Sunday, August 14, 2011

Righteous Unforgiveness

Our planet is in great trouble and if we keep carrying old grudges and do not work together, we will all die.

Before you read any further, guess who said that. Was it said by a politician? A peacemaker in the Middle East? Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth?

Give up? It was Chief Seattle. Have you ever noticed how some of the greatest advocates for forgiveness are among those who have the greatest reasons to remain bitter?

The Amish community forgave the man who came into one of their schoolhouses and shot ten little girls, killing five of them.

Nelson Mandela forgave his jailers and healed his country through truth and reconciliation.

Six year old Ruby Bridges prayed for God to forgive the screaming throngs hurling racist threats at her as she walked into her newly integrated school.

There are many stories of Holocaust survivors who refused to hate, of POWs from Vietnam who went back and met with their captors, of victims of horrific crimes who forgave the perpetrators.

And then there’s me. When I was a girl, I was playing ball one day with the neighbor’s children in their front yard. I saw one of the kids cheating and I called him on it. His siblings came to his defense and the shouting quickly escalated. I was relieved when my mom came outside to see what the fuss was about, certain she would take my side. Instead, she suggested that I apologize and that we go on with our game. When I refused, she issued an ultimatum – either I would apologize, or I could never play with these kids again. Without a moment’s hesitation, I stood my self-righteous ground (after all, he was cheating)...and I never played with, or even spoke to, any of those kids again.

I mean really. I just shake my head when I think about it after all these years. And yet, if I think a little more, I bet I can come up with some folks that I am holding a grudge against right now in righteous unforgiveness. If we think forgiveness is such a great idea, why don't we make more effort to do it?

Last week at our monthly discussion group, someone observed that there is sometimes a perverse pleasure in holding onto a grudge. Our anger can make us feel powerful. Our hurt can attract the sympathy of those who validate our victim-ness, who take our side against the one who did us wrong. We believe ourselves to be right and the other deserving of punishment. We want the other person to suffer condemnation, to be tortured by remorse, to grovel in repentance. We want justice.

Holding a grudge can be secretly poison. I’ve been thinking about poison lately because, with some degree of spiritual turmoil, I’ve been putting out ant poison for the hordes of sugar ants invading my kitchen. The poison must be irresistible because they stream to it like parched nomads in the desert finding an oasis. They crowd around the drops of death and drink until there is no more. The poison then dries up their insides...and they die.

Unforgiveness is like that, I think. It might taste good, but it dries us up inside. No matter what our justification is for holding onto the grudge, we are poisoning ourselves. The other person did something that was so terrible, it’s unforgivable? Doesn’t matter. The other person is not sorry at all and never will be? Doesn’t matter. All my friends think I’m right? Doesn’t matter. We are drinking poison.

What if we paused before indulging in one more moment of righteous unforgiveness and asked ourselves one simple question – Is it worth it?

Well, is it?

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. –Lewis B. Smedes (quote courtesy of a commenter on an earlier post)

related post: Which Wolf are You going to Feed?


  1. Unforgiveness and anger can make us feel powerful. I had to think on that a bit and it is true. Choosing to forgive is actually a humbling of ourselves to let things go. I'm glad I read this.

  2. Forgiveness is so important. Jesus said we are to forgive 70x7 times, which means whenever we are wronged we need to forgive. Unforgiveness is indeed a poison, and we are the ones poisoned when we don't forgive. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

  3. Doesn't matter.......Doesn't matter......Doesn't matter.....and NO it is not worth it.

    Hugs sweet lady,


  4. Shanda--Thank you for pointing out the connection between forgiveness and humility. That is very insightful.

    Patti--Forgiveness is a central theme in the life and teachings of Jesus. Thank you for your comment.

    Jo--Great comment. Thanks.

  5. Great quote by Smedes! Forgivness is definitely something we all need to work on. Sometimes it's easier for us to forgive people who we don't know well or acquaintances rather than forgiving people like close friends and family. Power, pleasure and attracting sympathy are all great reasons to not want to forgive but like you point out Galen, we do in fact become the prisoner.

  6. "Unforgiveness dries us up inside." says it perfectly. That drying process makes us hard and unfeeling toward a person or situation.

