"Bitterness is a poison you drink which does your enemies no harm, and does you no good."-- Anonymous aphorism
It's easy to become bitter about some things. Things go wrong, life is not fair, someone deceives you, you don't get the job you want. Its especially easy to become this way as untoward things pile up in your life. Like an early morning fog that permeates the whole region so that you cannot see where you are going, bitterness blinds a person to the good things in life, and takes away the ability to enjoy them.
I have noticed that so many people in this day and age have such a strong sense of 'entitlement' that this or that is owed to them in life, and when it does not happen, they become bitter. Worst of all is being bitter, like Jonah was, about something God has done which upsets your prejudices and predisposed assumptions. One of the things I have most noticed in spending time speaking to groups of college students in this day and age is the prevailing cynicism I encounter. They see the world as dog eat dog, and they are already bitter about it before they even are middle-aged. They are skeptical about political change or spiritual renewal, and there is a sense of helplessness and hopelessness that they can make any differences.
It is so different than what I encountered in the 60s and early 70s when I was a comparable age. And the parallels and differences are interesting. Then as now we were dealing with an unpopular war, a very unpopular war. There was mounting bitterness towards the President who was seen to have done a poor job and didn't get the troops out of Vietnam fast enough. Yet at the same time there was this anger, there was also tremendous altruism. Lots of young people were campaigning for candidates they believed in for public office, were joining the Peace Corp, were joining VISTA, were looking for ways to make a difference, and believed they could. They had been stirred by the speech of President Kennedy when he said "Ask not what your country can do for you [i.e. the entitlement approach], ask what you can do for your country."
By contrast with that spirit, what I see today is waves and waves of cynicism and bitterness, only slightly masked and medicated by music and drugs and other forms of 'entertainment'. It seems our country has become far more narcissistic than ever, and part of that self-centeredness is manifested in bitterness.
One person once said "Blessed are those who expect nothing from God, for they shall not be disappointed." This is of course not one of Jesus' beatitudes, but it is the attitude of even some Christians I know, including a lot of young ones. Faith, hope and love are of the essence of the Christian life, but if you give up expecting anything of God, and give up hope for a brighter future, then its easy to give up loving, give up being other-directed and self-sacrificial.
My friend and former student Joe Castillo, who is a wonderful artist, tells the story of how he finally in adulthood felt prompted to use his skills in art to draw a picture of Jesus. He ran into a Christian bookstore operator who thought it could be put on plaques and would sell. The man talked Joe into letting him do this, and he promised Joe royalties from the sales.
Well lo and behold these plaques became enormously popular all over the U.S. But a year went by and Joe heard nothing from this man. He called him up, and asked when he might get some royalties. Joe badly needed the money as his wife was dying of cancer, and the treatments were expensive, and he did not have adequate health coverage. At first when Joe called, the man enthusiastically talked about how well the plaques were selling, but then when Joe asked about the royalties the man went quiet and wouldn't say anything. He told him he had nothing to give him. He even told him "I don't remember saying anything about royalties."
Well of course Joe was angry, and that turned into bitterness when more time went by and nothing happened. He thought of suing the man, but remembered what Paul says in 1 Corinthians about Christians not taking each other to court, but rather settling the matter themselves.
So, Joe went once more to see the man. The man made him wait for hours. Finally, when he saw the man, the man had nothing to give him. Promised nothing. At this juncture Joe concluded he needed to forgive the man and move on.
But he couldn't really forgive him, though he said he did. Joe kept getting phone calls about how that plaque had really ministered to people's lives, saved a marriage, and various other things. He began to realize he needed to just forget his whole attitude of entitlement, and let it go, because it all belonged to God and God was doing good ministry with that plaque. He finally got to that place of real forgiveness, and acceptance, and he stopped drinking the poison of bitterness.
It was not long after that, that he was contacted by a company who had bought out the bankrupt man who had initially made the deal with Joe. This time Joe was offered the right to"buy the copyright on the plaque" because the previous gentlemen had copyrighted Joe's work without his knowing it. So as Joe says, "my artwork became twice mine- once I made it then I bought it back."
This reminded Joe of what our Lord has done for us--- he made us, and then he went to all the trouble of buying us back, he loved us so much. I just have to believe that when you come to a realization that that is true, and that all that you have and are and do belong to the Lord, and not to yourselves, then you realize that a Christian should never have a sense of entitlement. We have been bought with a price. We are not our own. And so, in an interesting way, one of the real cures for bitterness is knowing you twice over belong to God, and if he has forgiven you all your sins and faults and flaws, so you must do so as well with others.
It would be easy for me to get bitter about the nonsense propagated in the Jesus tomb theory. To become bitter that the other side of the story has not adequately been told. That there is an unfairness in all of this, especially since I spent years of my life dealing with the James ossuary and the remarkable implications of that, which is still a genuine relic from the family of Jesus.
But, as Joe said yesterday when he was here in chapel, I need to let it go, and just trust God. I need to forgive those that I believe have besmirched the name of Jesus, but whom Jesus already forgave, remembering he even forgave his executioners from the cross. And so I hereby let it go.
I must move on now, and just trust that the Lord of the universe will prevail and have his own day in court on his own terms, and in his own time. Its time to lay down my burden, and ask what is next. And there is no better time now than Lent, and the journey up to the cross and beyond, to do that. So I am setting my face like a flint towards Jerusalem, and trusting that the God of justice will vindicate his own name. I choose to be better, rather than bitter, to be proactive rather than merely reactive in response to all this. Jesus drank the bitter cup for me, so I would not have to imbibe the gall myself. I refuse to become what I despise, and so I must take my own medicine now, when it comes to bitterness. I need to take the high road now. I hear you can get above the fog and the view is clearer from up there.