Breaking Free from Bitterness
Ten steps to becoming better instead of bitter

My husband and I had two extra tickets to a Christmas dessert and choir concert.

"Let's invite Susan and her son," we agreed. We thought our friends, who didn't attend church, might welcome going to a Christmas event with us.

But when I invited Susan, she reminded me that she had nothing against God, but people had messed up His good plan for her life. And no, she could not come to a church function.

I knew the circumstances that had made her bitter. More than 30 years ago, she had fallen at her place of employment. Although she was sure she'd sustained a head injury, the doctor had ruled there was nothing wrong with her. Consequently she had received no compensation. Unable to work, she had been forced to go on welfare to support herself and her disabled son.

"Even the church people didn't support me," she said bitterly. "In fact, they criticized me for being on welfare."

Our friend is not alone in her bitterness. Victim-thinking—"past traumatic experiences have shaped my life; somebody else is responsible for the mess I'm in"—pervades today's society, including our Christian society.

The trouble with bitterness is that it does not stay the same. Like a cancer, it grows. It distorts reality. It keeps us chained to the past. Like bad air, it pollutes, not just the bitter person, but those who come in contact with that person. The Bible says, "See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many" (Heb. 12:15).

In a world of inequity, we're going to have our share of bitter experiences. Jesus told us, "In this world you will have trouble" (Jn. 16:33). But the verse goes on to promise help from becoming bitter: "But take heart! I have overcome the world."

As a nurse in a senior care home, I'm privileged to hear many moving life stories. Some of my patients have suffered incredible abuse from parents, totalitarian governments, wars and revolutions, religious discrimination, and deprivation. While some have become bitter, most of them have become better people, radiating a sweet, quiet faith in God.

"What makes the difference?" I have asked myself. Is there something I can do now to help become better instead of bitter? Here are some principles I've learned from God's Word.

1. Acknowledge the problem.

Many of us have been taught it is wrong for a Christian to have bitter feelings. But the Bible is more realistic. Righteous Job had such bitterness of soul that he wished he had never been born (Job 10:1). Naomi said to her neighbors, "Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter" (Ruth 1:20). "In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the LORD" (1 Sam. 1:10). Solomon wrote, "Each heart knows its own bitterness" (Prov. 14:10).

The dictionary defines "bitter" as sharp and disagreeable, harsh and uncomfortable, full of pain. Coming to terms with bitterness seems to be the first step toward getting rid of it. Owning one's negative feelings—"Yes, I am bitter about that"—is true humility. To look in your own eye and see the speck in it is a mark of maturity, of true spirituality.

2. Stop feeding bitterness.

The person who continually rehashes traumatic experiences cannot be free of them. Paul is a case in point. When he was a teen, the Nazis invaded his home and dragged most of his family off to a concentration camp. Their crime? Hiding Jews. For three years Paul and his brother had been physically and emotionally tortured. Even though they survived, Paul's brother is now emotionally unstable, needing frequent hospitalization. Paul's morbid interest in the World War II experience compels him to read every book on the subject, view war movies, attend reunions of war survivors, and rehash his experience with everyone who will listen. Instead of alleviating the pain, such rehashing only feeds it. Paul's violent outbursts attest to that. Victim-thinking permeates much of what he says.

3. Stop making excuses for what happened.

Esther's very strict upbringing left her feeling unloved. From birth her father had rejected her; he had wanted a boy. She had been beaten for childish infractions.

As a Christian, Esther wanted to feel charitable toward her parents. "They did the best they could under the circumstances," she said. But the pain of her rejection is all too evident—she is bulimic. Much better to acknowledge that "even though my parents did the best they knew how to do, at times they failed me." Recognizing the fact will make it easier for Esther to move into forgiveness.

4. Live in forgiveness.

When my husband suffered a mental breakdown, I was bitterly disappointed with two family members who failed to support me. Because of them, subtle insinuations and blatant accusations came my way. I struggled with bitter feelings toward these people. But I had determined to live in forgiveness. So I would pray, "Lord Jesus, I want to forgive them. Help me do that."

Living in forgiveness, I discovered, begins with the offended party, just like it began with God. He initiated forgiveness even though we'd sinned against Him. Likewise, I had to act upon my desire to forgive: lovingly confront the offending party and say, "I forgive you." When this didn't bring the desired result, my bitterness increased. Now I had to take another step of forgiveness: allow God to convict and punish.

Moreover, I learned that forgiveness sets the offender free. As long as I kept on insisting, "You owe me support," resentment flourished. In an act of the will, I had to take that "you-owe-me hook" out of the people who had disappointed me and say, "From now on, you owe me nothing." Only then could I be free of resentment.

5. Give yourself time to process your feelings.

In the midst of my struggles with forgiveness, a family reunion was being planned. This news came to us in a letter which carried a response card. Wisely, my husband left the decision to attend with me. Just the thought of having to face the people whose betrayal had hurt me caused me such anxiety that I shook uncontrollably. Yet forgiveness has to be acted on, and for my forgiveness to have any credence at all, I knew I had to go. I signed the card. Luckily the date was several months away, giving me time to process the information. Going to that reunion was one of the most difficult things I have ever done—but I felt God's blessing in doing it.

6. Initiate reconciliation.

One of the contributing factors to my husband's breakdown was stress at his teaching job. The superintendent of schools had been most unfair and derogatory. Years later, Bill saw the superintendent enter the nursery where Bill was buying plants. "Upon first impulse, I wanted to exit that nursery and go home," my husband later told me. "But then I said, ‘Bill, you've decided to forgive that man. Go and shake his hand.'" Resolutely, Bill strode across the nursery, walked up to the man, and stuck his hand out. Later, when he came home, Bill said, "I feel somewhat freer for having done that."

7. Rid yourself of every root of bitterness as soon as possible.

God commands it in Eph. 4:31: "Get rid of all bitterness." Hebrews 12:15 says, "See to it that no bitter root grows up."

How does one get rid of bitterness? Send it away. I visualize parceling up this bitter experience and offering it to God. Much like Mary's alabaster box, I see myself pouring out this bitter perfume on the feet of Jesus. "This is my love offering," I say. "Release me from bitter feelings; recycle this experience for something good in my life." And He will.

8. Renew your mind.

Instead of victim-thinking, ask yourself, "What part did I play in that situation? Is there anything I could have done to make it better?" In Susan's case, she could have asked for a second medical opinion. She could have made her needs known to the pastor. She could have checked out the rumors.

When I assume some responsibility for the way things have gone, I begin to catch a glimmer of hope. As a victim, I have no control; as a learning person, I do have some control.

9. Make things happen.

Those who have been able to move beyond their bitterness to a richer life have not only left their traumatic experiences with God, they have assumed responsibility for the present. "Okay, that traumatic thing happened; that's part of history. But what can I do now?"

My mother, who has suffered incredible injustices, said, "Whenever life handed me a rotten deal, I'd work in my flower garden. Flowers always bloomed for me." She has worked on the premise: When all seems out of control, find one corner in which you still have control and work in it. Leave the world a better place than you found it. At 82 years of age, my mother exhibits an exuberant, youthful spirit. For her, life is an adventure full of purposeful activities.

10. Proclaim God is sovereign.

Psalm 10 seems to be the victim's psalm. David writes:

"[The wicked] lies in wait near the villages; from ambush he murders the innocent, watching in secret for his victims. He lies in wait like a lion in cover; he lies in wait to catch the helpless; he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net. His victims are crushed, they collapse; they fall under his strength."

(verses 8-10)

Sounds like a description from our daily newspaper. Life on earth produces its victims. No doubt about that.

But David moves on to the victim's recourse:

"But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you; you are the helper of the fatherless.... You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed."

(verses 14-17)

In another psalm David writes, "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be" (Ps. 139:16).

Ultimately the sovereign Lord is in charge of each day of our lives. In Heb. 12:15 He promises sufficient grace to get us through life without bitterness, "See to it that no one misses the grace of God."

By making use of His abundant grace we can walk tall in the midst of bitter circumstances. We can use them as opportunities to exercise our faith, to grow in maturity, to become better people instead of bitter people. In all of life we can be victors instead of victims.

— Discipleship Journal

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