Because bitterness is a sin, we can often forget that it is precipitated by being sinned against (here I am assuming the bitterness is in regards to a legitimate offense). With this oversight, we just call on the bitter person to overcome and we often fail to offer legitimate comfort.
“I don’t want to forgive. I want to return suffering to one who made me suffer.” This is what we classically think bitterness sounds like—because that is a common demeanor of bitterness. However, in this post I am going to speak to other expressions of bitterness.
“I will not say what happened to me is okay.” This can be another voice of bitterness. Anger is held onto as the only link to justice. To reply, “Well, God doesn’t give any of us what we deserve,” to someone who has been sinned against in a painful way is more than unhelpful. It misrepresents God. God is just. God does get angry at sin (and not just the sin of bitterness).
Taking the time to listen and respond compassionate to the original sin represents God well. It need not “condone” bitterness. But the patient interaction recognizes that all bitterness is preceded by suffering. The God who calls us to forgive is not just the God who forgave us (Eph. 4:32), but also the God who comforts us in all our afflictions (2 Cor. 1:3-5).
“I am not able to be ‘over it’ yet.” The pain of suffering lingers. If forgiveness means to forget (and it does not), then continued pain would make it impossible to forgive. Often this struggle with bitterness stems from a wrong view of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not require the release of all emotion pertaining to a given event.
God wants to restore you and forgiveness is part of that restoration process. However, God is patient with his children. He does not compromise on what is for our good (and bitterness is one of the most unhealthy emotions), but he does restore us at a human pace. The commitment to forgive is not the culmination of that healing process. It is when you agree to enter the restoration God has for you from that suffering.
“I don’t trust God to handle it right.” This is when I am most tempted to yell, “SINNER!” and forget about the context of suffering. But embedded in this resistance is the fear, “What if God is not the good God I thought he was? If God does not deal with this well, then he is not for me.” That is a frightful thought. A thought we think we do not have to face if we handle the offense ourselves through bitterness.
Forgiveness is a time when the offense of the cross hits us in a new way. We see that God forgives sins against us at the same price he forgave our sin. What was initially a “great deal” requires great sacrifice and trust. The same God who came to me in my sin offering forgiveness also comes to me in my suffering offering comfort. BUT he also comes to my enemy offering forgiveness to them as well.
My intent has not been to make forgiveness sound optional or bitterness sound acceptable. My goal has been to unveil another side of the struggle with bitterness and, thereby, equip us to the hurting side of the bitter person.
If you are someone currently struggling with bitterness, I would encourage you to draw near to God. That is not a guilt-statement pointing out the distance that sin creates, but is meant to be a word of encouragement to one whose continued anger may mask many fears about who God is and what he is asking of you. Until you allow God to comfort your suffering, you will resist His call to forsake the sin of suffering through forgiveness.