Dealing with Bitterness
By Lynda D. Elliott
When we feel hurt, it is easy to become bitter. Because bitterness may appear to be justified, many people are not aware that it is a serious problem that can have spiritual, emotional and physical consequences.
God warns us about the effects of bitterness in Heb. 12:15, which says that a bitter root can cause torment and defile many. James 3:14-16 tells us that bitterness leads to defiance, confusion and all sorts of evil practices. When we help someone reject bitterness, we are helping him heal.
A bitter person has allowed outward circumstances to determine his attitude. Some common statements that bitter people make are:
“I’ll never forget what they did.”
“Why is God doing this to me?”
“They don’t deserve another chance.”
When you are helping people, listen for cues to bitterness. As Christians, we are admonished to “exercise foresight and be on the watch to see that no one falls back from and fails to secure God’s grace” (Heb. 12:15).
Outer Circumstances, Inner Responses
The attitudes of a bitter person affect and infect many because bitterness creates self-centered, self-indulgent and irresponsible behavior.
A friend of mine asked me to meet with her Aunt Marie who complained of chronic aches and pains. Arriving at my office, she walked as if she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. She was only 52 years old, but she looked much older.
At one point I asked her, “Have you experienced any disappointments or difficulties in your life?” Aunt Marie immediately perked up. Her eagerness to respond was evident.
She began, “My brother robbed me of my portion of our family inheritance. Because of what he did, I didn’t go to college. And don’t ask me to forgive him! I never will! Just thinking about him makes me ache all over.”
Aunt Marie had just diagnosed herself! She had been bitter for 34 years! The effects had become evident in her body, mind and spirit.
Sometimes we cannot get an answer to our questions, so we blame God for allowing the pain, even though we readily confess that God does no wrong to anyone.
If the person you are helping blames God for the hurt she has suffered by an offender, help her make an important distinction: Pain and suffering come from Satan, who does evil continually (see 1 Pet. 5:8), and from our own fallen natures. We break God’s laws repeatedly. We harm one another. We make mistakes and cause accidents.
God, who is perfect love, is the one who comes to our aid and helps us recover from what Satan has done to harm us and from what we have done to harm each other. God is the one who forgives us for our sins and helps us correct our mistakes.
Sometimes people wonder if we should ever forgive God. He never needs our forgiveness because He never fails us, but we do need to know Him as He really is so that we will not doubt Him.
If your friend is bitter toward God, suggest that she read John 10:10 in which Jesus explains the source of evil. Jesus said, “The thief comes only in order that he may steal and may kill and may destroy. I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance to the full, till it overflows.” Also point to Jas. 1:13-14, which explains how we are enticed by our own evil desires; we are not tempted by God to sin, for He tempts no one.
Help her understand that if we do not understand God’s character and blame Him for our pain, we will lose our ability to trust Him.
The Antidote For Bitterness
If your friend wants to be cleansed of bitterness, God has a cure. It is forgiveness. I have found that few believers really understand what forgiveness means.
In one of my recent seminars, I asked the audience, “What does it mean to forgive?” Someone responded, “It means to forgive and forget.” Another said, “You have to act as if nothing happened.” Someone else said, “Forgiveness means that you let them off the hook.”
With beliefs like these, it is easy to see why many people are so reluctant to forgive! Under these belief systems there is no recognition of sin, no justice and no plan for safety in the future! Because of these deceptions, many remain victims all their lives.
The Dynamics Of Forgiveness
When someone does harm to another, the action according to Scripture (see Matt. 16:23) is called an offense.
A man named James suffered an offense and fell into that scenario: “I have been angry for months because my son’s coach molested him; I can’t let it go, even though the guy is in prison. I plan ways to make him pay. Yet he can never pay enough for what he did!”
James’ initial anger could be justified. He used his anger appropriately to press charges against the coach. However, he allowed himself to continue to be angry until the anger hardened into bitterness that was consuming his life and leading him into sin.
“I find myself getting angry at innocent people. It’s as if I am trying to make everyone pay for what happened.”
