07/07/2014 05:45 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2014

Forgiving Someone Who Hurt Us: Plan A & Plan B

The other morning while brooding over someone who had hurt me, I turned to a much-loved verse, Hebrews 12:15: "See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many."

The word "root" is horticultural, and it reminded me of a story I read about writer Amy Stewart and her curious garden in Eureka, California. All the plants are poisonous. Just about every plant within a securely fenced area in her backyard could kill you. Some, if ingested, will paralyze. Some will stop your heart. Some would bring about a stroke or put you in a coma. For example, Amy has a hemlock weed with a lovely little bloom, but it's extremely toxic to both domestic animals and human beings (like Socrates).

She also has White Snakeroot. In the American frontier, cattle often got sick grazing on this plant, and adults drinking milk from infected cows frequently died from "milk sickness." This is likely what killed Abraham Lincoln's mother.

Many of us have vegetable or flower gardens, but how about a poison garden? You probably don't want one in your backyard, but some of us have a little garden filled with poisonous plants inside us. We have roots of bitterness springing up to cause trouble and make others sick. This is the biblical analogy for allowing bitterness to become entrenched in our hearts where it can poison our personalities like Snakeroot.

A forgiving spirit isn't just a positive platitude, a personality trait, a counseling method, an ethical exercise, or a therapeutic technique. It's the sum and substance of every page and paragraph of the Bible. It's the crux of the cross and gist of grace. That's why we can't live successfully if we harbor resentment toward another.

Humans can inflict great abuse on one another. Perhaps you're thinking of someone who has hurt you in the past. Perhaps it has left residual resentment in your life, understandably so. That's where forgiveness comes in. Having a forgiving spirit is the difference between growing hemlock or hollyhocks in the garden of your heart.

If there's someone you need to forgive, how do you go about it? It can be a little hard to figure out, but it helps to remember there are two ways of eradicating bitterness from our systems -- Plan A and Plan B.

Plan A is the ideal. This is the forgiveness of reconciliation. When the offending person is contrite, we can practice forgiveness that heals our relationships. This kind of forgiveness happens when someone sincerely says, "I'm sorry," and we say, "I forgive you." It may take time for wounds to heal, for trust to be reestablished, or for things to become normal again; but in time the relationship can be stronger than before. This is what happened with the prodigal son and his father in Luke 15, and with Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 50.

But forgiveness also has a Plan B. What if the offending person is unrepentant or unavailable? Perhaps they're dead. We can still practice forgiveness, but it's a different variety -- not the forgiveness of reconciliation but of release. We release them into God's hands. We let go of bitterness. We throw the whole situation into the hands of our heavenly Father and let him deal with it as he sees fit.

This kind of forgiveness is expressed to God in prayer rather than directly to the other person. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, He said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). It's interesting he didn't tell the man wielding the hammer, "I forgive you." He was not reconciled with his abusers. There was no restored fellowship. He wasn't absolving them of guilt. He was telling God, in effect, "I am not going to harbor anger toward them; they don't even know what they are doing. I'm going to turn them over to you with a prayer that you'll lead them to repentance and forgiveness."

Stephen, the first martyr of the church, took the same approach in Acts 7:59-60, saying as he collapsed under stoning, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." He forgave them, but it wasn't Plan A forgiveness. There was no reconciliation. Stephen wasn't condoning or excusing their actions. He was saying, "Heavenly Father, I'm not going to die in a state of hatred. I'm going to release my indignation to you and place these men in your hands and trust you to handle them. Maybe you'll even bring them to repentance and true spiritual forgiveness."

In at least one case this prayer was answered as Saul of Tarsus, who held the cloaks of the stone-throwers, became the apostle Paul.

This kind of forgiveness doesn't absolve the person of blame before God or remove the consequences of his or her actions. We aren't minimizing what happened to us. But we're willing to turn the damage over to God, release the offender to him, and depend on him to make things right. We no longer have to carry the burden of indignation or to worry about getting even, for the Bible says, "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath" (Romans 12:18). He can resolve issues on our behalf and help us eradicate any and all poisonous roots from the garden of our minds.

All this is based on the truth that God has forgiven us through Jesus Christ. The ultimate act of forgiveness was when Jesus died on the cross to bear our sins. If He forgives us our sins, we should also forgive one another -- with Plan A forgiveness when we can; when Plan B when we must.

If there's anything more liberating than being forgiven, it's forgiving others with the same forgiveness we've received. It's a shame to miss it. See to it, then, that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.