The Path of Bitterness – A Tough Road to Travel

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By Mike DuBose

Bitterness is an interest of mine because I once travelled down the self destructive roads of unresolved anger and resentment myself. I was able to eventually break the chains of bitter bondage that trapped me in my painful past, but I did not really find peace until in my forties. Bitterness had taken root deep within my soul and I was stuck spinning my wheels instead of finding peace and a new road to the future.

My bitterness began when I was eleven and my dad deserted my family. From that day forward, I could never meet my father’s expectations and suffered hurtful neglect and abuse. I could write a book on my dad and the resentment I once felt toward him. My father eventually reaped what he sowed on many fronts and died of cancer at 58, the same age I am now. Before he died, I confronted him with all the rotten things he had done in my life, like cheating me out of a great childhood and nearly ruining my adulthood as well. Before he died he told me for the first time the words I had longed to hear my entire life: “I love you and am proud of you!” Those words began a journey of healing. Looking back at my bitterness, I can see that it was affecting my entire life and those of the people around me. That is the sad part of bitterness—it often drags others into a trap of discouragement.

Fortunately, I was able to get most of my anger and resentment out in the open and deal with it. My faith in God also helped me accept my dad for what he was – a pretty lousy father. Looking back on my childhood and the resulting pain, I can now say I am grateful things happened just the way they did – no regrets. I was able to use that pain as a gift, my inspiration to be a better father to my sons and a better person toward others.

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who is a psychologist about bitterness and the serious impact it has on individuals and families. He was perplexed by the fact that siblings raised in the same dysfunctional family environment can develop in very different ways. Some become bitter and resentful, while others seem to learn and grow from their negative experiences.

As we talked, I thought about another conversation I had with a friend who is in his late seventies. We spoke about his bad childhood and how he still resented his father, who had been dead for years. I advised him to forgive and move on, but he said angrily, “I will never forgive my father to my grave!” His dead father and his negative childhood experiences were still haunting him and generating anger more than 60 years later! Bitterness had taken deep root in his mind and heart.

Bitterness is “that hateful and spiteful sourness in the heart that creeps in when you have been or think you have been maliciously wronged” and can be directed toward God, others, or yourself, according to Bitterness comes from the Old English word that means “sharpness to the taste.”

Bitterness and forgiveness are discussed at length in Christian literature. Dr. Adrian Rogers, pastor of Love Worth Finding Ministries, has said, “Bitterness blows out the candle of joy and leaves the soul in darkness.” Sandy Anderson of Build International Ministries said that “bitterness and resentment are deadly poisons from the pits of hell.” The worst thing about bitterness, he said, is that it does not stop – it can only get worse and become disabling. Bitterness is the archenemy of hope. It sucks away joy and keeps us mired in the past. It robs us of the ability to celebrate and enjoy all life’s possibilities that God wants for us.

Billy Graham has commented that “Every destructive emotion bears it own fruit, but the anger fruit is the bitterest of them all. Uncontrolled resentment and anger is a devastating sin and no one is exempt from its havoc. It shatters relationships and destroys marriages.”

Bitterness and resentment can be caused by an event or a combination of things that happen in a person’s life, including:

  • Criticism.
  • Physical, mental, and sexual abuse.
  • Love being withheld.
  • A negative and unexpected event that sharply changes one’s life.
  • Neglect.
  • Being held to unrealistic expectations.
  • A parent committing adultery or deserting the family.
  • Loss of a job or expected promotion.
  • Addiction.
  • Premature loss of a parent or child.
  • Tragedy.
  • Ego and pride.

Bitter people tend to:

  • Talk negatively.
  • Look for the bad in situations.
  • Feel that the past is driving their future.
  • See the glass half empty (have very negative views on life).
  • Be very critical.
  • Feel like victims, talking frequently about how they were wronged.
  • Be aggressive and temperamental.
  • Be depressed.
  • Be know-it-alls.
  • Be hard to please.
  • Be prideful and ego-driven.
  • Have a poor outlook on life.
  • Have a lot of mental and physical problems.
  • Be argumentative.
  • Expect everything and everyone to be perfect.
  • Displace a lot of their anger towards others.

How do you overcome bitterness and resentment? Luckily, we can turn away from bitterness by making a conscious effort to forgive others, often with the help of religion. As columnist Roberta Rand Caponey advises, “Ask God to come into your heart and help you forgive those who’ve hurt you so deeply.” Though the following ideas come from the Bible, they provide good advice for Christians and non-Christians alike.

  1. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, malice, and slander be put away from you. Ephesians 4:31
  2. Forgive. Matthew 6:14-15
  3. Live in Harmony. Romans 12: 14-21
  4. Love your enemies and pray for them. Luke 6:35
  5. Be quick to listen; slow to anger; and slow to speak. James 6:35
  6. Let us pursue the things that make peace and the building up of one another. Romans 14:19
  7. Be angry and yet do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger. Ephesians 4:26
  8. A gentle answer turns away wrath; yet a harsh answer will stir up anger. Proverbs 15:1
  9. Then Peter said to Jesus, Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother who has sinned against me – seven times? Jesus said, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Matthew 18:21-22

You can also use these general ideas from the Bible to help you overcome bitterness:

  1. Ask God to forgive you for your bitter thoughts.
  2. Love.
  3. Give of yourself to others.
  4. Build people up instead of tearing them down.
  5. Don’t overreact. Control your temper. Avoid reading between the lines.
  6. Let go of the problem and issue.
  7. Let the person who offended you know you’re hurt, forgive, and then move on.
  8. Give thanks to God.

In addition to improving emotional and spiritual well-being, there are physical reasons to give up being bitter and resentful as well. In his book “None of Those Diseases,” S.I. McMillen reports that anger can cause trouble for the body and can be tied back to 50 different illnesses. Studies have also shown that forgiveness is correlated to stronger mental and even physical health. This may be because forgiveness reduces stress, depression, and tension and thus the negative effects that these emotions have on the body.

Look at disappointments as opportunities and gifts to learn from. In conflict, there are always opportunities. In the end, bitterness hurts only the person who is resentful and bitter. The bitter person must consciously choose a new road – a paradigm shift in their way of thinking. That means thinking about the present and future while learning from the past.

In conclusion, motivational speaker Jewel Taylor hit it on the head with the following thought: “You can’t win if you are whining. You can’t win if you are waiting. You can’t win if you are weeping. You can’t win if you are wishing things would get better. Success is the by-product of work, commitment, passion, creativity, tenacity and endurance. You can choose today to complain how unfair life is or you can decide to get up and make your mark. You can decide to run with the big dogs or stay on the porch and bark!”

As a person who once chose bitterness as a way of life, I am so thankful that I have shed those bitter chains of bondage. The peace that has resulted from my decision to let go is indescribable. If you are bitter, remember that the first step you have to take is making a conscious choice: stay bitter and die unhappy, or embark on a better road to happiness. A colleague once said, “You can never put the toothpaste back into the tube.” Our past is that same way – it happened! No amount of work, anger, bitterness, and resentment will ever change it. But that pain can turn into a gift if we use it to help ourselves and others to benefit from our experiences as I am doing with this article.

Peace to you!