Overcoming and Resisting Bitterness and Resentment

Overcoming and Resisting Bitterness & Resentment

It only takes a little discernment to notice bitterness and resentment in us or in others. We can normally pick up on it pretty quickly in others but often try to cover it up or deny it in ourselves. However, it has a huge personal impact. Bitterness brings to mind a bad taste growing into a severe distaste for a person or situation. Bitterness takes root as a result of resentment over an offense or something perceived as hurtful or causing harm. Unresolved resentments and offenses can easily grow into a dark, heavy, thick cloud overshadowing the bitter person. The darkness can become a blinding shroud.  A person in this state of mind is deeply downcast in mood and attitude.

One is reminded of Cain who was downcast or his face was fallen because his offering was not accepted by God. Envy and resentment which he allowed to grow into bitterness became a piercing pain in his soul. Cain reacted to the rejection of his offering, showing anger towards God and his brother, Abel, until the deep, dark, choking cloud he refused to expel blinded his judgment. God gave him an out by saying, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” (Genesis 4:6, ESV). In a jealous rage of bitterness and resentment, he reacted to his brother in violence, killing him. Cain refused to meet the standard God had set with the type of sacrifice expected and refused to repent and correct his offering. Instead, he allowed resentment and bitterness to build up to the most extreme reaction (Genesis 4:3-10).

Most attitudes of resentment leading to deep bitterness do not normally rise to the level of Cain’s murderous reaction. However, some of the same behaviors and attitudes may be noticeable, even though they may be less intense or possibly camouflaged but still a focus of thought life. Jesus warned us, however, about our attitudes even in our thought life when he said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).

Some of the common characteristics of resentment and bitterness are exhibited through scowling facial expressions, sarcastic words and tone, an agitated demeanor, jealous statements, judgmental accusations, speaking obscenities especially directed at a person, lying, arrogance, self-absorption, victim self-identification, a repelling body tone, and possibly the tendency to isolate and become reclusive, rejecting anyone who does not agree with the reason or basis for the bitterness and resentment. All these expressions of attitude, if not resolved, can grow to take on revengeful reactions which can be self-damaging and harmful to all those involved. “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15).

Bitterness and resentment often develop from outward or internal anger or a sense of being offended from a perceived hurtful action or attack from another individual, group, or negative circumstance. However, anger and offenses are fueled by one’s expectation of some self-perceived need or desire. When that perceived need or desire is not met, anger or an offended response begins to develop.

The perception of self-needs or wants is grounded in self-pride. We all have needs and wants but we must care more for the needs of others. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others,” Paul exhorted the Philippians (Philippians 2:4). When self-pride takes over, we will react to any perceived offense with anger. Paul spoke about spiritual maturity, saying, “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (1 Corinthians 3:3b). Paul was hoping to see more spiritual maturity that would result in those involved to rise above their fleshly reactions. If the angry, offended reaction is not resolved, it will quickly grow into bitterness and resentment.

Out of balance self-pride not only makes one vulnerable for an angry reaction to any form of offense but is also the foundation of general discontent, rebellion, resistance to repentance and forgiveness, disobedience, and disrespect for authority. James said, “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16). A prideful person puts their opinion and self-interests above all others and finds ways to justify their behavior in a self-righteous attitude. “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?” (Ecclesiastes 7:16).

Is there such a thing as righteous anger? Righteous anger is not a sin when it is a reaction to an offense directed at God. Proverbs 8:13 says, “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.” It’s necessary to be careful, however, in defending God as He needs no defending. “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25). It’s important how we respond being careful not to let bitterness and resentment grow from our self-righteous attitude toward whatever we see as morally wrong, hurtful, or evil.  Robert D. Jones in Uprooting Anger explains, “Our anger involves a judgment against perceived evil. Our moral judgment arises from our personal perception…  Our perceptions, of course, may be accurate or inaccurate… To further complicate things, our responses to our perceptions may then be godly or ungodly.”[1] We must stand for righteousness in our behavior, beliefs, and speech but it’s not appropriate to take revenge in defense of God.

If we hold onto anger with stubborn bitterness and resentment, we risk moving further away from God. Joni Eareckson Tada points out, “Unrightous anger – anger that leads us away from God – sucks the last vestige of hope from our hearts. We stop caring, stop feeling. We commit a silent suicide of the soul, and sullen despair moves in like a terrible damp fog, deadening our heart to the hope that we will ever be rescued, redeemed, and happy again.”[2]

There are numerous situations that present themselves each day that could potentially elicit angry responses. One can be totally alone all day and still respond with irritation and anger at situations that arise. Even though we know this to be true about life, the Scripture does give us plenty of guidance on how to resist anger and frustration leading to bitterness and resentment.

First of all, remember to focus your love daily on the Lord following the greatest commandment, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Our ability to love comes from God as John says, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Secondly, live daily in the second greatest commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39b). Focus on others. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). This may seem difficult as we harbor bitterness. But, remember, we have all sinned and hurt others. “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”(Romans 3:22b-23). God was patient with us providing the gift of His grace through Jesus’ death and resurrection so we might be justified in His sight by faith in Christ Jesus. Through His loving grace we can be transformed, not living in the sins of anger and bitterness. “We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).

As we grow in God’s grace and love of others, the fruit of the Spirit will grow as we put off the works of the flesh which include anger, strife, jealousy, and rivalries which fuel bitterness and resentment. Instead, put on the fruit of the Spirit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).

There will always be the temptation to react angrily or be offended in a world where sins against each other can be a daily reality. Along with the fruit of the Spirit, there must be an ongoing attitude of forgiveness. Paul said, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). We might feel tempted to hate those we perceive as enemies but the Lord is clear, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

Think about encouraging one another as Paul emphasized to the Thessalonians, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Also, to the Romans, Paul said, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19). Don’t take revenge even when feeling justified. “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:15).

Finally, listen to the Holy Spirit as you navigate relationships and the circumstances of life. Listen to Him when communicating. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). Deliberately and consistently, seek peace with others. “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

[1] Robert D. Jones, Uprooting Anger,Biblical Help for a Common Problem (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), 16-17.

[2] Joni Eareckson Tada & Steven Estes, When God Weeps, Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 152.

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