Part 4: Looking backward – unforgiveness and bitterness

I am unaware of any survey being conducted to measure the number of Bible-believing Christians who have had experiences with the occult. I hope that the percentage of people in evangelical churches that has had problems with the occult is small.

Maybe you don’t have problems with the occult. Maybe you have tried Oija-board and other things without suffering attacks from the enemy. Good for you! You might be immune in that area, because the enemy doesn’t waste his “fiery darts”.

Jim Logan, whilst working with the Sioux Indians, asked if what we see in western movies with Indians firing huge volleys of arrows at the wagon trains was authentic, one Indian answered: “Are you kidding? Have you ever made an arrow by hand? Every time a Sioux warrior let an arrow fly, he expected to hear an ouch. Every arrow counted.”

So if the occult is no great problem for you, I say Praise the Lord! But the enemy knows where each of us is vulnerable, and that’s the spot he’s aiming for. I will now deal with areas that are major problems for many believers; areas of which God’s people, including parents and children, are giving tremendous ground to the enemy to attack them. The first of these is the area of bitterness and unforgiveness.

A STORY OF FORGIVENESS

If I had to sum up the message of the Scriptures in one word. it would be forgiveness. The Bible is the story of how God forgives. It begins in Genesis and continues throughout Revelation. Along the way we see God reaching out to people to forgive them.

If forgiveness is one of the central themes of the Bible – perhaps the central theme – where do you suppose the enemy might attack you and me as God’s children? Through unforgiveness. How can I go and tell other men and womenthe good news that they can be forgivenby God when I am harbouring unforgiveness in my own heart? In fact, when unforgiveness and bitterness rule my heart, I am moving backward in my relationships with people and with God, and I am opening myself up to Satan’s attacks.

Forgiving others

How did Jesus Himself teach us how to pray? One of Hisrequests in His model prayer was “Forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). That is a heavy-duty request, isn’t it? Jesus isn’t talking about forgiveness in regard to salvation here, but the kind of forgivenesswe are to extend to others precisely because we are forgiven people. This is forgiveness that keeps us in proper fellowship with Him.

Hebrews 12:15 speaks powerfully to the dangers of allowing a “root of bitterness” to grow in our hearts. The picture of a plant growing from it’s roots is a pervect illustration of what the writer is saying. If the root is bitter, what can the plant produce but bitterness? You can’t plant an apple tree and expect figs. Notice how wide-ranging the effects of bitterness are. “Many” will be defiled if bitterness is allowed to grow in the hearts of God’s people.

But Christians don’t like to admit they are bitter. What do Christians say? “I’ve been hurt”, or “I have resentments”. I’m not denying the fact that we can be hurt by others. But resentment are bitterness in the crib, just waiting to grow up into full-fledged bitterness. We need to call it by its worst name and see it for what it is.

Getting it all out

A preacher had a dandelion on his desk. It was a great teaching tool. When he asked people what kind of flower it was, the reply was usually “That’s not a flower, it’s a weed!”

“You are right,” the preacher would reply. “It’s a weed. If I wanted to get rid of the dandelion, how would I do it? By pulling off the petals and throwing them away?”

“No,” the answer would be.

“Could I just mow over them with the lawn mower? Would that take care of my problem?” the preacher would ask.

“No,” would the answer come back.

“Right again,” the preacher stated. “There’s only one way to get rid of a dandelion. Pull it up, roots and all.”

Most people would agree with that preacher. And that is also what we must do to clear bitterness from our lves. We must recognize it is a weed – a sin – and pull it all out. Suppose your doctors gives you the bad news that you have cancer and need surgery. You have the operation, and as you’re coming out of the anesthetic, the doctor walks into the room. What is the first thing you want to know? “Did you get it all?

