There are a lot of wounded people in the Body of Christ. They need unconditional love, gentle comfort, and gospel grace. But they can also be some of the least safe people to be around. Just as a wounded animal bites at the one coming to attend to it, so do wounded people. Wounds handled correctly are still painful. But once bitterness sets in, the wound becomes septic, and the pain is multiplied ten fold. That’s when people start to bite at and devour the very people who want to minister to them.
I know a lot of wounded Christians hurt by other Christians – people who have had serious sin committed against them by moralistic people who claim to be on God’s path. I know many who have forgiven as Christ forgave them and loved sacrificially those who are unworthy of their love. I know many others who are bitter (by definition, bitterness is resentful, cynical hostility). And as Scripture accurately predicts, many are defiled by their bitterness. They are wounded, but they then become the one who wounds. Here are some ways to recognize this pattern in yourself.
First of all, you want justice. This may be THE best way to diagnose bitterness in yourself. I cannot say in strong enough terms that if you understand the gospel, NONE OF US WANT JUSTICE. We are all by nature children deserving of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2). God is clear in the Scriptures that you and I, even if we were wounded by others, still deserve on our own God’s just hand against evil. Inherent in the cry for justice against others is the belief that I don’t deserve it myself — that what they did is much worse than anything I’m capable of. And if you stop and think through those last 2 statements and STILL want justice against someone else, I submit to you that you don’t understand the gospel for yourself. You don’t understand what you deserve apart from Christ. You don’t undestand what you are capable of apart form Christ. Certainly this person or group who sinned against you deserves justice, but if they get justice, so do you. In Christ THAT IS NOT TO BE OUR DESIRE. We don’t want justice. We want repentance. We want gospel transformation. And that really is a clear distinguishing factor on whether someone is or is not handling their wounds as God directs. Do you want your opponent destroyed? Or do you want him transformed? Do you view him/her/them as your enemy? Or do you see them as a prisoner of your enemy?
The second indicator is a subset of the first. In your cry for justice, you start alienating those who don’t feel as passionately as you do about justice against your oppressor. Their passion against the person who wounded you starts to become the litmus test for your friendship. Look around yourself. How many people have you drawn into your conflict? How many people have you alienated because they don’t understand or fully identify with your wounding? Maybe they’ve been around the same person or organization that wounded you but haven’t been personally affected by the types of sin and destruction you faced. How do you respond to them? I have had great experiences at churches and Christian organizations that ruined others’ lives. And I’ve experienced great pain and hurt at places that were quite helpful to others. Is my job to undermine what others see as God’s good in their lives? Is it possible that Christian groups can both wound one and help another? If we understand the flawed nature of the church as God describes her, we have to accept that both can happen. A Christian mother can be a blessing to one child and a burden to another. A pastor can speak truth to one family and deeply wound another with his callousness to their burdens. A Christian organization can point a teenager to Christ who has never heard the gospel before while burdening another with stumblingblocks in the form of legalistic standards that have no place in Scripture. A Christian school can provide a safe environment for a weak Christian to learn to stand on their own in Christ even as it destroys the livelihood of a faculty member over a non-essential of the faith. Bitter people can’t accept this fact. It’s all or nothing for them. But that attitude ignores an essential fact of the church. She is loved by God and pursued by Him. But she is deeply flawed, even to this day. When bitterness sets in, we have little tolerance for this dichotomy.
Finally, probably the best outward indicator of personal bitterness is what you allow yourself to verbalize about the one who sinned against you and to whom you allow yourself to verbalize it. When bitterness takes root in our heart, the first thing to go is our commitment to Christian love as defined in I Corinthians 13. And the second thing to go is any belief that Paul’s exhortation on gospel talk in Ephesians 4 applies to us. “I was sinned against grievously. I want justice. And I am now justified in saying whatever I want with whatever tone I want to whomever I want.” We think their sin against us now gives us the freedom to gossip, clamor, and what have you to the point where there is nothing remotely resembling grace in our speech concerning this person or group.
I have great compassion for the wounded. But when bitterness sets in, the wounded becomes the oppressor, and they never see it. They become the person we need to protect ourselves from. What a sad, disheartening cycle sin and bitterness feed with each other. But there is an answer! Whether you are the wounded person who becomes bitter or it’s someone you love, the answer is gospel grace. If it’s a loved one, ask them of God’s grace to them. If they’ll allow you to broach the subject of their specific wounding, ask about whether they believe that they too are capable of the kind of things that were done to them. That really is key. We think we would NEVER do THAT!. But the truth is, we are all capable of some pretty ugly things. That’s the gospel. You deserve hell because you really are that bad. You may not have done the exact things that were done to you, but you are living in a gospel-less fairytale if you don’t believe that apart from Christ you aren’t capable of the same. If they admit that they are capable of the kind of sins that were committed against them, ask what they would have needed from another to move toward repentance and transformation. What would help them to repent? What would set up barriers? Are they ready to let go of their right to vengeance and embrace the mind of Christ toward their oppressor? Are they willing to move from hope of justice to hope for transformation? Do they want destruction or repentance?
Whether it’s you struggling with bitterness or someone you love, the answer is the same. Preach the gospel to yourself. Present the gospel to your loved one. “Here’s what you deserve. Here’s what Christ gave you instead. Here’s what He calls you to repeat to those who are undeserving of your grace.”
When your opponent moves from being your enemy to being the one enslaved by your enemy, you know you have made precious gospel-based steps away from bitterness. When you long for their transformation, not their destruction, you know you have made even more precious steps toward a gospel response to sin. When you restrain your tongue because you want to draw your offender to repentance instead of creating greater stumblingblocks to keep them from seeing their sin, you know you are growing in Christ and gospel understanding.
If you were deeply wounded by another, especially another Christian, I am so sorry for the pain you’ve endured. I strongly encourage you to preach the gospel to yourself first – to meditate on all you were (and all you were capable of) apart from Christ and then all Christ has accomplished for you on the cross. Then prayerfully consider whether you want the gospel to work for your opponent. If you don’t want the gospel to benefit your opponent, stop and don’t do another thing until you do.