Friday, October 29, 2010

Dealing with Bitterness in Preparation for Dealing with Conflict

Most people have enemies—people who stand or work against them, who are quick to point out and capitalize on their failures. These enemies are usually in a very bad place spiritually. They do not themselves have a grasp of biblical conflict resolution. They are often filled with pride, jealously, fear, or hate. Sometimes it is appropriate to avoid enemies. Sometimes, one cannot avoid enemies because they intentionally place themselves in the way. Sometimes, one must meet them head on.

Spiritually stunted enemies can have a devastating impact upon peace of mind. A strong need for justice is built into every human being. When we do not get justice, or when we feel as though we have been treated unjustly, unkindly, or even simply misunderstood, we can get very, very defensive. This defensiveness destroys the peace of the Gospel in our lives and stirs up turmoil and bitterness in our spirits. This bitterness can effectively take over and overcome good intentions, wise words, and godly actions. It can turn a situation with only one enemy into two enemies, dead-set upon destroying one another. If this battle does not come to pass in actual circumstances, it will at least be played out in the battlefield of the mind. Bitterness rehearses the injustices. It dwells upon them. It enjoys imagining ways to defeat the enemy. It tells others about the injustice, looking for confirmation and support. Bitterness desires to be justified and is very needy. It works hard to infect others, and destroy whatever good impressions others may have of the enemy. It preoccupies waking hours and keeps people up at night. It re-imagines the injustice, regretting brilliant unspoken retorts and planning what will be done and said when the same injustice rears its head again. Bitterness takes over the soul and destroys the peace of the Gospel that should rule in hearts. It takes root deeply and spreads through relationships like kudzu across a hillside.

Christians should be champions of justice. More often than not ignoring injustice under the pretense of peace creates fertile ground for bitterness. However, dealing with injustice while caught in the throes of bitterness often leads to more conflict. Therefore, resolving bitterness should probably precede the resolution of injustice. After all, if resolving bitterness depends solely upon the ability to resolve injustice, then bitterness will often go unresolved. Champions of justice though we should be, we cannot control other people. The simple fact is that, after all efforts to change enemies into friends have been exhausted, often and unfortunately they will remain enemies. It is good if the injustice can be resolved, but it is better if the bitterness is not dependent upon the resolution. It is best if the peace within you trumps the turmoil around you.

How does one prepare the heart to deal with injustice? How does one settle the spirit and restore peace and joy? How does one resolve bitterness prior to or even apart from the resolution of injustice? Three biblical points of meditation have been helpful to me:

  1. Love your enemies. 
  2. Leave vengeance to the Lord. 
  3. Let Christ be your defense, whether you are right or wrong. 
These are not easy points to master. In fact, they are extremely difficult because our God-given sense of justice, warped by depravity, seeks to undermine them again and again. Nevertheless, God commands them, and they do not appear to be dependent upon whether or not justice has been achieved.

Love for enemies is a radical notion. Frankly, we do not even know how to love enemies. It is natural to hate enemies and to seek to destroy them. If we only love our neighbors, then we are no different from unbelievers, because it is normal for them to hate their enemies. Christians should be radically different from the world in that they are called to not only love those who are good to them but also those who use and abuse them. What does love for enemies look like? Frankly I do not always know. But I do know full well when I am hating my enemies.

Though love is much more than the absence of hate, I am quite sure that it at least starts with the absence of hate. And I am quite sure that love and hate cannot occupy the same heart space at the same time. They might alternate though. One could go back and forth between love and hate. Forgiveness is seldom something that needs to be given only once. Our depravity easily stirs up past bitterness and hatred, especially when we rehearse the injustices in our minds or remember them as we relate them to other people. Reaching a place of love for the same unjust enemies will probably need to be done again and again.

Vengeance is often subtle. It seldom involves breaking car windows and burning down houses. Instead, it more often involves a more rational retaliation. Vengeance seeks to destroy the spirit of the enemy, often through wars of words and one-upmanship. It celebrates when bad things happen to those we hate. It is smugly satisfied when others see our enemies as we see them. It views an enemy’s failure and demoralization as victory.

