Forgiving is a gift each can give to another, but you cannot make somebody else forgive you. Ultimately, both parties have to make that choice.
Avoid making things worse if you can
There is a biblical principle that may prevent resentment and anger in the first place. Notice Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Deflecting anger with inoffensive or mild responses can be difficult in the moment, but it will pay dividends in the long run.
Harsh words spoken during tense or difficult times make forgiveness and reconciliation much more difficult for the offended party. Proverbs 18:19 sums this up as follows: “A brother offended is harder to win than a strong city, and contentions are like the bars of a castle.” Defusing the situation early on makes things much easier all the way around.
In Matthew 5:25 Jesus Christ said: “Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.”
If much time passes with no resolution in a contentious situation, hard feelings can often set in. Efforts to resolve things later become more difficult and new problems can cause old feelings to boil over more easily.
Grudges: A case study
The biblical story of Jacob and Esau is familiar to most Bible readers. Jacob and Esau were the sons of Isaac. Esau, as the elder son, stood to receive the firstborn’s share of the inheritance from Isaac. Jacob (aided by his mother) used a tremendous amount of deceit in order to steal this birthright inheritance from his brother. The story is told in Genesis 27.
What Jacob did was not a small thing. It was not as though he had borrowed something from his brother and neglected to return it. This inheritance would give Jacob the best things in life, including mastery over his brother Esau (Genesis 27:28-29). Esau’s reaction to what Jacob had done was nothing less than a bitter rage.
In fact, Jacob had to flee the area because Esau planned to kill him (Genesis 27:41). Verses 42-44 contain the advice of Jacob’s mother: “Surely your brother Esau comforts himself concerning you by intending to kill you. Now therefore, my son, obey my voice: arise, flee to my brother Laban in Haran. And stay with him a few days, until your brother’s fury turns away, until your brother’s anger turns away from you, and he forgets what you have done to him.”
In fact, at least 20 years went by before Jacob saw Esau again. What was Jacob to do when he finally saw Esau again?
Jacob’s efforts at making peace
In Genesis 32 Jacob was returning home and had to pass through land occupied by Esau and his family, as well as Esau’s servants. In verse 6, Jacob was informed by his servants that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men. Jacob feared Esau’s intentions. Obviously, a group of 400 men was more than what would be needed for a welcoming party!
The plan Jacob devised involved offering an olive branch of peace to Esau. In fact, he offered a succession of olive branches, with a little time between each offering, thus hoping Esau would calm down and rethink any anger he may have been feeling.
Notice in Genesis 32:13-15 the presents that Jacob gave to Esau: 200 female goats, 20 male goats, 200 ewes and 20 rams, 30 milk camels with colts, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 20 female donkeys and 10 donkey foals. That was quite a present!
Jacob’s instructions to the men delivering the presents are found in verse 16: “Then he delivered them to the hand of his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, ‘Pass over before me, and put some distance between successive droves.’”
Jacob also instructed the servants to refer to Esau as “my lord” and to refer to Jacob as “your servant” (verses 17-20). When Jacob finally met Esau in Genesis 33, Jacob bowed seven times before Esau as a sign of respect.
The Bible does not tell us what Esau had intended to do to Jacob, but after the spaced succession of gifts and many signs of respect from Jacob, here was Esau’s reaction: “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). Whatever his intentions had been, Esau showed love and forgiveness.
What can we learn about overcoming grudges?
Jacob was no doubt a wealthy man, and he could afford to offer presents beyond the means of most of us. The value of the gifts, however, was not the important thing in this situation. The important thing was Jacob’s humility and his willingness to be the peacemaker.
We have to be willing to take the lead in reconciliation, swallowing our own pride and holding our temper when needed. We have to overcome our own grudges and desire for revenge and be willing to offer the olive branch. This will not always guarantee forgiveness and a healed relationship, but the biblical instructions we have seen tell us that we must be willing to try!