The last place we expect to get hurt is within the family of God. We assume church people are safe people. But, hurt comes with church leadership. When it happens, the wounds it brings can quickly become a breeding ground for bitterness.
Bitterness can become a gnarly vine that chokes our souls. It poisons our hearts and actions. Scripture says we and others will pay a great price if it is left unchecked (Hebrews 12:15).
What's a Christian to do? When we are wronged, justice demands that someone pay for the wrong. We know that the Lord wants us to forgive. But how can we handle the tension between justice and forgiveness?
I came face-to face with this dilemma when my husband and I planted a church. We relocated to another state with two preschoolers and another on the way. Our church and our daughter were born six weeks apart. After a few months we found out that a couple from our previous church was moving to our area and wanted to help us in our new church. We were ecstatic. After a year of serving together in our fledgling church, our baby was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The pressures of church and our daughter's life-threatening illness seemed too much to bear. My husband and I were in the hospital with our daughter after her brain surgery when we got a call from this couple. They informed us that they were leaving our church. We were blind-sided. My husband asked them if we had offended them in any way. After assuring him they were not offended, they gave some flimsy excuse about their decision.
I began to pray about how to handle this hurt. As I read the Bible it became clear that I couldn't be right with God and refuse to forgive. In Matthew 6:12-14 Jesus says that there is a correlation between our forgiveness of others and our sins being forgiven. Like most things in the Christian life, God wants us to pass along to others what he has given to us. Matthew 18:21-35 explains that refusing to forgive someone who has offended us is a direct affront to God's grace. Since we have been forgiven for "all" our sins, we can't justify not forgiving the "few" offenses from others.
I was still hurt, but I knew that clinging to it was not worth the price of unforgiveness and the resulting bitterness. Forgiveness must begin in the heart and work its way out into our emotions and actions. It satisfies our sense of justice when we remember that Jesus has already paid for that sin on the cross. In choosing to forgive we get a taste of what our sins cost a holy, loving God. We release our right to require others pay for their offenses.