Remember, forgiveness is the practice of cleansing our soul of toxic waste by choosing to give up judgments against others. If you are ready for cleansing your soul, try these action points:
Manage Your Expectations
My friend John told me about his rebound marriage after his seventeen-year first marriage ended. “Honestly, it’s been harder for me to deal with the aftershock from my short marriage,” he said. “I’m drawn to needy women, and I didn’t realize it at first, but my second wife is mentally ill. It makes no sense that I’m angry at the things she does. She literally can’t help it. Even so, bitterness literally consumes me. I know I shouldn’t be angry, but I can’t forgive. It’s like being mad at a toddler for not being able to do math.”
Expectations are a set-up for disappointment and bitterness. There’s a difference between reasonable and realistic expectations. When we expect others to behave reasonably, especially those who are incapable, our expectations are unrealistic. Disappointment is the inevitable result. If we don’t deal with disappointment, bitterness sets in.
Teresa was married to an alcoholic. Despite the obvious problems she endured in her relationship, she was one of the most peaceful women I knew. “It’s reasonable that I would expect my husband to be sober when I get home from work,” she explained to me one day. “But until Jerry is willing to go to treatment, it’s not realistic for me to expect him to be without a drink in his hand. I spent years expecting otherwise and I was always angry. I’d rather live in peace.”
When you manage your expectations, you avoid the pitfall of unforgiveness and increase your peace of mind.
Guard Your Heart
I have a secret weapon for walking in peace and forgiveness. If you implement this one Scripture, you’re almost guaranteed to eliminate at least half of the issues you ever deal with. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Guard your heart for out of it flow the issues of life.”
Before I understood this verse, I was a “yes” woman. I thought saying yes to everything was the spiritual thing to do, so I did everything everyone wanted me to do, even when it made me angry. It took a long time before I figured out that if doing something makes me angry, I had no business doing it.
The Bible refers to setting boundaries as guarding your heart. Did you notice who is responsible for putting the guard in place? We are! If saying “yes” results in bitterness, it was wrong for you. Learn to say “no” to guard your heart.
When you guard your heart, you protect yourself against toxic emotions. It’s like buying an insurance policy against bitterness. Guarding your heart and setting boundaries can help you avoid the trap of bitterness more than any other anger-management technique.
Identify areas in your life that trigger your anger and then put guards in place to protect those areas. Be cautious around people who trigger your anger. Avoid them if possible. Anger in itself is not a sin, but unresolved anger that turns into bitterness is sin.
Get Your Mind Off the Offense
Your countenance is the product of what you think about most often. So if you don’t want to be angry, refuse to meditate on angry thoughts. You can’t just empty your mind, however. You have to occupy the void. Choose the emotional response you desire and select a thought or activity that will produce that outcome. Eventually, since you can’t maintain more than one emotion at a time, whatever you feed begins to grow and whatever you starve begins to die.
When Shirley’s husband slept in on Sundays, she often went to church angry. “By the time I got home, I had nursed my grudge for two hours, and it showed. It made Ronnie even more determined to avoid church the following week. Now I understand why he didn’t want to go to church with me—I was always angry.”
Instead of focusing on her disappointment when her husband slept in, Shirley began to focus on positive things about her husband. Ronnie usually had Sunday lunch ready when she got home, so Shirley began to meditate about how happy that made her. When she got home her husband was surprised. He was used to the angry countenance Shirley wore. Instead, she was genuinely grateful and happy to see him. Not only did Shirley learn how to get her mind off the offense, eventually Ronnie quit sleeping in on Sundays.
Pray for God to Bless
Feelings follow actions, so even when it doesn’t feel genuine to pray for someone you are angry with, do it anyway. Fake it till you make it. Do it until you aren’t angry anymore. The Bible says to bless your enemies. As you do, something amazing begins to happen: The more you pray for them the more your anger will subside.
Pick an Attribute You Admire
Often when we’re angry with someone, there is an emotional barrier that prevents us from seeing any good in them. Our bitterness camouflages reality. This is when you may need to reach into the recesses of your memory. What did you like or enjoy about them before? If you can’t come up with anything, ask God to help you see something good. Then focus on that. People respond to our expectations of them and often their behavior will rise and fall based on how we treat them. If you are angry and unkind to them, chances are great that you will get angry and unkind responses back from them. Smother them with kindness and watch your own anger dissolve.
Make a Gratitude List
Create a list of things you are grateful for and spend five minutes each morning renewing your mind and meditating on God’s goodness. Carry your list with you so when you are tempted to think on things that weigh your spirit down you can quickly lift your spirit by remembering God’s goodness.
