I mentioned last week that I have been keeping up with the show “Sleepy Hollow” on Fox this season. In an episode from a couple of weeks ago the heroes of the story had captured that particular episode’s villain. After they interrogated him for a while and he taunted them with what they didn’t know, he broke open a cyanide capsule that had been hidden in one of his teeth and killed himself. As far as mystery/thriller shows go, stuff like that is about par for the course. But have you ever wondered why cyanide kills so quickly? I know that sounds a little morbid for a Sunday morning, but bear with me for a minute. Cyanide is so deadly because it is, as far as the human body is concerned anyway, a poison. But that doesn’t really explain anything. There are lots of different kinds of poisons. Most of them don’t kill as quickly as cyanide seems to, at least for the convenience of script writers not looking to draw out a death scene. So I guess the real question is: how do poisons work? Well, it depends on the poison.
I did some research and discovered that while different poisons work in different ways, the general trend is that they somehow interrupt a vital chemical process that keeps the body running, often by mimicking it in some way, causing the body to think it’s operating normally until it’s too late. For example, carbon monoxide poisons the body by bonding with the molecule responsible for carrying oxygen around the body much, much more effectively than oxygen itself does, starving the body of oxygen. Cyanide works in a similar way. It bonds with a molecule near the end of the respiration cycle preventing all the steps before the final one from happening. If a car were a cell in the body, cyanide would be a pint of cement in the tail pipe. Other poisons imitate a substance that should be in the body in such a way as to trick some process into turning on or off without being able to flip the switch back in the other direction. Neurotoxins fall into this category. They work by forcing neural transmitters into the on position without recourse. It would be like flooring a car in park until the engine explodes. The point here, though, is poisons are so dangerous because we often are not aware of when they start attacking the body until the damage has already begun and may be too late to stop. This is the case with physical poisons. But could it also be the case with more…intangible ones?
This morning we are in the third week of our series, Making Things Right. The whole idea for this series is that while we may talk a lot about forgiveness, we don’t practice it all that well. As a result, many different relationships in our lives suffer. We began this whole discussion a couple of weeks ago by starting at the beginning: why should we bother with forgiveness in the first place? The answer we found, is that we forgive because if we don’t, we won’t be forgiven. To refuse to forgive someone else is to put ourselves in a place where we cannot receive the forgiveness of God for our own sins. Then last week we got a whole lot more specific and personal with this idea. I mean, it’s important to know how to avoid something that will keep us from being with God later on down the road, but what about now? If someone hurts me can I hold on to my unforgiveness for at least a little while? Can’t I rely on the line, “I just can’t forgive this yet?” As it turns out, no, we can’t. Unforgiveness hurts us in the long term, but in it does a number on us in the short term as well. By turning the parable of the prodigal son on its head we found five reasons why forgiveness matters right now.
This morning I want to push things just one little step further. Are there any consequences of unforgiveness beyond us? I mean, okay, the person we aren’t forgiving is affected to some extent because we can’t relate to them in the same way anymore, but what if we’re in a place where we don’t really have to? Then it seems like we’re really the only ones affected by our unforgiveness. It’s still bad of course, but some of us are willing to tolerate hurting ourselves for a while depending on the reason for the pain. Yet are we (and possibly the target of the unforgiveness) the only victims of our unforgiveness? I don’t think so.
I don’t think so and I’d like to take a look at a story with you this morning that helps to show why. It begins way back with the birth of the man for whom the people of Israel would ultimately be named. The man’s name was Jacob and he was a scoundrel. Jacob was actually the second son of Isaac, the son of Abraham who was born at the promise of God. His twin brother, Esau, came out just before him, but Jacob was holding onto his heel. Because he came out clinging to his brother like this, Rebekah named him Jacob which means something like “one who grasps the heel.” Another translation of his name might be “one who deceives.” The people of this culture didn’t use a child’s name to carry on a family tradition or to express the parent’s individuality, but rather to convey something about the character of their child. And indeed, Jacob would grow to become a schemer. A man who sought to lay claim to all that he could, not aggressively, but craftily.
