Wrestling with Bitterness
I still remember a troubled sleepless night as a teenager, wrestling with both God and my own emotions. I had suffered some long forgotten slight (honestly, I can’t remember!) from someone who was supposed to be my friend. What troubled me most that night was not my own suffering – clearly, it wasn’t that bad if I can’t remember it today. The great problem was that there had been no consequence. All I thought I wanted was justice. “Isn’t justice good, and isn’t God just? And if it’s bad for people to do evil, isn’t it worse when they get away with evil? How can I move on if I don’t get to see my sufferer be punished?”
I don’t think my teenage self was alone with these thoughts. On some level, every human wrestles with the same. If asked without malice, they are good questions, reflective of our original image bearing nature. We were formed by a just God to act justly and seek justice. And along with the rest of creation (Rom. 8:22), we long to see things made right and whole. Yet, everywhere we look, things aren’t right, injustice is rewarded more than rectified, and the innocent suffers. Habakkuk was burdened as he witnessed “the wicked compass about the righteous; therefore, wrong judgment proceedeth.” The martyred saints long for justice as they cry in Revelation 6:10: “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” The longing of the psalmist in Psalm 94 is keenly felt: “Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph…They break in pieces thy people, O LORD, and afflict thine heritage.” The pain and longing of these passages is staggering. Suffering is not the way life was meant to be experienced. Suffering exists because the world is corrupted by sin. Sin’s ugly legacy is that sinners hurt sinners, sometimes purposely, sometimes with great damage inflicted. Bitterness would never be a problem if suffering didn’t exist, and suffering would never exist if sin didn’t infect us all.
But what my teenage self did not understand was the dangerous ground I was treading. One small step past a holy longing for justice is a wicked poison the Bible calls bitterness. One can sense the urgency in Paul’s heart as he warns the Ephesians to “let all bitterness…be put away from you.” The destructive, corroding nature of bitterness is pictured vividly, even horrifyingly, in the bitter water of Numbers 7. As the cursed water entered the accused, it infected every part of the body, causing the belly to swell and the thigh to rot. This is the sad reality of bitterness according to the Bible. Whatever suffering has been experienced at the hands of another is compounded infinitely by retaining bitterness. The bitter person suffers with self-inflicted suffering. So the very thing it seeks to alleviate—suffering—is instead intensified. Everything is turned upside down. The wronged becomes the wrongdoer. The oppressed becomes the oppressor. As if this weren’t enough, the Bible also reveals that the poison of bitterness is not contained to its vessel. Instead, it defiles everything that it touches (Heb. 12:15). When the bitter heart is manifested by a bitter tongue, “it setteth on fire the course of nature, and it is set on fire of hell,” and is an untamed “unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:6,8).
So what is bitterness? Bitterness moves one step past longing for justice to demanding justice. And since justice is beyond its power, bitterness is best characterized by resentment - resentment of people, resentment of systems, resentment of unfairness, and ultimately, resentment of God. And here’s the astounding truth about bitterness – it’s not that interested in justice after all. James makes this point in James 3 when he shows the incongruity of worshiping God and cursing men that protrudes from the bitter mouth. A fountain can’t produce both sweet water and bitter. This is the corroding nature of bitterness. When longing turns to resentment, the concept of justice is twisted into something unjust, namely, a willingness to dishonor God in exchange for an all-out demand for self-honor. The bitter person has a worship problem. He is not nearly as interested in God’s glory or God’s timing or even God’s justice as he is in seeking his own vindication. Seeking self over God is idolatrous, and idolatry is not just. Self-worship is how suffering began, and self-worship is how suffering continues. When a believer in Jesus denounces self and professes faith in Jesus, he is denouncing his right to bitterness and professing trust in God’s care. For the believer in Jesus, bitterness is doubly destructive. It robs the believer of his most precious aim – to look like Christ. Peter makes this point over and over in his first epistle. The suffering Christ left “us an example, that ye should follow in His steps.” Bitterness robs the believer of the power and blessing of looking like and seeking the help of Jesus, “who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth.” The bitter person walks (hobbles) in his own strength and wisdom.
Even the word “bitter” sounds unpleasant. No one desires to be known as bitter, and therefore, most are either dismissive or unaware of their own bitterness. Bitterness is like a barnacle, so integrated with the object that it seems to belong. “I’m not cynical, I’m just wise as a serpent.” “I’m not resentful. I just have a high standard.” “I’m not angry. I’m just passionate about righteousness.” “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you!” But defensiveness and self-praise are not effective anti-venom to the poison of bitterness. Far from defensiveness, David prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” Ephesians 4:31 provides a very helpful and searching template for identifying bitterness in our lives. It lists several common manifestations of bitterness:
- Wrath – Would those close to you say you frequently erupt in torrents of heated anger?
