Two posts ago, we began thinking about what the Bible teaches about bitterness. Namely, that Scripture presents bitterness first as an experience and then as a response—first as something that happens to us, and then something that arises within us. Biblically speaking, the word bitter means to be angry, chafed, and discontent. We also learned that Scripture reveals two major categories of bitterness. The first explains the bitterness of hard life experiences, which impact the way we view ourselves and God. The second exposes bitter responses to these hard life experiences and the wrongs committed against us.
Today, our focus is on the second category of bitterness; that is, the response of bitterness which comes from within our hearts. The heart is the always-active, ever-worshiping, always-wanting-something control center of our lives. Therefore, when something or someone gets in the way of our desires, we are tempted to respond in anger. If this anger lingers—if it simmers in the crock pot long enough—then we become bitter. To confront this second category of bitterness, we will set up camp in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Here the Spirit of God warns us against bitter responses, but also provides us with the remedy.
Pay Attention to Biblical Warnings
If you are in Christ, then you are a new person; you have a new life. In Christ, you are dead to sin and alive unto God because the Spirit of God has caused you to be born again by the power of the life-giving gospel. Therefore, you must put off your sinful ways and walk in the righteousness of Christ (Eph. 4:1-24). Then, in verses 26-27, the apostle warns us about anger in two important ways.
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.Eph. 4:26-27
Righteous anger quickly becomes unrighteous when you linger there. You might say, “I didn’t know there was such a thing as righteous anger.” But Scripture commands us to be angry, and the Gospel accounts inform us that Jesus, the sinless Son of God, was angry at times. So, yes, it is possible to have righteous anger. However, the line between righteous and unrighteous anger is extremely thin—it is easy, even natural for us to quickly cross over. So, even when our anger is righteous, we must not linger there: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Deal with it immediately. Work through interpersonal conflicts as soon as possible.
Lingering anger gives the devil the advantage and opportunity to destroy. When we don’t get what we want, we often become angry and bitter (see James 4:1-10). The devil then exploits our unmet desires, tempting us to remain angry and discontent. If we linger there, we give Satan ownership of some of the real estate of our hearts, and we become easy prey for him to gobble up. This was certainly true of Esau, whose bitterness produced the desire to murder his brother, and corrupted his heart further (see Heb. 12:14-17). Bitterness will turn you into a murderer too. Maybe not by taking a person’s physical life, but by destroying their spirit with your words or your silence. Paul makes this connection a bit later: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). Bitterness in the heart is always the source of bitter speech. Bitter words flow from the fountain of a bitter heart (see James 3:10-11).
Apply the Biblical Remedy
In Ephesians 4:31-32, Paul shows us how bitterness impacts our relationships with others by giving two directives.
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.Eph. 4:31-32
Put away bitterness and all its unsavory relatives.
Bitterness gives birth to a whole family of sins. The apostle mentions five unsavory relatives of bitterness: wrath (rage, an outburst of passion), anger (a state of hostility), clamor (loud shouting), slander (abusive speech that tears a person down), and malice (general wickedness). We must put these away; we must remove them from our lives completely.
Replace destructive patterns with Christlike love and grace. While putting away bitterness and all its sinful relatives, we must also put on Christlike virtues like kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness. Forgiveness is the golden key to uprooting bitterness in your relationships. Forgiveness is letting go. “Let go” or “put away” is what the word forgive means. Therefore, to forgive someone is to actively let go of the wrongs your heart is tempted to grip tightly. It is to put them away. The fuel for this, Paul says, is to habitually reflect on how much you have been forgiven. To forgive “as God in Christ forgave you” is the new standard for the Christian. Anything less reflects bondage to the old self.
Coming Full Circle
One year after our fiasco with “the dump in the country,” we received news of the sudden death of the husband by heart attack. My wife and I don’t recall how we learned of his death but, in the providence of God, we now “just happened” to live across the street from the funeral home where the service would be held. We looked at each other and knew what we had to do. We knew what God expected from us. So, that evening, we walked across the street. We walked across the street to actively put to death any lingering anger. We walked across the street because of how much God, in Christ, had forgiven us. We walked across the street to extend the love and grace of Jesus. For an hour, we visited with his widow. And, in response to our obedience, we received strengthening grace from God so that we could pass it on to someone who had deeply wronged us.
Sometime in the months that followed, my wife and I were standing in our orange kitchen when the phone rang. It was the newly widowed property owner who called to thank us for coming to her husband’s funeral. Then she did something that we did not expect. She confessed that she had recently come to realize how badly she had wronged us and was sorry for the great distress that they brought on our family. Immediately, we granted forgiveness: “We forgive you,” I said. “We already forgave you in our heart, but now it brings us great joy to be able to tell you. We believe the Lord is in control of all things. Somehow, he will bring good out of all of this.” The painful debacle that lasted over a year was over. It was a long, painful lesson with long, painful results. But, for me, it was the most impacting lesson on bitterness and grace that I had experienced up to that point in my Christian life.
Bitterness can be subtle. I didn’t see its presence in my own heart for quite some time and, when I became aware of it, I didn’t want to admit it because of my pride. Thankfully, the Lord was gracious to me. His grace overcame my sin and the Holy Spirit broke through the outer crust of my bitter heart. He exposed the root, conquered my lingering anger, and restored me to himself and others. What is your need today? What has the Holy Spirit unearthed in your heart?
- Think: Make a list of the experiences that you are still angry about. What afflictions are you disappointed with God about? What people are you harboring bitterness against?
- Pray: Confess any unbelief or sinful responses to the Lord. Pray for those who hurt you.
- Let go: Put your list through a paper shredder or burn it in a fireplace or grill. Destroy it somehow, as an outward expression of letting go and putting way all bitterness.
This three-part blog series is derived from the two-part sermon: Uprooting Bitterness.