Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Bitterness--- a Meditation

"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.


Lies said...

Good grief. And if you believe that you'll believe anything. Which you do.

Rodney Reeves said...

"lies" has just proven your point. Ironic, isn't it?

youngandcollared said...

I stumbled upon your blog through other blogs, and I realized that I've read a number of your books!
I just wanted to say thank you - they were formative for me as I studied religion in college and went on to discern a call to ministry.

Sue said...

Thank you,thank you, thank you, first for being human enough to admit that it makes you angry, then showing the way to letting it go. It teaches me more than you could possibly imagine. Would you pray for me to find the same peace in my situation?

Unknown said...

It would be great if you could elaborate on forgiveness a bit more. I do not see how we can forgive (biblically) someone who has not repented. We are told to confront the person who has wronged us, and if they do not repent, we are to have nothing to do with them , or to treat the as an unbeliever.

Jesus asked the Father to forgive them, but it appears that they were still held accountable for their action of unbelief.

We are commanded not to be bitter, but I can give a persons over to God and not become bitter, and pray for the individual who has wronged me and ask God to bring them to repentance, but this would not be forgiveness.

Forgiveness would seem to include a restored relationship. If we are to forgive as we have been forgiven, must be repentance on the side of the person who has committed the offense?

I am not saying we should not pray for them or do them harm, but how can we forgive without repentance, when god does not forgive us without repentance?

Gigi said...

This is very powerful.....

Rick said...

Hi, Dr. Witherington - a friend pointed me to your blog and I've been enjoying a few of your posts today. Thanks for your even-handed stance, being forthright without a judgmental dogmatism. Very refreshing.

Continuing off-topic because I canot find an email address :) - your blog is hosted by Blogger, I see. In the setup, there should be a checkbox somewhere for displaying the *date* of a comment along with the timestamp. As I've read some posts with long comment threads, it would be interesting to see how long those conversations have carried on. "Turning it on" will cause that information to display - already stored, just not showing up because of that setting. Anyway, might be more of a "neat for me" kind of thing, but wanted to pass it along.

Thanks again for your mind and heart and flowing both out here on your space.

Jay said...

Well said, Dr. Witherington.

I myself must do what you have done. In the past week, I have felt moments of real anger -- anger not at what they have claimed about Jesus, but about the unseemly and tendentious ways they have chosen to make the claim.

But this anger is not the way of the Cross. You can't fight the darkness in this world while embracing the same darkness. What's more, this anger has made me weary, and thus less able for the next confrontation -- which is surely coming soon. By indulging in this anger, I thus become a subtle ally of the darkness.

So, I am going to repent of the anger and forgive those who have made me angry (for they know not what they do). Then, I am going to take a deep breathe and a day's rest to restore my spirit for the next fight.

Adam Gonnerman said...

Thank you for this post. There are a number of events in my life that have been difficult for me to let go. Bitterness is a reality lurking in the back of my mind and bottom of my heart, and it's high time I face it. Thanks again.

Julio Rey said...

Our God sometimes is a God of free passes. I know because I've gotten plenty of them.

One thing that God did do with the plan of salvation but Joe didn't with the deal for his painting was put it in writing. We Christians love to place unfounded trust in each other and get burned all too often. I think it's more in keeping with the mind of Christ to follow common sense in a business deal.

Thanks for your work with the faux "Jesus tomb" issue.

Mark said...

excellent post, thank you for being transparent.

dopderbeck said...

I like the analogy you use here.

Can I offer a bit of practical advice to your friend, though? I'm a copyright lawyer. Your friend should know that it is not possible for someone to validly "copyright" his work without his knowledge. Copyright is owned by the author immediately upon fixing the work in a tangible medium of expression -- that is, as soon as the painting was created. Any copyright registration filed by the deceased store owner and subsequently held by the bankruptcy trustee therefore is invalid. I respect your friend's decision not to sue the Christian store owner, but he might want to consider asserting a proper claim for royalties against the subseqent taker in bankruptcy.

Ben Witherington said...

Michael you seem to have confused forgiveness with reconciliation and healing and restoration. Forgiveness I can do whether they receive it or not. And when you are dealing with non-Christians anyway, different rules apply.

I do not think my righteous anger was misplaced in the recent Jesus tomb matter, but I do think that when you dwell on it it can become vindictive or lead to bitterness.

Ben W.

Matt said...


I cannot tell you how timely this reminder regarding bitterness has been for me. I have struggled recently, and had even asked a close friend and colleague who was visiting last night for his prayers on this. Perhaps your entry at this time was part of the answer to this.

