Two elderly ladies in the nursing home were seated next to each other in their wheelchairs. Suddenly they began to argue and fight and the aides had to break up their seasoned citizen altercation. When I asked Vicki what the fight was about, her answer was both comical and tragic. “They were in grade school together, she said, “and they were fighting about something that had happened on the playground during recess!”
Winkie Pratney tells the following story: In the 1960’s a teenage boy went up to an elderly man in a New York City park, pulled out a huge knife and stabbed the man more than 100 times. When the police pressed him to find out why he had so senselessly killed the old man that he had never seen before, the answer shocked the officers. “My mom kept comparing me to my brother and badgering me as to why I couldn’t be like him – an excellent athlete, smart, talented, good looking and famous. I knew I could never be like him or famous…so I thought of the worst thing I could do and I went out and did it. At least my mom will remember me now…” (1)
If you do a search on the internet, a few different items pop up as the number one health problem in America today. Substance abuse, heart disease, obesity, AIDS, lack of sleep, even poverty are included in the mix.
But there is one disease that perhaps cripples more people, ruins more lives, and troubles more families than any other. It begins almost imperceptibly and is sometimes hard to diagnose. Those left in its wake are found in every age group, every ethnic background and in every country. If you were to ask me what the number one health problem is I would have to say that this ranks at least in the top ten...bitterness. However you term it – a sour spirit, a sore in the soul, holding a grudge – it is something that can, in the least, rob an individual of joy, and at the worst, destroy lives. I am convinced that people suffer emotionally, physically, spiritually, and sometimes financially, because of a bitter, unforgiving spirit. It is conceivably THE number one robber of contentment in life.
When I was a pastor I enjoyed visiting with the older people in the congregation. Two elderly ladies (one in one congregation and one at another church) come to mind when I think about attitudes and the different choices that people can make. When you visited with M. you left drained and emotionally “down.” To put it simply, she was just a bitter old lady. But when you visited Helen, you left feeling like this, “When I grow old, I want to be like Helen!” At 99, even though her husband had passed away years ago and even though her eyesight and hearing were failing, she was simply a joyful person. “I am so blessed!” she would often say. Bitterness was not allowed to flourish in her life.
When we live a life poisoned with bitterness or a sour spirit, that unforgiving attitude is going to manifest itself some way. It cannot be otherwise. Whether it is the smallest slight (like someone forgetting an anniversary or a birthday or failing to say, “Hi!” when we see them at a store) or the most painful and egregious memory (a broken family relationship or a spouse killed by a drunk driver), if we don’t forgive, then that mindset will sooner or later find its way to the surface. Most people won’t do as the teenage boy did to that elderly man in the above story, but we find our own way to deal with sour situations and the bitter pools in our lives. Perhaps we walk on the other side of the street when we see “that person” coming. Or maybe we no longer include the person when we email a funny joke to our coworkers, or maybe it’s just a cutting comment that we make about a friend. It’s our own form of revenge.
An article on CBN.com says this, “When you are offended or disappointed by others and allow the hurt to germinate in your heart, bitterness and resentment will take root. Characterized by an unforgiving spirit and generally negative, critical attitudes, bitterness and resentment are sinful and self-defeating. They will color your conscious and unconscious thoughts and actions. Allowed to fester, they will destroy and kill…”
It’s interesting how bitterness can develop over time. Beginning with the smallest of offenses, if left unchecked, it can eventually result in the total dissolution of relationships. It may sound funny, but leaving the cap off the toothpaste or leaving your socks in the middle of floor and not picking them up can sometimes tragically develop into “irreconcilable differences.”
I think one of the reasons that Jesus was so emphatic about our responsibility to forgive is that He knew the end result of a life spent in this disease. Plus, believe it or not, He wants us to be happy! And so He said, “These things (i.e. have a forgiving spirit) I have spoken unto you that…your joy might be full.” (John 15:11).
In my own life I first became aware of how bitterness could creep into your spirit and rob you of joy when I was in the Army. I was a military policeman and was part of a unit that patrolled the NCO and the officer’s housing area. Unlike the other road patrol units in our company that had to ride in jeeps, we drove a Chevelle and received some special treatment from the Colonel in charge of the MP battalion. Sometimes the dispatcher or other units would say something or do something that ticked me off and made me angry. At the time I was reading a book by Merlin R. Carothers titled “Bringing Heaven into Hell.” He was talking about the necessity to forgive and a verse found in Colossians 3:13 penetrated my spirit like a bolt of lightning, “Forbearing one another and forgiving one another, whoever has a valid complaint against anyone, just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you!” It changed me almost instantaneously. To put it simply, if you want to be a happy person, FORGIVE! Totally and unconditionally! And don’t bury the hatchet but leave the handle exposed so that you can find it again. Toss the hatchet into the ocean of God’s love! Make a conscious choice to forgive and to treat the offending party as though they had never offended you. There have been other occasions in my life where I have again allowed bitterness to creep in, but God is faithful to reveal my heart’s true condition. There have been times when I have had to ask people to forgive me and there have also been a handful of times when I have had to have a “Joseph-and-his-brothers” type of meeting (“You did me wrong…” Genesis 50:20).
There is so much more that could be written about this subject. If you are interested in reading more I would point you to these websites as a resource (just do a search under the word “bitterness”): www.troubledwith.com; www.lastdaysministries.org; www.cbn.com.
The title, “Squeezing Razorblades,” comes from a story I heard by a guest speaker at the church I was attending a few years ago. I don’t remember many of the details of the story other than that it was (I think) a young woman who had suffered something terrible and very painful in her life and was having a very difficult time forgiving the “offender.” One night she had a dream and in her dream she had in her hand some razorblades and was squeezing them. It was obviously self-destructive agonizingly painful. In the dream the Lord spoke to her and said, “This is you and your bitterness and unforgiveness. Your choice not to forgive is only hurting yourself.” She forgave the wrong and found herself released from the prison of her bitterness.
One story that so marvelously illustrates overcoming bitterness and hatred and the tremendous power of God’s forgiveness is that of Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch woman who was arrested and imprisoned during WWII for her family’s involvement in concealing Jews in their home during the Nazi occupation of Holland. Members of her family died as a result of what the Germans had done. But through the incredible compassion of God their horrific circumstances in Ravensbruck were turned into “their finest hour.” Corrie’s sister Betsie died in the concentration camp on December 16, 1944. Among her last words to her sister were these, “We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still."
After the war (1947) Corrie was speaking at a church in Munich. When her message was done she found herself face to face with one of the guards from Ravensbruck. He had become a Christian and came to her asking her to forgive him for what he had done. In her testimony, Corrie tells about the struggle she had, at that moment, to forgive. It was the first time since her release that she found herself in contact with one of her captors. Her blood froze and coldness enveloped her heart. But she made the decision to forgive. Corrie’s story on www.tlogical.net/bioboom relates this:
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. "I forgive you, brother!" I cried. "With all my heart!" For a long moment we grasped each other's hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God's love so intensely as I did then.”
Has your life been robbed of joy? Is there a nagging “depression” in your life? Perhaps there is someone that you need to forgive for the wrong that they have done to you. You can become free from the prison of bitterness – this sore in the soul – by asking Jesus to forgive you for anything that you have done wrong and then asking Him to give you the desire and ability to unconditionally and totally forgive those who have wronged you.