The first time we see this happen is in an ancient document that records a number of different origins. We call this book Genesis and our story picks up in chapter 25. The narrative glosses over the childhood and early adolescence of the boys, but after a summary statement describing just how different Jacob and Esau were from one another, it turns to this really interesting little story where we first see Jacob’s scheming. If you’ll find Genesis 25:29 with me you can follow along as I read.
“Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!’ (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright now.’ [By the way, a birthright back then was a special designation that went to the firstborn son and granted him some potentially valuable privileges later on down the line.] Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me now.’ So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.”
Now, this seems at first read to be kind of a random story, and in fact it doesn’t feature very prominently in the narrative but a couple more times. The point, though, is that while Esau was a shortsighted dope to agree to his brother’s bargain, Jacob deceitfully took advantage of his brother’s foolishness to lay claim to something that should never have been his in the first place. This was the first evidence of a rift between the brothers. A few years later, the rift would become much larger.
Isaac, their father, had grown very ill. It did not seem he would live much longer so he summoned Esau and told him to go out and make him some wild game stew. When he returned with the dish, Isaac would bless Esau. This blessing was also a big deal in that culture and was somewhat akin to a parent’s last will and testaments. The firstborn traditionally received the biggest blessing to go along with his biggest inheritance…which Esau had sold to his brother a few years earlier for some lentil stew. Well, overhearing this conversation, Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, angry at her elder son for marrying outside the clan, coaches Jacob in deceiving Isaac into giving him the blessing. Jacob complies and when Esau finds out about it he cries out angrily, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” Later, when Isaac could not hear him, he declared, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” In other words, forgiveness wasn’t exactly on Esau’s mind. And can you blame him? I mean, think about it. When someone dies today their kids often fight bitterly over who gets what and how much of it even when the will makes everything clear. Some of you have experienced this first hand. Imagine how heated things were here when Jacob had now twice stolen what would have otherwise gone to Esau. This kind of thing could probably go up on our list of unforgivables. Esau was wronged by his brother and Jacob showed no remorse for his actions that we can see. Expecting Esau to forgive simply wouldn’t be fair. Jacob should have to make restitution.
In any event, we next pick up this story some twenty years later. In a season of what was probably divine justice, the schemer, Jacob, gets himself swindled out of his bride and a great deal of income by his even sleazier uncle, Laban. When he finally escapes his uncle’s control and heads back toward his homeland, he receives the message that Esau is on the way to meet him with a pretty large force of fighting men. Jacob panics and devises a complicated plan to butter Esau up before they meet and to keep at least most of his family safe should things go badly. Yet when the two brothers are finally reunited, Genesis 33:4 reports that, “Esau ran to meet [Jacob] and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” It seems like everything is okay again. The two brothers are obviously reconciled. Esau’s undignified run to embrace his brother suggests that all the animosity that was present was now gone. Jacob even finally offers to make restitution for what he took from his brother all those years before. Everything is good again and this particular story is over. Except…it’s not.
Fast forward with me about 500 more years. Jacob has moved his family to Egypt where they are eventually made slaves of the Egyptians. Four hundred years pass. Moses is called by God to lead them out of Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. They leave Egypt, receive the law, refuse to go into the Promised Land, and get sentenced to 40 more years of wandering around the Sinai Peninsula for their faithlessness. As they were nearing the end of their 40 year timeout, the people of Israel were slowly lumbering their way up the east side of the Jordan River. The shortest route to their destination took them right through the land that had been settled by the descendants of none other than their brother Esau, a nation now called Edom. The people moved right up to the border of the land and Moses sent a very conciliatory request to the king of Edom requesting safe passage through Edom’s borders and out the other side. This would be like your deadbeat of a brother finally working to clean up his act and asking if he can stay with you for a few weeks until he can move on to his next place. But, he doesn’t ask for a room in the house. He says that he’ll camp out back, won’t use any of your electricity or water, won’t even kill any of your grass, will clean up after himself thoroughly, and if he does happen to impose on you at all, he’ll recoup the imposition financially at the first chance he gets. After the way the brothers had been reconciled all those years ago it seems like this should be a no brainer for Edom. Of course they could come on in. In fact, here, take a room in the house while you’re here and we’ll work out the payment later. That’s how it went…right?
