How to Battle Bitterness
So let’s turn to this sin: battling the unbelief of bitterness and an unforgiving spirit. Here’s the definition of this sin: holding a grudge or savoring the thought of getting even, with no true desire for the salvation and reconciliation of the offending person. That’s deadly, the Bible says. There is a consideration of bygone grace here, as there is with all of these.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
It does help to look back and see the price he paid. But as you look at another person who’s offended you, you don’t just say, “Christ forgave me; I must now forgive him.” That’s true. That’s true. It’s just inadequate. You need to also say, “I’m inadequate to forgive him. I have a vengeful spirit. I need help. I need grace now and when we talk, so that I will be able to carry this through. When I look back at Jesus, he bought for me grace for this afternoon in this hardest of all conversations. I don’t want to make this phone call. I don’t want to meet this person in my office and have to forgive them, or maybe ask for forgiveness. It’s just too hard.” So faith in future grace gives you the confidence that God’s going to be there, he’s going to help you. And that comes from looking back at the way he died for you.
Entrust to the Judge
The promise of God’s vengeance releases you from the role of judge and punisher of offenses against you.
To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21–23)
What did Jesus do? How did he get strength to do not revile in return as an ideal human? He kept entrusting himself to him who judges righteously. What does that mean? He’s hanging on the cross and people are saying, “Yeah right, Messiah. If you’re the Messiah, the Son of God, just show us. Come down.” Now a lot was going on inside Jesus’s heart as he heard that, like, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they do.” That’s one thing. Another thing that was going on inside Jesus’s heart is: “Father, they deserve everlasting judgment for that indignity shown to you and me at this moment. But I will not speak that. I entrust you with that.”
And that’s the way you handle it. That’s the point here. Somebody gets in your face and you feel like that’s wrong, that’s unjust, that should be settled here and now, I should return to them what they deserve. How many marriages are split over that? You sit them down and you say, “Why do you talk like that?” “Look what she’s doing.” “I see what she’s doing, and she doesn’t deserve your love. That’s the meaning of love. Do you think she deserves to be abused, hand her over to God. If she deserves to be abused, he’ll abuse her. You don’t need to do that.”
Vengeance Is the Lord’s
That’s the way Paul deals with it in Romans.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)
Now here’s the future grace; it’s not grace to them, but it is to you: faith in this promise liberates you to be a loving person. Isn’t that strange? A lot of people stumble over that. They say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. You’re saying that I should trust God’s promise to damn them in order to be free to love them?” That’s exactly what I’m telling you. In other words, you don’t know if they should be damned. You don’t know if they will be damned. You don’t know if Hitler’s going to repent on his last day. You don’t know what’s going to come. That’s not your business.
In these personal relationships — we’re not talking about court systems and legal structures here, where there has to be prisons and sentences and all that. The Bible is fully aware of that. We’re talking about personal relationships now. You don’t need to be the judge. You can say, “God, this is so wrong, the way they’re treating me. But I will entrust to you who judge justly. And I will trust that if a wrong is being done here, you will repay it. And justice will hold sway in the world, and I don’t need to.”
It’s a very liberating thing to believe the moral structure of the universe holds together when you return good for evil. Because one of the great impulses in returning evil for evil is the thought: “That’s just so wrong. God didn’t invent a world in which righteous people could be taken advantage of. That’s just so wrong. Something should happen.” And what’s going on there is something partially good. Yeah, it shouldn’t be happening this way. Yes, justice is not being done. Yes, justice should be done. But then you pause, and you say, “OK, I hand it over to him who judges justly. And then one of two things happens: There will, in the end, be no unpunished, unrecompensed sins. Why? They will all be duly punished either in the cross, or in hell. We may leave that finally to God.
I saw this for the first time in the summer of 1971, reading The Nature of True Virtue by Jonathan Edwards. There will not be one sin unrecompensed, so that as sins are committed against me, and I am tempted to take vengeance and hold grudges and be unforgiving, one of the ways by which God liberates me from that and frees me to return good for evil, is by assuring me that either this person will one day be converted, in which case that sin against me goes right on to Jesus, and it would be a belittling of the worth of Christ if I recompensed it now; or that person will not be converted and they will be punished for that sin in hell, and anything I would do now would be superfluous and double jeopardy.
So let it go. Christ will bear it, or they will bear it — and you don’t have to add to either. What a freedom. The moral structure of the universe holds together, and you don’t have to make it hold together. God will see to it that it holds together. And, of course, while we live, we pray, “Father, forgive them, save them. Magnify the worth of your blood, Lord Jesus, by covering this sin against me, someday, if not now, I pray.”
How to Battle Impatience
How does living by faith in future grace deliver you from impatience? What is impatience? Murmuring against providence, what God brings your way, when we are forced to walk the path of obedience in an unplanned place or an unplanned pace. “Do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Philippians 2:14). Be patient.
