Our lives and our relationships can be pictured as a garden. There is variety there; splashes of beauty can sometimes surprise us and catch us unawares, and we go through various seasons of blooming, flourishing and wilting. At times, the garden of our lives is messy – nothing is where it is meant to be, and we’re simply functioning but not flourishing.One of the most pernicious weeds that stunt our growth and prevent our relationships from flourishing is that of resentment or bitterness. This resentment may be directed toward other people, and even toward God.
What do you do when someone insults you? What feelings are aroused in you when a close friend betrays you by disclosing a closely guarded secret to others? What is your posture towards someone who promised you something you were relying on, such as a job or help, only to let you down without warning? What goes on in your heart if a loved one, such as a spouse or a parent or a sibling, doesn’t show up when they said they would?
Such situations arise in life, and how we handle the feelings that follow is very important. We can either feed our bitterness until it becomes full-blown resentment, or we can try to deal with our disappointment and hurt in a way that allows our hearts and our relationships to flourish.
How do we deal with feelings of bitterness and resentment in our relationships? To begin with, it may be helpful to understand bitterness and resentment, and then proceed to ask how we can deal with these feelings.
What is resentment, and how does it come about?
When a friend or other loved ones betray you, or when our expectations are disappointed, we may feel let down and hurt. When those hurt feelings start to negatively shape the way we think and act towards others, we have the beginnings of bitterness.
It is a good indicator that bitterness is taking root when you find yourself reacting negatively whenever the person’s name is mentioned, you see their name displayed on Caller ID, when your thoughts about that person automatically gravitate towards the thing that they did (or failed to do), and you relive the hurt and develop a posture of rejection towards them.
When a past hurt becomes the point of reference for how you feel about the person, about whether you can trust them again, bitterness is coming into flower. When feelings of bitterness about a person or situation are left to fester and remain unresolved, resentment begins to develop.
Resentment is when feelings of bitterness set in and become our basic posture towards a person. It’s no longer just a passing feeling where you can separate the feelings from the person – the two become identified with one another. Regardless of their other good qualities, you can’t help but relate to them as the person who did such and such to you.
Our hurt can calcify and turn to seed. That seed of bitterness, in turn, takes root and becomes the fruit of resentment. Our feelings toward the person turn sour and our general posture toward them is negative. Whatever they do or say, we see it through the lens of our hurt, and this ultimately distorts how we relate to them. Resentment breaks relationships, and it can lead people to act in ungodly ways towards others.
The Bible unflinchingly addresses our failings as human beings when it comes to what bitterness and resentment can do to us. Ahithophel, one of King David’s trusted counselors, joined in a rebellion against the king (2 Samuel 15) because David had conspired to murder his granddaughter Bathsheba’s husband.
David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, who was married to Uriah. Without question, what David did was evil. There is no way whatsoever to justify his actions. Ahithophel’s anger is understandable; in fact, it would have been strange if he weren’t angry in this situation.
But instead of addressing the matter with the king, he nursed his feelings of anger and bitterness until an opportunity arose when he could betray the king. Again, what David had done was absolutely, unalterably wrong and unjustifiable; but Ahithophel’s reaction to the evil done toward his family, though not comparable to David’s actions, was also wrong.
God, through His prophet, had already promised David that he would receive justice for his evil actions. Ahithophel wanted to take matters into his own hands.
In the middle of giving advice to the faith community in the city of Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey), Paul said: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling, and slander, along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:31). Paul enjoins this Christian community to “get rid” of bitterness. He was aware that feelings of bitterness, when given their head, will develop into resentment, and this can seriously undermine the life of the whole community.
What sets us free from resentment?
How do we get rid of bitterness and resentment? How do we heal from the hurts that can lead us into dark places? Forgiveness and trust.
In the same letter that Paul wrote to the community in Ephesus, he wrote these words – “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). The beauty of the message of Jesus is that undeserving, sinful people are graciously forgiven by God and welcomed into His family.
Whenever we hurt someone, we are also blatantly sinning against God, who made both us and that person in His image. Yet this God forgave us. In the same way, we are to forgive others. Forgiveness is not the same as excusing. It does not mean that nothing wrong was done.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean the hurt goes unspoken, or that the truth is denied. Rather, it is choosing to accept the offender despite the offence they’ve caused. We cannot do this in our own strength, but in the strength God graciously provides us. What does this look like in real life?Corrie Ten Boom, a holocaust survivor, tells the story of when she met one of the guards who was stationed and worked at the concentration camp where she and her family were held. She was speaking at a church event, and the man came up afterward to shake her hand.
She did not have the strength to forgive that man, let alone shake his hand. She prayed fervently, and somehow the Lord provided what she needed at that moment to let go of her bitterness and resentment towards this man.
Vengeance is a burden, one that God has commanded us never to take on ourselves. Often, we feel that it is up to us to see that justice is done. Instead of dwelling on our hurt and nursing feelings of bitterness and resentment towards someone who has sinned against us, God asks us to trust Him to do what it right.
Here’s how He put it through the words of Paul: “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. in doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12: 19-21).
It takes an enormous amount of trust to “leave room” for God to deal with situations where we have been hurt; to opt for forgiveness and do good to those that have hurt us. As we saw earlier, Ahithophel did not trust what God said when He promised justice for David’s evil actions. Rather than trusting God to do what was right and deal with the offender, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
Resentment and bitterness can burn through us, and negatively affect our relationships. By forgiving others and trusting God to deal justly with people, we can begin to rid ourselves of negative feelings and their toxic effects.
Explore Christian Counseling for Dealing with Resentment and Bitterness
It is a fact of life that people hurt and disappoint us but at times that hurt can become overwhelming or destructive in our various relationships, particularly if we let it develop into bitterness and resentment. If you feel like you are trapped in bitterness and resentment towards certain people and that it’s negatively affecting your life, then you may want to consider Christian counseling to help you.
With a Christian counselor, you can explore more of what the Bible says about bitterness and resentment, enter a safe space to talk about your feelings and struggles, and learn skills for dealing with these feelings in a healthy and life-giving way.
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