Flip back to Numbers 20:18 with me. “But Edom said to him, ‘You shall not pass through, lest I come out with the sword against you.’ And the people of Israel said to him, ‘We will go up by the highway, and if we drink of your water, I and my livestock, then I will pay for it. Let me only pass through on foot, nothing more.’ But [Edom] said, ‘You shall not pass through.’ And Edom came out against him with a large army and with a strong force. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory, so Israel turned away from him.” In other words, Edom met his brother at the property line with a shotgun and said, “If you cross this line, I’ll blow your head off.”
But that’s not all. Over the next several hundred years of history Edom continued this pattern of animosity. From the prophet Obadiah, the shortest book in the Old Testament and which was written with the specific purpose of pronouncing doom on Edom (you know you’ve crossed a line with God when you get a whole book of prophecy dedicated solely to your judgment), we learn that they refused to help Israel when enemies attacked. In fact, they cheered on the enemies and came in to loot the land when they were down and out. They wouldn’t offer support to the survivors and even turned the prisoners they took over to Israel’s captors. It was so bad that a contemporary of Obadiah, the more well-known prophet, Ezekiel, wrote, “Because Edom acted revengefully against the house of Judah and has grievously offended in taking vengeance on them, therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘I will stretch out my hand against Edom and cut off from it man and beast. And I will make it desolate; from Teman even to Dedan they shall fall by the sword. And I will lay my vengeance upon Edom by the hand of my people Israel, and they shall do in Edom according to my anger and according to my wrath, and they shall know my vengeance, declares the Lord God.’”
I just have one thing to ask: What on earth happened? I thought the brothers were reconciled. I thought Esau forgave and moved on. How did things get to this point? I think what happened is this: Esau never really forgave. The text never says he does. Neither is Jacob reported to have sought it. Many interpreters assume it because of the enthusiasm of his greetings to Jacob and why would he do that if he hadn’t totally forgiven him? But I think what really happened is that he had done what we often do in place of forgiveness. He simply called it water under the bridge. That’s in the past. It’s done. There’s no use fighting over that anymore. Let’s just be friends and brothers again! But that’s not forgiveness. It’s avoidance. It’s a mob boss’s, “Eh, fuggedaboutit!” just before he has his henchman lob a grenade through your front window. You see, the problem with the “water under the bridge” approach that we so often take is that if the water is toxic, eventually it poisons the whole reservoir. Unforgiveness doesn’t just poison us. It poisons the whole system. Unforgiveness poisons the whole system.
Indeed, far from impacting just us, unforgiveness acts as a kind of systemic poison. Under normal circumstances our relationships with other people and their relationships with other people and so on out to six or seven degrees works kind of like a human body. There are different people who do different things and when everything is like it should be there is a certain harmony to it all. Things are in balance. The system is operating normally. But, when we add unforgiveness to the mix, it’s like we are adding poison to a body. The unforgiveness causes the various systems of our relational network to stop working like they should. For example, it might be that our unforgiveness occupies so much of our relational resources that we have to borrow some from other people. This means they have to borrow from still other people which unnecessarily burdens their relational resources which means they have to take from still other people. Gradually the whole relational network begins to get sick and show signs of decay. Or, it may be that the unforgiveness prevents some vital function from occurring. Instead of showing grace to the person we won’t forgive, we give them anger and bitterness and jealousy. Because they don’t receive the grace they need for the relationship cycle to function healthily, they can’t give grace to someone else who has wronged them. This pattern continues until the whole group is starved for grace. In these ways and others unforgiveness poisons the whole system.
