No one serves in church leadership for very long before being hurt by something someone does or says. We work hard with the best of intentions, and someone misunderstands what we are trying to do or the motives behind our actions. We say something that is misunderstood, and rather than coming to the leader to clarify what was said people tell everyone how wounded they were by our comments. Things are going well in the church until suddenly we learn that a group of people are committed to getting us out of the church. A leader's pain is made even worse when it is our spouses or children who are under attack by people within the church we are serving.
Leaders have a number of options available to them, but one option that is not available is to refuse to forgive those who bring us harm. Such forgiveness does not come easy, but it is vital to our well-being and our ministry that we are able to forgive those who hurt us.
I remember an incident that happened when I was the pastor of our church that upset me far more than it should have. The actions I took were private and no one except my wife knew how upset I was or the problem may have become much worse. For several weeks I remained upset at the few people who had upset me until I finally realized that I had to forgive them if I wanted to move forward with my life and ministry. I chose to forgive the ones who had wounded me, and we will choose whether we will forgive or not.
In some recent posts I've quoted from Reggie McNeal's book A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders. One chapter of the book discusses conflict, and McNeal writes, "Those who withhold forgiveness do so in the belief that in some way they are inflicting damage or hurt on the object of their unforgivingness. The trouble is, while the unforgiving deals with excess stomach acid and sleepless nights, the unforgiven sleeps like a baby. An unforgiving spirit is a cancer of the soul...
"The leaders who do not forgive wind up with bitter spirits, persons of negative energy. They wonder where their spiritual energy and power went. Their negative spirit pushes people away from them. They live in the past, their conflict scar tissues making it difficult for them to move forward. They see the world and life experiences through victim eyes."
He nails it doesn't he? Unforgiveness eats us up and robs us of the spiritual power we need to enjoy victory in our lives and ministries. Quite often, the people who hurt us could care less how we feel about what they did or they may not even be aware of the pain they caused. We are the only ones damaged by our refusal to forgive.
Of course, that's not entirely right either. When we choose to practice unforgiveness our families pay a price. So do people in our churches and our work. These are innocent people who had nothing to do with the pain we feel, but they are the ones who pay the price.
When I find it hard to forgive others I begin to remember how much God has forgiven me. How can I refuse to forgive others when I have been the recipient of so much grace in my own life?
Leaders are going to be wounded. It goes with the territory. There's not much we can do about that, but we can choose how we will deal with the wounds inflicted upon us by others. Refusing to forgive can only lead to problems that none of us wants. Choosing to forgive releases us to move forward in life and ministry. Once again I hear God saying, "I have set before you life and death...therefore choose life." Choosing to forgive is choosing life.