages below are taken from Max Lucado’s book “In the Grip of Grace,” published in 1996 by W Publishing Group.

 

     Be kind and loving to each other and forgive each other just as God forgave you in Christ. (EPHESIANS 4:32 NCV)

 

     Each week Kevin Tunell is required to mail a dollar to a family he’d rather forget. They sued him for $1.5 million but settled for $936, to be paid a dollar at a time. The family expects the payment each Friday so Tunell won’t forget what happened on the first Friday of 1982.

     That’s the day their daughter was killed. Tunell was convicted of manslaughter and drunken driving. He was seventeen. She was eighteen. Tunell served a court sentence. He also spent seven years campaigning against drunk driving, six years more than his sentence required. But he keeps forgetting to send the dollar.

     The weekly restitution is to last until the year 2000. Eighteen years. Tunell makes the check out to the victim, mails it to her family, and the money is deposited in a scholarship fund.

     The family has taken him to court four times for failure to comply. After the most recent appearance, Tunell spent thirty days in jail. He insists that he’s not defying the order but rather is haunted by the girl’s death and tormented by the reminders. He offered the family two boxes of checks covering the payments until the year 2001, one year more than required. They refused. It’s not money they seek, but penance.

     Quoting the mother, “We want to receive the check every week on time. He must understand we are going to pursue this until August of the year 2000. We will go back to court every month if we have to.”1

     Few would question the anger of the family. Only the naive would think it fair to leave the guilty unpunished. But I do have one concern. Is 936 payments enough? Not for Tunell to send, mind you, but for the family to demand? When they receive the final payment, will they be at peace? In August 2000, will the family be able to put the matter to rest? Is eighteen years’ worth of restitution sufficient? Will 196 months’ worth of remorse be adequate?

    How much is enough? Were you in the family and were Tunell your target, how many payments would you require? Better stated, how many payments do you require?

     No one---I repeat, no one---makes it through life free of injury. Someone somewhere has hurt you. Like the eighteen-year-old, you’ve been a victim. She did because someone drank too much. Part of you has died because someone spoke too much, demanded too much, or neglected too much.

 

The Habit of Hatred

     Everyone gets wounded; hence everyone must decide: how many payments will I demand? We may not require that the offender write checks, but we have other ways of settling the score.

     Silence is a popular technique. (Ignore them when they speak.) Distance is equally effective. (When they come your way, walk the other.) Nagging is a third tool for revenge. (“Oh, I see you still have fingers on your hand. Funny you never use them to dial my number” “Oh, Joe, nice of you to drop in on us unpromoted peons.”)

     Amazing how creative we can be at getting even. If I can soil one evening, spoil one day, foil one Friday, then justice is served and I’m content.

     For now. Until I think of you again. Until I see you again. Until something happens that brings to mind the deed you did, then I’ll demand another check. I’m not about to let you heal before I do. As long as I suffer, you suffer. As long as I hurt, you hurt. You cut me, and I’m going to make you feel bad as long as I bleed, even if I have to reopen the wound myself.

     Call it a bad addiction. We start the habit innocently enough, indulging our hurts with doses of anger. Not much, just a needle or two of rancour. The rush numbs the hurt, so we come back for more and up the dosage; we despise not only what he did, but who he is. Insult him. Shame him. Ridicule him. The surge energizes. Drugged on malice, the roles are reversed; we aren’t the victim, we’re the victor. It feels good. Soon we hate him and anyone like him. (“All men are jerks.” “Every preacher is a huckster.” “You can’t trust a woman.”) The progression is predictable. Hurt becomes hate, and hate becomes rage as we become junkies unable to make it through the day without mainlining on bigotry and bitterness.

     How will the score be settled? How do I break the cycle? How many payments do I demand? Peter had a similar question for Jesus:

“Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?” (Matthew 18:21 MSG).

     Peter is worried about over-forgiving an offender. The Jewish law stipulated that the wounded forgive three times. Peter is willing to double that and throw in one more for good measure. No doubt he thinks Jesus will be impressed. Jesus isn’t. The Master answer still stuns us. “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven” (v. 22 MSG).

