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.

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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.

Which Memories Should I Dwell On?

Note: This article is also published on The Gospel Coalition.

I am 29 years old. Several years ago I first spoke the words, “That happened a decade ago,” and it was the strangest sensation. Now I’m starting to reminisce on things that happened fifteen, even twenty years ago, and it’s flat out kooky.

Another development I’ve noticed in recent years is the influx of nostalgia. In high school and college I had fond memories, but not many were nostalgic. Now ten seconds of Secondhand Serenade reduces me to a puddle of reminiscent goo.

Memories have power, and what we dwell on will invariably shape our emotions, attitudes, and beliefs (Isaiah 26:3; Philippians 4:8). Because of their unique power, we must be intentional with how we use them. Thankfully, God’s Word gives us much direction on how we can channel our memories for good.

Voluntary or involuntary?

Memories are complex. Some memories flood our minds involuntarily and even against our will, such as those triggered by abuse or trauma. In these cases, much healing and help can come through the guidance of a therapist or another medical professional.

However, many of the memories we fixate on are voluntary, within our ability to control. In fact, God commands us to be intentional with our memories and even selective with what we choose to dwell on (e.g., Deuteronomy 6:12; 8:2; Isaiah 46:9; John 14:26; Acts 20:35; 1 Corinthians 11:24-26; Ephesians 2:11-13). Just as we are to take our thoughts captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), so too are we to take our memories captive.

How can we ensure that the memories we fixate on bring glory to God and life to ourselves and others? Consider five questions to help you determine whether dwelling on a particular memory is helpful.

1. Does dwelling on this memory deepen my gratitude?

Gratitude is the crown jewel of recollection, turning good memories into ongoing blessings (Proverbs 10:7). C.S. Lewis put it best in Out of the Silent Planet:

A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hmán, as if pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing.

God created memories to consummate the joy of praiseworthy moments and to lead us into grateful praise (Philippians 4:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). This gives us a quick test to determine whether dwelling on a particular memory is profitable: Does replaying this moment in your mind lead to gratitude for what you once had or discontentment for what you now have?

Interestingly, the tenth commandment (“Do not covet”) applies here. We tend to think of coveting as inordinately longing for something someone else has. But a more subtle form of coveting is inordinately longing for what we once had (or wish we once had). Both forms must be repented of—and both are best combatted with gratitude.

2. Does dwelling on this memory deepen my hope?

Remembrance is the linchpin of hope. Much of our disorientation in life is a product of forgetfulness—forgetfulness of who we are, who God is, what Christ did, how God views us, where we came from, or where we are going. Conversely, it is when our memories are most saturated with these realities that our hearts are most full.

Arguably the best way to combat inordinate longings for the past is to remember that our best moments in life are mere appetizers of what is to come. We don’t need to cling to an appetizer when the main course—of similar pleasure but greater fullness—is coming.

Often we think our longings are pointing backward when in reality they’re pointing forward. The ultimate fulfillment of our longings won’t come by going back to the past; they will come through God’s provisions in the future (Psalm 16:11). Rest in this hope!

3. Does dwelling on this memory deepen my commitment to truth?

George Ball observed, “Nostalgia is a seductive liar.” Often our memories play tricks on us, tempting us to believe that the past was better than it actually was. Solomon warns us of this danger in Ecclesiastes 7:10, “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”

The ultimate danger of feeding nostalgia is not the immediate pain of longing for the past, but the damaging effect that it can have on our beliefs. Dwelling on skewed memories (whether exaggerated positively or negatively) can twist our view of God, others, and ourselves. We must catechize ourselves with God’s Word, not with our nostalgia. Memories will fail; God’s Word won’t (Matthew 24:35).

4. Does dwelling on this memory deepen my love for others?

Memory is gasoline without favoritism; it will fuel the fires of both bitterness and love, wherever we choose to pour it. Every time we dwell on someone’s past sin—replaying the memory of their offense again and again in our minds—we water the seed of bitterness in our hearts and it grows. This may feel good for a moment, but it always ends up harming us in the long run. It has been said that entertaining bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die, and this is certainly the case with dwelling on bitter memories.

Meanwhile, intentionally recalling the good in others (and God’s mercy and love toward us) is one of the best ways to stir up love and compassion in our hearts (Luke 6:35-36). Just as God loves us by not keeping our sin on the forefront of his mind, so we are called to love others by filling our minds with praiseworthy things (Philippians 4:8).

5. Does dwelling on this memory deepen my love for the Triune God?

Remembering is at the heart of our communion with God and our liturgy as the Church. Preaching, singing, and reading Scripture help us remember the words and promises of God (Psalm 119:11; Proverbs 7:1-3). Taking communion helps us remember the person and work of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 11:24-26). Observing baptism helps us remember how we were brought from death to life by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 6:4; 8:11).

Ultimately, God gave us memory to aid our love for him, our appreciation for what he has done, and our anticipation of what is to come. Let’s be faithful to use our memories for these purposes—for God’s glory and our good.

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition 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.comThe Aquila Report, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Read “Overcoming Fear of the Future” here.

Read “Special Needs and the Goodness of Dependence” here.

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