Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. (Ephesians 4:31)
He was a loner. He bore grudges. Conversations with him were spent rehearsing the latest set of injustices. The friend who never called. The neighbour whose tree blocked his light. The price of coal.
He wasn’t exploding all the time but his comments could be caustic. His voice had an edge. I felt I had to be careful – walk on eggshells. You could never challenge, he was always right. You might not have identified anger straight away, but my friend was a very, very angry man. Bitterness had become a mindset for him.
How could I help? How could bitterness be ‘put away’?
It’s worth asking ourselves, ‘what is bitterness?’ Bitterness is a form of anger, the emotion of judgment. But bitterness is anger with a long memory, anger that gets stuck. And it does so for deep reasons.
When I got to know my friend, I discovered that his anger was about more than the price of coal or the latest neighbourly grievance. This was a man who had known great difficulties in his life. Brought up in a restrictive atmosphere, he had always felt like the odd one out – the object of cruel fun-making from school-mates. Both his parents had died at an early age, his mother after a particularly hard battle with cancer. His sister then died in her teens in a tragic accident.
Life had been hard. The loss of precious people, the injustice of peer bullying, made to feel different through fearful parenting – I could begin to see how bitterness might develop.
But how do we address this kind of anger – in others or ourselves?
First, try to locate the struggle beneath the bitterness. What’s going on underneath this anger? What’s the sin beneath the sin of bitterness? What’s the suffering beneath the sin? Perhaps anger gets stuck because we were deeply wronged. Perhaps we were betrayed. Someone we should have been able to trust did harm to us. Perhaps we were misrepresented – our name was blackened, or we fear that others spoke evil about us. Perhaps we were wronged by an oppressive authority, and treated unreasonably, unfairly or even threatened. But bitterness can also arise in the midst of suffering – the loss of something treasured, something longed for.
Next, get our bearings with God. What does God see? He sees that we were wronged, betrayed, misrepresented, oppressed. We were sinned against. But God is always the one most sinned against; he is always the most offended party. And God is the Judge. We think our anger judges the situation, but are we taking God’s place? How did Jesus avoid bitterness when he was betrayed, oppressed and misrepresented?
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:22-23)
Jesus left his case in the hands of the God who judges justly.
Last, by faith address the sin or suffering beneath the bitterness. Come to the God who in Christ suffered injustice, betrayal, misrepresentation, oppression and loss. We can entrust our case to him. Cast our care upon him. What good fruit of forgiveness, peace-making, or practical love will then arise?
For my friend, the path to sweetening his bitter heart was getting to know the riches of Christ. Let’s ask God for the privilege of applying those same riches to others who struggle in the same way.
Andrew Collins spoke on bitterness at our 2018 residential conference. You can download the audio of that session and the other main sessions free of charge from our conference resources page.