The deadly relational cancer in the home is bitterness. Those with whom we are bitter we rebel against serving because of the hurt they caused us in the past. Rather than being a blessing and help, we distance ourselves physically and emotionally from them.
I am sure that the primary cause of 95% of the counseling that I do with couples that are having trouble in their marriage is rooted in bitterness. It is a bigger culprit than immorality, financial stress, conflicts with parents or laws, communication issues or any other areas that can wreck a marriage. The problem is that bitterness is so subtle. Most people that are bitter do not think they are bitter.
Here are two key questions: how does a person become bitter…what is bitterness? There are a number of synonyms for bitterness that help us to understand it: resentment, holding a grudge, simmering anger.
The best definition I have ever heard for bitterness is “harbored hurt”. It is disappointment, personal offenses, and failed expectations that have been mentally nursed and rehearsed. It is having a wounded spirit that constantly bubbles beneath the surface, sometimes momentarily forgotten, but never permanently erased.
This is why most people that are bitter do not think they are. They call it other names –
“I’m just deeply hurt”….”I’m so disappointed in them”…”I expected more”…”I’m offended at what happened”. All of these responses are entry points for the poisonous seeds of bitterness to be sown in your heart. The longer they are entertained, the more bitter one becomes.
One of the examples of bitterness in a family is the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son. One can easily discern his bitterness toward his father, especially when he wanted to honor his rebellious son that didn’t deserve his goodness. Hear the words of bitterness and resentment from the older son.
“And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.” (Luke 15:29) The older son held his father hostage emotionally in his heart for a wrong he perceived in his father. Someone wrote, “A chip on the shoulder can get to be a heavy load”.
So, bitterness is related to hurts, disappointments, and unfulfilled expectations. Here is the kicker – the place where we experience the deepest hurts, greatest disappointments, and failed expectations is among those closest to us, in our family.
Bitterness isn’t hatred (it can turn into that), but harbored hurt. Those that hurt us most are family members. Most of it isn’t intentional, but it happens. And when a person becomes bitter one of the symptoms is a distaste for serving the one that caused the pain in their heart.
Bitterness causes a person to turn inward and become so absorbed with his own
pain and hurt that he cannot see the needs of others. Rather than being generous and gracious, it makes them selfish and sour.
Here is a hard truth to ponder. It is possible for a parent to become bitter toward their children because of a lack of gratitude. It is possible for a child to become resentful toward their parents because of unfulfilled expectations. It is possible for siblings to become hurt by each other through cutting remarks. It is possible for spouses to disappoint each other by a multitude of ways.
I have used the word “possible” in the above paragraph, but it would be more accurate to substitute the term “probable”. Bitterness is inevitable in a home simply because of the sheer amount of time we spend with each other and, sadly, sinners do things that are hurtful to each other. Family members are not exempt from that.
It is noteworthy that when God addressed a husband concerning his relationship with his wife that He warned him against being bitter toward her – “Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.” (Colossians 3:19) Genuine love and bitterness cannot live in the same heart. If you are bitter, you don’t want to show love to the person that hurt you. If you love them, you must deal with your bitterness so that you can serve them.
The only antidote to bitterness is forgiveness. Since the home is the easiest place to be offended (because of the amount of time we spend with each other) it must be a place of grace and forgiveness. The evidence that forgiveness is not granted is a lack of loving service. And a family that does not serve each other is not a close family, but distant and will splinter apart one day.
Whenever I began thinking about a hurt, disappointment or unfulfilled expectation from someone in my family it is a flag in my heart that I am about to descend into bitterness. At that point I can choose to forgive them or continue to rehearse the offense. I will become what I focus on. If I focus on grace and forgiveness I will be like the Lord Jesus; if I focus on the disappointment I will see myself as a victim and want to retaliate.
If Christ can forgive me of all that I have sinned against Him, cannot I do the same for others? He didn’t forgive me because I was worthy or good, but because of His great heart of mercy and kindness.
“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32)
No family will just automatically begin ministering to each other in a kind way unless they deal with the issue of bitterness and a lack of forgiveness. I know this is true in my own life and in our own family. I have seven children, my oldest child is 28 and I have been married for 33 years. That means that my family has walked across a lot of bridges that involve pain and hurt with each other. I have had to learn both to ask forgiveness and to forgive.
If you do not learn to forgive those that have hurt you the consequence is a distance from that person and a lack of closeness evidenced by a hesitance to minister to them. Life is too short to hold grudges. Forgiveness is more valuable to the one who forgives than the one who is forgiven! Bitterness will not only destroy your home, but it will destroy you!
Mark Twain accurately said, “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured”.
Forgiveness allows us to release the desire for vengeance and to leave it with the Lord. Sometimes there are issues where civil authorities must be involved because of crimes that have been committed, but we must not allow bitterness to rob us of our joy and peace.
“The difference between holding on to a hurt or releasing it with forgiveness is the difference between laying your head on a pillow filled with thorns or a pillow filled with rose petals”, said Loren Fischer.
Over twenty-five years ago when I was serving in my current church as the Youth Pastor I had ordered some important material for my ministry. It took weeks for it to arrive and I placed it on the piano in our home so that I could retrieve it when I returned from work. It wasn’t a big box, but a small envelope with information I needed.
When I came home from work that afternoon after a while I went to the piano where I had left the material and it was gone. Paula was cooking in the kitchen and I asked her if she had moved it to another place. The moment I saw the look on her face I knew the answer wasn’t good. It was a kind of “Uh, oh” look.
She hesitantly informed me that it didn’t look important and that she had thrown it away as she was cleaning that afternoon. I was upset! I began to verbally badger and remind her of how long I had waited for that packet and how time sensitive it was. Finally, I went to the back of the house to sulk. About twenty minutes later I knew I had to make it right with her, but there was a part of me that didn’t want to because I was bitter.
So I went back to the living room and she wasn’t there nor in the kitchen. I called out her name and she didn’t respond. I supposed she had gone outside and I stepped outside on our front porch. It was winter, the sun was down and it was chilly. Just before I called out her name I heard something about twenty feet away by our carport and when I walked over there I saw something that tore my heart out.
There sitting down on the cold concrete and weeping going through the remnants of the trash searching for my packet was Paula. I was devastated. I hadn’t meant to hurt her, but I had and it was deep.
I was so ashamed that I simply walked behind her and put my arms under her arms and lifted her up and told her it was alright that I didn’t need the material that much and that she was more important to me than anything in the world. We went back in the house and had our meal.
But it wasn’t over. I still had not asked for her forgiveness. In fact, I was so ashamed at my making that such a major issue and knowing how deeply I had hurt Paula that it broke my heart. It took me about two weeks to finally go to her and specifically confess my wrong and seek her specific forgiveness. She has always been one to grant forgiveness easily.
I think that same type of thing (different event, different issue, but same reaction) happens not only between spouses, but between siblings and parents and children. May our homes not be filled with bitterness, but forgiveness. Only then can we serve each other and enjoy the sweetness of being close, even though we are imperfect people.
Edward Crowther noted, “To forgive is to permanently shed hurt feelings and to put something away. It means drawing a line under something and saying, ‘Finished’”.