Note: This article is also published on The Gospel Coalition.
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 made a comment I have not forgotten years later: “I’ve heard it said that harboring bitterness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. I’ve experienced this firsthand. The more I feed bitterness in my heart, the more it brings death to me.”
This is precisely how bitterness works. Bitterness is poison dipped in honey. It tastes sweet going down, then it proceeds to metastasize and kill 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.
There’s a scene in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra where the devil incarnate is tempting a woman to sin. After baiting her with lies, the devil says, “It is for this that I came here: that you may have Death in abundance.” Death is the devil’s favorite seed to sew. If we do not actively starve bitterness, it will bring death to us—and there are no exceptions to this rule.
How is bitterness fed?
In order 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.”
Here we see the antithesis of forgiveness is something called “repeating a matter.” There are three primary ways we can repeat a matter—each of which feeds death-producing bitterness in our hearts.
1. We can repeat the matter to ourselves.
Repeating the matter to ourselves is when we replay the videotape 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 can 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 (gunny sack), and we carry that bag around with us wherever we go. Then, whenever we get into an argument with this person, we dump out their old sins and throw them back in their face.
Whether it’s through actively attacking this person (e.g., lashing out in anger) or through passive aggression (e.g., giving the cold shoulder), we have one goal: Don’t let them forget what they did.
3. We can repeat the matter to someone else.
The Bible calls this gossip. (The CSB actually translates Proverbs 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 (Proverbs 25:9-10; 26:20).
- It harms the subject of the gossip (Proverbs 26:20).
- It harms the listener of the gossip (Proverbs 22:24-25; 26:20, 22).
- It grieves the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:29-32).
Every time we repeat a matter in one of these three ways, we feed bitterness in our hearts—and this bitterness inevitably brings death to us and those around us.
Of course, there are certainly situations where we must lovingly and prayerfully confront the person who sinned against us and discuss their offense with them. (In fact, it is our duty to lovingly communicate how we’ve been hurt, so the person 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. There are also situations in which we should discuss sins committed against us with a counselor, therapist, or pastor. None of these things are 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 sew death-producing bitterness inside of us (Ephesians 4:26-32; Hebrews 12:14-15).
Before you read on, ask yourself: Which of these feeders of bitterness do I need to repent of? Which do I need to be on guard against in this season of my life?
So, how can we starve bitterness?
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. According to this passage, 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 put 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.
God’s love for us is so deep, strong, and committed, that he’s actually able to see the worst in us and yet still desire good for us. He 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
Beyond this, Christlike love and forgiveness are cultivated by keeping three promises of God on the forefront of our minds:
- God is grieved by the evil committed against you, and he will avenge you (Proverbs 20:22; 24:17-18, 29; Romans 12:19-21; 1 Peter 2:22-23).
- God is pleased by your desire to forgive, and he will reward you (Proverbs 25:21-22; Ephesians 6:8; Hebrews 11:6; James 1:12; 1 Peter 4:19).
- There is mercy waiting for every repentant sinner, including you in your imperfect forgiveness (Proverbs 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 this: bitterness is not something that you have or don’t have; it’s something that you cultivate—and the same is true for forgiveness (Luke 6:45).
Freedom through forgiveness
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.
Read “An Answer to Prayer Even Better than Clarity” here.
Read “Which Memories Should I Dwell On?” here.