Isn’t holding a grudge just the best? Someone has wronged us, wounded us, irritated us, infuriated us, etc., and they deserve some kind of retribution. They can’t get away with that, can they? They need to know that they’ve angered you, and you will make sure they know.
Sure, obtaining “justice” might not always look the same, depending on your personality, but typically it looks like lashing out, ignoring the other person, avoiding eye-contact, walking the other way when you see them, and having imagery debates in your head.
We’ve tricked ourselves into thinking there is freedom in that. They have to pay, don’t they? It feels good to “show them” through subtle actions and biting words that they’ve done something we don’t like. Holding a grudge, after all, is our default mode when wronged.
Putting aside for a moment the graceless and gospel-less problems in holding a grudge, we will actually find, ironically, that the one who is harmed when we hold a grudge is not the one we are holding the grudge against. Rather, when we think we are executing some kind of justice by holding a grudge, we actually harm ourselves more than we harm the object of our disdain (again, set aside the massive problems in wanting someone to be “harmed” for a moment).
We all know this verse in Ephesians 4:26 from the Apostle Paul, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” But what about what comes after that?
“…and give no opportunity to the devil.” What does holding on to our anger and grudges do? It opens us up to all kinds of temptations and sin. Holding a grudge never ever results in what we think it will. Instead of harming the other person, it harms our own souls and opens us up to sin. Ironic, isn’t it?
We want to harm others, but we end up harming ourselves. But let us also think about the gospel implications involved here that we set aside a moment ago.
Recall to your mind the “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” told by Jesus in Matthew 18 in response to Peter asking the question “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus responds, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” In other words, “Stop keeping score!”
Jesus then tells this famous story of a king who forgave a servant a massive, incalculable debt. The servant is grateful for the forgiveness, but as he steps outside he sees a man who owes him a dollar. The man who owes the dollar asks for more time to repay the debt (which, coincidently, is what the forgiven servant asked of the king before his debt was completely wiped out), the newly forgiven servant refuses and throws the man in debtors prison.
Likely when we read that story we think, “How can someone who has been forgiven so great a debt not forgive someone else who owes him so much less?” There is shock and unbelievability to the servant’s reaction to being forgiven and turning around and being so unforgiving. How could he be so graceless?
To which, Jesus might say, “Exactly!”
The way that you have been wounded is so infinitesimal compared to what God in Christ has forgiven you for on the cosmic scale. To nurse a grudge and unforgiveness on this side of the cross makes little sense in light of the unmerited grace and unconditional love of the Father toward us.
“They don’t deserve forgiveness,” we say, “but neither did you,” says the gospel.
Recall one more scene from the life of Jesus with me. In Luke 4 and Matthew 4, we see Jesus being tempted by Satan following His baptism and being declared the Son of God. We are told that Jesus is in the desert for 40 days without food. What is the very first thing that Satan tempts Jesus with? With food, but why? Because Satan was meeting Jesus where He was, giving Him a temptation that fit His circumstances.
Satan uses this same tactic to this day with us. As Russell Moore said in his book Tempted and Tried, “You will be tempted exactly as Jesus was, because Jesus was being tempted exactly as we are.”
Satan will meet you where you are, and a good place to be met with all kinds of temptations and sins is in your anger and your grudge holding. Paul was right, of course, that letting the sun go down on our anger gives an opportunity to the devil.
Instead of opening ourselves up to sin and temptation, instead of attempting to “show” the person who angered us, what if we ourselves absorbed the cost and forgave? Whereas holding a grudge would do little to no harm to the offender and much harm to ourselves, we could forgive them without recompense. There is something deeply gospel-esque in absorbing the cost of someone else’s offense, isn’t there?
Remember Paul instructing us to not let the sun go down on our anger lest we open ourselves up to the devil? This is how that chapter in Ephesians ends:
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:31-32, ESV).
We would all do well to remember this the next time the draw to hold-tightly to a grudge creeps upon us. Make no mistake, the draw will come, but it won’t turn out how we think if we refuse to forgive before the sun goes down.