     If you’re pausing to multiply seventy times seven, you’re missing the point. Keeping tabs on your mercy, Jesus is saying, is not being merciful. If you’re calibrating your grace, you’re not being gracious. There should never be a point when our grace is exhausted.

 

The Cause of Hatred

     By this point Jesus’ listeners are thinking of the Kevin Tunells in the world, “But what about the father who abandoned me as a kid?”

     “And my wife who dumped me for a newer model?“

     “And the boss who laid me off even though my child was sick?”

     The Master silences them with a raised hand and the story of the forgetful servant.

     The kingdom of heaven is like a king who decided to collect the money his servants owed him. When the king began to collect his money, a servant who owed several million dollars was brought to him. But the servant did not have enough money to pay the master, the king. So the master ordered that everything the servant owned should be sold, even the servant’s wife and children. Then the money would be used to pay the king what the servant owed.

But the servant fell on his knees and begged, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you everything I owe.” The master felt sorry for his servant and told him he did not have to pay it back. Then he let the servant go free. (Matthew 18:23—28 NCV)

 

            This servant had a serious problem. Somehow he had amassed

a bill worth millions of dollars. If he could pay a thousand dollars a day for thirty years, he’d be debt free. Fat chance. He didn’t make a grand a day. His debt was far greater than his power to repay.

     And unless you skipped the first half of this book, you know the same is true of us. Our debt is far greater than our power to repay.

     Our pockets are empty while our debt is millions. We don’t need a salary; we need a gift. We don’t need swimming lessons; we need a lifeguard. We don’t need a place to work; we need someone to work in our place. That “someone” is Jesus Christ. “God makes people right with himself through their faith in Jesus Christ.

God gave him as a way to forgive sin through faith in the blood of Jesus’ death” (Romans 3:22, 25 NCV).

     Our Master has forgiven an insurmountable debt. Does God demand reimbursement? Does he insist on his pound of flesh? When your feet walk the wrong road, does he demand that you cut them off? When your eyes look twice where they should never look once, does he blind you? When you use your tongue for profanity instead of praise, does he cut it out?

     If he did, we would be one maimed civilization. He demands no payment, at least not from us.

     And those promises we make, “Just get me through this mess, God. I’ll never disappoint you again.” We’re as bad as the debtor. “Be patient with me,” he pledged. “I will pay you everything I owe.” The thought of pleading for mercy never entered his mind. But though he never even begs for grace, he receives it. He leaves the king’s chamber a debt-free man.

     But he doesn’t believe it.

 

     Later, that same servant found another servant who owed him a few dollars. The servant grabbed him around the neck and said, “Pay me the money you owe me!”

     The other servant fell on his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you everything I owe.”

     But the first servant refused to be patient. He threw the other servant into prison until he could pay everything he owed. (Matthew 18:28—29 NCV)

 

     Something is wrong with this picture. Are these the actions of a man forgiven millions! Choking a person who owes him a few bucks? Are these the words of a man who has been set free? “Pay me the money you owe me!”

     Remember the finger-pointer from the parable at the beginning of the book? Here he is! So occupied with the mistake of his brother that he misses the grace of the Father.

     He demands that his debtor be put in jail until he can repay the debt. How bizarre! Not only is he ungrateful, he is irrational. How can he expect the man to earn money while in prison? If he has no funds out of jail, will he discover some money in jail? Of course not. What’s he going to do? Sell magazines to the inmates? The decision makes no sense.

     But hatred never does.

     How could this happen? How can one forgiven not forgive? How could a free man not be quick to free others?

     Part of the answer is found in the words of Jesus. “The person who is forgiven only a little will love only a little” (Luke 7:47).

     To believe we are totally and eternally debt free is seldom easy. Even if we’ve stood before the throne and heard it from the king himself, we still doubt. As a result, many are forgiven only a little, not because the grace of the king is limited, but because the faith of the sinner is small. God is willing to forgive all. He’s willing to wipe the slate completely clean. He guides us to a pool of mercy and invites us to bathe. Some plunge in, but others just touch the surface. They leave feeling unforgiven.

     Apparently that was the problem of the servant. He still felt in debt. How else can we explain his behavior? Rather than forgive his transgressor, he chokes him! “I’ll squeeze it out of you.” He hates the very sight of the man. Why? Because the man owes him so much? I don’t think so. He hates the man because the man reminds him of his debt to the master.

