“Hamilton” is a hip-hop Broadway hit. It recalls one of America’s most talented founders. It’s also a reminder of what happens when perceived slights are not resolved.
In 2009, Lin-Manuel Miranda picked up a copy of Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton was a Caribbean-born bastard son who was orphaned at an early age. He immigrated to New York and soon proved to be an astonishing talent. He was the author of two-thirds of the Federalist Papers. Hamilton was George Washington’s right-hand man in the War for Independence. He was America’s first Treasury Secretary.
Hamilton was also insecure, always seeking to prove himself. This led to a tumultuous relationship with Aaron Burr, who was also insecure, but for opposite reasons. Burr was born to privilege. His father was the president of the college that became Princeton University. Jonathan Edwards was his maternal grandfather—but, like Hamilton, Burr was orphaned at an early age. He studied law and gave his life to politics.
Insecurity is an insidious thing. In today’s world, we’d say Hamilton and Burr had “daddy issues.” They’re at the center of Miranda’s show. In the opening number, Burr introduces Hamilton as a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman”—lyrics derived from a contemptuous description by John Adams. Hamilton returned the slur. According to Burr, Hamilton derided him as “a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of Government.”
Two days later, Hamilton issued a long-winded reply, refusing to acknowledge any culpability. “I trust upon more reflection you will see the matter in the same light with me. If not, I can only regret the circumstances and must abide the consequences.”
Hamilton would not abide the tragic consequences. The letter exchange led to Burr demanding a duel. Hamilton agreed. He was mortally wounded, dying the next day. Hamilton was not yet 50. His widowed bride, Elizabeth, would go on to live another 50 years, alone—all because Hamilton and Burr would not forgive perceived slights.
The unwillingness to forgive is tantamount to “suffocating” yourself emotionally, says Amit Sood, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic. Suffocation is an anguishing way to die. The emotional effects of an unwillingness to forgive can range from anxiety and depression to higher blood pressure, increased risk of heart attacks, and a lower sense of wellbeing.1
In addition, emotional asphyxiation is just plain ugly. You gag when good fortune comes to those you will not forgive. You privately rejoice when tragedy comes to those you resent. Those unwilling to forgive fixate on their perceived enemies. It’s their fault. They wrongly assume that forgiveness is saying the other person is right. But it isn’t justifying or condoning what the other person did, Sood notes. You are instead no longer being held captive by how others treat you. Forgiving others sets you free.
Setting captives free is one of Jesus’ aims (Luke 4:18). Most Christians imagine “captives” as those who are lost. But Jesus warned Peter, a forgiven man, about the tragic consequences of not forgiving others. He sought to set Peter free.
This became evident in a question Peter asked Christ: “How often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” (Mt. 18: 21-35) Jesus’ rebuke was severe. “Not at all!!!” Counting how often you forgive others will take you captive. You end up obsessing over the other person’s sin and forget about how much you’ve been forgiven.
Jesus spells this out in a story about a debtor who owed a king millions of dollars but couldn’t pay. The king graciously forgave the debt. The debtor went out and forgot all about this. He came across a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He demanded instant payment. The servant begged for a little more time. No dice. The forgiven debtor has the man thrown in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
When the king got wind of this, he released the servant. He threw the forgiven man in a tormentor’s prison until he had paid his entire debt. You’ll never earn enough in a tormentor’s prison to pay off a debt. The unforgiving man will likely be tormented for his entire life. That’s why Jesus warned Peter that what the king did to the unforgiving man “is what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive from your heart.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, noted that the bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone—like not forgiving. Yesterday, the Christian church celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. He rose from the dead to set captives free. You can read about this forgiveness and freedom in the Bible. Or, if you can find a ticket, catch the Broadway play “Hamilton.” Remember how an unwillingness to forgive will result in suffocating yourself.
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1 Diane Cole, “The Healing Powers of Forgiveness,” The Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2016.