Festering Bitterness

by Melinda Viergever Inman

The problem is universal. We’ve all experienced this. Someone hurts us deeply, and we allow the wound to fester in our hearts and minds. Rehearsing each unkind word or action, we mull over the offense, unable to let it go. Rather than putting it behind us, we engrave it onto our thought processes and emotions, thus impacting our actions and attitudes.

This results in resentment and bitterness crippling our spiritual growth and damaging our human relationships and our communion with God. Resentment and bitterness are virulent and lethal. Adopting these harmful habits of thought stunts our spiritual growth and hurts our relationships. These actions and their results are not Christian or Christ-like. Yet, we all do this.

To offset this human tendency, the Lord built forgiveness and grace into the very essence of Christianity and Christian practice. Not only does he instruct us to forgive others and to extend them grace, but he modeled this from before time began. Before he had completed even one act of creation, he had already formulated the plan of salvation—he would create us, knowing we would sin, and then he would redeem us by his own death on a cross, extending us grace and mercy.

The Lord’s actions are beautifully revealed here in Ephesians 1:3-14. This is who he is.
Therefore, he built the necessities of forgiveness and grace into the daily practice of our faith, embedded into how we approach God in prayer. We are to forgive as we’ve been forgiven.

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:9b-13 ESV).

This prohibits resentment and bitterness, requiring us to forgive as thoroughly as the Lord, who removes our sins as far as the east is from the west. That’s a straight east-to-west line, not one that circles around, so we can stew over it yet again.

The desire to mull over affronts is embedded within our sinful natures. To offset this, the Lord instructed believers to handle offenses in this manner:

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12-14 NIV). 

When “forgive” is used three times in a passage, it’s important. In the Christian life, forgiveness is enmeshed with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and love. They’re inseparable. Believers, we are to clothe ourselves in these qualities, starting now. Put on love.

God’s Word enlightens us to the harm of allowing bitterness to take root: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:14-15 ESV).

This passage comes right in the middle of the application, detailing how to live the Christian life. It’s written immediately after the beneficial effects of discipline—from parents and from the Lord—and right before a discussion of rejection of belief, morality, and a godly heritage. Bitterness impacts all.

For this reason, Jesus made clear the necessity of forgiving others. Peter asked: “‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times’” (Matthew 18:21-22 ESV). In other words, as many times as necessary.

Because we seek loopholes to avoid having to forgive, Jesus followed that instruction with a terrifying parable illustrating why we are to forgive and describing the consequences if we don’t. Read Matthew 18:23-35.

Forgiveness can only be extended by the grace of God and with the help of his Holy Spirit. The struggle to forgive puts us on our knees, begging the Lord for the ability to stop mulling over the offense and the grace to let the offense go. As with all of Christian life, without Christ’s work in our hearts and minds, it’s utterly impossible. Thank God for his helping Spirit within.

In Part 2, I’ll examine more application. See you then.

Melinda Inman and her husband Tim are members at Crossings Community Church. They married in 1977, raised six kids, and delight in their grandkids. Melinda is a novelist who blogs at melindainman.com.

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