How to Overcome a Bitter Spirit

How does a person know they are bitter?    Most people do not think they are because they call it other names – disappointed, hurt, unmet expectations.   An operational definition I use for bitterness is “harbored hurt”.   If not dealt with quickly it inevitably grows into resentment and even hatred.

There are devastating consequences in the personal life and relationships of a bitter person.   The Bible speaks about the development of bitterness in Ephesians 4:31 and the following verse deals with it’s consequences and solution.

“And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”   (Ephesians 4:32)

There are three admonitions to the bitter person – to be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving.  Each of these have eroded from the heart of one that is angry until they are absent.   Their opposite qualities characterize one that has carried a hurt or offense over a period of time.

A bitter person lacks “kindness”.   This is why God instructs us to be “kind one to another”.   The word “kind” means “gracious, easy to speak with, a ready willingness to help”.    The virtuous woman spoke with kindness (Proverbs 31:26).    So, kindness also includes not only our choice of words, but also the tone of voice in which we speak them.

Seething anger over past hurts makes us ungracious (living by the letter of the law), difficult to converse with, unwilling to help the one that has disappointed us, and speaking about them with words that are biting with a harsh tone.

A bitter person lacks “tenderness”.    The word means “to have compassion, sympathy, and express pity”.    This quality is key to enjoying close relationships.    Resentment births a hardness and indifference in one’s feelings toward the offender.   There is a desire for justice rather than mercy and compassion.

A bitter person lacks “forgiveness”.   God tells us we are to be “forgiving one another”.    This is the key to dealing with being resentful over past hurts.   Our bitterness and disappointment in people can only be resolved through forgiveness.   Period.   A bitter person refuses to forgive the offender.

As I have ministered to people that were angry and have shared this with them there is usually a push back.    “But Rick, you have no idea what they have done to me.   You have no clue how deeply they hurt me”.   And, no, I do not.

I have had to deal with my own hurts and bitter feelings, each person is different in how they have been hurt.   (That’s why I never tell someone, “I know exactly how you feel”.   I don’t.)   However, I do know what it is like to be hurt and to hurt others.

The solution is given to us in God’s Word.   We are to be “…forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you”.    (Ephesians 4:32)

This is the way we resolve our anger.    (I intentionally use the word “resolve”.    Many seminars are given on “anger management”, but that only deals with the surface issue.   We don’t need anger management, but anger resolution.  To have a complete resolution to bitterness we must forgive).

What do I tell people that are broken, hurting and angry over how their heart has been pierced?   By a loved one, a friend, a coworker?   I focus on a very important line in Ephesians 4:32.   It doesn’t merely say to just forgive someone, but to do so “…even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you”.    That is the key!

Some struggle with forgiveness because they want something from the offender – a request to be forgiven, admission and recognition of how deeply they have hurt us, for them to feel the same type of pain as we have experienced.   In a sense, we want them to “deserve” to receive our forgiveness.

Yet, that is not how God has forgiven us.    We didn’t deserve to be forgiven at all.   We had broken His law, rebelled at His Word, and rejected the sacrifice of His Son on the cross.   But He still offers forgiveness to us.   Forgiveness isn’t earned, but the gift of God extended to one that is guilty.  All we have to do is to receive it as humble, guilty sinners.

The same is true of our forgiving others.    Forgiveness isn’t contingent on how we feel about the other person.   God has forgiven us “for Christ’s sake”.    I, too, can forgive my offenders, not because they are good, but because of what Christ has done both for me and in my heart.

Forgiveness is a gift!    It is a gift from God that enables  you to have your guilty record cleared in Heaven.    Forgiveness is free, but it isn’t cheap.   Christ had to die as our substitute on Calvary and pay the penalty for our sin.   The offer is there for all, but the response is up to the one that is guilty.

Forgiveness is also a gift you give to others.   Don’t make them earn it or determine you will grant it only when  you feel they finally deserve it.    It’s a great day in your life when you stop requiring other people to measure up to your standard or expectation before you forgive them.   This happens in marriages and between children and parents and siblings.   At one point the offender feels like, “I suppose if I crawled on my knees through broken glass for a mile that might prove my sorrow over what has happened”.  

