Destroying Every Form of Bitterness in Us
The apostle urges us to ‘Put all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, slander away from you, along with all malice’ (Ephesians 4:31).
Richard Cameron, the Lion of the Covenant, the powerful Scottish Covenanter preacher of the 17th century, along with so many other preachers, was driven from his pulpit by Charles II of England. Cameron and many like him took their congregations to the fields and forests in Scotland to continue pulpit ministry. In 1670 Charles made such public gatherings and preaching a capital offence, and he sent his army into Scotland to hunt down the Covenanter preachers. Richard knew his days were numbered and while preaching one day to his congregation, Charles’ army disrupted the service, arresting Cameron. Before being executed before the eyes of his congregation, Richard Cameron prayed, asking the Lord to ‘spare the green and take the ripe.’ His head and hands were severed from his body and taken to a prison in Glasgow where Alan Cameron, his father, was being punished for the same crime. When shown the head and hands, and asked if he knew to whom they belonged, Alan Cameron kissed them and said, ‘These belong to my dear son. The Lord has done it. The Lord has been good to me and mine. The Lord has given us mercy and grace all our days.’
How could a father respond with such faith, devoid of bitterness and wrath? He understood three things about God and applied them to his life. He believed in God’s sovereignty (this was no accident, not fate; this was God’s plan for his son), God’s wisdom (he always does the right thing, the first time, every time), and God’s goodness (that all God’s blows are love, that all flows from a God of goodness who works good in all things for those who love him).
Here’s my question to you – who has hurt you? Who has wronged you? Perhaps you have forgiven him, but the feelings of anger and wrath may persist. Perhaps you have harboured bitterness, anger and hatred for many years. What are you to do? Paul the Apostle, in this most practical section of his epistle, commands us continually to put away bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, slander, and malice. The Greek words used by Paul are very important and illustrative. There clearly is a process, a declension if you will, moving further and further downward into relational destruction. It begins with bitterness and ends with malice.
The Greek word pikria (bitterness) is used in Acts 8:23 where Peter says that Simon the Sorcerer is in the gall of bitterness and the bondage of iniquity. The writer to the Hebrews warns us to not allow a root of pikria to spring up and cause trouble, for by it many are defiled or ruined (Hebrews 12:15). The idea here is a deep-seated hostility, lodged in one’s heart due to something someone says or does or does not do. It is not noticeable to others, perhaps even to the one in whom pikria has been planted.
Next is thumos or wrath. Thumos and orge (wrath and anger) are used together in Colossians 3:8. Thumos is a continual churning or agitation in the heart. It comes when one thinks about, plays back over in his mind, the wrong done to him. Orge is the word used in Romans 1:18 when we are told that the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. It has the idea of wrath boiling over, no longer being held back by God. Orge begins to manifest itself in body language, a rolling of the eyes, a sigh, a tone of voice, certain sharp or acerbic words.
Then comes krauge. Secular Greek writers of the day used this word to speak of children screaming. Luke uses it in Acts 19:28 when a riot breaks out in Ephesus and the people cry out, ‘Artemis the Great.’ After deep-seated bitterness and a continual churning of the heart, after body language and tone of voice, then comes violent, angry speech, cursing and accusing. Terrible words will eventually come from the mouth of one with bitterness.
And then there is blasphemia. 1 Peter 4:4 and 2 Peter 2:2 speak of this, first of all as debauched people blaspheme the brethren, and then as sensual people blaspheme God. This is the height of wicked speech – blaspheming God, spreading scandalous untruths about others.
And Paul concludes by using kakia as a summary word. Actually, ‘malice’ is not a very good translation of this word. Secular writers at the time used kakia to describe a barley harvest destroyed by hail. In other words, once bitterness runs its course through wrath, anger, clamour, and blasphemy the person is utterly useless to God or others. That’s why you find being in the presence of certain people intolerable.
Paul is telling us to break the back of bitterness because it brings relational destruction. How do you do it? Three things are necessary. First, you must be clear how bitterness works evil in you. King Saul (1 Samuel 18ff) is a sordid example of this, revealing how he declined to the point of hating David and wanting to kill him. It is like localised cancer cells in the colon. Nothing is noticeable, even after they begin to spread. Eventually, however, the outward appearance of the person begins to change – loss of weight, change in skin colour, excessive fatigue. And when the cancer has metastasised the person may give himself to self-pity even cursing those who love him, blaspheming God. Has bitterness gripped your heart? Are you using demeaning speech with anyone? Do others find it difficult to be around you?
Second, you can overcome bitterness and malice only by the love of God which is shed abroad in your hearts through the Holy Spirit. Take 1 Corinthians 13:4, the first two components of love, as an example. Love suffers long. Aren’t you glad God suffers long with you? Love does not abandon one who is difficult, who has harmed you, who has taken advantage of you. Love is kind. This means love does good deeds for others – for the Christian and non-Christian in your life, for the good and the bad, for the thankful and unthankful, for the kind and belligerent, for the gentle and irascible.
And third, you can only do this because God has first loved you, shown patience and goodness to you through Christ. He delivered you from the domain of darkness. He drew you who were far off to himself. He reconciled you in his fleshly body through death. He gave you eternal life. He promises to take you to heaven, to cause you to rule with him in glory.
You daily have a choice. When someone hurts you, when you remember how someone in your past has hurt you, then you can water and fertilise the seed of bitterness, or you can uproot it. You can do the latter because you are in Christ, you have the Holy Spirit, you have the love of Christ in your heart. By faith, simply tell your conscience that you will not hold their sin against them. Now, what will you do?.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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