Leaving vengeance to the Lord leaves justice to the Lord and leaves us with the resolution of personal bitterness. It is ostensible to "leave vengeance to the Lord" while retaining a spirit of bitterness. To leave vengeance to God is to put the matter in God’s hands, to let him deal with the injustice as he sees fit and in his time, and to put away the desperate need for one’s own satisfaction. Leaving vengeance to God celebrates his justice by faith. Vengeance that is left to God alone leaves room for love instead of bitterness. How does one know if one has not truly left vengeance to the Lord? Probably if the thought of and hope for God’s vengeance still preoccupies a person. One knows when one has left vengeance to Lord when the need for vengeance no longer rules the heart and preoccupies the mind.

Letting Christ be your defense is a key to these first two points. In fact, all three are tightly interwoven. To accomplish the one without the others is probably not really to accomplish the one. But letting Christ be one’s defense is foundational.

Often, injustice is a personal affront. When personally attacked, we can be desperate in our own self-defense. This desperation, once again, does not represent the peace of the Gospel. It is anything but peaceful, like flailing for a life line in deep, swift water. To what do we look to defend ourselves from attack? To what do we look to protect us from danger? To what do we look to console us in a crisis? The answers to those questions tell us what we are relying upon for our peace, joy, satisfaction, and sense of self-worth. We may have some semblance of peace, joy, satisfaction, and self-worth if we get what we want in answer to those questions. But the real test occurs when we do not get what we want. If we do not get what we want, or have no ability to get those things, our peace, joy, satisfaction, and self-worth is destroyed, and we reveal that we are not letting Christ be our defense.

Christ as our defense is a part of the Gospel. We find all our value in Christ—all our peace, satisfaction, joy and self-worth. He has made us righteous. He has declared us to be perfect and accepted. Nothing that can separate us from the love of Christ; no act of man, no circumstance of injustice. We can have peace in spite of all that goes wrong around us as we learn to rest in Christ.

What is wonderful about this last point is that often enemies are enemies for good reason, that is, because of some failure on our part. Of course, enemies often respond in ways that are totally disproportionate to the offense, hence the injustice that still causes bitterness. However, the fact remains that we mess up and bring some things, at least in part, upon our own heads.

When Christ is our defense, we can deal with whatever results from our errors or sins. We can ask forgiveness and rest peacefully, even when enemies abuse instead of forgive. When Christ is truly our defense, we are not desperate to defend ourselves. Sometimes self-defense amounts to desperate rationalizations. We make lists of ways that the injustice was disproportionate. We might even rationalize our own sins and failures, comparing them to the injustice, and seek to justify them in some way. Or we may seek to hide them, perhaps going so far as to lie, all in the name of self-defense.

Resting our defense in Christ removes any need to do these things and allows us to own up to our weaknesses and failures, taking consequences without fear. When all is said and done, even if we are undone, we will still be complete in Christ. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.

As I said before, none of these three things comes easily. I find myself needing to spend much time in prayer and meditation upon God’s Word before I can even begin to grab hold of the nearest edge of these admonitions and truths. My own depravity fights against these things. But when praying to grab hold of them, there is a starting place that begins to bring them into reach. Paul says to forgive as the Lord forgave me. He says to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave me. Christ leads us to pray for forgiveness just as we have forgiven others. Each of these compares God’s forgiveness of our own sins to our willingness or unwillingness to forgive others for theirs. The point is simply that there is no grievance that can be committed against us that we ourselves have not exceeded in magnitude and turpitude against God. We were at one time haters of God, dead in our trespasses and sins, gratifying our sinful cravings and following wicked desires and thoughts. We were deserving objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions. God demonstrated his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

The starting point for meditation and prayer that moves these three points into our reach is a full consideration of how much we ourselves have been forgiven. There is no sin that has been committed against us that matches the sins we have already been forgiven through Christ. God was merciful to us; can we not find room to be merciful to others, no matter how great their wickedness toward us?

In the end, the injustices if our enemies will probably need to be handled in some way or another. Christians do not have to just roll over and play dead when they are wronged. However, Paul tells us to speak the truth in love. The author of Hebrews tells us to pursue peace with all men. We can deal with injustices in ways that do nothing to really deal with our sinful bitterness, or we can deal with bitterness in ways that prepare us to deal justly with the unjust. In the end, our peace must rest with Christ, who has been merciful to us when we did not deserve it.

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. "In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. . . .Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:25-32 

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. Colossians 3:12-15 

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:14-21 

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48 

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