Unpacking Forgiveness: How Can I Conquer Bitterness?

Too many Christians become bitter and angry in the conflict. If we descend into hatefulness, we have already lost the battle. We must cooperate with God in turning what was meant for evil into a greater good within us. This is why we bless those who would curse us: It is not only for their sakes but to preserve our own soul from its natural response toward hatred.   Author: Francis Frangipane

Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness. Author: Martin Luther King, Jr.

Have you ever been bitter? Bitterness is like a cancer that takes away life from within - slowly and surely, the infected cells replace the good ones and the victim dies.

Isn't that a dark thought?

We have all met bitter people. These people have a difficult time seeing the good in anything. They make sarcastic remarks and try to extinguish happiness. Negative attitudes consume them. No one enjoys being around a bitter person. Yet, bitterness tempts all of us to cave in to it when wrong is done, especially when the person who wronged us seems to do well afterward.

Consider the words of Asaph in Psalm 73: 1 - 14:

Surely God is good to Israel,
    to those who are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
    I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 For I envied the arrogant
    when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4 They have no struggles;
    their bodies are healthy and strong.
5 They are free from common human burdens;
    they are not plagued by human ills.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace;
    they clothe themselves with violence.
7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
    their evil imaginations have no limits.
8 They scoff, and speak with malice;
    with arrogance they threaten oppression.
9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
    and their tongues take possession of the earth.
10 Therefore their people turn to them
    and drink up waters in abundance.
11 They say, “How would God know?
    Does the Most High know anything?”
12 This is what the wicked are like—
    always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.

Does this identify with the human condition, or what? How many times have we seen evil or disruptive people get away with their behavior? It happened back in Asaph's time and it happens in ours. That's why heinous activities like sex trafficking, the drug trade and pornography continue. That's why your neighbor keeps spreading false stories about you and your family. Why doesn't God give them what they deserve?

We could forgive these people right away but Chris Brauns, author of Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds, says that without repentance and a request from the offender for forgiveness, this approach causes bitterness. Refusing to forgive an unrepentant person is how we escape bitterness. How can this be so? Brauns gives us some guidelines: 

  •     Wait for God's justice, and trust his providence.
  •     Listen to wise people.
  •     Pursue God's blessing for yourself and those close to you.
  •     Call bitterness what it is.
God's Justice and Providence

 " ... By teaching that we ought to forgive automatically, regardless of repentance, we distance our pain from the justice of God," Brauns writes.

Brauns writes that in order to beat bitterness we ought to concentrate on the fact that God will bring justice just like Asaph did in Psalm 73: 15 - 28

15 If I had spoken out like that,
    I would have betrayed your children.
16 When I tried to understand all this,
    it troubled me deeply
17 till I entered the sanctuary of God;
    then I understood their final destiny.
18 Surely you place them on slippery ground;
    you cast them down to ruin.
19 How suddenly are they destroyed,
    completely swept away by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes;
    when you arise, Lord,
    you will despise them as fantasies.
21 When my heart was grieved
    and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and ignorant;
    I was a brute beast before you.
23 Yet I am always with you;
    you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever.
27 Those who are far from you will perish;
    you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God.
    I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
    I will tell of all your deeds.

Asaph was bitter with the person who had hurt him until he entered God's sanctuary and remembered that God is just and that he doesn't let evildoers get away with their sins. Brauns writes that we must focus on providence, which, according to Merriam-Webster means that someone thinks that God is the power sustaining and guiding human destiny. Brauns' interpretation is that God is in control of everything, he is sovereign. Because of this, God is sovereign over evil in that he controls the outcome of evil behavior against us, in other words, he works everything out for our good as Paul says in Romans 8: 28. We must rest in this fact. God knows everything about our lives and knows what will happen to us. He knows the number of the hairs on our head (this is biblically sound) and he knows everywhere we're going to live throughout our lives (where does it say this in the Bible?).

To me, Brauns approach sounds like God is the author of evil, that he knows everything that is going to happen to us, makes sure it happens and then picks up the pieces and turns it out for our good. If God knows everything, why does he not stop evil and why does he not warn us ahead of time so that we can get out of the way? Does he not love us? In addition, if I spend my time waiting for God to get back at my enemies, doesn't that lead to a superior attitude when and if it happens? Then, if God waits for justice or I can't see his work toward that end wouldn't that lead to bitterness and distrust in God?

I believe that rather than focusing on the fact that God will get even with our enemies, we should ask God to fill our hearts with love for them. It is because of love that God delays judgment. In fact, everything God does is motivated by love, not sovereignty. Second Peter 3: 8 - 9 says, "But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance."

If it seems like God "never" gets even with your enemies, it probably is because of his great love! Jesus said that we are to bless our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. This prayer should lead to love. We can't pray for someone and be bitter toward him or her at the same time. Therefore, I believe that the cure to bitterness is not resting in God's providence; it is in loving our enemies. Focusing on God's providence may be a first step toward love, but it should not be our only focus.

So, love your enemies and let God handle the rest. If they repent, you will not be angry, you will be glad. In fact, love will cover their sin - you may even forget what they have done to you.

Listen to Wise People

It always helps to talk to someone who is more mature or objective than you. A good friend will help you see truth in an explosive situation. Accepting wise advice will help you do the right thing and cause less damage.

Pursue God's Blessing for Yourself and Those Closest to You

Bitterness not only affects you, it spreads to those closest to you in different ways. If you hang onto bitterness, you can pass this off to your children or to people who are not involved in the situation. If you talk negatively about the person who offended you, you can infect the attitudes of those around you toward that person and yourself. It's a no win situation so you must not give into it. I think what Brauns means by pursuing God's blessing for yourself and those closest to you is to let go of bitterness. God will certainly bless people who forgive.

Call Bitterness What It Is

"... The first step in beating bitterness is to recognize that when we have been treated unjustly, we are particularly vulnerable to bitterness," Brauns writes.

In his book, Brauns wrote this as the fourth step to overcoming bitterness. I would make it number one. According to Alcoholics Anonymous, you have to admit that you are an alcoholic and always will be before you can heal. In the church, confession of sin is the first step in growing closer to God. If you have an argument with your spouse, you must admit where you went wrong before healing can take place. Rather than constantly complaining about how much someone has hurt you, call bitterness what it is and begin the needed work to overcome it. You cannot afford to lose the battle.

Next week we'll discuss two chapters - how to stop thinking about it and what to do if Christians can't agree. We'll end our discussion of this book next week.