Can bitterness be beaten? Redeeming Emotions (4)

Posted by on Mar 1, 2016 in Blog | 0 comments

You’ve probably been in the company of someone who is bitter as the result of significant hurt or disappointment in the past. It could be that the company is your own – and that try as you might, you can’t keep your mind from replaying scenes which cause you anger and emotional pain. That smouldering resentment becomes a deeper and deeper bed of bitterness.

So what is bitterness? Gregory Popcak has suggested that ‘Bitterness is unforgiveness fermented’ – and I think that is richly suggestive.

Perhaps the most famous example of bitterness in the Bible is that of Naomi, who after the death of her husband and two sons returns to her home in Bethlehem with her daughter-in-law Ruth. On being welcomed by the townsfolk she announces “‘Don’t call me Naomi,’ she told them. ‘Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty'” (Ruth 1:20-21). The passage is filled with pathos. The name Naomi means ‘pleasant’, whereas the name she now self selects, ‘Mara’ means ‘bitter’. You can understand her inner turmoil. Not that long ago life had been filled with promise… a new start in a new country, sons married to delightful brides, the hope of grandchildren in the foreseeable future. But death struck again, and again and again. Every dream lies shattered. Her life seems to be reduced to one identifier – she is now Mara – bitter.

Those who know the account of Ruth and Naomi will be aware that the story takes a far happier turn, and there is no talk of her being ‘Mara’ at the stories end… and indeed, the happy end recorded doesn’t tell the full story. Naomi becomes a grandmother – but when you play her lineage forward (and obviously she would not have known this), she goes on to become a great (++++) grandmother of Jesus… a pretty radical twist for someone who thought she had no future at all.

The example of Naomi is a helpful reminder that bitterness can be transformed. Can this be true for us as well?

Why bother?

Naturally if we are going to talk about beating bitterness we need to ask why we would bother to do so. Our instinct might be to flare up and say, ‘I have every right to be bitter. So leave me alone.’ And it could well be that your life story gives you every justification to be bitter. Life does not provide a level playing field, and the odds some face are enormous. When it all comes crashing down, isn’t it natural to say bitterly, ‘Well I threw the dice… and being me, I got a double one. Can’t get less than that. It’s the story of my life…’?

The trouble with that approach is that while it might win you the sympathy of some, it is unlikely to change anything. And the bottom line is that bitterness makes contentment nigh impossible. The toll on our health is immediate – bitterness pours poison into every part of our system. It cripples our ability to see the positives, and because our mood impacts the environment we co create with others, it often drags those we care for down with us. It also has a tendency to become a self fulfilling prophecy… our bitterness making it more likely that future projects will turn sour, which in turn leaves us more to be bitter about, which makes it even more likely that future projects will turn sour… and so on.

Perhaps most importantly, it blocks us from being open to God and seeing the goodness and grace of God in the different seasons of life. It is hard to be bitter with everyone except God. At some point our disappointment and anger at life will turn Godward and regardless of if we verbalise it or not, the attitude is likely to be ‘and you God are to blame…’

So how do we beat bitterness?

Life is difficult, but not just for me…

It helps to remember the maxim at the start of Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled: which is simply that life is difficult. And when we accept that, it immediately becomes a lot less difficult.

We could put it in narrative terms, every story is simultaneously like every other story, like some other story and like no other story… In relation to bitterness, everyone has something they can be bitter about (our story is like every other story), aspects of which are similar for many other people (like some other story) and parts of which are unique to me (like no other story, if only because of my individual makeup which makes my experience a little bit different).

Why does this help?

First, it reassures me that I am not alone. Actually, things go wrong for other people as well. If I think that someone else has an ideal life it is probably because I only know them sketchily, and am therefore unaware of the things they carry in private and the personal heartache and struggle that lies beneath the surface. We all live in a fallen world, where things are never fully what they are meant to be. We are both sinners and sinned against… we are people who have caused hardship for others (sometimes unknowingly, often unintentionally), and whose lives have been made difficult by the shortcomings of others. Dig around a bit, and you will unearth things you can be bitter about.

That is not to suggest that struggle comes in neatly packaged parcels of identical size. Undoubtedly some carry heavier burdens than others – though ironically, sometimes those whose burdens are heavier, have not added bitterness to the pack they have to carry. Perhaps they accurately realise that if they did, there really would be no way forward.

If life is difficult, it helps to delineate why. In other words, what are my particular areas of bitterness. They might be very specific…he cheated on me; I was overlooked for promotion; they lied to me; my parents deserted me; my health problems are enormous and so on. Why not put them down on a sheet of paper? Look at them. They form the contours of the particular burden that you have to carry. But don’t forget Gal 5:6 ‘we all have our own load to carry…’ This is your load. Others have theirs. You are not alone in carrying hurts, unfairness and disappointments.

Even as you look at the list of bitterness birthers, draw up a second list… the strengths God has given you, the gifts provided, the people who can journey with you. It is so important not to forget these. I have recently fallen in love with L’Angelus’s version of St Patrick’s prayer, This Day God Gives Me, (and you can buy their wonderful album at Amazon). Some of the lyrics go:

1. This day God gives me
Strength of high heaven,
Sun and moon shining,
Flame in my hearth,
Flashing of lightning,
Wind in its swiftness,
Deeps of the ocean,
Firmness of earth.

2. This day God sends me
Strength as my guardian,
Might to uphold me,
Wisdom as guide.
Your eyes are watchful,
Your ears are list’ning,
Your lips are speaking,
Friend at my side.

Truth is, no matter how tough the things are that we have to carry, there are also so many things we have to be grateful for. There is a choice to be made about which list to focus on. Phil 4:8 suggests it should be on those things that are noble, right, pure admirable and praiseworthy. No, that is not to suggest that we should live in denial land, refusing to acknowledge our list of hardships… but it is to suggest that we have a choice to make… which list will receive the bulk of our attention?

Developing hope as a horizon

A deeply destructive aspect of bitterness is that it keeps us stuck in the past – and as we are bitter because we didn’t like what happened then, it is unlikely to be a happy place to remain trapped. As we replay the script of what went wrong and who was to blame we keep going back and reliving the hurt. But life’s challenge is to acknowledge the past whilst we keep moving forward. A failure to move smothers the hope that the future can hold. Now I know that those trapped in bitterness will often retort at this point, ‘You are missing the point. I am bitter because my future was robbed from me. I have no hope for the future… and it is all because…’

Why not work at birthing hope as a horizon for your future? Hope is one of the most fundamental ingredients of the Christian faith. Lamentations 3:21-22 are liberating, ‘Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.’ They were words penned in the most hopeless of circumstances – the loss of everything, widespread destruction, enormous injustice, unimaginable suffering… Jeremiah dared to hope because he knew that God always has the last word, and that word has not yet been spoken.

Though not spoken, we have seen its outline… the empty tomb, the coming of the Spirit, the birth of the Church, the promise of the return of Christ, a glimpse of eternity. Because of these, I still dare to hope… no matter what.

In the course of every life there will be more than enough things that provide justification for the birthing of bitterness. Someone has noted that the older you get the more losses you have to endure. You lose friends and loved ones, your strength slowly fades, the day comes when doors no longer open for you, your circle of influence gets smaller. But it is just as true that each day gives cause for new gratitude… that we have seen another day, that God has given ‘strength as my guardian, might to uphold me, wisdom as guide.’

I do hope that God will give you the strength to make the most satisfying of journey’s – that from bitterness to gratitude, where hope can be a guiding horizon for your life…

As always, nice chatting…

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