Bitterness, Wrath, and the Problem with Biblical Counselors

“Bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” ~Joanna Weaver

There is nothing so easy in the world as finding angry people on the Internet. They are in comments and posts, videos and memes, comics and photos, essays and tweets. And partly for good reason: there are awful things happening in the world. The bombing of Odessa after a brokered peace deal, the shooting of innocent little children in Uvalde, Texas, the racist murder of innocent Black people in Buffalo, New York—to see these events as anything other than profoundly evil would be a sign of mental instability. 

But even righteous wrath can become bitterness, and bitterness plunges whole groups of people into fits of malice and unrest. This is plain to see in the culture wars. I spoke to someone earlier last month who was so bitter at the state of the country and the hypocrisy of those she believes to be in the wrong, that she fell into depression. She had trouble attending family events and practically quivered with rage as she aired her political grievances.

I see this bitterness in my own life too, and not just over current events but personal trauma. You need only live long enough to experience it. Perhaps you have vivid memories of that person, that day, that fight. Maybe the memories lead you into a passionate cycle of swearing and name-calling. Maybe you imagine all manner of cruelties in response. How does one break free of the cycle?

I am walking through this very question with a biblical counselor, and you must know that the problem with biblical counselors is that they use the Bible and that the Bible contains some of the most unpleasant passages ever written. I am not speaking of Jesus’ parables or admonitions about hell, lust, or giving away your money, but about love and forgiveness. Review if you will these verses from Luke 6:

27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic[b] either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

Then there are these words later in the same chapter:

37 “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

Romans 12 has a starker prohibition against revenge:

19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it[a] to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

Ephesians 4:31-32 goes a step further and names particular behaviors both to avoid and to embrace:

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

My counselor specifically assigned that last one to me. I have read it many times before in my life, and yet somehow, on reading it again, it felt as though I was reading it for the first time. My initial reaction was not one of irritation over the moralizing of a towering religious figure, tempting as that was. It was more like having a vision. I imagined myself sitting on a bench in a park on a clear spring day, away from the riot of the city and my own swirling thoughts, content to soak in the sun. What if I could lay aside bitterness? What if I could surrender it completely, and forgive? It would be so nice.

That picture was soon interrupted by the usual objections. Forgiveness of a minor offense is one thing. Forgiveness of severe injustice is almost beyond comprehension. It is not merely the starving of all appetite for retaliation and angry reminiscence. It is the cultivation of kindness towards the Other, as well as genuine hope for reconciliation and renewal. Think about that. Imagine forgiving those people who beat or lynched your children without remorse. Imagine forgiving your friend for betraying you to a lonely, painful death. This is the kind of forgiveness Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on even as he suffered egregious racial oppression, bearing incalculable agony and loss. There are concepts that helped him. One needn’t like one’s enemies, King realized. One must love in the sense of “redemptive goodwill” but there’s no sense pretending to like the person who murdered your family or destroyed your livelihood. And in the Christian faith there is every offer of strength and support in the process of forgiveness, not to mention a supreme example, Jesus Himself, who experienced directly every trial that he commands his followers to endure. Even so there is no getting around it. Forgiveness is hard as nails. It is death on a cross.

But King saw a promise of something beautiful after that death: a promise of resurrection, and with it, freedom. Freedom from what? From bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander—all the fretful, destructive behaviors that characterize the ongoing cycle of vengeance and hate. Freedom to a new life. What if you could escape from the frenzy of anger even if you never obtained justice? Justice must be pursued, yes. Justice is right and good. But alas, justice is not always within reach, nor is it always meted out proportionately once obtained; it does not always break the cycle of violence and retaliation as one would hope. (Indeed, someone once wrote a novel about this phenomenon. It is called The Count of Monte Cristo.)

What if you could heal with the attainment of justice—or without it? What if you could breathe again and enjoy the air that filled your lungs even in the darkest of days?

Well, that would be a freedom worth fighting for.

“The Count of Monte Cristo”