When forgiveness is dangled in front of someone as something they can have if they jump through the correct hoops it really isn’t forgiveness at all.   As Christ releases us from the guilt and penalty of our sins so we can do the same through His Power for those that have hurt us.    (I’m speaking here of personal rather than civil offenses.   If a crime has been committed the state has the responsibility to carry out the penalty).

Let me illustrate by contrasting two people that I know very well.   One was abandoned by his father at an early age.   While there were occasions as he grew up his father would reach out to him, the pain of betrayal was so great he could never get over it.

He became a pastor in his 20’s, but the stinger of bitterness remained buried deep beneath layers no one could see.   It slowly poisoned his spirit and it resulted in his refusal to be transparent with people and trust them, even his wife.    My friend is no longer a pastor anymore.    In fact, he doesn’t even attend church.     The enemy used a hurt that had never forgiven to destroy his marriage and his ministry and most of his relationships.   I am the only friend from that era of his life that he ever speaks to anymore.

Another story from one that was deeply wounded.    A lady had a father that was hard working and honest, but struggled to connect with his wife and children.     Before his daughter could drive he took her to school, a twenty minute ride,  and it was silence the entire way.    When he dropped her off, good-byes were said to each other.  That was it.

The years passed and while he never hurt her physically it was very painful for her emotionally because of the lack of love she never felt from her dad.     The day before her high school graduation while in her room she heard her parents arguing in the living room.    She heard her mom say to her father, “You have got to, it’s her graduation from high school”.

A while later she walked into the living room and her father called her over.   He put his hand out and gave her a $100 bill.    Immediately she understood the source of the earlier heated discussion between her parents.    She said, “No, Dad.   That’s alright.   I don’t need it; you can keep it”.    Incredibly he put the bill back into his pocket while his only daughter walked back to her room, wounded again.   When she graduated from high school, he stayed home while her mother attended the ceremony.

I know these two people very, very well.   The first person I mentioned was one of my dearest friends.   The second person is my wife.   She had a lot of respect for her father (he has passed away) because of his work ethic and his honesty, but there was a hurt in her heart because he never communicated his love to her.

Two people with similar situations of rejection and indifference from a father, but very different responses.    My wife has forgiven her father and doesn’t have emotional walls up between her and me, our children or her friends.     God’s grace enabled her to have her broken heart mended.

My sweet Paula.   Taken at a friend's home outside of Charleston, SC.

My sweet Paula. Taken at a friend’s home outside of Charleston, SC.

I, too, have had to deal with bitterness on two fronts.   Those whom I have hurt and those that have hurt me.   Such is life for all of us.    No one goes through life without hurting others and being hurt by others.     Failing to deal with it is personally, relationally, and spiritually destructive.

In 1981 I was attending a meeting where resolution of bitterness was taught from a biblical perspective.    The speaker gave a moving story of how he had hurt his younger brother and had to seek forgiveness from him.

As I rode back from the meeting God began to deal with me about my younger brother, Hoss.   (His real name is David).   He got his nickname literally at his birth when he was born and weighed in at 12 lbs., 13 oz. – almost a thirteen pound baby!   This was in the mid-60’s when the western Bonanza was popular and one of the characters on the show was a huge, rotund actor they called “Hoss”.    The nurse took my baby brother and gave him to Mom and said, “Here’s your Hoss”.     The name stuck and we have always called him that.

Most of his life he has always been the biggest person in the room.   I remember once when I was sixteen and took Hoss, eleven years old, to see a movie with me.   The lady at the register refused to give him the child’s rate.   She didn’t believe he was eleven because of his size.

Hoss has always been my best friend.    Yet, after hearing the speaker share about hurting his brother I thought about how I had hurt him.    I have always loved to laugh, have fun and to tease and as Hoss began to grow I sometimes called him “Tub”.    I didn’t do it out of hared, but looking back it was cruel.

I tried to rationalize away my thinking that I had to make it right with him; he never reacted to the name-calling; we had a great relationship.   It was just a playful nickname, I thought.   But it was also a hurtful nickname, especially to a young boy.

