Bitterness is a deadly sin. The person who said, “Bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die,” was not far from the truth. However, despite how painful holding onto bitterness is for us, our grip on it likes to tighten daily. We continue to remember the damage they have done to us, we rerun those incidents to the point of shuddering, crying, or becoming angry at the mere memory. Whenever mention of that person’s name or we catch sight of their face, all the anger, hurt, and sadness rushes back.
I speak as one who kept herself under the torment of bitterness. I struggled with bitterness over small incidents, to major heartbreak. I know what it’s like to feel both the twisted satisfaction and distress of bitterness. And I’m not writing to you as one who has utterly conquered it and never feels the temptation towards bitterness; I still fight to choose forgiveness. It’s not easy, but it’s obedience.
God commands us to be forgiving and free of bitterness. To continue to hold onto that anger and seek vengeance is blatant disobedience. Not only that, it’s painful and detrimental to hold onto bitterness. Letting go and choosing to forgive, however, is freeing and the obedient, God-glorifying response every believer should have.
How do we do that when bitterness has a death-grip on us? Though I definitely do not know it all, here are five ways you can begin to cultivate love and forgiveness when you are feeling bitter towards someone.
1 | Forgive as Christ has Forgiven You
“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.”Ephesians 4:31-32 ESV
God gives us the perfect example to follow when forgiving others: Himself.
How did God forgive you? He no longer counts it against us.
“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:11-12 ESV
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1 ESV
He removed our transgression from us. Though we are wretched sinners, we are considered perfect before the Father because of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
God forgave you fully. Christ gave the ultimate sacrifice so that you could be forgiven. That is how God forgave you.
As someone who has been shown such grace, how much more gracious should you be towards others?
2 | Remember Your Greater Debt
When you chose to hold onto bitterness instead of showing forgiveness, Jesus likens you to this wicked servant:
Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Do you recognize who you are in this parable? As one who holds onto bitterness, you are no better than the wicked servant who would not forgive his fellow worker.
I know people can be and have been cruel to you. What they have done seems unforgivable. I’m not trying to minimize that. Neither is God. In this parable, though what the wicked servant owed his master was much more than what his friend owed him, his friend still owed him an unimaginable amount of money–one denarius was a day’s pay, so the other servant owed him 100 days’ worth of wages. The wicked servant had an enormous debt to forgive his fellow servant, but God had still forgiven him much more.
Remember how great a debt you owed God. You hated Him. You rebelled against Him. Because of your sins, He died on the cross. You owed God a much greater debt that anyone will never owe you.
3 | Have Compassion
The idea of showing compassion to someone who has deeply hurt you may sound inconceivable and ridiculous. I know it did to me. But there are two ways we can have compassion on those who have hurt us:
Have Pity for Their Soul
I had a spirit of bitterness towards once who was not a believer; this person was continually mean to me, never considered my feelings, and also hurt those who were close to me. This went on for years.
When I confided in a biblical counsellor concerning my struggle to forgive this person, she reminded me that as unbeliever this person was currently on his way to hell. He had no relationship with God, and was condemned before Him. Furthermore, this person had no hope of a future, no hope of God’s love and promises. She exhorted me to have compassion and pity on this person’s soul.
Are you bitter towards an unbeliever in your life? Be moved by compassion for their soul. Show them love by praying for their salvation and preaching the gospel message to them. Remember that they are condemned sinners with no hope. Let that move you towards forgiveness and compassion.
Consider their Pain
I have no idea what the stats are on this, but it’s often said that those who wound others have been greatly wounded. This is not to say that their wounds are an excuse for their sins, but rather it is to move you to be compassionate on them. If they have caused such pain in your life, perhaps there is a reason for that. Pray for them that they would find the Ultimate Healer and trust in Him instead of hurting others.
4 | Dwell on Higher Things
One of the key problems of bitterness is the rerun. When bitterness sinks in, we intentionally revisit those dark moments of when they inflicted us with pain. We remember the words they said and the actions they did. In remembering, we sometimes bring up those moments to others or to the person who hurt us to remind them of how they hurt us.
This is not forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t revisit the wrong. Instead, forgiveness forgets it. Remember how God forgave you? He no longer condemns you (Romans 8:1) and He has removed your sins as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). When you keep bringing up the issue, you aren’t showing true forgiveness.
Rather than dwelling on the ways people have hurt you, choose to focus on godly, higher things.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Colossians 3:1-4 ESV (see also Philippians 4:8).
5 | Trust God
There are two ways we can trust God in our bitterness, and the first is with revenge. In my bitterness, I believed that I was somehow getting back at the person who hurt me by making them experience similar pain that I did. Believers, however, are never told to get revenge. Instead, we are to trust revenge to our perfect Father who knows how to deal with it rightly (Romans 12:19).
Secondly, we need to trust God with what He has allowed to pass through our lives. He was in control when that person hurt you the way that they did. He could have stopped it, but instead He chose to allow the pain to happen. This was not for your harm, but instead for your good.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Romans 8:28-29 ESV
The people and situations God allows in your life are to help conform you to His Son. You can choose to be bitter, or you can choose to be strengthened. You don’t have to become bitter and resentful. You can allow this horrible situation to make you stronger, more resilient, and more like Christ, all by the power of God.
Don’t lose hope friend. Find strength and peace in choosing forgiveness and letting go of bitterness.