Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger... Ephesians 4:31
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them - they don’t know what they’re doing.” Luke 23:34
Is there any bitterness in your heart?
Forgive the very direct question, but it seemed the best way into a painful theme. I do, of course, direct it to myself as well as to you.
Paul links “bitterness” with “rage” and “anger” - all ugly things which conjure up the idea of people rowing, arguing, hating, seeking vengeance on one another. Sadly, there’s a lot of it about, even if it is often suppressed.
I know a woman who used to speak with great bitterness about her “ex”. She had several children with him, but throughout their marriage he was cruel and abusive, and eventually she left him. But in a sense he never left her: he was always there in her mind, and that unseen presence poisoned her personality and was possibly the root cause of various health problems she had.
Somebody said that “nursing bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” That puts it perfectly. If you feel bitterness towards someone the chances are that they don’t even realise it - or if they do they don’t care anyway. The only person you are harming is yourself.
So what is the answer to bitterness? It is simple to say, though it may be hard to do: forgiveness. “Forgive each other, just as in Christ God forgave you”, as Paul goes on to say in the next verse. The key is in those final words: “as in Christ God forgave you.” The forgiven person must become the forgiving person, however hard that may be.
The good news is that this is one of those impossible things that God, by his Holy Spirit, makes possible. It may take a lot of praying and agonising; it may not happen all at once; but happen it will, by the grace of God.
Though that woman I mentioned became a Christian, she harboured her bitterness for several years. But gradually she came to realise the destructive effects of this poison in her heart, and one memorable day she made a decision: “I will no longer hate him”.
The decision was pretty much an act of will; it wasn’t particularly emotional; indeed I think, if I remember right what she told me, that it was almost matter-of-fact. But it turned out to be one of those instances where we look back in our lives and think “Why, oh why, didn’t I do this years ago!” It was like the lancing of a raw, inflamed boil.
The change in her - the sense of peace, the smile - was obvious to everyone who knew her. That moment of decision was a truly life-changing moment.
Recent headlines have given us wonderful examples of people refusing to surrender to bitterness. There was the Jewish woman, some weeks ago, who came face to face with the Nazi officer who had ruined her family’s life in the Holocaust. Face to face with him, she reduced him to tears by her determination to forgive.
And there was the congregation in Charleston in the USA who responded to the terrible massacre in their prayer-meeting with their declaration of forgiveness.
Ultimately, of course, God alone can forgive sins - and he calls on the guilty to repent of what we have done. But these moving examples can help us to see that the impossible can indeed happen.
Edith Cavell was a nurse who helped British soldiers to escape from the Germans in the early stages of the First World War. She was executed exactly one hundred years ago this year. Before her death she wrote: “Standing, as I do, in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”.
Like my friend it seems she had made a decision. By that act of will she went peacefully to her death.
Bitterness has about it the smell of death. Forgiveness has the savour of life. There are times we have to make a choice.
Lord God, you know the bitterness that festers deep in my soul. Help me, as I kneel at the foot of Christ’s cross, to let it go, and so to let you drain it out of my being. Amen.