Think about how and why this is for just a second. Jump back with me to our opening illustration of poison killing a body. You can certainly kill a body much more forcefully than with poison. A grenade would work just as well. Or maybe think about it like this: a really big sledgehammer is a pretty effective way to shatter a car’s windshield. But, a small spring-loaded pen-like device that would fit in the palm of your hand could do the job just as or perhaps even more effectively. The reason for this is wrapped up in the second law of thermodynamics. The second law observes that things tend to want to go in the direction of greater randomness and chaos. The glass particles of the windshield want to move in a certain direction: out and apart from each other. The pen-like device allows this to happen by merely helping the process along. It provides a little pressure relief at just the right…or wrong, as it were…point and things go naturally from there. In the same way, among people the law of sin proclaims that chaos wants to reign. We go naturally in a direction away from God and toward the random destructiveness of sin. Godly behavior—much like the laminate on either side of a windshield—restrains this. This means that our enemy doesn’t have to use something dramatic to destroy us. He can work with a great deal more craft and flair than that. Instead of some devastating device, he need only convince us that we wouldn’t forgive that person who hurt us and watch things unfold from there. Unforgiveness acts like a tool, a poison, pushing things in the direction they naturally want to go—toward sin and death. Unforgiveness poisons the whole system.
So then, what does this mean? It means that far from unforgiveness being a mostly future-oriented problem or even a problem that affects just us in the short term, it is a problem that poses a threat to the entire relational network of which we are apart. We can almost watch this happen in the relational breakdown between Jacob and Esau. The problem was first introduced by Jacob when he deceived his brother out of his birthright; a wound to the body. It blew up into a full blown sore a few years later when he stole his blessing. Then there was separation. Esau never forgave. The wound festered. He probably kept it somewhat covered, but you can easily imagine he passed his anger, his hatred, his bitterness on to his children and the various other members of his household. When they reunited things seemed good because he was genuinely glad to see his brother after so long a separation. But this just caused the wound’s covering to pull back some. The poison from the untreated wound that had been slowly leaching into the body began working its way through with greater vigor. The water was let flow under the bridge, but it was toxic. And when Israel came back to the pool a few years later, the whole system was polluted. Unforgiveness poisons the whole system.
In the same way, if we have unforgiveness in our lives, we cannot let it linger. It seems like it is a personal thing, a wound that we want to bear for now because, “I just can’t forgive it yet,” yet it isn’t personal. It’s communal. It’s relational. And all our relationships will become colored by it. Our kids will pick up on the animosity they see in our eyes and began carrying the grudge themselves. Our friends too will start to have their opinion of whoever the object of our unforgiveness is filtered through this lens—or if they don’t, we will separate from them emotionally and relationally because we start to view them as the enemy since they won’t officially side with us. Gradually the poison of unforgiveness will work its way through the system, doing damage all the while. Eventually the system will become so sickened by the poison that it will cease to operate in normal, healthy ways. There will perhaps be a veneer of wholeness, but a closer look will reveal that underneath, things are not as they should be. Unforgiveness poisons the whole system.
So here’s what you need to do: forgive. And not just once. Forgive over and over again every time the wound that led to the unforgiveness shows itself. By the way, when you get poisoned by something, doctors treat the poison in part by giving large doses of whatever body chemical the poison has caused to malfunction so that the body can start to operate normally again and the effect of the poison begins to lessen. Whenever the poison level grows, more treatment ensues. Sometimes the hurt of an emotional wound takes many years to ebb. Every time we feel the pain of the hurt, we respond with forgiveness. We must because the poison of unforgiveness can do great damage to our hearts without us even realizing it. We can’t afford to be lackadaisical here; there’s too much at stake. When we feel the pain of the wound, even fleetingly so, we must respond with forgiveness. That’s the treatment we need. That’s what will make the system start to operate healthily again. And where our unforgiveness has caused systemic relational issues, we take the grace that allowed the forgiveness to happen in our hearts and apply it liberally in the other places affected by the poison so that healing can happen there too. Look, healing a body rocked by poison can be a long and complicated process. Healing a whole relational system poisoned by unforgiveness can be too. But fooling ourselves into thinking that no damage to the relational system has happened won’t help. Unforgiveness poisons the whole system. And the only way to fix it is to forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Don’t let the poison go any further. Start the healing process. And come back next week to see both how to do it effectively and what happens when you do.