When I was a Youth Pastor I had two parents of young people in our ministry that were negative, cynical, sarcastic and just generally unpleasant to be around. They kept score (in great detail) of how people had done them wrong. And they were always petty and insignificant issues. It was difficult for anyone to maintain a long-term relationship with them. They made life miserable especially for anyone that was involved with their children.
They often were critical of programs and ideas, but that wasn’t their real problem. They had a judgmental spirit that was accompanied with severe, harsh words, but that wasn’t the real issue either. At the root of their negativity was bitterness. Whenever someone offended or disappointed them (this happened a lot from their persepctive) they demanded an apology along with a strong admission that the offender had done wrong.
If that wasn’t forthcoming they expressed their despite in several ways – through a stern countenance, body language the communicated rejection and disgust, and then they would place your future actions under a microscope. They measured everything you did looking for the flaws rather than anything good. It was difficult for me to serve them and to like them.
Here is no surprise. Their children picked up the same destructive tendencies from their parents. They had seen them modeled and heard the justifications for their acidic words, negative opinions and sour attitudes. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Bitterness always destroys a person. And if left untreated it will destroy others, especially those closest to them, family and friends. Notice God’s Word on the issue – “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle.” (Proverbs 18:19)
The “contentions” of the person whom we have offended become like bars to keep other people out and protect you from them. They are like a strong fortress that is designed to keep anyone from entering without permission. Also, they are like the bars of a cell within a prison, purposefully put there to keep a person there.
The word “contentions” has the idea of “quarreling and debating”. This is the result of the harbored hurt that is carried and justified in one’s spirit. A bitter man is one that can defend and debate his position – and he will. At first, only in his mind, but it becomes public after a while. Bitterness cannot remain static, but grows worse over time (Hebrews 12:15).
Here is the process. We are hurt by being disappointed, having unmet expectations or through careless and cutting words. If we continue to remember the pain from the incident, it develops into bitterness. We lose our desire to be close and begin to pull away from them in our spirit.
The next step is to keep the individual on probation until our sense of justice is satisfied. The offender must pay for their crime of hurting us. At this point it is not a literal cell with steel bars, but an emotional prison where the one who was offended incarcerates the one with whom they have an issue.
In our thinking the victim holds the keys until we are satisfied that the “debt” has been paid to us. These are the “bars of the castle” of which the text above speaks. The deception in it all is that because it is an emotional response which is related to feelings rather than a specific and precise way for justice to be satisfied, the “debt” is rarely paid and the bitterness and resentment lasts a lifetime.
All the while the one that has been hurt has no peace or joy because of their preoccupation with the one that has brought them pain. In actuality, they are not hurting the one that has offended them; they are hurting themselves. This is the both the deception and folly of being bitter with someone.
The “prison” in which they have placed their offender is rather one they have built around their own soul. They are in a prison of their own resentment and anger. Many times the person whom they are upset with has no idea of the feelings of the one that is hurting and angry toward them. He is sleeping while the bitter person is awake at nights seething at the hurt of injustice.
Jesus gave a parable about the importance of forgiveness and he uses a picture of one that is going to jail. He said that his a prisoner (referring to the one who was bitter and unwilling to forgive) was “…delivered…to the tormentors, til he should pay all that was due…” (Matthew 18:34). Christ taught that this is what happens to those who refuse to forgive (Matthew 18:35); they experience torment. This is not speaking of hell, but of sorrow in this life.
The example Christ used was one which His hearers were very familiar. Jailers were permitted to “torment” those in prison from bankruptcy and debts by beating them. This was done in order to recover money that they may have been hiding or that perhaps their friends or family would have compassion on them and help raise money for them to pay the debt.
A bitter person is a tormented person. These torments aren’t activated by God but the normal feelings one experiences from resentment. It is the way God has wired us internally. We were never meant to be at odds with other people and live with anger and bitterness.
Initially it is emotional torment – guilt, lack of peace and joy, being consumed with a desire for revenge. If a person doesn’t respond to these emotional tormentors they result in another form of torment – physical problems.
For example, one common characteristic of sustained anger is TMJ (temporomandibular joint dysfunction). In no way am I saying it is the only factor that causes it, but it is a proven fact that clenched teeth attend those that are angry or under stress.
Once my wife had to go to the dentist because her teeth were aching. He could find no obvious causes and asked her, “Are you under a lot of stress right now?” In fact, she was and he told her that this was probably the cause of her pain. A tense spirit causes the body to become tense and the jaw naturally tightens causing the pain from the pressure on the teeth.
When David sinned against God by his immorality he lived for a year without confessing it and seeking forgiveness. In what is called a “penitential Psalm” he records his feelings during this time. It also contains insights about what happens to our bodies when we live with unconfessed sin.
