When You Bury the Hatchet, Don't Leave the Handle Sticking Out of the Ground

How forgiveness goes wrong and what we can do to fix it.


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Actions vs Words

“Burying the hatchet” is a helpful image of forgiveness.

I imagine a Sioux Indian chief and a Colonel in the U.S. Cavalry meeting upon a hill on the southern plains. The Native American wielding his tomahawk and the officer, his pistol. Both parties represent warring factions that have been inflicting wounds upon the other for years.

But the moment has come for peace.

This is why the ceremony upon the hill would be such a critical factor in the process. After all, simply shouting I forgive you across the valley would accomplish little. Words easily spoken tend to be cheap. But actions. We even have a saying, “Actions speak more loudly than words.”

This is why the burying of the hatchet is a visually appropriate image of forgiveness. The Indian chief buries what he could use against his rival and the officer buries his own instrument of death which could be used against the tribe. The power of forgiveness that leads to peace does not merely rest in the words “I forgive you,” but with the actual burial of the offense.

This burial business is easier said than done.

The temptation for the chief would be to bury his hatchet with the handle exposed above the earth, still within reach. Just in case.

The same would be true for the officer.

It isn’t difficult to see how risky the proposition of forgiveness is. If I put my weapon down, it leaves me exposed and vulnerable to attack.

Everyday Hatchets

Consider how this plays out in everyday relationships. With tomahawks and pistols as metaphors, a husband and a wife wield similar weapons with their words—words that go deep, inflicting pain and damage not just on the surface but down to the soul. Few weapons are more deadly to a relationship than the hateful barbs of a well-aimed word of contempt.

If arguments, whether physical or verbal, continue to be fueled by my past resentments and offenses, I can be sure that genuine forgiveness has yet to be extended or experienced because the hatchets and pistols have never truly been buried. Or they have only been buried halfway, with the handle sticking out of the ground. But halfway forgiveness is half-baked forgiveness. It is worthless.

Thankfully, this is not how God forgives. He buries the hatchet completely. In 1 John 4:9–11, we read,

9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

Four Empowering Principles

In this passage, we discover four empowering principles of forgiveness that are essential to grasp and apply if we are going to express forgiveness to others as it has been given to us—the kind of forgiveness that has the power to reconcile and restore the most broken of relationships.

1) Forgiveness is an Expression of Love

While it is common to consider love primarily as an emotion, biblically speaking, love (Greek, agape) primarily is an action. It is not something we feel as much as it is something we do. Of course, love is not unemotional, either. As we know, the feeling of affection—a desire to draw near for mutual enjoyment—is very much part of a full-orbed understanding of agape love.

Love as a noun is the disposition of the heart to bless someone by doing good to them. For example, the commitment to love someone in marriage is a promise to bless one’s spouse by doing good to them. Love as a verb is the expression of that commitment. When love is seen merely as emotion versus a commitment to bless, our resolve to express objective, burying the hatchet style forgiveness stands on a weak foundation.

When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, I don’t think he is demanding we feel something as much as we engage in some action of blessing. We are to feed, cloth, and pray for our enemies. These are actions. Another act of love is forgiveness, which is exactly what Jesus did for us through the cross.

This is why John says, “God showed his love.” He didn’t just use words. He did something to bless us. He forgave us. But how? By sending his son to die so that we could live. It was an atoning death, covering our sin, guilt, and shame so that we can be reconciled to God as Father without fear.

In his forgiveness, he buries our sin like a hatchet and promises never to dig it up and use it against us again. This is how forgiveness is a practical, active expression of love.

2) Forgiveness Requires Initiative

Forgiveness doesn’t just happen. If I wait for the forgiveness feeling to rise up within me in order to genuinely forgive someone, then I may be waiting a long time. In some cases, forever.

Most relationships don’t have that long.

In 1 John 4, we see God the Father taking the initiative to do what was necessary in order to secure our forgiveness. A debt existed. As a just God, he cannot just turn a blind eye to the offense. The law demands justice. Therefore, the debt must be paid and the sentence served.

Rather than waiting for us to either earn forgiveness or deserve it, God took action, intervening on our behalf to do something that would pay the debt and serve the sentence.

He buried the hatchet in the cross. We didn’t deserve it, couldn’t earn it, but God did it. He took the initiative to express the love of forgiveness.

3) Forgiveness is Costly

Remember, words are cheap. It may be difficult to say I forgive you, but genuine, hatchet burying forgiveness is profoundly costly. After all, the debt has to be paid by someone. In forgiveness, it is the offended rather than the offender who pays the debt.

So how do we pay the debt? We give up our right to use a former offense against the person who committed the offense. In other words, we bury the hatchet completely, refusing ourselves access to the handle ever again.

It is buried. It is over. The offender is now safe from retribution.

This is how God forgives us, which also is the model of how we are to forgive one another. As John wrote, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

Because of the great cost involved in forgiveness, those who are offended should not be too quick with their words. If I am going to forgive someone, I need to be prepared to take my shovel and dig a hole so deep that when I bury the sin and cover it up, I will not be able to go dig it back up.

After I have done the hard, costly work of burying the hatchet, I need to make sure the person who has sinned against me knows that it has been buried and will not be brought back up again against them.

This confirmation of forgiveness may begin with the words, “You are fully forgiven. It is buried.” However, from personal experience and in light of how God confirms to us the objective status of forgiveness, we would be wise to go beyond words to some kind of objective affirmation of relational restoration.

This “act of confirmation” may be done with a hug or by spending time together (rather than the non-forgiveness of the silent treatment). Whatever it is that would show the offender they really are, existentially forgiven, make it clear that the offense has been buried.

Just like ours was nailed to a cross.

4) Forgiveness Brings Life and Restores Joy

This is the best part about forgiveness, where the difficult process of burial leads to new life and restores joy to the relationship.

Isn’t this the way of the gospel? Like a seed planted in the ground, death brings life. The burial of sin germinates into renewal. The dark night of sorrow is met with a morning of joy.

What if this could happen in your marriage? With your kids? A friend?

First, it needs to happen to me with God in Jesus through the cross, where I become the one who is forgiven fully and without limit.

Only when I become the recipient of such love and mercy will I be able to express it to someone else. For when I see myself as the object of extravagant grace, I begin to see forgiveness as an evangelistic opportunity to share the gospel by re-gifting God’s grace to someone else. In this light, rather than seeing the process of forgiveness as something to avoid, it becomes something to pursue—for our good and God’s glory.