“We got most of it.” Is that very comforting? If we don’t get it, roots and all, it will grow up and many will be affected and defiled by it. It’s not just a secret thing wen I harbour wrong feelings in my heart

Suffering and bitterness

The apostle Peter in his first epistle teaches us much about bitterness that can come from suffering. 1 Peter is a treatise on how to respond to suffering. Clearly Peter has no room for the false gospel that if you become a Christian, everything is going to be wonderful.

That preaching is false. Christians and non-Chritians go through the same life experiences – with one big difference. God’s people don’t have to go though their suffering alone. When Jesus died on the cross, the darkness surrounded Him and He cried out in agony. Jesus went through His darkness all alone so that I don’t have to go through my darness all alone.

But we all suffer. In fact, 1 Peter 4:19 says suffering is God’s will for His people. This is a verse you won’t see hanging on too many decorative wall plaques. But I say this: If our Christianity doesn’t work in suffering, we don’t have much to offer anyone.

All of this is relevant to the big issue of bitterness and unforgiveness because these feelings are usually triggered when we are called to suffer, especially when we have been wrongfully treated by others. In fact, Peter concludes chapter 4 with a discussion of how to respond to suffering that comes when someone treats you unfairly for your devotion to Christ. (See 4:15-19; note also 2:19-24.)

GETTING RID OF BITTERNESS

Removing bitterness from our lives requires three steps. Each one is vital. A person must take all three steps or the process doesn’t work. Remember, Satan will not let go easily of any ground I have yielded to him through btterness or some other sin.

For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.

For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.

For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:

Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:

Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:” 

(1 Peter 2:19-23)

Jesus is our example here. Sometimes we suffer unjustly. Other times we reap the consequenes of bad decitions. Our words and actions are improper; we say things we ought not to say, and we do things that we ought not to do. But Jesus never said or did anything wrong. His suffering was wholly unjust. But rather that retaliating and becoming bitter hwen He suffered, He “comitted Himself to Him that judgeth righteously“. Jesus knew that His Father would always do what was right. So He was able to say to God “I commit this to You because I know You will do what is right“. Here is the first step in ridding ourselves of bitterness:

1. Identify and release

Step one in getting rid of bitterness is to identify those who have hurt you and be willing to release them to God so He can can deal with them (Romans 12:19). Peter says that when we do wrong and bear the suffering for it, there’s no praise in that. But if a person whose conscience is clear before God suffers for something he didn’t do and commits it to the Lord, He can be honoured through it.

There are many examples of people who have been wronged without it being their fault. Once, a baseball player in USA was sent down from the Major League to the Minor league simply because he was a Christian and the coach didn’t like him. That is not fair, I hear you say. True, but if it happened to you, would you allow it to cause bitterness in your heart?

This first step is so important, because we’ll see a little later that Jesus Himself said bitterness gives ground to the enemy. Learning how to deal with bitterness is also vital because suffering isn’t an option for us. It is our calling as Christians to suffe (1 Peter 2:21a).

But if you can’t trust God when things are bad, you open yourself up to bitterness. Dealing with those who have hurt or wronged you is God’s job, not yours (Romans 12:19). When you try to take that responsibility upon yourself, you free God of any responsibility to act on yourn behalf.

Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin;

That he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God.

(1 Peter 4:1-2)

How do we arm ourselves with the same mind as Christ in suffering? By not retaliating but committing it to Go. This is a real struggle for many of the people who seek counseling. The issue is, can we really trust God when we suffer? I can tell you, this has been a struggle for many, myself included.

Bitterness is making God accountable to me. It is also an insult to His sovereignty. In effect, you are saying: “God, I don’t like what You are doing, and I want You to know it. You didn’t ask for my permission or check with me aheah of time, and I’m angry!”

In the last part of the verse 1, Peter also says that suffering is part of God’s purifying process to help us get rid of sin. Sometimes we pray “Lord, I want to be godly“, then we shove away all the tools by which He wants to purify us. Often when a tough time comes, the first thing we say is “Why me?” (see verse 12).