    I agree that holding a grudge gives us a feeling of power or superiority. But that feeling is an illusion and only masks an actual weakness..the inability to move on.

  7. Vishnu--Yes, that quote was offered in a comment to an earlier post this month. It really says it all. Thanks for your comment.

    Bob--You are right about the power masking weakness. I think it also masks pain. We try to avoid the hurt and pain of whatever happened by staying angry. Thanks for commenting.

  8. Hello Galen...I like that last quote about the prisoner being "you". Sometimes looking at others is an easier way "we think at the time" to not have to look at ourselves. But when we make a checklist of things about us (I mean really go into deep unattached perspective about it), we probably can double our list just as fast in regards to unresolved emotions and issues. We set ourselves free when we realize the turmoil is only within. Once we find peace within ourselves, we will also find peace with others regardless of their deeds.

  9. Some of the big things that need forgiveness are mighty hard - I think I have completed forgiveness and moved on...and that righteousness comes back to bite me....I think I am holding on to 2 things right now that are keeping me from losing weight and balancing my body....and the plantar fasciitis has rendered me still - How can this be so?
    It is nearly my constant prayer..and hope
    I saw a woman on Oprah one time, who forgave the woman who drunkenly crashed into her car and killed her daughter and another family member - the victim went on to help heal the driver and support her children...that is so big,,and I feel so small for not being able to completely let go...release....I think this is a big issue and it may need more than a month ?

  10. Beautifully spoken. Holding a grudge also prevents us from growing in knowledge and in what may have been a positive, and loving relationship with those the grudge includes. It splits families.

    I am ever so familiar with those ants!

  11. Oh yes to be able to forgive and forget, there is a quote by someone that works for me....I like the idea of forgiveness being like a cancelled note, torn in two, and burned up, so that it never can be shown against one ever again...something like that. Now I'll have to find out who said it too! Thanks Galen this was very worth reading!

  12. What a powerful words on forgiveness. I will ponder on these and see where I can forgive a few individuals that I have not reconsiled with.
    We have a very sad family situation where all that is needed is forgiveness.
    I hope it is ok to share your thougts on this with them.
    Blessings to you!

  13. I see forgiveness as distancing myself from someone elses' failure. What you let go of can't hurt you anymore. Great reminder Galen :-)

  14. I've read "Which wolf are you going to feed" in the past, at that point in my life it was exactly what I needed to read. I love that passage.

    I had a hard time understanding forgiveness while on my healing journey, after all how could I forgive without condoning the others actions? There were some extremely negative actions to say the least. I read something by Dr. Phil which a counselor gave to me, I must say I read it grudgingly because I don't like Dr. Phil, but that's when the lightbulb went off, I had an aha moment.

    To forgive it not to condone someones behavior, it is to let go of it entirely, it's not mine to keep and I am only giving away my positive energies by hanging onto the matter at hand. Through not forgiving I am hanging onto negative energies and giving my power totally away, the other person who did wrong probably even forgot about it. I would hope not when it comes to something such as rape, I would hope they got some serious psychological help and haven't abused anybody else, but all I can do now is pray for the person.

    I love the saying, I'd rather be serene than be right, sometimes I have to swallow that foolish pride the ego likes to dole out and forgive, not necessarily forget, but move forward in life.

    I love your post, once again you've reminded me of where I once was and when you post things like this I can measure how far I've come in my life. Thank you for this Galen!

  15. Thank you for sharing your childhood story; it brings back many memories and the sting of loss, in a good way. Wisdom definitely counts the costs and chooses Love, which keeps no records of wrongs (I Corinthians 13).

    In "Amish Grace" there's a scene that powerfully impacted me, where a father is comforting his daughter who's pouring out her hurt & hatred. He listens intently and is quiet before gently asking her "how does the hatred in your heart make you feel?" etc. She contemplates, cries and says it makes her feel badly. Can't remember the exact dialog just that scene & it's impact. He shows her the bigger picture and equips her to make a wise choice.

    Better late then never, am only now learning the folly of unforgiveness/sin, how it is like a monster crouching at the door desiring to consume/destroy that we must master (Genesis 4) because the cost of letting it continue is greater than we can comprehend. Letting go of the past & forgiving brings a breath of fresh air & freedom, a lightness of being to life that’s beyond comprehension…it’s a heart recognition, a knowing,…and worth it.

