We’ve all met people who are clearly bitter. They usually don’t even realize it, but it spills out like poison in nearly every conversation they have. They have been wronged, and usually have good reason to be upset. The problem is that the anger they harbor ends up destroying them rather than the ones who offended them. Jesus told us to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us, but that is so difficult to do! When I was going through my divorce, I rehearsed his offenses in my head like a well-worn record. The more I thought about it, the angrier I became until I was completely miserable. I was so stressed and depressed that my physical health began to decline. I knew I was supposed to forgive, but the offenses continued and it just seemed impossible. In my flesh it certainly would have been, but God was so gentle and kind in dealing with my heart. The bible study group I was in just happened to choose to study Kay Arthur’s book, Lord, Heal my Hurts. As I browsed through the chapters I could see that it dealt with forgiving those who have wronged you. I asked, “Lord, how can I forgive him after all he has done?” As much as I hated the thought of just “letting him off the hook,” I knew that holding onto my bitterness would only prolong my misery. Perhaps the book would provide some wisdom that would make it easier.
As I plunged into Arthur’s study of Jeremiah and Matthew 18, God was so faithful to remind me that he was my healer. My anger had made sick emotionally and physically, and I knew I had to be free. Somehow as I surrendered to his Spirit and the truths in his Word, my heart began to change. When I recognized God’s amazing grace lavished on me, I began to realize that the sins in my heart were far more numerous than the sins that had been committed against me, and yet Jesus had willingly laid his life down for me. By the time I finished that book, the question I asked God was “How can I not forgive him?” It was powerful and completely liberating. It seemed as though the weight of the entire world was lifted off my shoulders, and even the physical ills I had been experiencing cleared up. I was free! I also learned that I really hadn’t “let him off the hook” either. I had merely entrusted him to God, who was much more able to handle it.
When I was angry, I was wishing that somehow he could hurt as much as I hurt. I wanted him to pay the penalty for his offenses, but when I let go of that desire, and began to pray God’s best for him, something very odd happened. God seemed to step in. There had been one situation that seemed completely unfair to me, but one day shortly after I let it all go I received some news. It seemed as if God had repaid my husband for what he had done. He suffered consequences that I never could have caused, and I feel almost completely sure God waited until I let go to allow those consequences to occur. Rather than feeling vindicated or happy about my husband’s loss, I felt a sense of complete awe that my God would go to battle on my behalf. I knew I could continue to trust him for the outcome, and even though things remained difficult for some time, I learned so much from that experience. I learned that my amazing God was for me, and that he hated the things that happened to my children and me as much as I did. He could deal with my husband with perfect love that would include consequences. I realized that he willingly came down and suffered the greatest injustice of all so that he could enter into my suffering. He forgave his offenders at the cross, and asked the Father to forgive them as well.
Knowing we have a God who has experienced the worst of human suffering is a powerful thing. It means we can run to him and find compassion. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He knows betrayal firsthand. He knows abuse, and he knows excruciating pain. He experienced it all, but never harbored bitterness and hatred in his heart. I ran across this passage in my quiet time today, and it reminded me of how Jesus handled persecution. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:17-18). Jesus loved those who offended him enough to try and “reason frankly” with them. He never sugarcoated his messages to the religious leaders, but he never wished them harm either. Instead he mourned over them (Mt. 23:37), and continued to speak directly to all who would listen.
Think about the difference between his example and what most of us do. When someone hurts us, we tend to only look at ourselves. We fail to consider the loss our offenders are experiencing. Obviously, they have chosen to break their relationship with us, but even worse, they have broken relationship with God. As his children, we should encourage others to be reconciled to God, even as Jesus did. Yet, most of us lash out at those who hurt us. Some of us are more explosive, and others of us just harbor anger in bitterness in our hearts. Rather than following the protocol set forth in Matthew 18:15-17, and talking to the offender, we talk about him or her in the form of gossip or slander. Love can be a messy thing. The most loving action when someone sins against us is confrontation, and perhaps taking it to the church if that person refuses to listen. (Warning, in cases of abuse, this is not always possible. Still, you must choose to give it to God, and seek godly help from someone who understands the dynamics of abuse.) When we fail to follow God’s protocol, we hurt ourselves by harboring hatred in our hearts. Psalm 37:8 indicates, that only brings harm. I love the quote, “Unforgiveness is like taking poison and hoping that the other person dies.” That is so true.
