I once had a conversation with a friend who had been hurt by someone he loved. He told me he was doing everything in his power to not harbor bitterness toward this person. He then said something I haven’t forgotten years later: “I’ve heard it said that harboring bitterness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. The more I feed bitterness in my heart, the more it brings death to me.”
Bitterness is poison dipped in honey. It tastes sweet going down, then it kills us from the inside out. In this way, bitterness is the poster child for the deceitfulness of sin. Whenever we love something that brings death to us, the devil has us right where he wants us.
If we do not actively starve bitterness, it will bring death to us. So how do we starve it?
How Is Bitterness Fed?
To starve bitterness, we must first know what feeds it. Proverbs 17:9 gives us a helpful starting point: “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.”
The antithesis of forgiveness is something called “repeating a matter.” There are three primary ways we can repeat a matter, and each feeds bitterness in our hearts.
1. We repeat the matter to ourselves.
We replay the tape of the other person’s offense over and over again in our minds. This is perhaps the most common feeder of bitterness and unforgiveness. Every time we replay someone’s sin in our minds, we water the seed of bitterness in our hearts—and it grows.
2. We repeat the matter to the sinner.
Ken Sande, author of The Peacemaker, calls this “gunnysacking.” This is when we collect the other person’s sins in a figurative bag (gunnysack), which we carry around wherever we go. Then, whenever we get into an argument with this person, we dump out her old sins and throw them back in her face. Our goal? Don’t let her forget what she did.
3. We repeat the matter to someone else.
The Bible calls this gossip. (The CSB actually translates Prov. 17:9 as “Whoever gossips separates close friends . . .”) One thing to notice about gossip is that it harms four different parties:
- It harms the speaker of the gossip (Prov. 25:9–10; 26:20).
- It harms the subject of the gossip (Prov. 26:20).
- It harms the listener of the gossip (Prov. 22:24–25; 26:20, 22).
- It grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:29–32).
Every time we repeat a matter in one of these three ways, we feed bitterness in our hearts.
Every time we replay someone’s sin in our minds, we water the seed of bitterness in our hearts—and it grows.
There are certainly situations where we must lovingly and prayerfully confront the person who sinned against us and discuss his offense with him. (In fact, it’s our duty to lovingly communicate how we’ve been hurt so he can take steps toward growth.) There are also situations where we should report an offense to the authorities (especially in criminal activity or abuse cases) or times when we should discuss sins committed against us with a counselor, therapist, or pastor. None of these things is what Proverbs 17:9 warns us about when it talks about repeating a matter.
Rather, this verse warns us of the danger of allowing bitterness and vengefulness to consume us, causing us to repeat the matter with the intent to harm the sinner or to justify our own sin. Whenever we do this, we give the devil a foothold to sow death-producing bitterness inside of us (Eph. 4:26–32; Heb. 12:14–15).
Ask yourself, Which of these feeders of bitterness do I need to be on guard against in this season of my life?
How Is Bitterness Starved?
Ephesians 4:31–32 is helpful here: “Let all bitterness . . . be put away from you. . . . Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
In order to starve our souls of one thing, we must feed our souls with something else. We “put away” bitterness in part by preoccupying ourselves with God’s love and forgiveness toward us. How does God love and forgive us? I love how J. I. Packer puts it in Knowing God: “There is tremendous relief in knowing that His love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion Him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench His determination to bless me.”
We ‘put away’ bitterness in part by preoccupying ourselves with God’s love and forgiveness toward us.
God is constantly pursuing us—even when we wander from him—eager to embrace us, kiss us, bless us, forgive us, and celebrate with us when we repent of our sin and return to him (Luke 15:20–32).
Rehearsing the gospel of God’s grace and love toward us is always the first step in starving bitterness and cultivating forgiveness toward others (1 John 4:19–21).
Remembering God’s Promises
Christlike love and forgiveness are cultivated by keeping three promises of God at the forefront of our minds:
1. God is grieved by the evil committed against you, and he will avenge you (Prov. 20:22; 24:17–18, 29; Rom. 12:19–21; 1 Pet. 2:22–23).
2. God is pleased by your desire to forgive, and he will reward you (Prov. 25:21–22; Eph. 6:8; Heb. 11:6; James 1:12; 1 Pet. 4:19).
3. There is mercy waiting for every repentant sinner, including you in your imperfect forgiveness (Prov. 28:13; 1 John 1:9).
If we rest in these promises, our hearts will become fertile ground for the Holy Spirit to work. Remember: bitterness is not something you have or don’t have; it’s something you cultivate. The same is true for forgiveness (Luke 6:45).
It has been said that “to forgive is to set a prisoner free, and then to discover that the prisoner was you.” May God work forgiveness in our hearts—as we are compelled by the gospel of Jesus Christ—for God’s glory, the good of others, and our own freedom and joy.