I vividly remember one betrayal when I was in college. I was hired for a job in the President’s office at the university I was attending. Part of my job as an assistant in that office evolved into internal marketing projects, where I was “selling” employees and students on the merits of the new administration. It was a tough pitch to a skeptical crowd. But I believed in what I was saying and I felt like I communicated it well.

But as the months began passing by, with my classwork taking up more and more of my time, I chose to resign that position. As soon as I informed my bosses of my resignation, they turned on me. I had gone from a trusted teammate whose input was taken seriously to “you’re dead to us” in approximately 0.6 seconds. They took the prioritization of my life as a student as an act of betrayal. During my final day in the office, one of my bosses told multiple co-workers about my transition from “The Apprentice” to “The Quitter”.

A Loving Friend Intervenes.

As the weeks and months passed after my resignation, I began to see all sorts of holes in the stories I “sold” to others. I realized the concerns other employees and students had brought to me (which I had brushed off initially) were actually legitimate. Feeling betrayed and embittered, I was embarrassed because I misled my friends and compromised my reputation by intimidating and bullying people. I was angry because I felt like I had been abused, taken advantage of for my bosses’ agenda.

Several weeks later, a good friend sat me down and called me out. With love and compassion, he reflected back to me the ways my anger, bitterness, and cynicism infected relationships with people I really cared about. I listened as he told me how my bitterness was costing me respect, trust, and influence in relationships with people I cared about deeply (who were not involved in my former position).

He challenged me to forgive, even though my former employers had not changed. He pushed me to forgive them for my own benefit, not theirs. When he painted a picture of all I would lose if I kept living in bitterness, I had no worthy response. I relented and began pursuing forgiveness.

So what did that new pursuit look like? What do you do if you realize you are bitter too? I learned three important lessons as I began digging up the bitterness which had become planted in my heart.

1) Recognize that forgiven people forgive.

Forgiveness is a gift we receive from God and give to others. Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 18:21-35 about a man who was offered forgiveness but did not fully receive it. After he had been forgiven an astronomical debt, this man went out and imprisoned another man who owed him a paltry sum. The man who refused to forgive ended up in debtors’ prison himself when his loan source heard of his duplicitous actions. He just did not get it.

In reflecting the heart of this parable, the Apostle Paul later wrote, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Our ability to forgive is directly related to the forgiveness we’ve experienced.

People who’ve been forgiven of profound debts themselves have experienced an inner transformation which empowers them with the ability to forgive others.

2) Embrace forgiveness as a decision and as a process.

Forgiveness is a “both/and” experience rather than an “either/or” proposition. In the book of Acts chapter 15, we read about how the greatest missionary combination, Paul and Barnabas, had split over Paul’s inability to forgive a young man named John Mark who abandoned them. We do not see forgiveness completed until the end of Paul’s life when he calls for John Mark in 2 Timothy 4:11, saying “he is very useful to me for ministry.”

We must accept that forgiveness may come much slower than we hope. Whether it is the slowness of our heart to change or the heart of the person we offended, we must embrace patience. Remember – God is more patient with all of us than we are with Him or each other. Choose to forgive and begin the process.

Many of us have been taught that forgiveness is merely a decision, an act of the will. But our hearts and souls don’t work like computers receiving commands from a keyboard. We make the decision to forgive and we keep making the decision as a process unfolds.

3) Make the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation.

Forgiveness is something that is dependent on me; reconciliation is dependent on “us.” While forgiveness involves one party, reconciliation takes two (or more) parties.

Reconciliation is not always possible, nor always wise. My wife spent nearly six years prosecuting domestic violence cases as an attorney. While I learned a lot from her experience with both victims and offenders, the most powerful lesson may have been the dangerous, even deadly, consequences of reconciliation in that context.

Banish naïveté and good intentions. Time, wisdom and discernment are necessary when it comes to reconciliation. Forgiveness requires a change in my heart; reconciliation requires a change in our hearts.

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Watch Your Roots.

After my friend intervened, I dug up the root of bitterness from my heart and experienced healing. The wounds I received from the season I mentioned earlier ceased to negatively impact those closest to me. But I never worked for those men again and to this day, I carry with me the lessons I learned from that season. I no longer have scabs which bleed at the slightest scrape but I do have scars I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

Bitterness is a seed which, when planted in a human soul, transforms everything it touches. If you root yourself in bitterness, no one will ever taste the fruit of joy, happiness, and wonder from that plant. We harvest what we plant. The fruits we want actually emerge from the seeds of forgiveness and freedom.

If Paul was correct when he told the church in Galatia, “For freedom, Christ set us free”, we must never embrace the self-inflicted bondage of bitterness. We must move toward forgiveness today.