When I think of fiery trials, I think of the prophet Daniel’s three friends (Daniel 3). When they were thrown into the furnace, what burned? Just the ropes that bound them! That’s all! God wants to burn the ropes that have us in bondage.

2. Forgive from the heart

Step two in getting rid of bitterness is found in Matthew 18:21-22:

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?

Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

If I am going to be free of bitterness, I must be willing to forgive people from the heart. When Peter asked at what point he could stop forgiving someone, Jesus answered by calling for unlimited forgiveness.

Every time a person hurts me, I must forgive. Most of us have heard Jesus’ word so often we miss the significance of what He’s saying. Imagine what unlimited forgiveness means, for example, to a wife who has an abusive husband. Is there a point at which she can stop forgiving him? She may have to seperate herself from him for her own protection, but she still can – and should – forgive him.

Notice that after Jesus’ call for endless forgiveness in Matthew 18, He told a story (verses 23-34) about forgiveness. The numbers in the story are staggering: this servant owed the king about 10 million pounds, but was forgiven. A second servant  owed the first servant a few pounds in comparison, but the forgiven servant refused to forgive him. As a result, he was turned over to the “tormentors” by the king (verse 34). Jesus didn’t want us to miss the application of this amazing story of unforgiveness, so He gave it to us Himself (verse 35). If we hold resentments and unforgiveness in our hearts against anyone, the same thing will happen to us. We will give the nemy ground to torment us.

We also find this same idea in the church age. In 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, Paul writes about a sin in the church that was so bad it was offensive even to the local unbelievers. What was this man’s judgement? To be delivered unto Satan (verse 5).

But the man at Corinth repented, and the church didn’t know what to do (2 Corinthians 2:1-11). “Forgive him,” Paul says (verse 7), and then adds his own forgiveness (verse 10). Do this, he says, “lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices” (verse 11). Bitterness ans a refusal to forgive others are Satan’s devices that open a person to demonic attacks and damage the body of Christ, and Paul knew that.

3. Live with the consequences

The third and final step in releasing bitterness is a willingness to live with the ongoing consequences of the offender’s actions. This is the most difficult step of all if it applies. Yes, it is essensial if we are going to escape the consequences of a bitter spirit and honour God by obeying Him. The key to be willing to live with the consequences is to maintain vital contact with the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 4:30-32 says this is essential if we want to be successful in spiritual warfare. We’re told not to grieve the Holy Spirit, and then in the very next phrase  we are told “Let all bitterness… be put away from you” (verse 31). Anger is mentioned too. Many bitter people also struggle with anger.

Notice that we are to replace all of the sinful acts in verse 31 with forgiveness. And not just forgiveness. We are to forgive the way Jesus forgave us – completely. He forgave us an eternal debt. All we are asked to do is forgive temporal debts.

The only thing that sets people free is the truth and their committment to it. If a person is willing, he or she must pray that God will reveal the people they have not forgiven in that person’s heart. People must deal with the pain and hurt before they are trully free. Are people usually bitter for no reason? No, something has happened. So, when someone says “I forgive so-and-so” they should be asked “What do you forgive them for?” The person being counselled must face this question.

CHOOSING TO FORGIVE

Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling. When it comes to forgiving someone who has offended us, we must act in obedience, even when the feelings aren’t there. Ephesians 4:32 makes it clear that God is not asking me to feel something, but to do something. When God told Moses to stretch out his staff over the Red Sea, he could have boubted, even being resentful that God had put him in this predicament – the approaching Egyptin army pinning him against the sea and his people, unarmed, tired from the journey, some of them complaining. Moses could have complained and refused.

Instead, he did as God commanded, because it was God who asked and becaus Moses knew who God is. Faith demands a warrant, a grounds for belief. A warrant is a legal docment on which an action is based. God’s Word, His promise to act, was the warrant for Moses’ faith. We know he had faith because of his actions, That’s the way it is with forgiveness. We can respond with forgiveness even when our feelings say no, for God’s Word commands us and promises His blessings to those who do forgive.

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