     The king forgave the debt, but the servant never truly accepted the grace of the king. Now we understand why the Hebrew writer insisted, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many”

(Hebrew 12:15 NIV).

 

The Cure for Hatred

     Where the grace of God is missed, bitterness is born. But where the grace of God is embraced, forgiveness flourishes. In what many believe to be Paul’s final letter, he urges Timothy to “be strong in the grace we have in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1 NCV)

     How insightful is this last exhortation. Paul doesn’t urge Timothy to be strong in prayer or Bible study or benevolence, as vital as each may be. He wants his son in the faith to major in grace. Claim this territory. Dwell on this truth. If you miss anything, don’t miss the grace of God.

     The longer we walk in the garden, the more likely we are to smell like flowers. The more we immerse ourselves in grace, the more likely we are to give grace. Could this be the clue for coping with anger? Could it be the secret is not in demanding payment but in pondering the payment of your Savior?

     Your friend broke his promises? Your boss didn’t keep her word? I’m sorry, but before you take action, answer this question: How did God react when you broke your promises to him?

     You’ve been lied to? It hurts to be deceived. But before you double your fists, think: How did God respond when you lied to him?   You’ve been neglected? Forgotten? Left behind? Rejection hurts. But before you get even, get honest with yourself. Have you ever neglected God? Have you always been attentive to his will? None of us have. How did he react when you neglected him?

     The key to forgiving others is to quit focusing on what they did to you and start focusing on what God did for you.

     But, Max, that’s not fair! Somebody has to pay for what he did.

I agree. Someone must pay, and Someone already has.

     You don’t understand, Max, this guy doesn’t deserve grace. He doesn’t deserve mercy. He’s not worthy of forgiveness.

     I’m not saying he is. But are you?

     Besides, what other choice do you have? Hatred? The alternative is not appealing. Look what happens when we refuse to forgive, “The master was very angry and put the servant in prison to be punished until he could pay everything he owed” (Matthew 18:34).

     Unforgiving servants always end up in prison. Prisons of anger, guilt, and depression. God doesn’t have to put us in a jail; we create our own. “Some men stay healthy till the day they die . . .others have no happiness at all; they live and die with bitter hearts” (Job 21:23—25 TEV).

     Oh, the gradual grasp of hatred. Its damage begins like the crack in my windshield. Thanks to a speeding truck on a gravel road, my window was chipped. With time the nick became a crack, and the crack became a winding tributary. Soon the windshield was a spider web of fragments. I couldn’t drive my car without thinking of the jerk who drove too fast. Though I’ve never seen him, I could describe him. He is some deadbeat bum who cheats on his wife, drives with a six-pack on the seat, and keeps the television so loud the neighbors can’t sleep. His carelessness blocked my vision. (Didn’t do much for my view out the windshield either.)

     Ever heard the expression “blind rage”?

     Let me be very clear. Hatred will sour your outlook and break your back. The load of bitterness is simply too heavy. Your knees will buckle under the strain, and your heart will break beneath the weight. The mountain before you is steep enough without the heaviness of hatred on your back. The wisest choice---the only choice---is for you to drop the anger. You will never be called upon to give anyone more grace than God has already given you.

     During World War I, a German soldier plunged into an out-of- the-way shell hole. There he found a wounded enemy. The fallen soldier was soaked with blood and only minutes from death. Touched by the plight of the man, the German soldier offered him water. Through this small kindness a bond was developed. The dying man pointed to his shirt pocket; the German soldier took from it a wallet and removed some family pictures. He held them so the wounded man could gaze at his loved ones one final time. With bullets raging over them and war all around them, these two enemies were, but for a few moments, friends.2

     What happened in that shell hole? Did, all evil cease? Were all wrongs made right? No. What happened was simply this: Two enemies saw each other as humans in need of help. This is forgiveness. Forgiveness begins by rising above the war, looking beyond the uniform, and choosing to see the other, not as a foe or even as a friend, but simply as a fellow fighter longing to make it home safely. (149-157)

 

Notes

1. “Drunken Driver Skips $1 Weekly Payments to Victim’s Parents,” San Antonio Light, 31 March 1990.

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