Sound familiar? Each of us has suffered from sin's effects. We live in a fallen world where wounds - and the heartaches that accompany them - are inevitable. The wounds should heal. ut occasionally, time ticks away and our pain does not end. Instead, we nurture the hurt until it develops into the churning anger of bitterness.
A couple of years ago, a sobering realization began to gnaw at my conscience: Unchecked bitterness destroys. I noticed more and more that my words caused people to withdraw from me. Hebrews 12:15 (NIV) 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," and I was living proof. My harsh, defiling comments reflected bitter attitudes planted deep in my heart by childhood abuse. Blaming, lack of forgiveness, anger, endless rehearsals of the wrongs, and self-pity had become blades that kept my wounds open and the bitterness flowing.
Blame. Passing the buck started in Eden (Adam blamed Eve; Eve blamed the serpent) and it continues today. I believed others caused my misery: "If only they hadn't done it", I would think. Blaming relinquished control of my emotional and spiritual health to the persons who had wronged me. Certainly the ones who sinned against me bore responsibility for their sin. However, they weren't responsible for my attitudes. They might confess and repent, they might make restitution for physical loss, but they could not change my heart. As long as I continued to blame, bitterness controlled me and forgiveness was impossible.
Lack of forgiveness. In the parable of the unmerciful servant, Jesus mandated forgiveness and showed the penalty for those who don't forgive. Unforgiving men will be tormented (Matt. 18:34-35). My refusal to forgive brought exactly what Christ declared: torment. For me, it was the torment of recurring depression fed by unresolved anger.
Anger. Who has not been angered by sin? Why shouldn't we be? After all, sin angers God. Righteous anger is a reasonable response when someone dishonours God through sinful actions. Sometimes, however, we use unrighteous anger to condemn others and justify our own attitudes. "Refrain from anger and turn from wrath," says Ps. 37:8. "Do not fret - it leads only to evil." The Hebrew text suggests repeated action: Anger causes harm, leading to more anger and more harm ... vicious cycle of anger and pain. I used my current pain to justify continued anger for past wrongs.
But while I spewed blaming words about the wrongs done to me, I denied my own sin: unrighteous anger and unforgiveness. I turned the incidents over and over in my mind. Replaying them rekindled the anger and perpetuated my blaming and lack of forgiveness. I convinced myself that my anger was justified and that someone should do something to right the wrong. I became mired in self-pity. Only years of tormenting depression made me desperate for a cure.
Foiled by Formulas
I wanted to get rid of my bitterness, so I came up with a checklist to relieve my condition: confession, repentance, obedience, and satisfaction with the Saviour. Imagine my frustration when my formula brought no relief. The steps, though Scripture-based, were meaningless because my heart remained unchanged.
As I contemplated my response to the abuse, I realized that I wanted what the first-century Jews had wanted. They watched Jesus perform miracles and heard Him teach with authority, yet they would not acknowledge Him as the promised Messiah. They wanted a saviour who would establish an earthly realm free of physical oppression. I wanted a saviour who would deal with the physical realm and ignore my unloving heart. Like the men who brought to Jesus the woman caught in adultery, I wanted others punished for their sins, yet I wanted my own wickedness to be ignored.
Finally, from sheer exhaustion, I began to ask God to change my heart, to "see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps. 139:24). He led me on a unique path away from bitterness and toward forgiveness.
Captured by Scripture
I began to meditate on Scripture. Rather than reading long passages daily, I focused on short passages and immersed myself in the setting of the words. I learned to pause and reflect on phrases, even single words, sometimes reading them several times. Reading aloud helped me pay attention to thoughts and feelings that arose as I read.
One day, as I meditated on the parable of the lost sheep, I was startled to realize I didn’t want Christ to rescue those who had hurt me. I wanted Him to establish justice. I thought, "If Christ brings them into the fold, He has forgiven them. That means there's no punishment." I struggled for a long time, fully aware that God was asking me to forgive.
Surrounded by Care
With the help of loving friends, I came to see that I had never mourned the hurts I experienced as a child. I had been angry instead. These friends listened to my pain and drew me back to grief when I reverted to my habit of hiding behind anger and rehashing the wrongs. Sometimes they held me while I cried. Sometimes they cried with me. Sometimes we prayed.
