Some of my favorite movies are revenge movies. “Punisher,” “Max Payne,” “A Man Apart,” “Out of Time,” pretty much all of the “Batman” movies, and on and on…there are thousands. Something about a story where someone is wronged and then their hurt leads them to get revenge is completely attractive to us. Probably because we identify so well with those stories on one level or another.

We’ve all been wronged by someone. Human instinct says, “Get revenge.” This instinct is stronger for some people than others. We want to get even. We hold grudges for so long that we have trouble letting go, and it eats at us. And the scar tissue that results from that kind of grudge eating at us takes shape in the form of lasting bitterness.

Bitterness is something we all struggle with in some way, shape or form. If you’re a human with a pulse, you’ve been bitter at some point. Maybe you’re bitter toward someone now. Maybe you’re bitter toward God.

I just talked with a man who lost his 5 year old son to cancer about two weeks ago. He’s furious with God. That’s a bitterness that can last a lifetime…I can’t imagine that feeling. I know people who are bitter at other people for things that have happened to them at the hands of others. That’s not easy to get over. I’ve been there myself.

Bitter people tend to:

  • justify their bitterness – You say, “I have my reasons.”
  • become overly critical – You love to rip people apart. You gossip. It starts with just the people you’re bitter with, but before long, you criticize everyone.
  • secretly celebrate misfortunes – You love it when bad things happen to the people you’re bitter toward.
  • write off entire groups of people – You generalize people, and direct your bitterness toward groups that often include innocent people.
  • struggle to see bitterness in the mirror – You refuse to see your bitterness…you’ve justified it already, and you believe you have the right to feel how you do. You think, “It’s not bitterness, it’s my honest feelings because of how I’ve been treated.”

We all have a tendency toward bitterness. Like a weed, it can grow and take over our lives before we even realize it’s happening, and it’s not easy to get rid of once it takes root.

Hebrews 12:14-15 says,

“Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”

We have to guard against it. The root is dangerous. This verse tells us that bitterness not only corrupts us but that it “defiles many.” It affects the people around us. Another translation of the Bible says that “whenever (the bitter root) springs up, many are corrupted by its poison.” (NLT)

Bitterness holds you hostage by taking root quickly and by growing wildly. The longer you stay bitter, the harder it is to release the source of your bitterness: to let that grudge go. We fall deeper and deeper into willing captivity by our refusal to forgive.

So how can we kill the root of bitterness?

When roots grow in the cracks in my driveway, I spray them with Round Up. When that junk doesn’t work, I buy the off-brand stuff for half the price of the name brand, regret that I forgot that it didn’t work last time, and spray it again, but I digress. The weeds die. The thing is, they don’t die instantly. You have to give it some time, and sometimes you have to spray them multiple times.

We kill the root of bitterness by forgiving. The thing is, we think that when we force ourselves to utter the words, “I forgive ___________,” we’re supposed to instantly feel changed. Usually I’d be willing to bet we don’t even really mean it the first time. It’s a process. It takes time. It takes prayer. It takes determination. It takes the strength of God in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit; we can’t forgive on our own. We don’t have the capacity as mere humans. It’s bigger than we are, but not bigger than our God is.

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32)

Nobody likes a bitter person. Bitterness keeps us from living in God’s blessing. It clouds our vision and we can’t focus on following Christ because we’re so wrapped up in our hurt and wallowing in self-pity. It’s miserable, so we want everyone else to be miserable with us. It spreads.

We aren’t good at forgiveness, but if we can learn to forgive, we can be released from captivity to bitterness. Forgiveness is easy to talk about, and hard to do. Forgiving others is probably the hardest thing we’ll ever have to do. But Jesus made it clear that “if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

WHOA. God won’t forgive me if I don’t forgive others? REALLY? That’s what it says. That’s enormous. That’s huge. That’s eternity-changing. Let the full weight of that hit you. That means that if we refuse to forgive others, we’re staring Hell in the eyes. That scares me to death.

Why? I’m not good at forgiving. I’m a natural grudge-holder. I’m getting better at this, but I have a long way to go. I’m human. But it’s a process, and the further I go in the process, the better I believe I’m getting at forgiving and letting go.

Who are you bitter with? Ask God to help you forgive them. If you don’t know how to do that, then start by praying this prayer:

God, I admit that I’ve allowed a root of bitterness to grow in my heart against _______________. Please forgive me of this sin. By your power, give me a heart of compassion and forgiveness toward this person. I ask you to restore my wounded relationship. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

That’s step 1. You’re on the road. Keep praying that every morning as long as you have to. When you pray for someone, it’s easier to forgive them. Ask God to bless the person you’re bitter toward. Ask for Him to do good things in their life. Ask God to open their heart to forgive you as well, if need be.

I know it’s not easy, and I’m not trying to minimize this. I’m just starting the conversation. What helps you release bitterness and forgive others? What suggestion would you make to others?