Where does bitterness come from? For me, it springs up when an incident is brought to remembrance that still evokes anger and disappointment. It may be the result of someone sinning against me or someone I love, or from one of the many ills such as sickness, loss, and injury that plague this broken fallen world.
If we allow it, bitterness can settle into these open wounds. We look for someone to blame, someone to ascribe the debt of our loss. And, for those of us who have placed our faith in Jesus and are reluctant to direct our anger at God, it can unintentionally be redirected to those around us.
Bitterness in the heart is not unlike poison; it slowly corrupts its host and is a direct result of what you have fed yourself in your thought life. In my efforts to be free of bitterness, I have found it helpful to feast on the word of truth I already know, but whose power I often take for granted, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So how does reflecting on the gospel help me put away bitterness when it rears its ugly head? When individuals or circumstances fill me with anger, or I start consoling myself with thoughts of self-pity or resentment, there are three aspects of the gospel I have found helpful to remember.
1. I remember how much I need mercy, myself.
Not only is creation as a whole broken by sin, but I am guilty myself of sin and deserving of death. I was born a part of this bent world and by all rights should suffer along with it. But the gospel shows me that, while the burden of sin that I carry is great, Jesus has offered himself as my sin-bearer that I might receive mercy and forgiveness (1 Corinthians 5:21). I am reminded that once I had not received mercy, but now I have received mercy (1 Peter 2:10).
When I reflect on my new status as a member of a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, for whom he is one day coming again, I am compelled to sing the excellencies of the one who brought me out of darkness and into his marvelous light. I see the beauty of the mercy he has shown me, and I want to be like him. I want to show mercy, too. I begin to see the times that I suffer or experience being sinned against as privileged opportunities to walk in the merciful footsteps of my master.
With this mercy-motivated mindset, I find that I am less surprised when hardships come to me or those I love. Jesus told us in this world we will have tribulation (John 16:33). As a sinner in need of daily grace, I am prepared to see my fellow humans in that light as well, and it fills me with compassion and love.
2. I remember that no sin goes unpunished.
While my present suffering or injury may go unnoticed by the world around me, it has not escaped the eye of the Lord of Hosts, the one who is just and will see to it that no unrighteous deed goes unpunished. Bitterness may shout at my soul, “If you put away your anger and try to forget, you are saying that this was okay, and you are letting the guilty one get away with it!” But that statement reveals that I am not placing my faith in Jesus the righteous judge, who is coming again for my ultimate vindication.
The Lord sees all and “will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil”(Ecclesiastes 12:14). Jesus will judge everyone for what they have done. Some will be found guiltless because they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, and some will be found guilty. Bitterness cries out for justice, but justice has already been appeased.
Am I more righteous than God, who has declared the blood of his Son sufficient for the pardon of sin? I can put away bitterness by resting in the knowledge that God’s requirement for justice is severe and complete and will be satisfied either in the death of his perfect son or the reckoning that is to come.
3. I remember that I am loved by God and that my sovereign Lord is for me.
One of my biggest setbacks in the struggle against bitterness is mulling over “if-only-this-had-not-happened” scenarios. These statements may seem justifiable on the surface: Had this had not happened, I would be in a much better place, with a happier, healthier, and better life. Yet, at their heart, they deny reality as it is and second-guess the sovereign power and love of the Father to work all things for our good.
Bitterness keeps us in the moment, mulling over the details as if we could go back in time and prevent what happened. It looks at our life as though it is a movie reel that could be rewound and played back differently.
This is not a biblical view of life, however, and it calls into question the goodness and power of God. We don’t always know why our loving and all-powerful Father allows hard things to happen, but the cross of Jesus shows us that God is sovereign over the sins of others, and works them for his glory and our ultimate good (Romans 8:28).
Moreover, the gospel urges us to base our confidence of the Father’s love, not in the circumstances he allows but in the price he paid for our redemption. We are reminded that “He who did not spare his own son, but gave himself up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”(Romans 8:32). Therefore, if the hurt that is tempting me to be bitter truly was not a part of God’s good plan for me, my heavenly Father, who has declared his love for me by sending Jesus, would have prevented it in his sovereign power.
Because I have the truth of the gospel, instead of listening to voices of bitterness, I can rest assured that nothing is wasted. When hard things happen, I remember that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”(2 Corinthians 4:17). I need not question God’s love for me because
…neither life nor death, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
I can remember the mercy I have received and, just like Jesus, I can continue entrusting myself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23). As I have practiced feeding myself with these truths, by God’s grace, I have found some success in putting away bitterness.
Oh, how sweet is the honey of redeeming grace that roots out the bitter poison of a resentful heart! When our souls feel inclined to bitterness, let us feast on the banquet that is the gospel of Jesus and nourish our souls with its rich life-giving fare.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagles. (Psalm 103:2-5)
Bless the Lord, O my soul.