Three things holding onto bitterness does to the heart

Heart on a log

I’m not (I hope) a bitter person. I have been, but it’s something that the Lord has changed in me over the years, healing a lot of relationships along the way. Perhaps this is why I am so sensitive about what I see Christians share on social media and write on blogs. There’s a lack of thoughtfulness, of nuanced critique… And that’s just when dealing with politics (except when Trevin does it).

When it gets to church or theological issues, it gets even worse. A large majority of Christians are trying to express hope. They know that the fruit of life in Christ is joy and this is reflected in what they share and write. They offer necessary (and sometimes forceful) critique, but rarely could they be considered antagonistic.

And then there’s a loud minority who, well, I don’t know what to do with them, to be honest. They often run in circles that cross over with the ones I’m in on our ven diagrams, but dang… some of them I have to wonder what happened to them. Did they experience abuse in a church context? Did someone use a theological position to take advantage of them? Did a Calvinist crush their cat with car? I don’t know, but there are many I feel really sad for. They seem to live in a really dark place, one that appears to be rooted in bitterness.

I was reminded of this (again) recently when I came across a blog taking aim at a friend. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this, of course, but this time it was different. The authors chose to “speculate” in some pretty unsavory ways. I felt sick after seeing just a little of it, not just because of what they were saying about someone I know, but because I was reminded just how awful bitterness can be.

The Bible is incredibly clear on our need to avoid becoming bitter. Just a quick survey of the Epistles tells us we are to put it away, along with all anger and malice (Ephesians 4:31). We are not to let anger fester and give the devil a foothold (Ephesians 4:26); to repay no one evil for evil, but give room for the wrath of God (Romans 12:17-21). Along with this, we are to watch our tongues (and by extension, our keyboards) carefully, because our words can be used to build up or to destroy (James 3:3-11).

So bitterness is bad, I think we can all agree. Practically, though, what does it do to our hearts? There are at least three things I’ve noticed, both in observing my own heart and in reading some fairly despicable things online:

Bitterness assumes the worst of our chosen “enemies”. Sin is real. You and I have all been sinned against, and have sinned against others. Some of you reading this have been sinned against horrificly, worse than anything I’ve ever experienced. There is no question that this happens. And when it does, it is wrong. But something that can happen when bitterness takes hold in our hearts is it leads us to assume the worst of anyone who has a connection or similarity to the one who hurt us. If an authoritarian pastor abused his position, all pastors must be authoritarians and abusive. If a complementarian abused his wife, then all complementarians must be guilty of spousal abuse. If one church gets a case of discipline wrong, all churches who practice church discipline are doing it wrong, so on. That’s what bitterness wants us to think, but it’s not the truth. It lies to us, to encourage us to demonize anyone we disagree with.

Bitterness perverts justice into a demand for vengeance. What humans do when we seek vengeance is we escalate. An eye for an eye is not enough. We need the other eye, too. (And maybe someone else’s on top of that.) But vengeance doesn’t belong to us, for God says “Vengeance is mine.” God is the one who will repay every evil deed, whether on the cross or on the day of judgment.

Bitterness closes our hearts to forgiveness. First, a caveat: we have a tendency to equate forgiveness and reconciliation. They’re not the same thing. Sometimes reconciliation flows from forgiveness, but not always (and nor should it in some cases). Having said that, I believe this is the most devastating effect of bitterness, because it directly stands in contrast to Christ’s command to forgive as we have been forgiven. If we belong to Christ, if we have been redeemed by him, we cannot hold back what was so generously given to us. To close our hearts to forgiveness is nothing short of blasphemy. And I say this because it’s an area I’ve struggled with. I’ve been the person who held onto anger for a long time. I spent years refusing to see that a person I am now actually quite close to had changed. Eventually, I was convicted and realized that is was me who needed to ask for forgiveness, not simply offer it.

I don’t know what you’ve experienced, nor do you know all I have. But one thing I do know is this: Bitterness is destructive and deadly. But the grace that saved us is the grace that empowers and enables us to put bitterness to death. Friends, if there’s even a hint of it in your heart, dig it up by the roots right now. Don’t let it linger. Don’t let it get a foothold.