February 10, 2016

The Normal Battle With Bitterness

by Eric Davis
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It’s inevitable. People are going to hurt us. Even those close to you. In fact, perhaps especially those close to you.

With every hurt, there is the potential to wake the bitterness monster. He’s a light sleeper. And he’s more clever than we think. Even a small relationship scuffle is enough to arouse him into action. We mustn’t underestimate him.

Bitterness: hurt incurred from either real or perceived offense, gone unchecked, and allowed to continue by failure to apply biblical principles and thinking to the hurt, resulting in hatred and resentment.

Bitterness is the quick fix for the flesh. Dealing biblically with conflict and hurt becomes too much work. So, like a spiritual pusher, bitterness offers a quick high. But, though it delivers for a moment, it destroys in the long run.

To be sure, real hurt occurs far too often through atrocities such as abuse and criminal acts. In these cases, fighting bitterness can be excruciating. Even and especially so, God extends comforting and transforming grace for the greatest of life’s hurts (cf. Gen. 50:20).

But often, bitterness slips in and sows it seeds in the thousands of smaller moments and battles of normal life. For that reason, we must be on guard. Christian, we have got to resist this one. And repent. It is a killer.

Here are a few ways that I have been helped in my own battles with bitterness:

  1. Do not underestimate the power of bitterness.
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It amazes me how easily bitterness has slithered into my own heart. And equally amazing is how many people in normal life scuffles have said, “Oh, I’m not bitter, I’m just struggling a bit.” None of us are above this.

And I think we pastors are especially susceptible to it because we are, by calling and command, so involved in relationships. Oh, and, just like everyone else, we are sinners.

If you have been like me at times, we will say, “I’m not bitter, I’m just struggling a bit.” Perhaps. However, “struggling a bit” in the wake of a relationship scuffle is often residual bitterness. And, even if we’ve accepted an apology or granted forgiveness, it’s possible bitterness is among us.

Obvious signs of bitterness include hating someone in our hearts, slander, vengeance, and unjustly cutting off a relationship. Consider diagnosing the possibility of lesser bitterness. Are you continuing to dwell on the person/incident in an unfavorable way? Have you brought up the person or incident to use it against them? Have you brought up the person/incident to others who do not need to know the details? Have you quietly enjoyed how others have taken your side in the matter, against another? Are you unnecessarily allowing this incident to stand between your relationship with the person? And are you considering writing off this person? If so, bitterness may have begun to infiltrate your heart.

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And beware of those mental cage-matches we like to have. Despite the quick and easy pleasure it may deliver, the practice of valiantly winning arguments with people in our own mind feeds our inner Pharisee and the monster of self-righteousness. Why are we doing that? It’s a way that we can proverbially put our enemy’s neck under our foot. We are bitter.

We do well to pray with David, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (Ps. 139:23-24).

  1. Keep that morning quiet time.

I say “morning” because when we are in the battle with bitterness, the fight for biblical thinking can start even before our feet hit the floor.

And, since bitterness is largely a battle for the heart, bombarding it with the goodness, grace, and glory of God at the outset of each day will prove effective in the battle. “Those who love Your law have great peace, and nothing causes them to stumble” (Ps. 119:165).

And in that quiet time, we can replace bitterness towards a person with love by praying biblical prayers for them.

  1. Fight for an accurate, high view of God.

Our personal bitterness has far more to do with God than it does other people. Certainly sins against us are real and unpleasant. However, God has outfitted us with all things needed for life and godliness, not the least of which is the sin of bitterness. The greatest of these things, of course, is himself.

Trusting the sovereignty of God when tempted with bitterness, we hope in him. Recalling the goodness of God, we rest in him. Embracing the discipline of God, we grow in him. Remembering the holiness of God, we acquiesce to him. Aiming for the glory of God, we align with him. Especially in the battle with bitterness, when we fight to think on a more correct, exalted view of God, we will have less space for being offended by what so-and-so did or said.

  1. Refuse to separate yourself from the body of Christ.

It’s always easiest to hit the eject button in relationship wrangles. You don’t have to deal with it. No more worrying about, “What am I going to say if I see them?” The awkward factor is gone. “I’ll find a different church or home group or town.” It’s all just so easy. And that’s the problem.

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But separating from those fellow brothers and sisters in Christ is probably exactly what Satan and your flesh are trying to do. Divide and conquer.

But that’s why there are no less than 40 one anothers. God wants us to get over ourselves, face the awkwardness, actually speak to people directly, probably get our fragile egos cracked a few more times, and deal with it. And he wants that because he loves us. Bitterness kills us. It strips God of glory and opens the door for a slew of other sins and misery. “He who separates himself seeks his own desire, he quarrels against all sound wisdom” (Prov. 18:1).

Doing local church God’s way is the hardest thing. That’s why it’s the best thing. If we will be obedient and stay candidly connected, it’s both the hospital for healing our self-absorption and the proving ground for real love.

  1. Fight to believe the best about others.
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It seems so simple; almost trivially so. But this is one of the greatest areas of sin during relationship scuffles. One side incurs hurt from another’s sin. Instead of asking questions, getting the full story, and fighting to give others as much grace as we give ourselves, we close off, make myopic conclusions, and it’s end of story. The other side, subsequently reacts similarly. Views are formed. Self-righteousness fuels it. Bitterness vines its way throughout hearts and minds. We ask, “How in the world did it get to this point?!”

But we have got to fight it by putting the brakes on quickly. Ask questions, though we may seem certain about an issue. Flooding our flesh with passages like 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Proverbs 18:13, and 18:17, an amazing thing will start to happen. Love. Truth. Reconciliation.

