No one is quite sure who came up with the final list of the Seven Deadly Sins, but I think he, she, or they missed one. Yes, anger, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony are indeed deadly. But here is my vote for an eighth deadly sin: bitterness.
Bitterness is not only deadly, but it is secret, silent, undetectable even to the embittered, and it can have a very long gestation period before anyone notices it exists. (In fact, unlike anger and lust, I can hide my bitterness even from myself and not even notice I am doing so.) Bitterness is one of our favorite poisons. We humans find it sweet to the taste, and it tastes sweeter as we swallow larger and larger draughts.
a warning, a definition
The biblical writers warn against bitterness. The apostle Paul tells us that bitterness is one of the chief characteristics of people who don’t seek God (Romans 3:14). He tells the church in Ephesus to get rid of all bitterness! (Ephesians 3:14). In fact, it is the root of bitterness that threatens to destroy the church (Hebrews 12:15). Like any root, bitterness lies beneath the surface, undetected, unseen until it blossoms into the flowers of divisiveness and discord. But exactly what is bitterness?
I define bitterness as unforgiveness stretched out over time. It is the festering wound that first manifests as anger or pain or embarrassment or regret. But the wound, self-inflicted, or inflicted by another from without, doesn’t heal. Infection sets in and bitterness results. In time this bitterness becomes gangrenous and spreads as easily as room-temperature butter on a piece of toast. Bitterness follows the off-handed but stinging sarcastic remark at the proverbial water cooler that five years later, has morphed into full-blown hatred. Bitterness shapes our countenance, disfigures our face, and affects our posture.
Unlike anger that is a flash point sin, bitterness needs to steep. Like a fine wine, bitterness needs months, even years, to ferment and grow to maturity. At that point, bitterness is—in its essence—un-grace. While grace gives us good things we don’t deserve, bitterness seeks to inflict the revenge we deem appropriate. If God’s mercies and faithfulness are new every morning, bitterness is a cancer of the soul that spreads late in the afternoon. If the joy of the Lord is our strength, bitterness is the weakness that makes us think we are strong even as life is being sucked out of our bodies.
The writer of Proverbs said, The heart knows its own bitterness (14:10), but this is not always true. Sometimes our hearts deceive us, and we hide our bitterness not only from others but also from ourselves. We dress up our resentment and call it concern, feeling strongly, or being hurt when we’re actually dealing with garden-variety bitterness, hate, and a complete unwillingness to forgive. Of course I find these traits easier to detect in others than I do in myself. I’ve known other people who struggle with bitterness, but I have REALLY been wronged. My case is different.
Know this, dear reader: in a fallen world we all have been and we all will be wronged. Life in this world is not the way it is supposed to be, and the pain you feel from the misdeeds of “that” church, or from your father, or from your friend is real. And the wounds go deep.
But bitterness is still a deadly sin. For starters, it will kill our relationship with Jesus because he taught us that we will be forgiven in the same way we forgive. Ouch! Our bitterness will also cost us even those friends with whom we have no quarrel. Why? Because, to put it bluntly, bitter people are not very much fun to be with. And, third, bitterness will ruin your relationship with yourself. Cultivate bitterness, and you will be a perpetually glass is half-emptyperson as you slowly die of thirst.
So what do we do? How do we avoid bitterness as though it was the black plague of the 14th century? No formulas from this fellow pilgrim, but consider a few discoveries which have been helpful in my life:
First, study carefully the nature of your own heart and rejoice that you have a Savior. Look deep inside and you will find the murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony and slander that Jesus said was there. Rejoice that you have a Savior who knows you and loves you nevertheless, and maybe the wrongs done to you will begin to shrink.
Second, pray for your enemies. Don’t pray that God will settle the score, don’t pray for revenge, pray for God’s blessing. Pray that the one who wronged you will be restored from his sin. Pray that God will not treat that person as his sins deserve. When we pray for our enemies we ourselves are healed.
Third, rejoice in God’s providence. Recognize that nothing has come to you but by his fatherly hand. This truth may be the hardest pill to swallow, but we Christians don’t believe in accidents. For example, Joseph spent years in prison and decades away from his family. He was stuck in Egypt when he’d rather have been in Canaan. But when he has a chance to settle the score, to get even with his ornery brothers, to make them pay for their sins, what does he say? He lines up his brothers before him, forgives them for the sins they committed against him, and delivers the zinger: As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good (Genesis 50:20). Joseph places his pain in the larger context of God’s plan.
a better feast
At times I have found myself tempted to dine at the feast of bitterness; at times I have wanted to load my plate with anger and resentment and then savor every bite. But having confidence in the providence of God has kept me from that meal many times. Believing that I have a heavenly Father who not only created all things, but who sustains all things has led me to another supper consisting only of bread and wine. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, I serve a God who upholds heaven and earth and rules in such a way that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hands. Bitterness, be gone!