Thankfully, most of us don’t have holocaust-level atrocities to forgive, yet plenty of us still carry around some bitterness: the insult, the divorce, the abuse, the treatment of our kid, the gossip, the betrayal, the firing, the criticism. And even though the affront that caused you such pain may have happened years ago, it feels like it just happened today. You remember it. You hold onto it. You chew on it over and over again like a morsel of choice food. But it is food that’s cooked in hell. There are no nutrients there, nothing to nourish you or sustain you, nothing to draw you closer to Christ or to others, nothing to make you more like Jesus.
And if anybody had reason to be bitter, it was Jesus. Innocent of any wrongdoing, Jesus was publicly humiliated and nailed to a cross. And even though the Gospels record that Jesus said seven different things on that cross, not one of them was a bitter word, not one. In fact, one of them was a forgiving word: “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” There wasn’t a bitter bone in Jesus’ body. It’s hard to even imagine Jesus saying to the people around the cross, “You just wait! I’ll get you back for this—and twice as bad!” That’s not the Jesus we know.
And yet those who carry Jesus’ name say stuff like that all the time. This is a major disconnect. This same forgiving Jesus we claim to follow tells us that we’re supposed to love our enemies and forgive those who hurt us. Here’s the deal about bitterness and following Jesus: we’re not allowed to carry it. The Gospels forbid it, and so do the epistles. Remember Paul’s letter to the Ephesians? “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.” The forgiven are called to be forgiving. In fact, there’s just enough in Scripture to suggest that we can’t have it both ways. To boast of your forgiveness in Christ while carrying bitterness toward someone who has hurt you is as ugly as the bitterness itself.
I’m not suggesting that forgiving is an easy thing to do. It may even take a little time.to fully forgive the deepest hurts. But that’s okay. Forgiving others is one of those things that humbles us, that reveals to us our need and our weakness. Forgiving others can drive us back into the mercies of God for the strength to do it. So, run to those mercies already. And on your way, drop your bag of bitterness and just see how much that speeds the journey.
James Broderick in his book The Progress of the Jesuits says of Pope Pius IV: “He never forgot a slight done to him, and that was his fundamental weakness. He might appear to bury the hatchet, but he always marked where that hatchet was buried.” Not a pretty picture. Not a Jesus picture, that’s for sure. So if you, dear reader, are carrying the rotting seed of bitterness in your heart today, in the name and power of Jesus, spit it out, put it down, let it go.