There was a time in the past, perhaps a decade ago when my wife and I were struggling desperately with bitterness towards some friends who had done some damaging things to us. We had ground to a standstill in our work and our lives, largely because we had allowed bitterness to enter into our hearts. Along the way I had picked up a autobiographical, mainly post-Holocaust book by Corrie ten Boom called Tramp for the Lord. One evening, I pulled it off my shelf and began reading it, and the Lord began an amazing work in me, and then in us. My wife and I wound up reading through it together at bedtime, weeping and praying together afterwards as the Lord restored us and cleansed away the bitterness from us. Some of the most moving anecdotes in modern Christian writing are contained in that small volume. Your post was again, a timely reminder of the truths learned from "Tante Corrie".

Michael Russell said...


I believe Scripture speaks of two kinds of forgiveness: there is forgiveness based on repentance that restores our fellowship with one another; there is forgiveness based on our own forgiveness that maintains and restores our relationship with God. The former is stated in passage such as Lk 17, the latter in Mt 6, Eph 4, and Col 3.

If my brother sins against me, he needs to repent before the relationship can be restored; if he fails to repent, the relationship is not restored but I nevertheless must forgive him in order to maintain my own fellowship with God.

I cannot and should not expect repentance from unbelievers unless it is regarding the person of Jesus Christ. Any relationship I have with them will be limited to some extent because of our foundational beliefs.

Chip Burkitt said...

I love to see Christians acting like Christ. There's no better testimony of his power.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this Dr. Witherington. God bless you.

M.W.Grondin said...

"Righteous anger" toward those who "besmirched the name of Jesus"? Really now, sounds like an Islamic-type reaction against those who "besmirch" the name of the Prophet Mohammed. So much for scholarliness, I guess. But how about those who besmirch the name of God by claiming that their own religion is the only way into heaven?

Michael Russell said...

To Mike Grondin:

What if we're right? What if there really is only one way? Is tolerance then such a great virtue? Or is it hatred for the sake of temporal peace?

And, FWIW, comparing Christians and Muslims is fine, as long as you're comparing non-violent Christians with non-violent Muslims, or violent Christians with violent Muslims. Otherwise, your comparison is false.

Hacksaw Duck said...

>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.


I don't doubt this was a heartfelt meditation and I agree that it's good to release bitterness. But this grates on me for a couple reasons.

First, are these men really out to besmirch the name of Jesus? Is that their intention? I realize that many evangelicals think the "natural man" is constantly fomenting rebellion against Jesus and gnashing their teeth at him in a demonic rage. And when someone disagrees with a major tenet of Christian faith, it confirms that errant suspicion. The dissenting person "hates Jesus," obviously. (Amazing, how so many think they can peer into motives and judge the intentions of the heart.)

Second, to assume a moral high ground so lofty that it's compared to Jesus forgiving his executioners seems ... well, condescending. So does the claim of "righteous anger." That's an awfully high horse to be riding around on.

Finally, a theological question: How can Jesus already have forgiven these men when, according to your belief system, they will go to hell unless they repent? Did Jesus forgive them or didn't he?

M.W.Grondin said...

dr mike,
If you're right, then your god is very much smaller than a good God who would be worthy of praise, since he would then be preventing otherwise-good folks from entering heaven simply because they weren't Christians. That's a petty god, in my estimation. I prefer to focus on Jn 14:2 ("In my Father's house are many abodes") rather than on other portions of John's gospel where he denies this, and implies that there's only one abode.

As to tolerance being a virtue, I'm surprised that a Christian would question this.

Michael Russell said...


Tolerance depends upon the issue. I fully subscribe to Voltaire's dictum but am intolerant of child abuse, for example.

I'm sure you do not tolerate such things either. If so, then tolerance is not always a moral good.

M.W.Grondin said...

dr mike,
I agree that tolerance isn't always a moral good. Not sure, though, why that came into the picture with respect to Ben's posting. I thought you were talking about tolerance for non-Christian "unbelievers", which is surely something quite different than tolerance for child-abusers!

Michael Russell said...


Sorry. I didn't address your other point.

Let's allow, for the sake of argument, that my God is as you say, i.e., "very much smaller than a good God who would be worthy of praise, since he would then be preventing otherwise-good folks from entering heaven simply because they weren't Christians. That's a petty god . . ." Now, I might see him as just and rightfully requiring certain behaviors from us, but let's say your estimation is correct.

Even if God were petty, small, unjust, and unloving, He still gets to pass judgment and implement justice. Is it wise to defy Him? It could be argued that rebellion in the face of such a god is a virtue, except that - as god - he gets to determine what is moral and virtuous. Obviously, he wouldn't feel that your estimation counted for much and that you were simply wrong. He gets to determine reality, not us. No?

What if you are wrong in your estimation of God?

BTW, I think you have read your presuppositions into Jn 14.2. The same author also quotes Jesus as saying, just a few verses later, that no one comes to the Father except by him (14.6). Earlier, in 8.24, he makes a very exclusive and "intolerant" statement about believing in him. So Jesus is also small and petty in your view. I am surprised you would quote him.

