The Problem of Bitterness
Mr. Donald K. Steele of Lakefield, Ontario, serves as an elder in the assembly at Lakefield. Currently he is employed by the Peterborough School District as a grade school teacher at Norwood. We sincerely appreciate his many past articles in “Food for the Flock” and welcome his latest study which deals helpfully and effectively with “The Problem of Bitterness.”
A bitter spirit is painful and destructive to those who must bear with it, but even more so to the person who harbours the bitterness within. Some 20 years ago it was my good fortune to teach a class of very bright children gathered from all parts of the city. Because of this they had to eat lunch at school, and since there was no lunch room they ate in their classroom. After a little girl became physically ill during lunch one day, the building custodian had to be called to clean up. Though I do not consider myself in any way responsible for this accident, the man who was called has treated me bitterly to this very day, and virtually refuses to speak on those rare occasions when our paths do cross. This has always troubled me, but I am sure that it is a much more harmful thing in his life than in mine. Still, it does trouble me and always will to a certain extent.
In a Christian, bitterness is doubly destructive, since it not only poisons the personality and ruins the testimony, but also frustrates the grace of God which should be shining out through that person to a lost and dying world. The pain of bitterness is felt when we believe ourselves to be the objects of injustice or unfairness. Someone else gets a promotion that we thought we deserved, or some such circumstance triggers a bitter resentment and keen sense of injustice which is at the root of bitterness.
Bitterness results from an overemphasis on our rights. As Larry Richards has so aptly put it:
“Most bitter people argue that they’ve got a ‘right.’ It’s almost as though the constitution guarantees us the right to “‘life, liberty and the pursuit of bitterness.’”1
Bitterness is associated with every type of disappointment, grief, hatred, and anger that can come into a person’s life. Whether or not we feel that we have a right to be bitter toward another person or group of persons, we must recognize that the act of embedding bitterness in our personality changes us in some unpleasant ways. Bitterness brings with it a hardness, a negative spirit, a harsh and cynical view of life, all of which make us very difficult to live with, and very difficult to enjoy within the context of the local church. Who indeed enjoys listening to brother so-and-so tell for the hundredth time how he was wronged by Mr. X 35 years ago, and how that Mr. X has never yet had the grace to tender a much-needed apology?
Do We Have the Right to be Bitter?
The Bible makes it quite clear that the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ does not have the right to be bitter. It is specifically forbidden. Hebrews 12:15 advises us to look diligently to this matter. We are to watch very carefully to see that no man fails of or misses the grace of God in such a way as to permit a root of bitterness to grow up and cause trouble for that individual, and to defile many others. It would appear that the Spirit of God anticipated this great force for evil, and left instructions concerning it in the Word of God. It is when we forget the grace of God that gave us so incredibly much more than we could ever deserve, that we begin to think that we have “rights” which in fact the believer does not have at all. To “fail of the grace of God,” as the KJV puts it, is to fail to apprehend and to comprehend that because of the grace of God on our behalf, operating through Christ’s great sacrifice at Calvary, we have only one right toward others and that is to show to them as much as we can the same forgiving spirit and grace that God showed to us at Calvary. A tall order? Yes indeed. Hard to do? Impossible without the Spirit’s leading and power. But if we have not failed to allow the grace of God to seep down into our souls and personalities, then we will not be able to harbour resentments, nurse slights and misfortunes, and give bitterness that root on which to grow and fester within us. When we truly understand the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ in giving His all for us, we can scarcely entertain bitterness toward another person for whom He also died.
The Antidote to Bitterness
Does God have a cure for bitterness? Does He have a very special word for those so afflicted? I believe that He does, and it is found in Ephesians 4:31-32:
Let all bitterness, and wrath, and clamour, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice, and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.
Let us also look carefully at James 3:14-15 (NIV):
But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.
These verses show us quite clearly that bitterness in the child of God is not a right; it is a sin. To sin in this way, and to harbour it and nurse it along for years and years as some have done, must surely grieve the heart of God, besides doing incalculable harm to the one who holds the bitterness within. God says to put it away from you. God says it is earthly, unspiritual, and of the devil. It is a sin, one of the more serious sins of the spirit, linked above with envy, selfish ambition, wrath, brawling, and slander.
Three Steps From the Scriptures
The first step we must take if we are to overcome bitterness is to stop blaming someone else. The bitterness is our own personal reaction to a particular situation. It is not caused by the person who offended us — it comes from within as a response from ourselves. We can never get victory over bitterness until we admit to ourselves that our reaction is wrong. To allow bitterness to seep into your personality, corroding and eating away the joy, the love, the peace and the satisfactions of life is so very wrong. If in blaming others we harm only ourselves, surely we must see that this is wrong.
The second step involves looking closely at the grace of God in our lives. Did you look at a terrible personal experience and see only injustice? God asks you to look at that experience again. Look closely. Look at the total outcome over a considerable period of time. Do you not see the hand of God, working out that which is good for your life, even in those painful experiences? Has God not loved you deeply through all that time? Has He not demonstrated clearly that you are His child, dearly beloved and cared for, through it all? How can you lose sight of the grace of God, and imagine for a moment that you have the “right” to be bitter? God the Father brings difficult experiences into every life, so that we may share in His holiness.
The most terrible experience of my life unfolded over a period of a year. At the time it seemed a nightmare of lost hopes, false accusations, unjust decisions, twisted ambitions and a terrible loss of position and prestige. Yet out of all of that came some wonderful blessings. Dear sweet Christians ministered to me in ways that would have been impossible had I not suffered so. God brought me to my knees in prayer, in seeking Him, in casting my all upon Him, and He blessed me as He had never been able to do before. Looking back I find that the potential for great and lasting bitterness was there, but that God has so graciously ministered to me that there is no room in my heart for bitterness toward those who were personally and deeply involved in that entire situation.
The third thing we must do is to keep on loving others, even those who have wronged us. What did we read in Ephesians 4:32? Be ye kind to one another. Kindness is love in action. We are also to be tenderhearted, forgiving one another, recognizing that God has forgiven us for the sake of Christ. If God could forgive us all of our sins, for the sake of Christ, can we not forgive another believer his mistakes, his malice, his lies, or whatever he (or she) might have done to wrong us? James encourages us to use heavenly wisdom in these most difficult relationships, and this heavenly wisdom will steer us away from bitterness, and toward a submissive, peace-loving merciful spirit, full of good fruit, impartial and sincere (James 3:17-18). Love and bitterness cannot exist in the same place at the same time. Just as baking soda will neutralize and destroy an acid, so does love erase the corrosive action of bitterness in our lives.
A Final Word
It is my opinion that many believers today harbour some bitterness toward other believers. This explains why their lives are so barren and unproductive for God. How can God use a bitter, corroded, malice-filled life to demonstrate that Christ has come to give us life, and to give it more abundantly? It is ludicrous, of course, to even think that God can show His love and peace, and His holiness and grace through a person who has rejected all of these things in favour of clinging tightly to an old injustice, slight, or wound at the hands of another. Unless we can follow the Scriptures, utilize the steps above, and free ourselves from all bitterness towards others, we cannot expect to have a bright and shining testimony for our Lord Jesus Christ who gave His all for us. Please think very carefully about this if it affects you in any way. Give God a chance to work in your life, so that He might influence others through you.
1 Lawrence O. Richards, The Believer’s Guidebook, pp. 73-74.