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How to Give Up Bitterness for Love

How to Give Up Bitterness for Love

My husband walked into the bedroom where I was watching television and stopped in his tracks. "It's a Hallmark movie, right?" I smiled and responded, "Yes, it is." Dan shook his head and said, "I don't understand why you watch those movies. Five minutes into the show, you know the plot, have identified the conflict in every relationship, and are guaranteed at least three snowfalls and a happy ending."

Exactly! That is precisely why I watch them. They are simple, every problem is solved, and everyone ends up with the right person in the end. Life is not so simple, especially at Christmas time. Holidays have a way of resurrecting old hurt and painful pasts that have left us wounded and bitter. Everyone struggles with bitterness. If we are going to move toward love and leave bitterness behind, we have to get personal.

Let's dive into our source of truth, the Bible, and look at the familiar Christmas story. But, first, we pick up the story where the shepherds enter.

In the same country, shepherds were living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign: you will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will toward men."

Shepherds had a dirty job. If you did that job, you were considered dirty. The job wasn't just looked down upon; the ones who did the job were looked down on. And here's why this matters. The shepherds that the angel appeared to are not just physically dirty. They were considered "unclean" spiritually as well. They were not allowed to even participate in regular religious activities. Because their job made it impossible for them to get rid of their ceremonial impurity, they were treated like they didn't matter – in the eyes of people and the eyes of God. However, we shouldn't think of the shepherds as innocent victims of prejudice and oppression. Many became hostile and bitter toward the people who rejected them and ended up earning their low reputation.

We tend to do the same thing. We all struggle with bitterness and not wanting anything to do with people who hurt and mistreat us. We tend to get stuck in the cycle of bitterness. When we are hurt, we tend to become bitter. That's the way it works. The hated become hateful. The resented become resentful. And we get stuck in cycles of bitterness and resentment.

God chose to tell the shepherds first about the birth of Jesus. Then, he picked people who were stuck in bitterness and resentment. He wasn't just telling them the news; he was giving them a way out of many things, not the least of which was bitterness and resentment. And let's be real clear. Bitterness is no small thing to try and get out of our lives. Brain researchers tell us that when we act resentfully toward someone, it stimulates pleasure centers in our brains. Bitterness and resentment feel good. Revenge is powerful because it is fueled by unresolved anger. When we are mistreated or hurt, we want revenge – not justice. But, unfortunately, revenge never produces true justice. Only God can mete out justice, and He is very clear on the matter, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them" (Deuteronomy 32:35 NIV).

Anger gets in the way of God's justice. Mishandled anger works its way out in our lives through revenge, which always leads to retaliation instead of restoration.

When our daughter was just a toddler, she went through a brief phase of biting. Danna was, however, selective in the object of her taste tests. After all, what are brothers for? I was quietly doing laundry when a blood-curdling scream launched me from my solitude into Danna's room. She and her brother were supposed to be playing a nice, quiet game of "Chutes and Ladders" while I worked, but I didn't remember screaming being part of that game. When I reached her bedroom, I found Danna's mouth attached to Jered's arm as if it were a turkey leg. "Danna," I barked, "What are you doing?" My voice startled her, and thankfully, she released her prey, evoking fresh howls of pain from Jered. I gently gathered him in one arm and not-so-gently gathered Danna in the other. "Danna, do not bite!" I firmly warned. "Don't cry, honey!" I crooned to Jered. "Your sister is too little to know that biting hurts." With Jered pacified and Danna distracted, I headed back to the kitchen and my quiet laundry. I was barely out of the room when I heard screaming again, but it was Danna this time. Rushing back in, I asked, "What happened?" With the epitome of innocence, Jered sweetly explained, "Well, she knows it hurts now!" Retaliation is always sin, and revenge is always wrong. Opportunities for retaliation are everywhere. However, a heart of integrity, a life striving for greatness in the eyes of God, chooses restoration over retaliation every time.

Don't miss this: it's not just the act of revenge that feels good. Even thinking resentful, bitter thoughts activates the pleasure centers in our brains, the same parts of our brains that taking cocaine stimulates. Want to trade in your resentment for something better? Want to give up your bitterness for love? You can.

Three steps.

First – identify the person you are bitter toward.

Who is that person in your life this Christmas? Who has hurt you or wronged you or someone you love, and there's hostility there? There's bitterness. Whose wrongs do you tend to rehearse in your mind and do that whole "tell them off" thing in your head?

