How to Starve Bitterness

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:

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.

Important caveats

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.

______________________________________________________

Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and Crosswalk.com and republished and/or referred by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn), Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings—here and here), The JOY FM (The Morning Cruise with Dave, Bill, and Carmen), ChurchLeaders.com, The Aquila Report, Monergism.com, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Read “An Answer to Prayer Even Better than Clarity” here.

Read “Which Memories Should I Dwell On?” here.

God’s Heart in Hosea

“What makes life worthwhile is having a big enough objective, something which catches our imagination and lays hold of our allegiance, and this the Christian has in a way that no other person has. For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God?” — J.I. Packer, Knowing God

Hosea is a gem. Tucked between Daniel and Joel, Hosea is a multifaceted exploration of the character of God in a judgment-fraught book.

From a bird’s eye view, Hosea looks like a hopeless minor prophet, full of faithless people and pending doom. And I’ll admit, Hosea does have these elements in plenty. However, a deeper dive reveals glorious truths about God’s heart for His people—truths we desperately need to hear as sinners and sufferers living in a world that can often feel hopeless.

During a recent study of this book, three precious truths about God’s character struck me in new and acute ways: God is a passionate husband, a kind father, and a zealous king to those He calls His own.

1. God is a Passionate Husband – He Relentlessly Pursues His People

Hosea begins with a startling command. God instructs Hosea to take a wife of prostitution—one who would be unfaithful to him—and He calls Hosea to love her relentlessly (Hos. 1:2). This mandate served as a picture of God’s relationship with His bride, the Israelites. Although the “land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (Hos. 1:2), God pursues them anyway. Hosea was to model this faithful love.

Consider how remarkable Hosea’s response must have seemed to his wife. Rather than cutting her off in anger or rejecting her—the typical response of a forsaken husband—Hosea woos his wife with tenderness and compassion. He redeems her and brings her home (Hos. 3).

Here we get a glimpse into one of the most dazzling aspects of the character of God: The Lord pursues His people with kindness and tenderness, ready ­and even plotting in advance to shower mercy on repentant hearts.

The Lord pursues His people with kindness and tenderness, ready ­and even plotting in advance to shower mercy on repentant hearts.

Notice how God describes His merciful plans for His bride in chapter 2:

“And in that day I will answer declares the Lord, I will answer the heavens, and they shall answer the earth, and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil, and they shall answer Jezreel, and I will sow her for myself in the land. And I will have mercy on No Mercy, and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people;’ and he shall say, ‘You are my God’” (Hos. 2:21-23, emphasis mine).

And again, in the last chapter of Hosea:

I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily; he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon; his shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive, and his fragrance like Lebanon. They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow; they shall flourish like the grain; they shall blossom like the vine; their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon” (Hos. 14:4-7, emphasis mine).

God is relentlessly committed to the good of His bride, and He will pursue her with His love not only until she is safe, but flourishing (Hos. 14:7).

2. God is a Kind Father – He IS the Good of His People

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos. 11:1).

God’s love for His people is not only that of a passionate husband but also that of a kind father who loves His children, more profoundly and completely than any earthly example.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them” (Hos. 11:3-4, emphasis mine).

This is the heartbeat of God’s pursuit of His wayward people. Because He is their only good, He longs to draw them back to Himself. “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah?” (Hos. 6:4). God’s appeal to His people is that of a heartbroken father.

This is the heartbeat of God’s pursuit of His wayward people. Because He is their only good, He longs to draw them back to Himself.

The Israelites were charging down a destructive path, a path that seemed prosperous and advantageous from their perspective. The nation declared: “I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink” (Hos. 2:5). In other words, they were seeking good apart from God. The people did not know that it was He who provided the grain, the wine, the oil, the silver, and the gold in the past (Hos. 2:8), and He alone would provide good in the future.

How often I find myself in the Israelites’ shoes, sprinting eagerly toward idols promising life, pleasure, and good things, only to realize these idols are liars moonlighting as joy. Oh Lord, forgive us for this foolishness! As a testimony to the ludicrousness of idol worship, Hosea writes, “My people inquire of a piece of wood, and their walking staff gives them oracles” (Hos. 4:12).

Ultimately, true joy and life cannot be found apart from Christ. Throughout Hosea, God uses the prophet to plead with His people to turn from life-draining idol worship to life-giving Himself worship.

In their song, “In Christ Alone,” Stuart Townsend and Keith Getty touch profoundly on the all-encompassing spring of life that can only be found in Christ.

In Christ alone my hope is found; He is my light, my strength, my song;

This cornerstone, this solid ground, Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.

What heights of love, what depths of peace, When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!

My comforter, my all in all—Here in the love of Christ I stand.

3. God is a Zealous King – He Makes Himself Known to His People

After much patient pleading, still Israel strayed from God, going about the motions of religious duties with hearts positioned toward false gods. Ultimately, unrepented sin will lead to discipline (Hos. 5 and 6), although God takes no pleasure in it.

Hosea ends with a final plea to the Israelites to return to the Lord, but the rebelling nation turns a hardened heart and closed ears. In 722 B.C., they fell into the hands of captors.

Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God refused to forsake His bride. While sin temporarily blinded Israel and promised false safety, ultimately, captivity would serve as an effective and much needed wake-up call. Here we are reminded that God often uses unpleasant, uncomfortable circumstances to bring us back to Himself and help us know Him better.

With repentant, softened hearts, God’s people could finally say:

“Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth” (Hos. 6:1-3, emphasis mine).

Praise God that He passionately pursues each of His children, despite our unfaithfulness. Let us press on to know Him more!

_____________________________

Johnna Wahrman is a guest contributor for this website. She is the happy wife of Andrew and mother of Anberlyn. She is passionate about writing, music, great books, and Jesus.

Read “Repentance That Leads To Death” here.

Read “Am I Sinning? Six Questions To Help You Navigate Gray Areas” here.

Questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you—please leave a reply in the box below!