- Anger – Would those close to you say you have lingering resentments or unforgiven hurts?
- Clamor – Would those close to you say disorder and friction accompany a relationship with you?
- Evil Speaking – Would those close to you say you tend to rehash old slights and are unconcerned with slandering another person? Would they say that you seem to delight in sharing bad news?
- Malice – Would those close to you say that you tend to be unpleasant company with a generally negative attitude towards life and particular people?
- Unforgiveness – Would those close to you say you are quick or slow to forgive?
- Sinful judgments – Would those close to you say you often judge the motives of others?
- Cynicism – Would those close to you consider you cynical?
Wrestling with Bitterness
How did you do on the assessment? Any honest reflection leaves all of us somewhere between highly uncomfortable and in despair. It should turn our hearts to the gift of Jesus. I Peter is written to those wrestling with bitterness. Peter fills the letter with the work of Jesus. Jesus redeemed us with His precious blood. He bore our sins on His body so that we could live righteously and be healed of our bitterness. He was the Just One dying for the unjust ones so that the unjust could be brought to God. This good news, the gospel of what Christ has done for sinners, both experienced and pondered, is the power in overcoming bitterness. Peter gives four powerful implications of the gospel of Jesus the believer must embrace if he will win the battle with bitterness:
- Love – The bitter person understandably wrestles with forgiveness and reconciliation. The love of God for you was so deep that He gave His most precious gift to purchase your redemption. Jesus was the spotless sacrificial Lamb who went to the cross in the place of blemished, hateful, ungrateful sinners. Peter argues in 1:22 that the only response to such love is fervent, pure authentic love for others. Such love is the opposite of bitterness. According to Ephesians 4:32, this love is “kind…tenderhearted, forgiving.” This love moves beyond hurt to reconciliation because the forgiving one is stunned, not that God is requiring them to forgive, but because God has forgiven them so much. Considering the redeeming, purifying, forgiving love of God in Christ, Peter says we must respond by “having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous, not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing…” Without the love of Christ in the foreground, blessing those who have wounded you is an impossible, if not cruel, requirement. But the love of God in Christ is so surpassing that every other evil experienced on this earth is swallowed up by such love. Have you experienced the love of God in Christ?
- Trust – The bitter person understandably wrestles with trust. Ultimately, the lack of trust is pointed at God. Can I trust God if He has the power to bring me justice but hasn’t done it? Peter points the distrusting to Christ. Christ suffered from cruel people far more than any other has ever suffered. And all of His suffering at the hands of others was unjust. All of it. Peter makes a point of this. He never sinned or spoke with guile. And yet He suffered without turning to bitter retort. How? Trust. He committed Himself to the Father, trusting that the Father always judges righteously. This is the promise of the Father. “Vengeance is mine. I will repay.” The Father’s promise is to make all things right and to right every wrong. This was the struggle of my sleepless night long ago. Could I trust God? The cross and resurrection demonstrate that we can fully trust God. At the cross, God righted every wrong ever committed by His people by pouring His wrath on the Substitute. At the same time, He was destroying the powers of darkness. But the resurrection, Peter says, was “the glory that should follow” the sufferings of Christ. God justly rewarded Christ with all the glory of His great work. Christ righteously sits at the right hand of the throne of God in the place of rule and honor. Just as Christ trusted and all was made right, so you can trust God fully.
- Protection – The bitter person understandably wrestles with control. The urge to control is closely connected with the lack of trust. The bitter person believes that if he can control his environment, he can prevent further pain. But Peter says there is a better way. In sin, we are like sheep without a protector. But through the cross, we were “returned to the Shepherd and Bishop (overseer) of our souls.” Only pride says we can control our pain. It’s simply not possible. Peter says that humbling ourselves under God’s mighty hand leads to perfect protection. “Casting all your cares upon Him, for He careth for you.”
- Joyful Hope – The bitter person understandably struggles with cynicism. They have experienced great pain and cynicism prides itself on feeling nothing. Sadly, feeling nothing often seems like a better option than living with hope. Peter again points the cynical to the cross. In chapter 4:12-14, he acknowledges that pain will inevitably be a part of the believer’s experience. So, Peter points the eye of faith to the future, when Christ will return, the dead will be raised, and suffering will end “when His glory shall be revealed.” In that day, we will “be glad with exceeding joy.” The exceeding nature of that joy is unknown to human experience, but by faith, Peter says, we can be happy even now in the midst of the suffering because the exceeding joy surpasses all the pain in one instant.
Ultimately, the struggle with bitterness is a faith struggle. It is a battle to believe the totality of what Christ’s death and resurrection has won for us. I’ll close with a line from a song my dad sings often, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”
Isaac Guess is Senior Pastor at Grace Chapel Primitive Baptist Church, Memphis, TN.