Dealing with Bitterness

Part of our spiritual battle will be against bitterness -an embittered and resentful spirit which refuses reconciliation.  Sometimes the bitter reaction will seem extreme and even irrational. We are called to combat bitterness (particularly in ourselves), and especially to show the opposite spirit.  As Paul puts it: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as Christ forgave you.”  (Ephesians 4:31, 32)  “Therefore as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”  (Colossians 3:12, 13)

Two points emerge from the New Testament: 

Forgive because Christ forgave you

The passages above stress this.  Then in Matthew 18:21-34, against the background of the rabbis saying we should forgive up to three times, Peter asks Jesus how often we should forgive — up to seven times? Jesus’ reply (whether it is “77 times” or “70 times 7”) means we should always forgive.

This does not mean we shouldn’t rebuke the sinner.  Jesus says in Luke 17:3, 4 “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him.  If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent’, forgive him.” Notice that Jesus says “if he repents, forgive him”.  In a sense, forgive­ness can only be complete when a person repents.  The offender can only have the full assurance of forgiveness and the consequent enjoyment of reconciliation when he repents.  However, even before he repents, we must have a totally forgiving attitude and readiness to forgive fully.  None of this contradicts the idea of disciplining the persistently impenitent offender, as Jesus makes clear in Matthew 18:15-17, but the attitude in which discipline is carried out must be one of forgiveness as we have just described it.

Forgive in order to be forgiven by God

Jesus makes it very clear: “if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14, 15)  “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”  (Mark 11:25 compare Matthew 6:12, 18:35)

It is clear, therefore, that if we do not forgive others, God does not forgive us – we remain unforgiven.  Is that your present state? If so, you must repent and forgive.  However, it is important to remember that we are not forgiven by God because we forgive.  We could never earn God’s forgiveness in that or any other way.  We are forgiven by God’s grace and mercy solely because Christ died for us.  But if we are unforgiving we cannot receive that forgiveness from God which Christ purchased for us on the Cross.  Forgiving others is a condition of receiving forgiveness from God. Unforgiveness shows we are not truly penitent.  And, incidentally, resentment and unforgiveness are like an emotional and spiritual cancer, which do immense damage, even to our physical health.

So important is reconciliation that the Lord tells us to take the initiative when we think someone has something against us.  “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave the gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”  (Matthew 5:23, 24)  Clearly any attempt we make at forgiving an offender or at being reconciled with someone offended by us may not be successful.  We can only try and if we don’t succeed, remain willing to be reconciled.

It is vital, then, that we avoid unforgiveness and resentment.  Otherwise we dishonour the Lord who died for our forgiveness, and we remain in a very vulnerable state spiritually of being unforgiven by God, and a prey to Satan, who will strengthen the bitterness and attack us in other ways.  Also, if we are disobedient to God in other ways, we are likely to find ourselves vulnerable to bitterness.  Satan will find the chink in our spiritual armour and shoot in his fiery dart of bitter­ness (Ephesians 6:10—18).

So when we are tempted to bitterness against another person, we should:

  • Remember the Cross where Jesus purchased our forgiveness – even while we were still sinners. 
  • Remember the Lord’s warnings that forgiving others is a condition of receiving God’s forgiveness. 
  • Renounce the temptation to feel bitter, asking God’s help to overcome it. 
  • Not listen to gossip which puts the alleged offender in a bad light. 
  • Approach the alleged offender to learn the ‘other side of the story’ – “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” (Matt 18:15). 

Sometimes bitterness may be caused by our wrong reaction to circumstances, e.g. illness, disappointment, etc. It can, of course, be directed towards the Lord Himself. 

In this case we should:

  • Remember the love of God, especially shown in the Cross – Jesus’ undeserved suffering for us – and give thanks accordingly. 
  • Recall that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purposes” (Romans 8:28, compare James 1:2-4).
  • Perhaps use the prayer: “My Father, I do not understand you, but I trust you.”
  • Also, ask Him to work out His good purpose through the difficulties. 
  • Renounce the temptation to bitterness; repent of any bitterness we have allowed to enter our hearts, and ask God’s grace to overcome it.

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction