A young woman asked me to meet with her recently to help her learn how to deal with bitterness. She had suffered harm at the hands of a fellow believer in the form of hurtful accusations and outright hypocrisy. Though months had gone by she found that bitterness toward this person kept creeping back into her thinking.
I could relate. Several years back I found myself in a similar situation when my integrity was called into question unjustly by a fellow believer. I had always thought the enemies Jesus commanded me to love were persons I labeled as such, either because they were unbelievers or because they drove me crazy. I believed an enemy was someone I chose. Most days I didn’t have anyone on that list. Yet suddenly I was confronted with the truth that my enemy could choose me, out of the blue, as I went about my life—that despite my best efforts to live at peace with all men, someone could still choose to walk in enmity toward me. And that someone could even be a believer. This was a new kind of hurt for me, the kind that tempted me to drink deeply of bitterness.
Here is what I wanted during that time: I wanted my adversary to be brought to justice. I wanted my side of the story to be heard and my hurt to be acknowledged. I wanted vindication in front of those who’d heard my integrity questioned—not tomorrow or next year—today.
That’s not what happened. Because God is better to me than I deserve, no opportunity came for any of my wants to be met. And in that season of “wormwood and gall” (Lam. 3:19) he taught me truths I would’ve otherwise never sought.
Here are a few bitterness-blocking realizations I learned to cling to:
1. God knows the real story.
Every justification I wanted to raise was already known to God. I had no need to correct him. He knew both sides of the story perfectly, and more importantly he knew the truth that lay somewhere between.
My sense of urgency to clear my name was, in my case at least, misplaced and self-reliant. So instead of fighting to make my side of the story known, I learned to let my words be few. And I asked God to show me where I had shaded the truth to mollify my hurt or downplay my own sin.
2. God sees the heart of my adversary—and my own.
As my hurt blossomed I began to take comfort in the knowledge that, if God’s Word can be trusted, one day my adversary’s sin would be called to light. I found peace in knowing justice would eventually be served, even if not in this lifetime.
It took a while for me to realize that on that day my own sin would also be fully revealed. We can all rely on the just Judge to do his job. One day my adversary’s sin will be known, and so will mine. On that day I will cling to the mercy of my Savior. I will beg for it, though I don’t deserve it. If I do less than this for my adversary, I am a hypocrite of the highest order. So in addition to taking comfort that justice would be served, I began praying for my enemy to receive mercy instead.
3. I have caused hurt as well.
I may have done nothing to deserve this particular hurt, but I’ve certainly caused similar hurt (known and unknown) for others. So instead of feeling superior to my adversary, I began to develop empathy for them. And I began asking God to show me my own sins against others.
There is only one person who has ever suffered unjustly in the purest sense, and that is Christ. The rest of us may indeed be wronged by another, but never without the guilt of having caused harm ourselves at some point in our lives. So when we suffer unjustly, we can be instructed by the way in which Christ endured. When falsely accused and convicted by his own people, he remained silent. He “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23). When at last he did speak (after the unjust verdict had been passed) it was to cry out not against but on behalf of his oppressors.
Think about this: At no time are we more like Christ than when we suffer unjustly at the hands of those who should’ve loved us best. We claim we want to be conformed to the image of the Son. What if it takes this kind of suffering to accomplish just that? So instead of asking why God would let this injustice happen, I began asking him to use every bit of the hurt to mold me into the likeness of the Savior.
4. I must refuse the bitter cup.
The Bible speaks of our times of hard trial as seasons of wormwood and gall, of bitter herb and bile, times that leave us with the lingering taste of resentment in our mouths if we drink deeply of their vintage. Perhaps the greatest temptation in a bitter season is to drink in the gall that besets us, to take it into our very souls and harbor it there, crying for justice to be done. Bitter trial may surround us, but we need not internalize its acid sting. We can choose to refuse the bitter cup when it’s brought to our lips.
We see a picture of this truth at Golgotha. As the death sentence (passed on him by those who should’ve loved him best) was carried out, Jesus cried out in thirst and was offered gall to quench it. He turned his face away. Scholars are divided on why. Either the cup was offered to mercifully shorten his life by poisoning him, or it was offered as an analgesic to lessen his physical anguish. But Jesus was unwilling to shorten or diminish his appointed suffering by the smallest amount. He had come single-mindedly to do the will of the Father. In the bitterest trial of his incarnation, Christ refused the cup of bitterness raised to his lips.
You and I mistakenly believe that drinking deeply of bitterness will satisfy our hurt, but Christ has shown us the better way. In all suffering the cup of gall will be offered to our lips. We who have drunk from the cup of life must seek no comfort in that caustic drink. Like Christ, we must refuse it. The bitter thirst of injustice is only quenched with the living water of the gospel. In our seasons of wormwood and gall may we drink deeply and often from its streams, exchanging bitterness for the hope and portion of steadfast love, of mercies that never come to an end—for us and for our offenders.
Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” (Lam. 3:19–24)