When I held onto my bitterness, every relationship in my life was affected, including my relationship with God, because underneath it all I was questioning his goodness. I was wondering why he allowed such evil to occur in our lives, and completely disregarded his ability to redeem. Hebrews 12:15 tells us that allowing a root of bitterness to grow defiles many. When I come across bitter people, I can see it all around them—like poison spilling out. Nobody enjoys being around a bitter person, so most of them end up unconsciously alienating themselves from others, and then becoming angrier because people don’t seem to want to help them. Even though the bitter person may just think they are angry with the person who hurt them only, their anger comes out at everyone. They seem angry when things go well for others, and even angrier when trials come their way. Truly it does nothing to “win friends and influence people.” It merely causes most people to feel uncomfortable, especially those who are walking in a season of blessing. Eventually, it becomes like a self-fulfilling prophecy. They carry the attitude that life has been unfair, people have been unfair, and God doesn’t seem to care. And that is where the real problem lies. Yes, life can be sorely unfair, and people can be too, but to apply that rationale to our Lord is to choose faulty thinking. It is to choose to believe a lie rather than the truth, and truth is the only thing that can make us free.
Choosing to believe God’s love and goodness towards us is crucial in overcoming bitterness. We must remember that he promises to work all things together for our good when are committed to him (Rom. 8:28). We must choose to believe he wants to even use our pain for good, and we must release the anger to him, knowing that he is far more able to handle our offender than we are. We must choose to stop “drinking the poison” of bitterness, and instead release our lives and the lives of our offenders to God, knowing that he is for us (Rom. 8:31). He held nothing back in winning our redemption.
I often direct angry people to the story of Joseph in Genesis. If anyone had a right to be bitter he did. Yet, when it was all said and done, God vindicated him, and the brothers who had abused and abandoned him stood before him trembling. He had the power to get revenge as they stood before him pleading for forgiveness and mercy. For most bitter souls that would have been sweet, but somehow in all he had suffered Joseph had refused bitterness. When his brothers pleaded for mercy, Joseph’s response was “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:19-20).
Joseph did not become bitter, because he recognized the sovereign hand of God in his difficult circumstances. He could have chosen to dwell on the bad things that had happened to him, and he probably never would have left prison. That’s exactly what happens to those who allow bitterness to rule their hearts. They remain imprisoned in the past, in the “what ifs” and even in the desire to get even. The bottom line is that those who choose bitterness choose to disregard the promises in God’s Word, and follow their feelings instead. Freedom from bitterness comes down to a choice to believe God’s Word over emotions. It basically comes down to our core beliefs. Do we believe his Word or not? If we choose to remain bitter, then apparently our belief in God is merely intellectual assent, because in reality we are living by our own reasoning. Even though we know Romans 8:28, we can’t imagine how the thing we are suffering could be used for good. I think the best answer to that can be found in Romans 8:29. His plan is to “conform us to the image of his son.”
When we choose to focus on God rather than ourselves in the midst of suffering, he will use it to change us and draw us closer to himself. Somewhere in the process our perspective changes, and we begin to recognize just how temporary the painful circumstances are. We realize that everything on this earth will disappoint at one time or another, but he is forever faithful. Suffering is a beautiful opportunity to know him better. The Apostle Paul stated that he had lost everything for the cause of the Gospel, but that he considered it all rubbish in comparison to knowing God (Phil. 3:8). Only those who have learned to release their bitterness to God can know the wonder Paul is describing here. I often tell people I am grateful for the pain and trials I have experienced, because when all I had left was him, I found out just how wonderful he is. I would not trade my relationship with him for anything this world has to offer, and experiencing great loss drove me directly into his loving arms (once I let go of the bitterness). Hallelujah I am blessed!
If you have experienced hurt that has left you angry and bitter, I pray that right now you will be willing to release it to the Lover of your soul. I pray that you will recognize this time as a time of opportunity, even as painful as it might be, and I pray that you will choose to believe God’s truths over your own emotions. I highly recommend Kay Arthur’s book, Lord, Heal My Hurts. It will help adjust your perspective to a more biblical one– if you are willing. And in the end, willingness is the key. God will meet you where you are, and enable you to forgive. I could never have done it on my own. He stands ready and willing to help you when you turn to him. He has a good plan for your life, and knowing him is the greatest treasure of all. Dear friend, I pray you will run to his loving arms right now, and lay all your burdens down before him. He loves you. He sees what has happened, and hates it as much as you do. Yet, he will not let it go to waste– he will redeem it and use it for good. Choose to trust him now.
For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen; for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Cor. 4:17-18