Have you ever been wronged by someone, and then found yourself seething with anger and bitterness? In our broken world filled with sin, this is not an uncommon experience. Maybe a friend has betrayed your trust and left you feeling wounded. Maybe someone misunderstood your words and assumed the worst, slandering your reputation. Or maybe your child was hurt by a classmate, leaving the momma bear in you ready to roar.
As we ponder the ways we’ve been hurt by others, it can be easy to let bitterness consume our souls.
Bitterness is like a slow poison, one negative thought leads to another, and soon we’re tossing and turning at night, replaying hurtful interactions and making a new plan to get even. The book of Hebrews warns us about allowing bitterness to take root: “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” (Hebrews 12:15).
Joseph knew what it was like to be hurt by those closest to him. He was the favored son, and everyone knew it.
Jealousy consumed Joseph’s brothers as they saw the beautiful coat given to him by their father. To make things worse, Joseph told them about a dream he had in which his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowed down to his sheaf, and the sun, moon and stars bowed to him as well. This was not the smartest move on Joseph’s part and only served to enrage the brothers even more.
His indignant brothers planned to kill Joseph (Genesis 37:18) by throwing him in a pit and saying an animal devoured him. Then an opportunity arose to sell him into slavery…
If anyone had a right to feel bitter, angry, and betrayed, it was Joseph. He had been stripped, thrown into a pit and left to die, then removed and sold into slavery—all by his very own brothers. Of all the relationships in the world, our familial ones should be the strongest; we are knit together through sharing the same home, experiences, memories and parents.
Joseph likely felt inconceivable hurt.
Yet, in the midst of horrific betrayal and pain, the Lord was with Joseph. As our children’s read-aloud story Bible repeatedly says, “Was Joseph happy? No. But God was with Joseph.” The Lord caused Joseph to gain favor in the eyes of Pharaoh, as he interpreted his dreams and predicted the seven-year famine. Eventually Pharaoh made Joseph ruler over all of Egypt.
It was during the famine that Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt in search of food. Here was Joseph’s chance to get even: He could have made them grovel. He could have made them starve. He could have humiliated them in front of an entire nation. Yet Joseph did none of these things.
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Instead of punishing them for their evil deeds, Joseph extended grace upon grace. He didn’t want them to feel guilty for sending him to Egypt, but instead assured them it was God’s plan. “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5).
Three times he mentions the phrase “God sent me.” Joseph is a sterling example of trusting the sovereignty of God in the face of trials. He didn’t allow bitterness or anger to consume him, so he was able to freely forgive his brothers. Not only did he want to free them from any feelings of condemnation, he went on to provide food and land for his entire family (v. 11). His love and forgiveness were demonstrated in an outpouring of generosity.
In multiple ways, the life of Joseph foreshadows the life of Christ. Both men were falsely accused and humiliated before others, yet both were exalted in the end—Joseph becoming ruler in Egypt, and Jesus being resurrected from the dead. And just as Joseph trusted the sovereignty of God in the midst of betrayal, so Jesus willingly stepped forward to be arrested by the Jews and taken to the cross. He knew the pain and suffering that would come and gladly accepted it for the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Ultimately we see how Jesus is so much greater than Joseph. Just as God used the evil things done to Joseph to physically rescue his people, God used the evil things done to Jesus to eternally rescue his people. Jesus didn’t just save his people from starvation, but from the eternal punishment of hell. Just as Joseph was punished for wrongs he did not commit, our Savior suffered and died on the cross, not because of wrongs he had done, but because he was dying for the sin of his people.
Now, those trusting in Christ have been given the Holy Spirit to help us fight bitterness through confession, prayer, and meditating on God’s Word.
Three Pursuits to Fight Bitterness
When we’re faced with our own temptations to bitterness and anger, here are three biblical pursuits for us:
1. Trust the sovereignty of God.
Whatever trial you’re facing today has been orchestrated by the hand of God. The promotion at work you were not given, the empty arms that long for a child, the words that questioned your integrity—God sees and hears and knows. Nothing is wasted. Cling to the fact that God has a purpose for your good and his glory in the midst of your suffering (Romans 8:28).
2. Extend God’s grace.
Instead of giving someone a taste of their own medicine; instead of slandering their reputation; and instead of harboring bitterness and resentment, live out the gospel of grace by extending forgiveness. Just as Christ has freely forgiven us, so we need to forgive those who have sinned against us (Matthew 6:12).
3. Demonstrate love in a practical way.
Just as Joseph gave land and food to the very people who sought to destroy his life, so we can look for ways to express our love and forgiveness in a tangible way, when appropriate. Buy someone a small gift, take them to coffee, or send them a text to let them know you’re praying for them.
If we’re not careful to fight bitterness, we’ll soon be consumed by the poison that leaves us in the pit of despair. True freedom and joy is found by embracing the gospel of grace and extending it to the very people we’re least inclined to love. The cure for bitterness is not found in getting even, but by giving grace—just as God in Christ has done for us.