As an intern in a public school district, I see so many kids who just won't let it go. They've been hurt, horribly treated by monsters of humanity. They've been bullied, harassed, abused in unspeakable ways, teased mercilessly, called names, shunned, ignored. And while the people who did these things to them deserve every bit of punishment they're getting and more, these kids just won't let it go. They live their lives with a chip on their shoulder, waiting for the person who hurt them to die, get in trouble, go to jail. And instead of overcoming these issues, instead of being able to become greater than their problems and to become spectacular people in spite of the horrid things they've had to go through, they play the victim card over and over again. Their lives become a continual downward spiral of "I've been hurt, so you should give me what I want. You should treat me like I'm king/queen."
But real life doesn't work that way. Because of sin, we've all been hurt in one way or another, some of us worse than others. But holding onto grudges, being hostile with someone you have to see day after day, always being angry, always looking for how you can pay them back, or blaming them for the way your life is spinning out of control...it just doesn't work.
Joanna Weaver, author of Having a Mary Spirit: Allowing God to Change Us from the Inside Out, tells us that “Bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Instead of doing "him/her" any harm, bitterness just eats away at you, gnawing and gnawing, like a rat on a table leg, until the whole thing topples over. I'm no doctor, but it's my belief that the answer to many cases of these autoimmune diseases and other illnesses we see today, causing suffering in both Christians and unbelievers, is letting go of the bitterness. Letting go of the anger. Rising above the horrible things done to you.
Just imagine, what if Joseph hadn't forgiven his brothers? Here's a guy with a tree-trunk-of-a-chip if anyone has one. He's thrown into a pit, then sold as a slave away from his family, taken to a new land where he doesn't even speak the language and sold there. He's falsely accused of trying to rape an official's wife, and is thrown in prison for years. He's forgotten until finally when the pharaoh has a dream someone remembers "Hey, that dude in prison, he was able to tell me what mine meant. Whoops, kind of forgot about him." When Pharaoh makes Joseph his second-in-command, Joseph is thirty years old. That's thirteen whole years he's suffered away from his family. It'd be almost another decade before he'd see them again. Over twenty years separated from them, all because of his brothers.
Now don't get me wrong, I don't think Joseph was innocent in the whole his-brothers-hating-him-thing (would any of you go tell your older siblings that you had a dream where you were going to be greater than them? Can we just say automatic atomic noogie?). Which makes his response even more amazing and evident of the power of God working in his life. Because he forgave them. All the years of pain, separation, being misunderstood and falsely accused, all this was caused by his brothers, but Joseph let it go. He relied on God's strength to let go of the bitterness, the hatred, the victim mentality. He saw that, even though God didn't cause it, God is greater than the bullies, the monsters, the abusers. God turned all that pain into something for good. He put Joseph in the position to save his entire family and all of Egypt from the famine.
I'm not saying forgiving is easy. It's downright hard. It requires constant going to God and asking for the strength and grace to let go of old hurts, to be kind to someone who's wronged you and hurt you so badly (at least it does for me). But it's worth it. God commands us to "Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you" (Ephesians 4:31-32, NKJV). When we're bitter, our relationship with God can't be whole. Only when we let go of the anger, when we forgive, can we truly have a right relationship with God.