Christianity and Mental Health: The Bondage of Bitterness

A friend promises to aways be there for you. They affirm you, encourage you, and support you. One day though, they betray your trust, stop talking to you, or do something that outright hurts you. This leaves you wounded and angry. You thought they cared. Didn’t they promise to always be in your corner? Now you find that no matter what you do, you can’t let go of the pain and sadness of how you were treated and you’re anger…so angry. 

There’s a word for what you’re feeling — Bitterness.

Bitterness is an attitude of extreme anger coupled with hostility. Resentment, the longing to get even, and a desire to cause harm may accompany bitterness. When someone gets hurt, rather than forgiving, they harbor the pain and anger allowing their view of life to be soured.  

What does this have to do with the mind and mental health? Bitterness is a manifestation of an improper way of thinking. Bitterness effects the way you process things. It effects the way you view the world around you and as a result they manner in which you live. 

Instead of living in freedom and joy, you are chained to the hurt and pain you’ve experienced. Rather than moving forward in your life, you’re bound to the past. When you wallow in your bitterness it wears you out, you stay defeated, and you miss out on the full life that God has for you.

The reason bitterness has such a devastating effect on the individual is because it’s a result of sin. Sin always destroys.

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled – Hebrews 12:15

This is why the writer of Hebrew warns us to not allow it to take root. Like a tree root, once it’s there it’s hard to pull out. Bitterness spreads through a person like those roots spread underground.  Have you ever seen a tree that’s been uprooted? It’s amazing how deep those roots can grow!

Not only does bitterness destroy you, but it leaves a path of destruction around you. I was walking through Gettysburg with my wife one evening and all of a sudden she tripped. We laughed and joked about how her middle name isn’t Grace and kept walking. Not even a minute later she tripped again! After poking fun at her, we looked around and noticed that a massive oak tree had shifted the sidewalk with its roots. The roots were damaging everything around them, even my wife’s toes.

Bitterness doesn’t just affect you. It can affect your family, friends, co-workers, and even the nice lady running the checkout at the store. You know the nasty taste of sour milk and how you just want to spit it out? Well, people will get a taste of the bitterness controlling you and head for the hills. No one wants to be around that kind of negativity, especially if it’s directed towards them.

Consider the characteristics of bitterness: resentment, obsessive thoughts of revenge, sarcasm, critical or unkind comments, self-righteousness, conflicts with others, hostility, aggressiveness in relationships, controlling behavior. These characteristics are life-taking not life-giving. They are in direct opposition to the way God has called us to live. Living with bitterness will only produce chaos in your life. It will only ever spoil moments, damage relationships, and steal happiness. Bitterness is a sin that destroys life. 

Most people don’t want to live with such a sullen outlook on life — they long for freedom, they desire joy. But how does one overcome bitterness? Is it even possible? I can tell you firsthand that it is and I’d like to share with you how.

  1. Ask God for Help

This is where we should always start. Overcoming anything whether it’s emotional, physical, or spiritual starts with taking it to the One who knows us best. As our Creator, He understands how we’re wired. As our Savior, He can sympathize with our struggle.

In your bitterness, look to Jesus. You’ll never be able to overcome it on your own. Only through His strength and power can you do it. Every other step in overcoming bitterness hinges on Him, so start here.

  1. Deal with It – Completely

Ephesians 4:31 says, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”  The keyword, is “all.” If you really want to be free from the bitterness controlling you, it needs to be dealt with completely. Not dealing with bitterness leaves room for it to rear its ugly head over and over again. 

Confronting head on the cause of your bitterness isn’t enjoyable, but it’s so worth it. Stopping the hate and resentment forces you to deal with the pain. Accepting your loss and grieving will help you break the chain of bitterness.

  1. Forgive Others & Yourself

Following the command to put away bitterness in Ephesians 4, we find another command in verse 32. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Bitterness is to be removed and replaced with grace and forgiveness. Hate and resentment are to be let go. Hostility and aggression are to be called off. Christ is to be put on.

Forgiveness is the key to dealing with bitterness that has already taken root. It pours water onto the fire of bitterness that is raging inside of you. It allows you to let go of the anger and pain. It replaces those negative thoughts and feelings with compassion and mercy. Forgiveness keeps bitterness at bay. 

It’s not just those who have hurt and offended you that you may need to forgive. Sometimes we are the cause of the bitterness. A poor decision or a mistake made leads to regret and that regret turns into blaming yourself. Before you know it, you’re angry and bitter over how things turned out. You have to give yourself grace in moments like these. You have to forgive yourself when you fail. Christ already has.

Pray for a spirit of forgiveness. Ask God to help you forgive those who have hurt you and help to forgive yourself. It’s hard to hate someone when you’re praying for them. It’s hard to withhold grace when you continually bring it all before the Lord. God wants healing for your heart and victory over sin. Take it all to Him.

  1. Seek Help

Be proactive and seek accountability. If you’re a part of a local church (you should be) join a women’s or men’s group, look for a prayer partner, or approach an older believer about mentoring you. Accountability is vital in our growth as Christians. Seek friendships that will push you to live out your faith.

If bitterness persists, consider consulting a mental health practitioner. There are mental disorders like PTED that require professional help. Seeking assistance from your doctor or a counselor isn’t wrong. God has graced us with knowledgeable individuals who have dedicated themselves to understanding the human mind and helping people live healthy lives.

Bitterness doesn’t have to control you. If you let it, it will destroy your life, but through the power of Jesus, it can be conquered. Break free from the bondage of bitterness today. 

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