M.W.Grondin said...

... Jesus is also small and petty in your view. I am surprised you would quote him.

I wasn't quoting Jesus, I was quoting John. He was writing at a time when Christianity was a small sect, and the notion of Christians as "the chosen people" did no great harm because they were a small minority. To retain that notion nowadays does do harm.

As to reading anything into Jn 14:2, I've stated exactly what's there (in part). In 14:2 and 3, Jesus is made to say that he's going to prepare A place - one of many in his Father's house - for his disciples . How can we read it otherwise than that the other places aren't for his disciples (which would presumably include all good Christians)? 14:5-6 (and possibly 14:3) appears to be a later redaction that in effect negates 14:2-3, apparently to combat Thomasism.

Michael Russell said...


You raise some interesting questions that deserve a response. I hope you will consider mine to be worth reading.

First, you ask whether "these men [are] really out to besmirch the name of Jesus?" That's a good point. I don't think that most people are directly, deliberately, or defiantly (I hate alliteration, don't you?) trying to slander Jesus. People are naturally bent in an opposing direction but that does not mean that their every waking moment is filled with animus and schemes to degrade Christ. So you are right in that regard. At the same time, though, one can be guilty of something even if it were unintended. Legally, one only needs to think of manslaughter. The "besmirching" can be untended but nevertheless a reality.

Second, if Ben were comparing his forgiveness with that of Christ it would indeed be quite narcissistic and arrogant. But I do not know the intentions of his heart in this matter and will give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, however, you do know his intentions and can thus make the statement you did. I think the analogy is a good one, though, if we are arguing from a greater to a lesser application of forgiveness. That is, if the innocent can forgive the guilty, how much more should the guilty forgive the guilty?

Regarding your theological question, it is true that the Christian gospel requires repentance, i.e., a change of mind about Jesus Christ. But what is more critical is forgiveness and, even more than that, a basis for forgiveness. Being the sacrifice for sins (if one believes that to be true), Jesus would have the right and means to forgive individuals because the basis for forgiveness was about to be accomplished. This is not his normal or routine way of forgiving (as far as the Bible tells us) but he is certainly free to do so. He is bound by his character and his word but not by our theological systems.

Very good questions and points. I appreciate the sincerity of your comments.

Michael Russell said...


I'm not sure what harm you are referring to. If you are talking about violent Christians who seek to harm or kill others who disagree, then I would agree that this is harmful and morally wrong. If our opposition is only in words, concepts, and beliefs, I do not see the harm - especially if, as you say, we are wrong. Why not just write us off as the stupid people we would be/are?

Michael Russell said...


Sorry again: I forgot something else!

You are correct: you were not quoting Jesus but quoting John as he quoted Jesus. As far as a redactor goes, I don't think we're going to find much common ground there. We could debate form, source, redaction, and any other flavor of textual criticism we might adduce but, at the end of the day, I think we'd only succeed in strengthening and confirming one another's biases! So it would probably be wise (if this discussion continues) to steer clear of quotes and proof-texts altogether.

M.W.Grondin said...

dr mike:

I'm thinking of harm done in the past when Christians became a majority and gained political power, as during the Inquisition, but also of the continuing insult to other religions, and, as I think it, to God himself. Aren't all good people his children in good standing, even if not Christian?

Michael Russell said...


Without question, history records many instances of Christian wrong-doing and evil. There is no excuse for Christians to have done or continue to do so: I have more understanding and forgiveness for unbelievers who do evil than for Christians - true Christians - who do so.

In one sense, we are all the children of God; in another, we are not. In the first case we are all his children by virture of having been created by him (however you conceive of that having transpired). We are his "offspring" and we all bear his image, i.e., some likeness or resemblance to him.

But not all are his children in a narrower sense. The Jewish (as well as Greek and Roman) practice of adoption bears upon this. A child was not legally an heir until adopted by the father when they came of age. This is what God has done (according to my reading of the Bible) with those who have exercised trust in the sacrifice of Jesus. When a child (in the first sense) relies only on the death of Christ for taking the punishment for their own sins, that child is then adopted and becomes a true child (in the second sense).

So, I suppose, the answer is yes and no: yes in the broader sense but no in the more particular sense.

I hope that actually makes sense!

Please excuse me for awhile: I have to attend to work and other responsibilities for a time. I will try to return later today or tomorrow. I enjoy discussing these things with you: I appreciate your civility and reasonableness.

Hacksaw Duck said...

Hi Dr. Mike,

Thanks for taking the time to respond.

I'll grant that I can't peer into Ben's heart to see if he was intentionally condescending. All I said was that it sounded that way. But I don't actually believe he was trying to come across in such a manner.