Failure to believe the best and ask questions is often symptomatic of a sinfully high view of one’s own wisdom. It’s a worshiping one’s own ability to discern and see things consequent of a high-mindedness. If I can accurately see every situation, but have not love, I am nothing.

  1. Restrain the desire to air hurt feelings.

Now, especially in situations such as abuse and criminal activity, the violated individual can be helped by sharing their hurt. They should do so for constructive purposes.

But we have to be careful. In most situations, sharing how we feel can often mask a desire to continue boiling our resentment. It feels good, as others come, partake of our pity-party, are hypnotized by it, and take our side. Everybody favors the underdog. Which is why we need to really fight this manipulative tactic.

One of the greatest dangers we face in relational scuffles is believing our hurt feelings. They are powerful over the undiscerning mind and strong flesh. My hurt becomes the standard by which conclusions are made. “You hurt me, therefore you must [insert self-serving demand]. I am hurt, therefore, I cannot trust [which is to say, ‘love’] you.” Aren’t we glad that Jesus did not take that approach to us in stepping out of heaven, obeying the law, and assuming God’s wrath due us on himself at the cross?

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We can take our hurt to Jesus (cf. Heb. 4:14-16). But, even then, recall that Jesus is not to be our verbal vomit catcher or our cosmic psychologist. Certainly we can share our struggles with him, while recalling that his agenda is, as should ours, our progressive holiness. Other than our Lord, we should not be airing our feelings on the matter. Hurt feelings are not a matter for repeating, but repentance.

And we should be cautious of dwelling too much on the idea that our hurt feelings are someone else’s doing. The presence of hurt feelings does not automatically mean that someone did something wrong. We might be hurt and offended because we have an inflated view of ourselves, and our pride was damaged. We may be hurt because had already formulated a negative view of someone, thus, sinfully filtered what they said to us, though it was biblically permissible. Or, we may be hurt because we are too proud to receive advice and criticism.

If we’re not careful, our hurt feelings can begin to form our identity. What can happen is, even for a season of life, we listen to our flesh so much that we start to believe it. At that point, while so-and-so appears to hurt us more and more, it may actually be that our hurt feelings are causing the hurt: our hyper feelings-focus combined with a believing-the-worst posture towards others combines to interpret everything as “they hurt me.” In reality, though, our own pride is what is continuing to hurt us.

  1. Look to Christ’s example.

If anyone has faced understandable temptations of bitterness, it is the Lord Jesus Christ. No one in history has been as unjustly bombarded with sin as he has. He was constant perfection being barraged with constant imperfection. People regularly believed the worst about him, suspected him, misjudged him, lied about him, betrayed him, and hated him. And eventually, they murdered him. Through it all he never sinned.

We might understand if our Lord thought things like, “Don’t you humans know what I have done for you?! I created you. I am sustaining your breath, lungs, heart, biochemical bodily processes, your family, and, I am about to die on the cross!” Yet, incredibly, Jesus always obeyed God the Father by avoiding bitterness. “For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps” (1 Pet. 2:20-21).

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 8. Extend the forgiveness which God has extended you. 

Especially in extreme violations, this can be the most difficult. But God’s love extended to us in forgiveness through Christ is not a matter of mere paper and theory. We could not possibly count the times we have failed God’s good moral standard (cf. Matt. 5:48). Never will we overestimate the seriousness of our sin against God. For all practical purposes, Christ likens our debt to God as infinite (cf. Matt. 25:21-35). “If you, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared” (Ps. 130:3-4).

It comes down to this: the forgiven forgive (Eph. 4:32). Having been released from an incalculable debt and eternity in hell, God calls us to imitate in kind, though not in quantity.

A flipside word is necessary: if we have sinned against someone, it’s best for us to not demand that they just get over their bitterness. While they should repent of it, we also should expect that doing so can take time. Our greatest efforts begin with our own biblical responsibilities. In the meantime, we can pray for others. As we do, God, by his Spirit and word, will strengthen us to successfully face the normal battle with bitterness.

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • Jane Hildebrand

    I once heard the definition of forgiveness as being able to say, “I forgive you. I will never use it against you in the future. I will never speak of it again to you or to anyone else.”

    So much easier said than done. :/

    • Eric Davis

      Agreed, Jane. I like Ken Sande’s idea that, when we say, “I forgive you,” we are making these 4 promises, which we strive to keep:

      1. I will not think about this incident.
      2. I will not bring it up and use it against you.
      3. I will not talk to others about this incident.
      4. I will not allow this incident to stand between us and hinder our personal relationship.

      • Jane Hildebrand

        Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, was reminded of a vicious deed that someone had done to her years before, but she acted as if she had never heard of the incident. “Don’t you remember it?” her friend asked. “No,” came Barton’s reply, “I distinctly remember forgetting it.”

        I love that story. May we all strive for that kind of character.

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  • Fibber MaGee

    That one stings. Thanks Eric, I needed that today.

    • Aaron

      and Molly?

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  • Before I was changed by God, I could never understand how a person’s heart could be healed. Now I don’t understand how someone who professes to be saved, can’t believe that their heart can be healed. If God, who created everything, things known and unknown by us, the seed from which a redwood grows, the highest majestic mountains, to the lowest, deep cut valleys, to the blue sky where winged birds fly, and beyond to the vast reaches of space where we lose ourselves in contemplation of our smallness, this very God who knows everything about us, He is all powerful, and to think that He cannot change your heart? What hope is there if a sinner’s heart cannot be changed? Therefore, there is no wound so great that the saving balm of the gospel cannot use it for the glory of God. Can I repost your article on my blog?

    • Eric Davis

      Amen, Xiqtem. Thanks for the comment. Yes, you can repost this. Thanks

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