Grieving takes time, and I occasionally felt stuck. These persistent friends helped me break my pattern of withdrawing when relationships got tough. They exemplified the friendship described in James - a place to confess our sins and pray for one another - and the promised healing began to emerge (James 5:16). When I was no longer using so much energy to stuff the pain and hide it behind anger, my heart was ready for further change. First, though, I hurt someone deeply.
Shaken by Truth
God had given me the gift of words, a gift to use for His glory. I used that gift against another person and wrote a scathing note of criticism. I turned God’s good gift into a weapon, a stick to club others when they didn’t meet my needs in the way I prescribed.
As I meditated and prayed after this incident, the Lord asked me to give up my weapon. I resisted. Only then did I realize how much I had used that stick all my life. I thought I was using it to protect myself. In reality, however, I was hurting others and alienating myself from the relationships I desperately needed. I cringed to think of all the people I had wounded with my harsh words. I encountered again the truth that I am no different from those who hurt me: I need grace because I sin.
Stunned by Grace
Why would the Lord want my weapon? So I would stop hurting others with it? Yes. But I learned His purpose was much deeper. As I dared to continue listening, He seemed to say, "I took your stick and made it My cross." The magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice touched me as never before. Jesus willingly accepted the very thing I used to sin against others as the means of freeing me from guilt. I could almost hear Jesus' agonized cries as He pushed raw flesh upward on rough-hewn wood, only to sag in exhaustion. He submitted to that agony because of me - and for me.
Before I could offer any apology to the friend I had wronged, she sent me words of comfort when I experienced a personal tragedy. She put aside her own wounds to become a living picture of God’s love. I was stunned by her grace. My heart filled with shame for my sin and sorrow for my friend's pain. Even more, I ached for my years of resentment and the bitterness.
Freed by Forgiveness
As I worked through the process of forgiving those who had wronged me, I surrendered the issue of justice to God, even embracing the truth that He wanted these people in His fold more than He wanted to punish them."He is patient," I saw, "not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9).
I realized that God wanted me to be a living picture of grace to others, not their judge and executioner. I stopped rehearsing their wrongs toward me. My anger dissolved into tears for their condition. Forgiving them freed me to begin experiencing joy and gladness even as I lived with the unfortunate circumstances resulting from their sin against me. Finally, I experienced the relief of the cross, not because I completed a checklist, but because God changed my heart.
The law recounts the sacrifices and acts of restitution God could have required for my sin, including my death. Instead, God invited me to experience His grace and mercy. He accepted Christ's sacrifice as sufficient justice for all my sin, including my bitterness and unforgiveness. Just as a tree sweetened the bitter waters of Marah (Ex. 15), the mercy God displayed on the tree of Calvary sweetened my bitter heart.
When I tasted the sweetness of God's mercy through my friend's grace, I wanted to show the same mercy to others (Matt. 5:7). I wanted them to be stunned by grace. As I gave up my desire for revenge, God burdened my heart with prayers for those who had wounded me. I recognized their abusive ways as the weapons that they need to relinquish to Jesus. I wept for their unhealed wounds.
My hurt and anger still resurface occasionally, and I am tempted to return to depression and self-pity. Each time, I have to let God renew that healing vision of Jesus taking my stick, making it His cross, and dying for the wounds created by my sin.
I continue to pray that God will search my heart and show me specific sin that He wants to deal with. I ask Him to give me His perspective so I can see the challenges of relationships not as obstacles, but as opportunities for showing His love. I pray I will be obedient so the shame of bitterness will not defile me again. When I feel resentment returning, I spend extra time meditating on God's Word. I need the reminder that I cannot accept God's gift of salvation and continue in bitterness. Receiving His grace compels me to extend it to others.
A lifelong habit of bitterness takes time to break, and my transformation will not be perfected in this world. Yet God's grace makes growth possible when I am willing to spend time knowing Christ and letting Him change me. A taste of grace heals an unforgiving heart.
- Carol McGalliard is a freelance writer and speaker in Greensboro, North Carolina. "The roots of bitterness go back for generations in my family and have left many wounds," she says. "Receiving God's grace has changed me so that I can forgive the wounds of the past and deal graciously with people in the present." Someday, Carol would love to own a red convertible. Copyright © 2006, The Navigators, Discipleship Journal. All rights reserved.
This article first appeared in Discipleship Journal # 141 May/Jun 2004 and is reprinted in Fishers with the permission of the author.