Heath: Today we are talking about bitterness. Bitterness is the long term anger that accrues in your life when you refuse to forgive someone who has sinned against you. The topic of forgiveness has been heavily discussed in biblical counseling because it is an element central to the Christian life. If there is anything that is true about us as Christians, fundamentally it is that we are forgiven people. The bible teaches us that we are to overflow with forgiveness toward others out of our own forgiveness from God. It is at the core of who we are. But we also need to be honest that this forgiveness can be controversial because we can be sinned against in ways that are dramatic and painful. The saddest people I have ever known in my life are those who have been sinned against. The pain and pressure of living in a fallen world is experienced in a number of ways.
But there are few things as painful as the kind of backbreaking heartache that comes into life when someone you know or care about sins against you maliciously. There are people reading this who have been carrying pain and heartache for decades because of bad things that have happened to them. I have personally known people who are seething with rage decades later over something bad that happened to them. And when you talk about forgiveness to them, it seems like an impossible feat. It seems like you are asking them to leap over the moon. At ACBC we believe that the bible doesn’t just tell us what to do, it also tells us how to do it. God is so kind that he not only teaches us his standards, he gives us the Bible, which is very practical in helping us reach those standards. It also gives us instructions about how to reach those standards. So how would we overcome bitterness? You may be furious with rage, and maybe have been for a long time, about the wrong that someone did to you. And maybe they have even asked for your forgiveness. And yet, you have not been able to extend it. How do you overcome that?
I want to give you three things to think about. I will frame this along the lines of Matthew 18. In Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus gives us the longest explanation of forgiveness that we have in the entire bible. And he does so by telling a story. He tells us about a servant that had a massive, massive debt. And he was forgiven that massive debt by the king instead of being tossed into debtor’s prison. After having been forgiven this massive debt, he goes to a fellow servant who owes him just a little bit of money. When the other servant, who owes him just a little bit of money, asks the now-forgiven servant to please extend him mercy, the first already-forgiven servant refuses and begins to choke him and demand he pay what he owes. When the king, who had forgiven the first servant, found out about this he called him back and asked, “How could you not have mercy on your fellow servant after I forgave you?” The king then commanded that he be thrown into prison until he is able to pay the last penalty. Jesus ends this account by saying, “So also will my heavenly Father do to you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” What Jesus makes clear here is that he is giving us an analogy. The analogy is that all of us are guilty of sin just as the servant who owed a massive debt is guilty. Every single one of us are guilty of a massive sin that we could never pay for, that we could never earn forgiveness for. But our King, the God of heaven and earth, through his son Jesus Christ has extended forgiveness to us as a unilateral act of mercy and of grace. And so the command is that as we exist in a cosmos full of forgiving grace for our own sin, we need to be able to extend forgiving grace to those who have sinned against us.
With that parable and analogy setting the stage, if you are stuck in a pattern of bitterness, the first thing you need to do is think about your sin. If someone has asked us to forgive them, even for a heinous sin that they committed against us, we need to forgive and we need to release our bitterness. One of the ways we do this is by thinking about our own sin. The problem with the unforgiving servant in the parable in Matthew 18 is that he obsessed over the debt that he was owed, and not over the debt he had been forgiven. When I talk about this passage to others, I often say, “If you show me someone who is clinging to bitterness and refusing to forgive, I will show you someone who is not thinking about all that they have been forgiven, but is instead only thinking about what has happened to them.” The call to let go of bitterness and to forgive is the call to be humble and to reflect upon your own sin, understanding that you will never have to forgive someone more than you have been forgiven by God himself.
This gets to the second point we need to think about. There is a practical strategy for thinking about Jesus in Matthew 18. We are not just thinking about our own sin and the bad things we have done. We are thinking about the grace of Jesus in extending forgiveness to us in spite of our sin. Every single offense we have ever committed, even in the last two minutes (we probably haven’t been loving the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength) has been in the face of God and his son Jesus Christ. And God is rightly angry with us over that sin. But he overcomes his anger with grace and mercy, and he extends that to us in Jesus. So it is not enough to think only about our sin if we are to let go of bitterness. We have to think about the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. And when we have meditated on and soaked in the grace that he has extended to us we will, if grace is operating at all, want to extend grace to others. In sum, if we want to overcome bitterness, we need to think about our own sin. But we also need to think about the grace of Jesus in covering our sin.
A third thing we can do is listed in 2 Corinthians 10:5. Christians are commanded to take every thought captive to obey Christ. That is to say we are not supposed to let wild sinful thoughts roam through our minds. We have the opportunity to take our thoughts to obey Christ. And one of the things we can do to take our thoughts captive is to begin to force ourselves to think good things about the person who has wronged us.
I will discuss two things about this: First of all, it is very rarely the case that the person who has sinned against us is defined exclusively by the bad things they’ve done. For most of you reading this, you’re going to be struggling with bitterness towards a spouse, or a parent, or a child, or someone you know. And if you are like most people in the world, the things that have troubled you about the person who sinned against you are not the only traits they possess. There are good things about them. Maybe they’re a great dad, husband, wife, or employee. When overcoming bitterness, you need to begin to think about those things. You need to take those thoughts captive. When I meet with people struggling with bitterness, I encourage them to make a list of awesome things about the person they are bitter towards and begin to think about those things. Maybe you are in a rare situation where you don’t know anything about the person who has wronged you, but they have sinned against you in an awful way. In that case, the good thing that we can think about them is probably something like knowing they are made in the image of God, knowing that they have sinned against God, and knowing that they need the grace of Jesus in the same way that you did. And so you can begin to pray for that person. Pray that they would come to know the grace of Jesus. This is nothing more or less than the words of Jesus Christ himself when he tells us we are to love our enemies and pray for those who have wronged us. By doing so we will begin, by God’s grace, to experience softening in our hearts towards that person.
This brings us to the second point about thinking good things about the person who has sinned against us. I do not want to be confusing when I write you need to “force yourself to think good things about the person”. We cannot do this on our own steam. We live the Christian life by the grace of Jesus. And so as we pray we want to ask the Lord, “Lord, would you forgive me for clinging to bitterness with this person? And would you give me your grace to think good things about this person and to be able to extend forgiveness?”, if indeed they have sought it. This is one of the most complicated problems that people can experience, and there is a lot to say about it. I want to encourage those that are struggling with this to think about your sin, think about Jesus, and think good things about the other person as you seek to take thoughts captive to obey Christ.
The last thing to remember is that this takes time. Very few people have a switch they can flip from being bitter, angry, and upset one moment to letting it go by an act of the will in the next. I have personally known people who can do that, but not many. For most of us, this is going to take time. And you need to understand that the long journey is a blessing. Even if you are initially only committed to leaving your bitterness and moving towards forgiveness, that is a good start. It is important to find somebody to walk with you on your journey towards forgiveness as you walk away from bitterness. Find someone to pray with you who would be willing to meet with you and possibly mediate reconciliation with the person who sinned against you (if that is a wise and good choice.) Know that ultimately, at the end of the day, Jesus Christ by his grace will conquer all of your bitterness one way or another.
If you or someone you know needs assistance overcoming bitterness, click here to find a counselor near you.