The next night I called him and after we talked for a while I brought up the topic that I needed to seek his forgiveness about something.    I explained what I had learned and how God had brought my hurtful words to my mind and told him how sorry I was, that I loved him very much and wouldn’t have hurt him for anything.    I sought his forgiveness and he told me it wasn’t an issue because it never bothered him, but I asked him to do so anyway because I felt I had done wrong.   He graciously forgave me.


Me and my “little” brother and best pal, Hoss.

I have also had to deal with bitterness personally.    Just one brief example.    Someone had wounded my spirit deeply; in fact, they did so several times.   At first I tried to ignore it, but as the behavior was repeated it grew to where I was aggravated consistently.   I realized I was bitter toward this person.     I don’t think they meant to hurt me at all; I believe they were ignorant of their actions.   (Remember, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” concerning those that crucified Him).

When you are in occupational ministry you speak and teach 3-4 times a week.   One day I was on my way to preach and about to walk out of my office.   I had been struggling with the hurts and anger I felt, but just buried it and plowed on.   However, that day the Lord spoke deeply to me.

I have never heard God speak out loud to me, but that day I heard Him speak very powerfully to my heart.   “Rick, where are you going?”   

“Lord, I’m going to teach and preach from the Bible and tell people about You”.   

“Do you want me to bless you as you speak?”   

“Oh, yes; of course, I do.   I can’t do this without you.   I’m an average speaker at best and I need You to be with me”.   

“If you want Me to minister to you and through you then you must first deal with the bitterness you have in your heart”.

Without any thought of the time or being late, I locked my office door and returned behind my desk.   (I remember this so vividly).    I knelt there with my elbows in my chair seat and begin to cry out to the Lord.    What I said was very important and, I believe, it was the key that allowed me to release my pent up, simmering anger.

“Father, I don’t want to forgive this person.    They have hurt me over and over and they are so stupid they can’t even see it.   But I know I have to do so and I’m asking You to help me, to give me the desire and ability to do so”.    Then I said, “Right now I judicially forgive them because Christ has forgiven me though I didn’t deserve it”.    (I knew I couldn’t forgive them emotionally, but judicially I did so because it was the correct thing to do based on Christ’s command and His own forgiveness of my sorry soul).

Randall Worley wrote, “Forgiveness is not an emotion, it’s a decision”.    He is correct.   I would add that bitterness is an emotion based on a decision to remain hurt rather than forgiving the offender.

I do not exaggerate.   When I stood up it felt like two tons was off of my shoulders.   The weight of guilt and anger toward them was gone.  My heart was lighter.    Joy and peace flooded my heart.   I became more kind, tender, and forgiving to them when the behavior was repeated.

My emotions followed my doing what was the right thing to do.    And I haven’t ever looked back and remembered those times when I was hurt by this person.    In fact, it made me love them more.  

My desire for justice and protecting my heart from them was replaced with an attitude of genuine concern and even pity for them.    Their offenses toward me were indications of  their own needs and hurts.     To this day, this individual has no idea that I have forgiven them.   (Sometimes telling people we have forgiven them is an attitude of pride in our heart; this is not always the case, especially when the offense is obvious and known between the two of you.   But sometimes making sure they know of our forgiveness can be an announcement of how bad they were to hurt us and how noble we have been to grant them mercy).

Perhaps as you have read this post, God has brought to your mind someone whom you need to seek forgiveness from.    You have hurt them and it needs to be addressed with a plea for mercy and an expression of repentance.    Seek them out and let them know you care about the relationship.   

Maybe you are dealing with a situation where you have been hurt.   The incident has caused you to be bitter and you have tried to ignore it and stuff it.    Friend, deal with it God’s way.   Forgive them, not because they deserve it, but because Christ has forgiven you in spite of your wickedness.    I will promise you that your life emotionally, relationally, and spiritually will take on a fresh and joyous meaning.

“To forgive is to set a person free and discover the person was you”.

About familyencouragement

Pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama. Married for 41 years with seven children and nine grandchildren.
This entry was posted in Anger, Bitterness, Compassion, Criticism, Family Issues, Father, Forgiveness, Friends, Happiness, Humility, Joy, Leadership, Love, Marriage, Men, Mercy, Parenting, Pride, Revival and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How to Overcome a Bitter Spirit

  1. Pingback: Love and forgive this friday | From guestwriters

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