By Van Richmond
Pastor, New Life Baptist Church, Nashville
Focal Passage: Genesis 45:3-11
Countless dollars and hours are invested as medical professionals investigate the cause of our most ravaging diseases. Find the cause, find the cure. While there is currently a well-deserved focus on the dangers of Ebola, no one is searching for the cause of a disease that is much older than Ebola, as deadly as Ebola, and affects far more people than Ebola. Of all the diseases being researched, “bitterness” is not on their list. Bitterness is an ugly illness that is rooted deep within a person but whose symptoms are displayed on the outside, most often through acrimonious words.
Two writers who were bitter rivals were both attending the same party. One had recently had a book published, and the other commented to him, “I read your new book and liked it. Who wrote it for you?”
The other replied, “I’m glad you liked the book. Who read it to you?”
Even Christians can be infected with a full-blown case of bitterness, so what steps can be taken to overcome this witness-destroying disease? The first phase is straightforward — find the cause. Determine where the crops of sullenness, anger, and hostility get their seed. Sometimes the kernels are produced when we see ourselves as victims – our bitterness is someone else’s fault. Joseph could have blamed his brothers. Samson probably saw Delilah as the source of his problems. Saul attributed his misery to David. In Jeremiah 4:18, though, God spells out the cause of Israel’s woes, saying, “The way you have lived and acted has brought this trouble to you. This is your punishment. How terrible it is! The pain stabs your heart!” You may or may not have any culpability, but to determine that, you must truthfully examine your role in the creation or escalation of this painful situation.
The second treatment — finding the cure — involves an adjustment of expectations. Sometimes the problem stems from expecting something God never promised, such as a life free of pain and suffering. Since suffering can lead to bitterness, can I get an immunization to prevent suffering? No; even the righteous suffer. Expect it. Jesus said, “You will have suffering in this world” (John 16:33 HCSB). Just be careful you don’t become like some people who rather like their suffering and bitterness. Did you hear about the elderly man whose doctor told him he was showing symptoms of memory loss? That night, kneeling beside his bed, he sent a message heavenward, “Dear God, don’t take away my grudges.”
We can become bitter and depressed when we feel someone has let us down, so it was natural when his brothers fully expected Joseph to unleash a 15-year stockpile of animosity upon them. Thankfully, his deep, ongoing connection with God enabled Joseph to alter his expectations of life by understanding the Lord’s working through his situation. Author Nancy Leigh DeMoss observed, “Remember that you are a prisoner of Christ, not of your circumstances or other people.”
The third course of treatment to overcome bitterness involves taking the medicine prescribed in Ephesians 4:31-32 NIV: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” The simplest way to rid our lives of hostility is to quit talking about the hurtful event. Continually repeating the story reawakens the monster and rekindles the destructive emotions. In the movie “Forrest Gump,” a troubling scene showed Jenny as she threw rocks at the empty, weathered house where she grew up — the house that held powerful memories of abuse suffered at the hands of her father. When Jenny finally stopped throwing stones and began to weep, Forrest said, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.” Just let the story go.
The Great Physician’s final directive to overcome the disease of bitterness would probably be, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32 NIV).
— Richmond is pastor of New Life Church, Nashville.