A bitter person is consciously, willfully angry. He refuses to let a hurt go. He insists on making the other person pay. Whereas, the Bible instructs us to set our mind on the Spirit of God, the bitter person refuses to let go of his pain. As he dwells upon how he was wronged, he convinces himself that his anger is justified. Being fully convinced of his interpretation of the facts in his own mind, he secretly continues to accuse his offender. As he does this, the bitterness grows. Soon it effects other areas of his life as well.
On the human front, the biblical strategy for overcoming bitterness is forgiveness. Forgiveness is making a commitment to release the offender from the punishment you believe they deserve for the hurt they’ve caused. Often the bitter person will insist that the offender doesn’t deserve forgiveness. This places the angry person in the judge’s seat and only further fuels his bitterness. The Bible, however, doesn’t teach that you forgive your offender because they deserve it. Instead, it teaches that you forgive someone because you were yourself forgiven by God when you deserved it least. In the verse immediately following our passage of study we read,
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Once when I was teaching on forgiveness, a woman sought my counsel afterwards. She had a cynical response to my teaching. She insisted that there were some hurts that were so deep that they couldn’t be forgiven. Later that week we met, and she shared her sad story. Her brother was serving a prison sentence for a crime he’d committed against their family. In her bitterness, she had never visited him during his incarceration, and now he was about to be released. As I listened to her resentment, it struck me that her brother wasn’t the only one imprisoned. I told her so, and she wept. After some time, she lifted her head, looked me in the eyes and said, “How do I get out?” I took a deep breath, knowing we were in painful territory. “Have you ever confronted him for his wrongdoing, shared your pain, and told him he should ask your forgiveness?” She shook her head. “Do you know why you haven’t done that?” She shook her head again. “Perhaps you’re afraid that he might actually ask; then you’d have a choice to make.” The statement hung in the air until her voice interrupted the silence: “Well, I think we’re done here.” I walked her to the door, and thanked her for the courage to share such a painful experience. Two weeks later following a service, I saw her across the sanctuary. She was walking briskly towards me, her dour frown replaced with a broad smile. “I did it,” she said. “I visited my brother in prison, and I released him from the hurt he had caused.” “He’s free,” then thoughtfully she added, “And so am I.”
Five years later I was speaking at another church when I looked into the audience and saw the same woman. She still wore the same smile she had for our last meeting. After the service she thanked me again for encouraging her to restore the relationship with her brother. “He died two years after he was released from prison,” she said. “I’m so thankful I was able to restore my relationship with him after all those years.” As she introduced me to her other brother who was with her, he said, “Thank you for setting my sister free. For years she was trapped in her pain.” As they turned to walk away, it occurred to me:
bitterness is a prison cell of our own making, and forgiveness is the only key that opens the prison door.
Taken from Fighting the Fire: biblical strategies for overcoming anger