Gospel Antibiotic for the Poison of Bitterness (Dave Coats)

As we continue to walk through the story of David and Absalom, in my preaching at our church, we are learning that it is by focusing on David that we see Christ through him and the godly response to betrayal (read my previous post). By focusing on Absalom, on the other hand, we get a pretty good picture of what bitterness will do to a person who does not deal with hurt biblically.

Let me encourage you to read 2 Samuel 13-18 sometime this weekend to see the whole picture of the situation and how Absalom handles the evil done in his family. We recognize the problem with David’s passivity as a leader here, but we should not blame David for Absalom’s anger, hatred, and desire for revenge. For two years, Absalom plotted and planned how he would kill Amnon (2 Sam 13:28-32). For the next three years, Absalom lived with his maternal grandfather. David was not proactive in trying to reconcile with Absalom. When Absalom returned, David communicated no desire to work out the relationship with his son. Two more years went by, and finally Absalom asked, by way of Joab, “What is the point? Why am I even returned?” So David allowed Absalom to come to meet him at the palace. Absalom bowed, and David kissed him. From the rest of the story it is apparent that biblical reconciliation did not take place. Forgiveness, repentance, and restoration result in a new and better relationship, not one marred by the past.

For the next four years, Absalom worked at gaining the loyalty of the people in the kingdom around David (2 Sam15). When David realized the betrayal and destruction that was coming, he gathered his loyal friends and soldiers and headed into retreat. It is one of those literary and historical ironies that the man who had been David’s counselor was now Absalom’s counselor. His name was Ahithophel. He was the father of Eliam, Bathsheba’s dad.

If you were in Absalom’s place, what would keep you from being poisoned by bitterness? That, I think, is a critical question. All of us will go through some hurt. We will face pain and anguish over things that take place. We may even struggle to resolve a broken relationship with someone who was once close to us, yet we don’t see the relationship changing in a positive direction. We will probably have a family member or church friend who says things that are not true or are very hurtful. How do we then respond? Bitterness starts out as anger that is unresolved. We tend to turn to God and blame Him. However, in these times we have to resolve these emotions and deal with them. I recommend two simple steps to avoid bitterness.

Step #1: Recognize the Impact of Bitterness

  • Peter met a man who is described as being in the “gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity” (Acts 8:9-25). This man’s anger had gone deep and taken control. When this happens bitterness becomes toxic waste that damages our inner man.
  • Notice that the writer of Hebrews 12 has a section of general admonitions (vv. 14-15). Here he warns us about the effect that bitterness has if we let it loose in our midst and in our relationships with others. I think we can easily see this warning and its damaging effects played out in the life of Absalom. Consider its work in the kingdom around him.
  • The reason that bitterness has such an impact on our lives is that bitterness is sourced in a poor view of God. As A.W. Tozer says, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” It is fascinating to note Deuteronomy 29:17-19, where the idea of bitterness in its general form shows up for the first time. Idolatry is the driving force as people turn from God and their hearts bear “poisonous and bitter fruit.”
  • Rarely in the Bible do we see someone who is as honest about his struggle with bitterness as Job. He reaches out to God looking for help since his friends obviously have provided none this is sound. Job implies that God is at fault (9:18; 27:2). He speaks out of a heart and soul that is in anguish (7:11; 10:1). Like the Psalmist, he lets us know what is going on deep inside. And then, in the final chapters, it is Job’s view of God that God addresses. Job finally gets it!

Step #2: Resist the Infection of Bitterness

  • The first principle I encourage you to follow in resisting bitterness is to make sure you have passages of Scripture memorized and/or easily accessible to reread and meditate on that remind you of the overall goodness of God. We doubt this truth in the depths of bitterness.
  • The second principle is sourced in the need to make sure you are daily reaffirming the specific goodness of God as found in the cross. I call this the gospel antibiotic that fights the infection of sin in its most powerful forms including the poison of bitterness. Psalm 103:10-14 is one of those passages: “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”
  • The third principle is that you must deal with your pride. We believe we deserve so much better than we get; that is a huge problem in each of us. We struggle to remember that Jesus brought us undeserved forgiveness. I believe we truly need these daily reminders of God’s good news spoken to our soul so that we don’t drift into taking it for granted. Colossians 3:12-13 remind us that we are to be ready to forgive others even as Christ has forgiven us. So once again, sourced in the gospel, we find truth addressing something that fights bitterness.
  • The fourth principle for fighting bitterness is sourced in Romans 12:19-21. God is the only one with the right to take vengeance out on those whom He chooses to punish. We are not equipped to be the judge and jury; we must not. Paul’s words are so crucial because he does not want us to hold onto evil, nor does he want evil to get a hold on us.

Compare Absalom and Joseph. What a difference in how they responded to the pain and hurt that came into their lives through their family! Genesis 50:20 is an Old Testament version of Romans 8:28-29. God expects us to put away the record of wrongs that we have held against someone who has hurt us (1 Cor. 13:5). When they seek forgiveness and reconciliation I am called to open my heart, forgive, and pursue love. Applying this biblical counsel will protect our hearts from the poison of bitterness.

[Today’s post, and the previous Valley of Betrayal, is written by Dave Coats, a biblical counselor and pastor in northern Wisconsin.]

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