Overlook an Offense
Holding on to bitterness is like holding a glass of water above your head. At first it doesn’t seem heavy. You can hold it for a minute with no problem. After an hour, your arm might ache. And after a day, you’ll need a crane to help you hold up a mere glass of water. It all depends on how long you hold it. The longer you hold it, the heavier it gets.
Overlooking an offense before it weighs a ton is much easier. Choose to overlook a transgression to protect your own sanity. Do it before you carry it so long that the burden becomes an unmanageable monster.
Change Your Meditations
Stop the negative self-talk. Don’t give anyone free rent space in your head.
In her book Having a Mary Spirit, Joanna Weaver writes about muscle memory, which “refers to the experience when muscles seem to perform almost automatically without conscious thought. It’s a physical pattern developed by many years of practice.”16
For most of us, our brains have developed thinking patterns and have years of experience of routing our thoughts along certain neural pathways. We’ve worn grooves in our brain. It will take deliberate conscious thought to reroute our thinking. It won’t happen overnight, but it can happen if we purpose in our heart what we allow ourselves to think about. We become what we most think about. If we think angry thoughts, we will be angry. If we think happy thoughts, we become happy. Abraham Lincoln said it best: “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” We could also reword that to say most people are as angry as they make up their minds to be.
Pray for Revelation
When I speak to singles groups, the question I hear more than any other is, “How did you know John was the one?”
Before I met my second husband, John, like most other singles, I had my “list.” I knew what I wanted. I wanted someone older, sophisticated and well established, and although John was nice, he didn’t have any of those qualities. He was younger, goofy, and still in college—the exact opposite of what I was looking for. Left to my own romantic discernment, I wouldn’t have picked John. But thank goodness, God knew my picker was busted.
It was a Wednesday evening after work on January 28, 1998. John had driven up from Lawton, Oklahoma, for dinner after his classes. With three small children, going out to eat was a rare occurrence. After dessert, we plopped down on the worn blue sofa in my TV room and John asked, “Do you mind if I pray?” To this day, I don’t even remember what his prayer was about, but what happened next, I’ll never forget …
An overwhelming presence of peace engulfed me, and I felt my heart—not my physical heart, but the heart of my soul—being knit together with John’s. I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s the only way I can describe the supernatural experience that took place. I say “supernatural” because in the natural, I wouldn’t have picked John. He wasn’t my type.
But here’s the deal: I never had much success in the relationship department. God knew that without a divine revelation I would go back to devastation.
The next morning I marched into the office and announced to my coworker Julie, “I’m going to marry John.” He hadn’t even proposed yet, but I knew. John was God’s pick, not Christy’s pick. I knew John was a divine connection, a heavenly match—not just a good choice, but a God choice. Later when conflicts arose in our relationship, it was this revelation that brought back peace.
If you ask God for revelation, He will reveal His plans for you, too.
Before we got married, I thought John was perfect. We’ll never argue, I thought. The bliss of love kept me smothered in romantic ignorance.
Until we got married.
It was only a couple of months before our first major blowout. As a couple, we had much to learn about effective conflict resolution. My preferred method of resolving disagreements was to attack and blame—a full frontal assault with lethal accusations.
He preferred to run.
When John started packing his suitcase, anger steamed in me until it spewed out like hot lava. John had ignited Mount St. Christy. How could I trust him again? I seethed. But when the volcanic ash settled down, I remembered the revelation that my soul was knit together with John’s.
Conviction washed over me.
Of course, that wasn’t the last time we got into a disagreement, but I don’t want to be a statistic. In our culture, the option of divorce is an easy escape. According to Jennifer Baker of The Forest Institute of Professional Psychology in Springfield, Missouri, the divorce rate in America for first marriages is 50 percent and jumps to 67 percent for second marriages and 74 percent for third marriages.17 Why so high? When conflict comes, many run. They think they made a mistake, but conflict is a natural part of life. Conflict is the mechanism that God often uses to strengthen our character and endurance.
I thank God for my marriage mentor. She listened to me vent, but wasn’t afraid of letting me know when I was wrong. “It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong. You are one flesh,” Alicia encouraged. “Proverbs 12:16 says, ‘it’s to a man’s glory to overlook an offense.’“
Eventually, I thought I had matured to the point where I was able to control my anger. I prided myself on my ability to restrain my temper and sarcasm. The volcano was dormant, but it was still brewing on the inside. Once again Alicia pointed me to the Scriptures. Proverbs 25:28 says, “He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls” (KJV).
Now when offenses come, I ask the Lord, “What are you trying to work out in me through this conflict? “
We all have blind spots in our lives, dangerous habits that are obvious to others but we can’t see. I never would have seen this truth without the insight of a trusted friend and mentor. We all need at least one friend that we can trust to be confidential as well as to tell it like it is.