Christmas is not about cliché syrupy sentimentality. Life doesn't just work out like a Hallmark movie. But Advent is meant to be an adventure where God takes us to new and better places than we could ever go on our own. And part of that adventure is moving past our bitterness to something far better. That first Christmas, God reached out to people who had a lot to be bitter about. And this Christmas, He does the same thing. He comes to people who've been rejected and hurt and stuck in bitterness because of it. And watch what happens. When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When the angel announced that the good news of Jesus' birth was great news to all people, including the shepherds, they weren't used to that because nobody included them. Nobody cared about them, but God did.

When they went to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus, guess who else was there? Nobody. No crowds, no paparazzi. The wise men come later. The shepherds got front row seats to THE major event in the history of the world! And I believe this is when their adventure starts picking up steam. Because it's then that the shepherds realize just how much they matter to God. God picked them. God sent the angels to them with the news that peace was coming to Earth.

When they see Jesus, the shepherds know they matter to God. Everybody else might hate them and look down on them, but not God. God had reached out to them. God chose them. They mattered to God, and they knew it. When they had seen Him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

See what's happening here? Don't miss this part. They're talking to people who they usually wouldn't even talk to and vice versa. The birth of Jesus and how much they mattered to God changed them. The shepherds go from being hated haters to peace proclaiming preachers. Amazing! They've gone from bitterness to love. And this is not just about the shepherds. This truth is about you and me and here and now. Who is it? Who are you bitter toward this Advent season? Who are you harboring hostility toward? 

Here is something you may not know. The bitterness you feel toward the person who hurt you is not just reserved for them. It spills out on everyone in your life. The battery acid of resentment burns everyone who comes in contact with it. You are hurting the people who love you the most because you will not turn loose of your bitterness.

Second – realize how God feels about the person you are bitter toward.

How do we do that? First, start where the shepherds started. Remember, the angels didn't say, "Good will toward people who have good will toward you." Nope.

The birth of Jesus is the good news of great joy for all people. All people. That includes the boss who takes credit for your work. That includes the spouse who mistreats you and the neighbor who talks about you behind your back. The angel said "all," and in the original language of the Bible, "all" really does mean "all." Christmas means the goodwill of God toward all people, a truth that is crucial in getting rid of bitterness. Bitterness causes me to reduce the person who's wronged me to the sum total of what they've done to me. That's all they are: just what they've done. But the birth of Jesus does precisely the opposite. Christmas gives us the big picture of the person who's wronged us.

Jesus shows me how God sees even the most hateful, mean-spirited, hurtful person on the planet: that person is the beloved recipient of God's peace, goodwill, and favor, just like you and me. We all struggle with bitterness. Bitterness makes us hateful and is a cycle in which we can easily get stuck. So you have a choice. You can hang on to how you feel about the one that has hurt you. And remain stuck in bitterness. Or you can trade it for how God feels about the one that has hurt you. And be set free.

Third – ask God to help you see the person that hurt you the way He sees them.

Once I admit to myself that the person I'm bitter toward matters to God, then by an act of my will, I ask God to help me see that person the way He does. Whoever it is you resent, think about them, and say, "God, the person I'm bitter toward, they're more than what they've done to me. Please replace my bitterness with love. I can't love them like you want me to. Please help me."

Loving the person you feel bitter toward isn't about what you feel; it's about what you choose. It's about choosing to ask God to forgive them for what they've done to you. It's about choosing to ask God to bring good things into their life, not because you love them, but because God does. The road from bitterness to love starts in Bethlehem. It starts in the stable where Jesus was born, and it goes through His life of love, no matter who you are or what you've done. God loves you and wants you to be in a right relationship with him. Therefore, he would pay any price to be close to you. And the proof of that is Jesus.

The Jesus who loves you as you are and not as you should be. The Jesus who was born for you lived for you and died for you. The Jesus who was born in Bethlehem and helped the shepherds go from bitterness to love will help you, too. For unto you is born a savior…who is Christ the Lord.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/MangoStar_Studio

Mary Southerland is also the Co-founder of Girlfriends in God, a conference and devotion ministry for women. Mary’s books include, Hope in the Midst of Depression, Sandpaper People, Escaping the Stress Trap, Experiencing God’s Power in Your Ministry, 10-Day Trust Adventure, You Make Me So Angry, How to Study the Bible, Fit for Life, Joy for the Journey, and Life Is So Daily. Mary relishes her ministry as a wife, a mother to their two children, Jered and Danna, and Mimi to her six grandchildren – Jaydan, Lelia, Justus, Hudson, Mo, and Nori.