A Root of Bitterness

January 2, 2020
Lee Brainard

Everywhere I look across the church landscape, I see Christians seething with bitterness. It seems to be an epidemic, especially among the younger generations. These hurting souls are nursing wrongs, sometimes old, sometimes new, sometimes real, sometimes perceived. Frequently, these wounded believers are not looking for an apology. They have already received one, or two, or three, and that was not good enough for them. They are seeking to exact some kind of penance or worse, vengeance.
Now I can empathize with those who are struggling with bitterness. I had my own titanic struggle with this beast. It robbed me of sleep. It undermined my productivity. It hurt my relationships. It consumed me with the fires of anger and bitterness. The indignation I felt seemed justified. I had a right to be angry. Most of the charges leveled against me were completely false, based on misguided understanding. And those that were true were both hypocritical and exaggerated and blown out of proportion. Those that accused me were guilty of the same or similar things, often in worse degree.

But after several years of seeking my own vindication, seeking to see things resolved to my satisfaction, I had zero tangible gains to show despite my passion and efforts. There was no noteworthy change in any involved party. I began to sense the spiritual emptiness of my course. Soon I realized that I was seeking the wrong person’s honor. I was seeking my own, not the Lord’s. I was not seeking what He wanted in the painful circumstances, but what I wanted.

I decided to let go and let God. I focused on the improvement of my own character and let God worry about dealing with those who had wronged me. I decided that since their sins in the matter were not gross iniquity but petty human failures, I would just overlook them and wait for our differences to be resolved with perfect wisdom at the judgment seat of Christ. At that time every point of contention will be resolved in absolute righteousness. I will be corrected where I was wrong—with God’s gracious correction. They will be corrected where they were wrong—with God’s gracious correction. Absolute righteousness will be upheld, and all parties will be satisfied.

Eventually, God wrought wonderful healing and restoration with all parties involved. Some of them came to me and confessed their wrongs. Some of them never did. Looking back with twenty-twenty hindsight, I think some of these people never had a conscience that they had wronged me. They were merely standing for what they believed, at the time, was right, and they did so beset by the same common weaknesses that beset all believers everywhere. If I held them accountable for their weaknesses, God would hold me accountable for the same weaknesses manifested in my own life.

This brings us to the only resolution for bitterness that God honors: walking in love and forgiveness. We are obligated to forgive as Christ forgave us (Eph. 4:32). Christ loves us and receives us with all of our weaknesses and failures. We have an obligation to love and receive our fellow believers despite their weaknesses and failures. He doesn’t hold our shortcomings against us. We should not hold believers’ shortcomings against them. The discretion of a man defers his anger, and it is his glory to pass over a transgression (Prov. 19:11). Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8). Forgive your brother seventy times seven times (Mt. 18:22).

How do we know that we are walking in love? We manifest longsuffering in difficult relationships and continue to walk in kindness. We do not seek what we want in painful situations but what God wants. We are not provoked by people despite their provocative actions. We do not impute evil to others, even when things look sketchy. We bear with every hard-to-bear situation. We believe the best in every difficult situation rather than the worst. We hope the best in every difficult situation rather than hoping for retribution. We endure every difficult person and their difficult ways (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

Why must we try to walk this way? Because this is how Jesus operates. This is who Jesus is. And He wants us to be conformed to His amazing character. When Jesus’ disciples forsook Him at the cross, He did not hold their feet over the fire for their failures and betrayal, requiring some form of evangelical penance. He knew that pain and shame were already beating them to death. (Such is the case for all who are truly godly.) He merely encouraged them in their gift and call. “If you love me, feed my sheep.” While there is a place to employ strong reproofs and strong measures with the rebelliously wicked, we must not give their medicine to the weak. The weak need encouragement and understanding. The Lord’s gracious actions with His wayward disciples was not winking at sin and wrongdoing. It was dealing with sin in such a spirit and manner as is most likely to make a positive difference.

Make no mistake. Bitterness is dangerous. The Bible regards it as a spiritual problem that is as dangerous in the spiritual realm as gangrene is in the medical realm. If the part of the body that is infected is not quickly and summarily dealt with, it spreads destruction to the body around it. Likewise, not only does bitterness defile the person who is nurturing it in the garden of their heart, but it spreads bitterness and anger to many folks around them (Heb. 12:15).

If we are struggling with bitterness, we must surrender the matter immediately and entirely to the Lord. We must allow ourselves to be washed with His love and His forgiveness through the working of His Word and His Spirit. If we will not let God work love and forgiveness in our heart, then we are rejecting the deep cleansing grace of Christ. If we refuse to forgive our brethren, we cannot be forgiven ourselves. This is the clear meaning of the parable of the servant who refused to forgive one hundred pence though he had been forgiven of a thousand talents (Mt. 18:23-35). We are setting ourselves up for a spiritual train wreck.

Let Jesus turn your bitterness to sweetness.