When I approached the subject of forgiveness with him, James’ response was typical of most people who have been offended.
He exclaimed, “Forgive him? No way! He doesn’t deserve to be forgiven.” James believed that unless he supplied the punishment himself, the offender would not be justly punished.
The Definition Of Forgiveness
Was James right in his assessment? According to Strong’s Concordance, forgiveness means “to be merciful, to pardon, to purge away, to put off and to reconcile.”
But what about justice? Is the perpetrator really to be “let off the hook?”
As James and I began to discuss his feelings, we studied Rom. 12:19, which says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave the way open for [God’s] wrath; for it is written, Vengeance is Mine, I will repay (requite), says the Lord.”
James thought for a moment. “So if I let go of my anger,” he reasoned, “God will still remember. He says that He will repay. Even if the offender is paroled, God will see that He gets the punishment he deserves in some way. God won’t forget my son.”
James began to see that God does not disregard the offenses against us. He offers to undertake justice for us, releasing us from the heavy burden of using precious moments of our lives trying to punish those who have harmed us.
As he continued to study God’s Word, James was able to release his anger and trust God to keep His promise. As the months went by, James was free to spend time with his son, enjoying their activities together instead of wearing himself out with anger. James and his son were free to move on with their lives, no longer bound by the actions of the perpetrator.
What About Reconciliation?
We must be prepared for the fact that our forgiveness does not necessarily lead to change on the part of our offenders. Ideally, forgiveness would result in better relationships, but this does not always happen. There may be no change in those relationships this side of heaven. In fact, even when we have forgiven someone, we may still need to protect ourselves from harm.
A Priority Reason to Forgive
If the person you are helping is struggling to forgive, ask him if he would like to be like his offender.
Recently I met Rhonda, a woman in her mid-fifties. As Rhonda began to tell her story, she sobbed. “My daughter hasn’t spoken to me in five years. She says that she never wants to hear the sound of my voice again. I treated her just as my mother treated me!” I am convinced that we become like the people we think about. If we have been hurt and have not forgiven, the person who hurt us becomes the frequent centerpoint of our thoughts.
Rhonda was a perfect example of this. Listen to her words: “I never meant to abuse my daughter. When I got angry with her, my mother’s words came back to me. I tried not to say them, but I did. I became just like her. I became my mother!”
Think of the person who has hurt you the most. A negative example is powerful. The more we think about our offenders, the more like them we become. The only way to detach from their image is to forgive them.
If you are helping someone who is serious about forgiveness, here is a list of questions you may ask.
- Have you become like your offender?
- What has your bitterness cost you?
- Would you like to have peace?
I close here with a story by a woman named Nancy. May her example be an inspiration to you and the one you are helping.
When my mother died after a two-year battle with ovarian cancer, I lost a major source of unconditional love.
After a full year of solitude, my father was ready to live again. He asked my sister and me for permission to date the church pianist. We were fine with the idea.
In just a few months, Daddy was “in love.” He asked me to take him to a card shop so he could purchase cards to send to “her.”
As I watched my father experiencing a love I had never seen him have with my mother, a seed of bitterness began to grow.
My father married the pianist and I had never seen him so happy. A few weeks after their marriage, I received a birthday card that said, “To a Wonderful Daughter.” It was lovely except for the fact that he had signed his name and her name on it. I was offended that he could replace Mother so easily. In my anger, I planned to bring up this topic during our next phone call.
On the morning of my father’s regular call, the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart: Can you simply be happy for the love and joy your father has found after such sorrow? Your mother is in heaven now, free and peaceful. She is not holding on to any of this, so why are you? As I heard His voice, I was able to release my anger and, instead, enjoy a pleasant phone chat with my father.
Ten days later I got a call informing me that my father had died from an aneurysm. The sorrow and shock were surreal. But in the midst of the chaos, I could thank God for restraining me that morning. The Holy Spirit had warned me and made it possible for me to have delightful memories of our last conversation instead of bitter rancor and regrets.
With your encouragement, your friend may come to realize that we do not always have time left in which to forgive and to save ourselves from bitterness.