I’d like to propose a new set of lyrics to a well-loved hymn:
What a friend we have in sorrow,
All the pain and grief we bear;
Hold them tightly, pull them closer,
Thou wilt find a solace there.
It may begin with a very real injury. You are deeply wronged or experience a loss. You grieve, processing the pain, working through the emotions, praying for peace. Time goes on, and some healing comes. Outwardly it will appear that you have moved past it; but secretly you leave a little piece of that grief or anger unprocessed. You guard it, building a refuge around it with new interpretations of pain, collecting personal injustices to decorate it. You begin to take comfort in its familiarity. You visit it in times of loneliness and can relive the darkness at will.
As you construct this refuge, it eventually grows past its usefulness. You spend more and more time there and cling to your shred of grief—you just couldn’t give it up yet. It begins to creep into other parts of your life, manifesting as cynicism and isolation and hatred. You grow bitter. Bitterness worms its way into your identity until it taints all your thoughts and interactions. You see other people experiencing joy and think, “What shallow fools.”
Of course, your refuge isn’t a refuge at all but a trap.
Unlike honest grief, which is powerful to draw us closer to God and to the body of Christ as we feel our brokenness and need, this bitterness keeps us chained to anger and hopelessness. When we fall into bitterness, we become hardened and deny that God could ever overcome or renew our situation.
In grief we surrender, but in bitterness we scoff.
When Jesus said He came that we may have life and have it abundantly, this—a lonely life of stewing in the rancid filth of our anger and pain—could not have been the life He envisioned for us. It comes as a hard realization: This is not what we were saved for.
When we choose bitterness, we choose slavery to pain. But Christ didn’t set us free from the hopelessness of sin just so we could run right back to despair. The New Testament commands us, as children of God, to put off bitterness as members of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:31). The new life we were saved for is characterized by peace, kindness, gentleness, truth, unity and purpose among other believers, Christ dwelling in us, and the power of the Holy Spirit working within us, to pick a few things from Ephesians.
The Bible does not tell us all this because God wants to lay down a burden of guilt on everyone who feels sadness. Certainly God does not deny us the importance of grieving. If that were so, we wouldn’t have the book of Lamentations or so many sorrowful Psalms. We wouldn’t have the vivid descriptions of Jesus’ suffering in His life and death. In Joel, God commands the Israelites to mourn the devastation that their nation faces after years of famine.
These are all expressions of the true sorrows facing a broken world. Yet in all these instances, the mourners are turning back to the Father to hand over their grief.
We have this command to put off bitterness as an encouragement that a life of wallowing is not the life He has recreated us for. As His children, we have His power to live free from darkness, “as children of Light” (Eph. 3:17-24; Eph. 6-7).
So then, how can we know when we have crossed over from legitimate grief into bitterness? Look at what you are doing with that pain. I recently had a light shone on my own bitterness toward someone close to me. I had grown comfortable in letting past hurtful interactions define our relationship. One day I heard something kind about this person, and my immediate reaction was disbelief. I was so settled in my negative view that I couldn’t attribute goodness to this person.
It was much easier to continue in my bitterness than to allow for God’s grace to renew our relationship. Conviction came swiftly to show me that I was using my pain to block the development of a relationship more pleasing to God.
In your own heart, are you crying out to God, laying your burdens at His feet, appealing to His strength and promises of redemption? Or do your thoughts turn inward, skeptical of God’s goodness and power to overcome? Are you finding greater humility and openness to God’s kindness, or are you hardening your heart against God other people?
Obviously giving up bitterness isn’t easy, or we wouldn’t carry it around for so long. But when you realize you are caught in its destruction, why would you continue in it any longer, when the alternative is the new life of freedom that is already yours in Christ? At this point, you can turn to God and ask that your grip on anger and grief would be loosened and that your hands would be free to take hold of the abundant life He offers.
What an exchange, to go from a rotting shack of our own bitterness to the fortress of His grace and healing strength!
Lord, we are so weak. We are so weak. We cling to the very chains you have broken us out of. Please lift up our eyes to see You and the life that You offer, and unclench our fists that we could take hold of it. Thank You for Your graciousness, that You meet us in our darkness and bring us into the light.
[Photo courtesy of Flickr.com]