Bitterness Is Self-Induced Poisoning of the Soul

Bitterness Is Self-Induced Poisoning of the Soul

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There is an intrinsic nature to bitterness. The bitter person is like someone with a cup of poison. Each time they think about their problems, they take another sip. In most situations, the individual is not aware of what they are doing to themselves. It’s an unwitting form of self-sabotage. Perhaps they are aware, but the pain of their situation is so disappointing that they don’t care. From their painful perspective, it’s easier to grumble, complain, vent, and hurt. There is a better solution.

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The Frustrated Spouse

Mable is bitter at her husband. Biff is mainly oblivious to the frustration that silently churns inside his wife. He’s doing his own thing, and if you ask him about their problems, he would say, “We’re doing okay. Sometimes Mable gets a bit upset, but we’re doing good.” Every time Mable hears him say something like that, she silently goes off the deep end. The accumulative effect of their 20-year marriage has left her in a low-grade churning state of bitterness. It is odd that Biff does not discern their troubles. He does not understand the depth of her frustration. He has convinced himself he is doing okay, and if he’s okay, she’s okay. Meanwhile, Mable is spiritually deteriorating by the day.

For the purposes of this case study, I am going to interact with Mable, not Biff. I’m not suggesting that Mable is more guilty; she is not, but there is an implied blindside here: the person affected the most is the person who wants something the most, and that person will hurt the most. Mable is more susceptible to mental and emotional bondage because Biff has an ignorance inoculation, if not callousness. Mable, who desires a good marriage, is spiritually dying. It seems the person who’s trying should not be hurting so much but things don’t always work according to how we think they should in our turned-upside-down world.

So let’s pretend Biff will not change—at least not in the foreseeable future. Maybe some of you would want to take a stick to the side of his head but hold on. Though I understand, it would be better for someone to take a Bible and try to work it into his heart. Biff needs intentional, steady confrontation. Somebody needs to love him enough to begin a process of Matthew 18:15-17, which starts with talking to him about the problems in his life and marriage. Maybe there is a possibility he would become convinced to change, the best possible outcome. Setting Biff aside, for now, let’s think about Mable.

Under the Hood

We are fallen people, living in a fallen world, surrounded by fallen people. Becoming born again does not make us perfect, and it does not insulate us from trouble. We should continuously pursue holiness regardless of whether the “Biff’s” in our world ever submit their lives to the Lord. Living in an imperfect world will not give us all our desires, and even marrying a Christian will not completely satisfy our deepest longings, which should drive us to the more important question: “What do I want?” or “What will it take to give me God’s peace that passes human reasoning?” How we respond to these questions will determine whether we’ll take sips from the cup of bitterness or find our thirst satisfied in Christ alone (John 4:14). What does Mable want? You will find the answer as you examine her attitudes, words, and behaviors.

  • What is she saying?
  • What is she doing?
  • How does she respond—inwardly and outwardly when she thinks about Biff and her marriage?

Take a peek under the hood of Mable’s life. Jesus taught that if we are sinning on the outside, there is something wrong with us on the inside (Matthew 15:18). As you examine Mable, you’ll probably find things like anger, self-righteousness, bitterness, fear, anxiousness, self-deception, arrogance, discontentment, discouragement, and possibly depression, all circulating in her heart. Mable may have a few physical problems too.

Some would say Mable’s problem is Biff. That assessment is partially correct, but it’s also misplaced wisdom. As hard as it may be for her to hear, someone needs to love her enough to help her see what she is doing to herself. Though Biff is authentically, objectively, and biblically sinning against Mable, she is not permitted to retaliate in response to his sin. God does not give us an excuse to sin, no matter how horrible someone treats us. Peter explains this concept to us when he says,

For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God (1 Peter 2:19-20).

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Change What You Can

Mable has a hard choice before her. Will she be more mindful of God than her miserable marriage? If her husband never changes, it will become imperative for her to find soul stabilization through the grace of God. If she does not, she will drink herself to death. The height of Christian maturity is when someone sins against you, and you’re not overcome by the sin while putting Christ on display despite the mistreatment. Suffering is our calling. (cf. 1 Peter 2:21) There are three primary reasons Mable needs to gain victory over her sin.

  • Her sin defames God—it does not put Christ on display.
  • Her sin defiles her—she is drinking from the bitter cup.
  • Her sin defeats her witness—she won’t be able to help her husband.

Mable wants a biblical husband, but her method for acquiring one is unbiblical. She is defiling herself; it’s self-sabotage. Because the first point—above—is obvious and the third one is not an option right now, let’s interact with the second one—drinking from the bitter cup. Even though her sin could manipulate Biff to change, she won’t get an authentic God-centered husband that will last. A manipulated man is not a changed one. If she wants a God-loving man, the place to begin will be in the most likely place for change to happen—in her heart. The upside to this approach is if Biff does not change, she will no longer be drinking from the bitter cup and his sinfulness will not be managing her emotions.

That, in itself, should be enough to motivate her toward transformation. Because Mable is sinning in response to her husband’s nonsense, we know there is something wrong with her heart. She needs to see the counterintuitiveness of the situation: her husband is an instrument in the hands of the Lord that reveals something nefarious in her heart. Here is an excellent x-ray question that will quickly get you to her core problem. “I could be happy if ________________?” The correct answer to this “heart inquiry” is, “I could be happy if God were my King,” or something along those lines. Any other response is idolatry, the person’s functional god.

