How Can I Conquer Bitterness?
No one sets out to be a bitter person. Nor do we encourage others to pursue bitterness. Bitterness is bad. Everyone agrees on that.
But conditional forgiveness (not automatically forgiving) does not spawn bitterness. ... [w]e must follow the example of God, who does not forgive everyone but who does offer forgiveness to all. The offer of forgiveness to everyone, regardless of the offense, is no more bitter than the father who wraps presents and puts them under the Christmas tree hoping that his child will accept the gifts. Forgiveness, and a restored relationship, is what offenders will find inside if they choose to open the package.
The point here is that bitterness is to be avoided like the bubonic plague.
And yet there are so many bitter people. In fact, one of the reasons we agree that bitterness is bad is because we witness what it does to people. We all know sour people who kick dogs, yell at children cutting through their yards, and shout with red faces at church business meetings about insignificant issues. They are cynical at work. They are unappreciative of how they have been blessed, and they resent the successes of others.
Bitterness is like mercury. It is tempting to play with it. We can stew for hours on end thinking about how we have been treated unfairly and how we hope that someday justice will be done. We slide bitterness around in our minds and slip some of it into our pockets. And we are oh so foolish because all the while it is attacking our bones (Proverbs 14:30). Fooling around with bitterness is like drinking poison and hoping that someone else will die.
So, what we really need to do with bitterness is to deal with it as soon as possible. And the Bible is where we find answers. In Psalm 73, Asaph shared the story of his battle with bitterness. This Psalm is both real in its wrestling and timeless in the solution it offers. Psalm 73 will help us understand how bitterness works and will help us know how, with God's help, we can beat it.
If you are struggling against bitterness, the best thing would be for you to ... read Psalm 73 through four or five times. Look for the answer to two questions: First, what is bitterness like? Second, how did Asaph beat bitterness?
Know How to Beat Bitterness
First, wait for God's justice and trust his providence.
The nature of bitterness is to complain. "It isn't fair." This is the first thing we notice about Asaph's struggle in Psalm 73. He felt like evil people were rewarded. He admitted, "For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked" (v.3).
Ever been there? Ever find yourself thinking over and over again how unfair something is?
Now, it is not wrong to notice that we have been treated unjustly. The question is, how should we deal with being treated unjustly? Those who process it wrongly will become bitter.
If bitterness is a wrong response to injustice or perceived injustice, then the first step in beating bitterness is to recognize that when we have been treated unjustly, we are particularly vulnerable to bitterness.
To the extent that you may have been wronged, you are at risk for bitterness. The essence of bitterness is that it is a sinful response to injustice or perceived injustice.
If you feel yourself wrestling with bitterness, then focus more intently on our glorious God. Savor the providence of God. He is in control of all things. He is perfectly just and cannot be unjust. Bitterness begins when we have been treated unfairly. But if we believe that God will accomplish justice, and if we are simultaneously confident that God is working all things together for our good, if that is our center, then we will beat the stuffings out of bitterness every time. Derek Kidner brilliantly summarizes: "An obsession with enemies and rivals cannot be simply switched off, but it can be ousted by a new focus of attention; note the preoccupation with the Lord himself."
We think of bitterness in emotional categories. But bitterness begins between our ears. It is a mental skid that, left unchecked, quickly ruins our ability to think clearly. Bitter people will not listen. In the midst of his bitterness, Asaph said that he was "brutish and ignorant."
Those who are battling bitterness tend to avoid using the word bitterness to describe what they are feeling. Instead they talk about how badly they have been hurt. Based on the depth of their hurt, they talk about what they can or cannot do. "I can never be around that kind of person again."
But do you see how such thinking has turned inward? Rather than trusting in who God is and what he can do, people begin to trust in the barricades they themselves have erected. They develop a protective callus over their hurts. They believe they deserve their self-diagnosis, that they need to arrange their own protection. Their whole thought process and orientation has become distorted.
Keeping in mind, then, how muddled and brutish our thinking can become when we are struggling with bitterness, let's discuss a second key strategy for conquering it.
Second, listen to wise people
If you find yourself on the verge of bitterness, if you know you have been treated unfairly and you feel yourself giving in, understand that it is very likely you are losing your ability to think objectively about the situation. At this point, you need to talk with your pastor, an elder, or some very godly person soon. Proverbs 19:20 says, "Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future."
Third, pursue God's blessing for yourself and those close to you
Bitterness harms everyone involved. Psalm 73:15 says, "If I had said, 'I will speak thus,' I would have betrayed the generation of your children." It might be easy to glide past this verse when reading Psalm 73. It is worded in a way that today's reader might not easily understand. But its truth is one of the most important warnings in the entire Psalm, and universal to all its readers. Claiming and doing this verse will help us win the battle with bitterness.
Asaph's point is that to be bitter is to "betray" the family, meaning not only actual family but also God's people. Bitter people betray the people closest to them.
A root of bitterness can ruin not only the life of the bitter person but many others'. As I have already said, the turning point in Psalm 73 is verse 17, when Asaph begins to be God-centered. But he begins to turn this corner in verse 15 when he admits that if he continues his bitterness, he will ruin the lives of other people.
If you are stubbornly holding onto some wrong done against you, remember that those who continue in bitterness will damage the lives of many other people.
For your sake and the sake of people close to you, you cannot afford to lose any battles with bitterness.
Fourth, call bitterness what it is.
It may seem like stating the obvious to say that bitterness is sin. But it needs to be said. Most bitter people were treated unfairly. They become very adept at defending their bitterness, because they reason that their situation was so unfair. Usually they won't even admit that they are bitter. Bitter people feel that if others knew how unfairly life has treated them others would certainly concede their right to be bitter. But sin is never justifiable, regardless of unfairness. Bitterness is not something done to us. Others may create a situation that tempts you to be bitter, but if you live with bitterness, you do so because you have invited it to be your houseguest.
You can defeat bitterness in these ways:
- Trust God's justice and providence.
- Listen to wise people.
- Love those people to whom you are close
- Decide not to sin.
When we have been deeply and unjustly hurt, it is tempting to give in and be bitter. That is a battle that we cannot afford to lose. Center your attention on God. He is perfectly just. Rest in his providence. Listen to wise counsel. Remember that if you fail, others will be harmed too. Follow through with those things, and you will win your battle with bitterness, just as Asaph did in Psalm 73.