It’s impossible to live in a fallen world with broken people and not deal with hurt. Simply put, we hurt others and we are hurt by others. When people treat you wrongly or outright sin against you, how do you react? Our responses can range from withdrawing, fear of rejection, or considering reality while continuing to love others. If we aren’t careful, eventually hurt and injustice will become our best friends. The more we hold onto past hurts, the more pain we experience. God cares about your pain.
Bitterness and resentment start small when creeping into our daily lives. Bitterness lies beneath our inability to forgive as it burrows its way into our hearts. Our hearts can be hard to build back up when we allow deep ruts to be created by life experiences – Sometimes our hurt is a big hurt and other times it’s not caused by somebody specifically, but rather a pain we have suffered. God tells us that resentment and bitterness hurt us more than hurting others (Matt. 18:21-22). Deep hurts reside in our memories and affect our thinking: emotions we feel, reactions to other people, choices we are presented, or even the decisions we make. Holding tight to the day-to-day pain of bitterness can become as destructive to one’s life as an addiction. Long-term bitterness can rob our ability to function normally in family, at our jobs, or in society. Resentment diminishes our peace and destroys relationships. Bitterness does not affect only you, it affects everyone with whom you come into contact.
Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Dt 29:18–19). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Let’s look at portraits of bitterness:
• Becky has not been to church for over a year. The leaders in her last church sided against her when she brought them concerns over inappropriate advances by a worship leader. She has tried but cannot seem to get past the bitterness. She thought her church cared for her.
• David’s father was killed by a drunk driver when David was a teenager. Life was difficult for David’s family after that. The man was given only a light sentence. David is bitter at the unfairness of life.
• Adam’s parents constantly belittled him as he was growing up. Now an adult, he suffers from depression and anxiety and cannot figure out why he can’t get over it.
• Laura’s husband does not seem interested in meeting any of her emotional needs. He is distant and cold when she tries to talk to him about it. Over time, she has given up hoping that he will ever change and sees no reason to continue in the marriage.
• Claire’s boss is demanding and extremely critical. He humiliated Claire in front of her co-workers by judging her work unfairly. Claire can’t seem to let it go and fantasizes about plots for revenge.
(Clinton, T., & Hawkins, R. (2009). The Quick-Reference Guide to Biblical Counseling: Personal and Emotional Issues (p. 47). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.)
Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Heb 12:14–15). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Bitterness is the result of anger changing from an actual experience to a belief. Its effects are seething and constant. Bitter people carry the same burdens as angry people, but to a greater extent (Heb. 12:15). Bitterness roots so deeply that we can begin to see forgiveness as controversial due to the offense. However, forgiveness is a crucial element of the Christian life, and if there is to be anything true of us, it is that we are forgiven. In most cases, bitterness is the long-term anger that builds in your life when you refuse to forgive someone who has sinned against you. In cases where decades of maliciousness have harmed an individual, even the mention of forgiveness has potential to bring about rage. Are you believing that God does not hear your plea, or that He does not care about your hurt?
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ro 12:17–19). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Is it possible that you’ve become bitter out of a belief that God will not punish the people who hurt you? You may be furious with rage, and maybe have been for a long time about the wrong that someone has done to you. Maybe they have even asked for your forgiveness and yet, you have not been able to extend it. How do you overcome that? God is so kind that he not only teaches us his standards, he gives us the Bible as life’s manual. He gives us instructions about how to reach his standards. So how should we overcome bitterness? Jesus left examples for us (1 Peter 2-3). For time’s sake let’s look at the parable of the unforgiving servant:
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 18:21–35). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Sometimes, in severe cases, we hunker down as if a severe storm is brewing when the storm itself has already passed – We hold on to the hurt in an attempt to remind ourselves (and sometimes others) of injustice we’ve experienced. The more you try to bury the very thing that hurt you so deeply, the more it entangles your heart. It must be dealt with. Pride becomes a sinful disrupter to the forgiveness of others, but scripturally we are to confess, let go of the bitterness, and to forgive. Christians have the call to humility while reflecting upon our own sin, understanding that we will never be asked to give more than what Christ did on our own behalf. Replacing bitterness with forgiveness is the only means by which it can be conquered.
Forgiveness is choosing mercy over perceived entitlement (justice) and imitates the heart of God towards his people. Those who belong to Christ are to obey Christ by taking our thoughts captive. In the same moments we think on the grace and mercy of Jesus covering our own sin, we have the opportunity to think good things and pray for the person who we believe has wronged us. It’s important to make the heart motive of your forgiveness first about loving God, then about loving your neighbor. The spiritual maturity that will accompany this mindset is far more significant than the worldly self-help messages. This is a process to work through and can take some time, but we would be right to move and gain footing in this direction. It takes courage. It takes work.
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Eph 4:31–5:2). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (2 Co 10:5). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Is hurt your lifelong friend, or do you want the biblical cure for bitterness? Because God has commanded us to let go of bitterness we’ve harbored, you and I cannot afford the luxury of holding on to bitterness and resentment against others. There needs to be a willingness on your part to forsake your sin of bitterness. Bitterness is focused on what has been done to you. To overcome bitterness, you must also be willing to look at what you have done to others. Your part is to admit your own responsibility in the matter and go to those you may have hurt, confess your sin, and first seek their forgiveness. You must be willing to get the log out of your own eye prior to examining your neighbor’s eye. Counselor David Powlison wisely wrote, “There is grace for the humble. Grace for those who ask for it. Instead of confessing others’ sins, you can confess your own. Instead of proudly proclaiming your own rightness, you can confess your many sins, failings, and weaknesses and ask for grace. Instead of railing against God when you don’t get what you want, you can submit yourself to God and draw near to him.”
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 7:3–5). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
In what do you place your trust when hurt by others? A heart bent toward bitterness does not trust God. Is your mindset to get even so you might feel better? Remember, it’s not our business to reconcile the wrongs of others for them. God is judge and it is up to Him to hold others accountable. How can you grow to trust in God’s perfect justice? Obedience to the Scriptures honors God and is right for the Christian, but acceptance of hard things at the hand of a loving God doesn’t come easy. It’s important to find someone to talk to and pray with in your own journey, knowing ultimately (at the end of the day) the best place for all bitterness is at the foot of the cross. Forgiving others is not an option for the Christian; it’s required.
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Lk 6:27–28). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Col 3:12–13). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Important to note is that if the offender repents, you have to take him at his word (Luke 17:4). Forgiveness involves an act of the will while focusing on the sovereignty of God. I encourage you to seek God in your circumstances and to trust that He is unfolding a divine plan that you cannot see right now. God’s sovereignty is always balanced by His love, and He promises to bring good out of every tragedy and heartache. Knowing these truths can lead us to thank our Heavenly Father for the eternal example he has provided in his Son, Jesus. May we mirror his holiness by trusting Him completely when others seek to hurt us.
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ro 12:17–21). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
For further study:
Psalm 27:10, Psalm 78, 1 Samuel 18:8-9, Job 21:22-25, Luke 17:10, Acts 8:22-23, Ephesians 2:4-10, 1 Corinthians 13:7, 1 Peter 2-3
Chris Braun’s book Unpacking Forgiveness