You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:3).

Idolatrous Dependency

There is only one thing that can control us at any given moment (Matthew 6:24). Whatever regulates us is our functional god. In Mable’s case, her husband has control of her, which makes him an undesirable and imperfect “god.” Mable would presumably be okay if he would shape up and fly right by meeting her expectations, especially her desire for a God-loving man. I’m not saying Mable’s desire is evil; it is not. But it’s also true that Biff is managing her, which has more influence over her soul’s stability than the Lord. As hard as it would be for Mable to hear, she is an idolator. The implication is that if her husband would come through for her, she could stop sinning.

Mable’s theology says that she needs Christ, plus a suitable spouse for her to be okay. Can Mable change only after her husband changes? Or, can Mable change despite her husband’s shenanigans? Mable is unwittingly setting up a codependent grading system for her marriage. Her happiness is bound by Biff’s performance. If Biff meets her expectations, she will be okay. If he fails, she will not be okay, plus she will let him know by reciprocating sin for sin. She must recognize that her marriage may never be what she hopes for because Biff may never change (2 Timothy 2:24-25).

For now, Biff’s restoration to God is a tertiary matter. Regardless, of what he does, Mable is negatively complicating the situation by allowing her lousy marriage to manage her emotions. The key will be whether or not she can find contentment in God alone while being less controlled by her husband’s meanness. As she appropriates God’s grace in her life for her benefit alone, she can then think about positioning herself as a means of grace to help her husband change. Setting aside her desires will be a significant first step of faith for her. Can she trust God to help her repent of her marital disappointment regardless of the outcome?

Feeding Addicts

Let’s say Biff does change. Let’s say he becomes everything Mable wants him to be. Would that make everything right? Would the marriage be biblically better? Would Mable be happy? On the surface, maybe. But Mable would not have gained the victory she needed over her sin because Biff was not the primary sin; he was the Lord’s instrumentation that revealed the preexisting sin in Mable’s heart. She might sin less often if Biff was not a knucklehead, but the strength of her marriage would always teeter on the merits of Biff’s behavior. Let me convey this by using a different kind of illustration.

Suppose you had a crystal meth addict next door, and she came to you asking for a hit. She continues to come to you each day, asking for another bump. You decide to give her a fix because it will make her happy. What have you done? Have you fixed the problem? Is she better, or is she just getting her fix? The problem with feeding an addict is the addict has an insatiable appetite for her drug. You will never satisfy her by being her supplier. Mable will never be satisfied as long as Biff is her drug of choice. Even if he did give her all she wanted, it would never be right because she would be getting her “fix on” through Biff.

God is the only One who can satisfactorily supply all we need (Philippians 4:19). If we have to have a God + someone else to make us happy, we will never be content, have authentic biblical relationships, and will always be a people-user. Part of the problem for Mable is the grayish nuance between good and bad desires. If Mable had an evil desire, it would be easier for her to see the problem. You could walk her through why God says she can’t have that sinful thing. Mable’s tension is that she does not want an evil something. She wants a husband to love her how Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25). No sound thinking Christian should have a problem with that.

Those Gray Desires

The problem occurs when we can’t get our good desires met. Mable is convoluting the matter when those good desires turn into something she is unwilling to relinquish. Anytime this happens, it will put us a breath away from idolatry. Our unmet good desires become expectations that we assume God and others should meet. We wait and wait for them to come to pass. When they don’t come to fruition, we can become demanding and even mean-spirited, especially to those who should be the conduit through which we get what we want.

  1. Mable had a biblical expectation.
  2. Her hope did not come to fruition.
  3. That good desire supplanted God as her source of hope, strength, contentment, and happiness.
  4. She probably never saw it coming.
  5. A mental stronghold began to develop (2 Corinthians 10:3-6).
  6. It took hold of her thoughts, and each time she was disappointed by Biff’s failure, she took an undiscerning sip from her cup of bitterness.
  7. In time, the bitter poison blinded Mable.
  8. She became self-deceived.

Good desires perpetuated a sense of self-justification for her sinful responses to her evil husband. A compassionate and courageous discipler needs to help her see what she has done to herself. They will carefully help her understand how those desires have twisted themselves around her heart. She is not beyond hope. The Lord can restore her. She can find satisfaction in Christ alone. She can be a means of grace to her husband. It is even possible the Lord would use her to help restore Biff (Galatians 6:1-3). But the journey won’t start until she is willing to allow someone to bring gospel clarity to her. Mable has to see what she can’t see right now. She needs to understand what she is doing. She needs to put down her bitter cup.

Call to Action

  1. What sinful person or situation has God used in your life as an instrument of righteousness to motivate you to change?
  2. How long did it take you to realize that the Lord can use sin sinlessly? Talk about a sinful situation in the Bible that brought about a righteous outcome.
  3. What did the sin of another reveal about your heart? How would you counsel someone else who is in a situation where someone is sinning against them, and you want them to find God’s redemptive purposes in it (Genesis 50:20)?
  4. How easy is it to get tripped up when your desire for something is good? We understand when we don’t get something nefarious, God should not meet that expectation, but what about when the thing we want is not wrong on its face?
  5. Were you ever mean-spirited to someone who did not give you a good desire? How did it go? Have you gone to them to receive their forgiveness? What should you do to bring closure to this problem?

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