Bitterness and Resentment

By Greg Albrecht—

Remember the older brother, the third major character of the parable of the prodigal son? As he witnessed the extravagant love and forgiveness of his father, lavished on his younger brother when he came home from wasting his inheritance, the older brother was eaten alive by jealously, envy and bitterness. The older, unforgiving brother refused to join in the festivities and celebration.

The older, responsible, hard-working brother felt that he was a faithful and diligent son, always trying to earn his father’s favor.

But the celebration and festivities—the barbecue, the music and the dancing—were not in honor of all his hard work.

The joy and celebration were because his obviously less-than-perfect younger brother had come home. The parable ends without us being told the end of the story—did the older brother let go of his bitterness?

Buddy Hackett, an American comedian and actor who died a little over ten years ago once said, half in fun and half seriously, “Don’t carry a grudge. While you’re carrying the grudge the other guy is out dancing.”

That, of course, is exactly what the younger brother and his father were doing—they were dancing. They were filled with joy—which is the state of mind that Christ produces in us. By contrast, the older brother, for all of his hard work and virtue and all his righteousness was eaten alive by bitterness and resentment.

I always remember the wisdom of an old Arab proverb: “Write the wrongs that are done to you in sand, but write the good things that happen to you on a piece of marble. Let go of all emotions such as resentment and retaliation, which diminish you, and hold onto emotions such as gratitude and joy, which increase you.”

In her book, Tramp for the Lord, Corrie Ten Boom says that God takes our sins and buries them in the deepest ocean, and then he posts a sign that says, “No fishing allowed.” Unresolved bitterness, whether toward another human being, dead or alive, or toward ourselves, can cause us to live in torment. Bitterness is a prison where our spirit, our soul, is in bondage— being slowly devoured like a cancer. It is a dark and desperate place of depression and anxiety. In such a place we are overcome by guilt and shame.

Each of us must make a decision. Will we accept or reject the forgiveness God offers to us? Will we trust him implicitly—will we accept the fact that Jesus has taken care of all of the ugliness and evil of our lives and forgiven it with the love he demonstrated on his Cross—or will we continue to insist that we must somehow muddle through our own lives, trying to make restitution in our own way?

Accepting God’s forgiveness means that we will not wait for an apology to come from the person whom we believe has wronged us. It could be that the individual who offended or wronged us didn’t mean to harm us in any way—they may not even remember the incident! In such a case we will wait in vain for them to ask us to forgive them. We can also wait forever for an apology from someone who truly did abuse us—who caused us perhaps physical as well as emotional pain and grief—but many such individuals will never ask us to forgive them.

If we continue to harbor grudges and resentment toward such people then they are still controlling us—they are still governing the way we live our lives. We are still in bondage to real or imagined harms done to us in the past— when all the while our bitterness and resentment can be taken away in Christ.

In some cases we hold ourselves hostage. We can fail to fully embrace the totality of the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, and in so doing we determine that God is not strong enough or big enough to forgive us. It’s the ultimate end of performance-based religion—we simply cannot believe that God has enough love and grace to forgive us, so we reject his offer of freedom and instead continue our life of imprisonment in the shame and guilt of our past.

Forgiveness is a gift of God—a gift that we either choose to accept or reject. If we choose to accept God’s forgiveness, then we choose to believe and trust that Christ in us will enable us to treat ourselves and treat others with the same love he has lavished on us. We can overcome bitterness and resentment because of Christ, in Christ and through the new life he lives in us.