“When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. Selah.” (Psalm 32:3-4)
The Bible states that his “bones waxed old”. This means that they began to wear out and grow old prematurely. Basic medical science teaches us that the health of our blood is directly related to our physical health. Our bone marrow has a key function in producing white blood cells that fight infection and boost our immune system. These are produced in our bone marrow.
He also writes about his “moisture is turned into the drought of summer”. Again, I think this is a reference to what was happening to him physically in his bones. Bitterness and simmering anger lowers our resistance to disease and illness! It destroys us. (An interesting Bible study is on our bones and their relationship to our health. Proverbs speaks a lot about this topic).
Dr. S.I, McMullen, a physician, in his book, “None of These Diseases”, corroborates the impact bitterness has on our health. He writes, “Resentments call forth certain hormones from the pituitary, adrenal, thyroid and other glands. Excesses of these hormones can cause diseases in any part of the body – including ulcerative colitis, toxic goiters, (and) high blood pressure”.
The Bible speaks to the issue as to why we respond so harshly to people that have done us wrong. We tend to become bitter and angry at people for the very same issues with which we struggle, but just in different expressions and ways.
God asked a probing question of us in this regard – “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things”. (Romans 2:1)
Would you read that last verse again….slowly? We often become angry at others about the very areas which we are guilty of ourselves. Ironically, the more we focus on the person that has hurt us the more we become like them – even though we cannot recognize it. Behaviors which we despise and criticize in others are sometimes the very areas in which we struggle most.
I was having lunch with a preacher that had been deeply hurt by another preacher. He despised this man because of how he had been treated by him. His bitterness and judgmental spirit was so obvious, etched on his face and in the tone of his voice. He couldn’t release it and was obsessed by what had happened.
As I drove away from that meeting I was amazed by the power of resentment from a past hurt. This man whom the preacher was so angry with? He had been dead for over five years. Yet, this man was still harboring anger toward him. It was utterly destroying his spirit and perhaps even his health. It was also destroying his relationships. I sure didn’t enjoy my time with him that day.
One final thought in the matter of being angry and bitter. Sometimes it isn’t even your personal hurt about which you are upset. Your anger can be directed at what someone has done to your friend or loved one. So, you take up the offense of another and become bitter toward someone that has done nothing to you personally.
This happened to me. One of my closest friends was publicly humiliated by someone and I was there when it happened. The longer I sat there the more I stewed about it. The perpetrator had done nothing to me, but my love for my friend caused me to take up his offense. My friend handled it much better than I have, but I struggled with it for many years. Someone had intentionally embarrassed someone whom I cared about greatly.
To me, I had no desire to ever see him again. I didn’t wish him evil, but I had no desire to fellowship with him because of his caustic behavior to one I cared about greatly. My problem was bitterness and resentment – though the poisonous behavior wasn’t directed at me personally. However, it’s poison had infected me.
I was in a restaurant years later and saw the individual that had hurt my friend walk in and sit at a nearby table. Quickly, I ducked my head. When I finally glanced his way I was thankful that his back was to me. I ate as fast as I could and left without speaking a word to him. He never knew I was there. It was still a sore spot with me.
Why? Not because of something that had been done to me, but to someone I loved. I knew I had to forgive him and to release my anger toward him and ask the Lord to give me a love for the man. That is what Christ has done for me; it’s what I ought to do for others as well.
I have a debilitating illness relating to my immune system and the last thing I need is for the weakened system I do have to be compromised further by bitterness. It had influenced me negatively emotionally and, I’m sure, physically, too. It was drying up my bones. I didn’t want the resentment to affect my relationships, but it could.
I’m a pastor and those whom I lead do not need a bitter shepherd. As a husband and father my family do not need a resentful leader in the home. Most of all, I am a Christian and as long as I tolerate bitterness in my heart I cannot be close to my Savior.
Bitterness is a continual drain on a person. It was on me. I got tired of it and had to deal with it. I gave it to the Lord – the injustice of what had happened and all of my feelings about it. I’m glad I did. When I’m tempted to go back to those negative feelings I remember the high cost and destruction of bitterness to my soul, body and relationships.
Perhaps as you read this you realize that something has over time been gradually siphoning off your joy, peace, and your health. May today you release the person that has hurt you (or brought pain to someone you love) and leave them with God to care for. You’ll be glad you did.
“Bitterness does more damage to the vessel in which it is stored than to the object upon which it is poured”.
Here’s a song by Steve and Annie Chapman that illustrates the power of bitterness to destroy a life. It is simple, but profound, and tragic. God’s grace can mend our hurting hearts.