What I do know from experience is this: If I'm arguing with my wife about something and return later to announce that "I've decided to forgive you, just as Christ forgave his executioners," I'm likely to be sleeping on the couch for many nights. And understandably so.

Also, I must disagree that people have a natural bent against Jesus. If that were so, the common people would not have heard him gladly.

Robert Lukenbill said...

I have had a problem (problem still do!) with bitterness in my life after the loss of our son. Thank you for sharing this story and your blog with us. It is very encouraging to see that even you can be bitter in this life!

M.W.Grondin said...

dr mike,

Your explanation might make sense within Christian theology, but for those of us outside of that tradition, it makes no sense that God would act in that way.

Duke of Earl said...

Thank you Mike, you've ably demonstrated that logic is in the eye of the beholder. That is that while a statement may be logical with respect to its underlying assumptions it may not be in respect to another set of assumptions.

However Dr Mike's statement is logically consistent with his underlying beliefs and I have no doubt that he could, if you asked him, give you a list of reasons why his beliefs are based on reasonable deductions from available historical evidence.

The evidence might not lead to certainty, but then very little would. All that needs to demonstrated is a reasonable level of probability.

Doctor Witherington has pointed out in his own writings the portrait of Jesus that can be established by historical critical methods is very much smaller than the historical Jesus.

Looking back at the Jesus family tomb presentation I was rather excited. Not because I ever thought that it was really the tomb of Jesus but because it demonstrated that even today the central Christian theme, the resurrection theory, is potentially falsifiable. By Karl Popper's definition that makes it scientific.

Marcia said...

I'm not going to contribute to the recent line of comments here.

I only want to say that looking back can be extremely helpful. Things that I thought didn't go my way, things I could have or, in fact, did, become bitter over I now see that God had his hand on them, and was using them for His good.

You may not know the reason at the time, or, for that matter, ever. But there is always a purpose.

M.W.Grondin said...

Thanks, Duke (why do people still use these cutesy nicknames?) Your equanimity with respect to the tomb issue is a welcome contrast to Ben's "righteous anger" that the name of Jesus was being "besmirched".

I have no doubt, as you say, that "Dr Mike" (whoever he is) could defend his views. He seems a most capable fellow (as are you). But it seems to me a stretch to say that his beliefs are (all)inferences from "available historical evidence", even if one were to grant that the gospels are historically accurate (which I do not, of course). In particular, his belief that Jesus' death had an expiatory purpose is ultimately grounded in Christian theology, for no historical evidence can ever show any such thing.

Hacksaw Duck said...

Aww, c'mon Mike G., let's not get all cranky about people's Internet names.

About the "righteous anger," I simply don't get it. Why do people wax angry when someone digs up evidence and claims it contradicts prevailing views? I can see disagreeing profoundly with such people, but why anger?? It's the difference between, "I disagree strongly with your conclusions," and, "You are a vile enemy of the truth."

Here's the way this all looks to people outside of evangelicalism: The evangelical doctrines rest on fairly tenuous reasoning. The people inside the movement know this. Accordingly, they feel threatened (almost to a paranoid degree) by anyone who sets forth alternative evidence -- hence the "righteous anger" and the blitzkrieg of denunciations.

When I debate someone who acts agitated and angry, I assume insecurity. And behind the insecurity, I usually assume that the angry person is not so confident of his opinion.

I'm not saying this is necessarily the case here, but some of you certainly convey that appearance. (By the way, it's nice to see a calm, non-threatened person like Dr. Mike responding the way he does.)

Unknown said...

Thank you for that post. It is true that young people of today's generation have grown bitter. I have my own spells where I become "fed up" with events happening in the church. But then God reminds me that nothing is going to change if I choose to sit back and be bitter. Your post was a good reminder to, as you stated, be better; not bitter.

Daniel Davis said...

Wow! Thanks for that reflection. It has properly provoked me. Thank you especially for your candor regarding your own struggle with bitterness. Such frankness further provokes me to self-examination and repentance. I think maybe I should go pray now...

Irving Muller said...

Hello Dr. Witherington,

I'm an undergrad in my final semester getting a BS in Biblical Studies. I just wanted to say that I love the books you've written that I've read.

Concerning this topic of forgiveness. Jesus put it well in his parable of the ruler who forgave the man that owed him. The man was set free from a debt that he owed but went out and persecuted someone else that owed him a lesser debt. As Christians, God has forgiven us for so much that we should be willing to forgive others.

David said...

The sense of entitlement, particularly within the Christian community, is such an odd development in the face of a salvation that is unmerited and contradictory to any sense of entitlement. I work at a bookstore of an evangelical seminary and am amazed at the Bible believing Christian who believe the world should stop when they are not satisfied. It is sickening, but more loathsomely sad, that Christians are not the motivating factor of reversing that trend within a culture that peddles to a consumerist culture. Thanks for your thoughts on this blog.