    Thanks for reminding us. (:

  16. Kenya--So true about how we project our inner turmoil on others and then hold them at a distance wtih judgment and unforgiveness. Thanks for your comment.

    Patricia--I just read an article in Newweek about the brother and sister who survived the attack on their family that was the basis for the book/movie In Cold Blood. Their parents were killed and they were also shot and left for dead. The brother described meeting one of the killers in prison years later while he was there on government business. During their meeting, he forgave the man who had destroyed his family. He described the release and healing that followed. Stories of forgiveness like the one you described from Oprah are so inspiring. Thanks for commenting.

    restoring--Very insightful comment about how unforgiveness keeps us from knowing what postive opportunities we are missing. Thanks for your comment.

    Karen--I hope you can find that quote. If you do, please send it along. It's so hard to really "tear it up" and never go back to it. Sometimes I have to keep bringing myself back to that place of forgiveness. Thanks for commenting.

    LeAnn--Families and close friends are often where our greatest needs are for forgiveness. I hope your family can move towards some peaceful resolution of whatever the conflict is. And certainly, if my words can be of any use, please share them as you wish. Thanks for your comment.

    Jean--What a wonderful way to describe forgiveness. Thanks for sharing your insight.

    darlin--I know from what you have written that you have been on a deep journey to change your life and that forgiveness is part of that. I so appreciate your sharing your views and insights about this topic, especially about ego. And I understand what you mean about looking back at how far you've come. Me, too!

    Nan--Your last sentence describes the benefit of forgiveness beautifully. I have read that last sentence several times. Lovely. Thanks so much.

  17. I read Patricia's sharing about the woman who forgave on!!

    I am constantly amazed at how I am tuning into similar stuff and teachings contained in your post at roughly the same time. For the last few weeks, I have to confess to feeling justified anger against someone. But it was only yesterday that I shared a few thoughts about justified anger on my facebook account.

    Yes, I will admit to it. I have been suffering whenever I think about this person. Its been hard when I have felt that she had been a good friend. But there is nothing I can do if she refuses to talk. She is stuck in righteous anger (which then causes me to feel righteous in my anger too). So I have decided to move on. I love myself and don't want to be hurting myself with anger.

    Thanks for your post. It made me reflect further about forgiveness. Btw, your mom sounds awesome!

  18. Evelyn--I'm glad we are in cosmic sync! I find that often happens, and often with your blog! It's very hard to forgive when we are feeling wronged by someone else's "stubborn" refusal to see things our way! As for my mom, she did have her awesome moments. Thanks for commenting.

  19. Hi Galen,
    I love the quote from your commenter. I also believe in forgiving. When I was younger I would get angry about things and hold onto grudges. I love the term: righteous unforgiveness. I guess that's what you'd call it. Now, I don't get as upset over things and I'm able to put myself in the other person's shoes so, luckily, I'm not carrying any unforgiveness. It also find that after forgiving, forgetting helps too!

  20. Thank you so much for sharing your childhood story. Your insights and wisdom are very helpful for those in need. I have been on both sides of righteous unforgiveness and as I grow older I am so much more understanding and forgiving. Time is too short. Thank you for stopping by . Have a wonderful week.

  21. Forgiveness is such a tricky topic, Galen. I appreciate how you are delving into all its the nuances including this sense of it being a sweet poison.

    I find that each grudge has its own timeline. You can't push the river. If I stay with my aspiration to forgive, the grudge gradually loses its power --- but it can take time. I just set my course and keep going in the right direction!

  22. Bonnie--Age helps some of us soften and let go, doesn't it? Then for others, they seem to dig in and grow more bitter. As you say time is too short! Thanks for commenting.

    Sandra--You are right about the timeline. However, choosing to have that aspiration is something that we need not delay. If we can hold onto the aspiration, forgiveness will come in its own time. Thanks for your insight.

  23. This is so true--the only one who really gets destroyed when I hold resentments is myself. Inspiring and challenging thoughts, thanks for sharing!

  24. Beth--I have to remind myself of that often. Thanks for commenting.


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