In his book, Passion, Carl Olson tells a story of incredible patience among the early French Protestants called Huguenots.
In the late seventeenth century in . . . southern France, a girl named Marie Durant was brought before the authorities, charged with the Huguenot heresy [being a Protestant]. She was fourteen years old, bright, attractive, marriageable. She was asked to abjure [renounce] the Huguenot faith. She was not asked to commit an immoral act, to become a criminal, or even to change the day-to-day quality of her behavior. She was only asked to say, “J’abjure.” No more, no less. She did not comply. Together with thirty other Huguenot women she was put into a tower by the sea. . . . For thirty-eight years she continued. . . . And instead of the hated word J’abjure she, together with her fellow martyrs, scratched on the wall of the prison tower the single word Resistez, resist!
Thirty-eight years because she wouldn’t say, “I abjure my faith.” That’s a long time for a 14-year-old girl. I don’t know what happened after that; the story didn’t say. That’s a long time. And the key is to believe that God works everything together for our good.
God Meant for Good
Or the story of Joseph. Have you ever plotted the graph of Joseph’s life? We’re talking the Old Testament Joseph here. He has these dreams where his brothers seem to be bowing down to him, and he tells them the dream. Not a smart thing to do. They hate him. And while they’re out in the field, his father sends Joseph, one of his younger sons, a favorite, along with Benjamin. And he sends them out, and they say, “Here’s our chance.” And so they throw him in a pit to die. If I’m graphing it, that’s the first down in his life.
And then, he finds himself being hauled up. He says, “Oh, good. They changed their mind, I hope.” And instead of having their minds changed, they sold him to the Midianites into slavery on their way down into Egypt. And so, you draw the line down another step.
Well, he stays true to God, and he gets assigned to Potiphar, and Potiphar trusts him. And so he has a lot of power, and he feels like, “My line is going up a little bit.” And then one day he, in his commitment — his patient commitment to purity — Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him, and he says, “Resistez,” and he gets thrown into prison. So you draw the line down again.
And then, sometime later, as he’s become a responsible prison keeper, and the man trusts him who’s in charge of the prison, he finds that there’s a butler and a baker who have some access to Pharaoh. And he tells them their dreams, and one of them gets killed, and the other one goes back to his job. And Joseph says, “Remember me. Remember me when you get there.” And he forgets him for two years. When you draw a line to graph that, hopes rose, and then now he’s at the bottom. I think that’s about a 13-year trek. He’s 30 years old when the turnaround happens. I think he was 17, it says, when he was sold. So for 13 years, everything has been, “I think it’s going to go better.” And it goes worse. “I think it’s going to go better.” And it goes worse. “I think it’s going to go better,” and now he’s at the bottom.
So I would just ask you, where are you on that graph? How far along in the downward spiral? Are you becoming impatient? “Lord, I’m following you. I’m doing my best. The job’s not going right. I thought it was going to go well. The marriage isn’t going so well. My health is going bad.” And you’re patiently holding on to Jesus.
And then, Joseph does get remembered, and he becomes the vice president, as it were, of Egypt. And it turns out there’s a famine, and he saves all seventy Jews so that the Messiah can one day come. And he says to his brothers, “God sent me.” Can your theology handle that? It was all sin that got him there. They sold him into slavery, put him in a pit.
God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. (Genesis 45:7)
In other words, he’s interpreting 13 years of apparent abandonment as good, which he didn’t understand for 13 years — “I just don’t get it.” If I were arriving in about six hours in Baton Rouge, like twenty people from Bethlehem, and I were going to be trained by Tom Eckblad for crisis counseling, and I were going to sit with people in church gymnasiums who had lost everything, I’d want to know this story. Because they’d say, “So what’s this? What’s this about? What’s the point in this?” I would say, “I don’t know all the point in this, but let me tell you a story about a man who lost everything. And it took him 13 years to find out what God was up to. And when he looked back, he was so thankful.”
And I think you could probably say that being thrown into a pit, being sold into slavery, and serving in a distant country is pretty much as bad as what most of the refugees have experienced. And therefore, some sense of identity with this might be granted. And then, you take them to this decisive verse:
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Genesis 50:20)
In other words, it has worked for our good, even though at the human level, it was evil — it was meant by evil — at the divine level, it was meant for good. I think the key to patience, whether it’s in a grocery line, a traffic jam, or a waited-for spouse, or a long search for a job, the key to patience, is believing that even though you may feel you’re in one of these drops, God is at work for your good.
Only Good Befalls Us
Maybe I can close our time together by simply illustrating with a story. Many of you have heard of Benjamin Warfield, a very famous theologian in the Princeton School in the 1800s. He married Annie Kinkead, and they took a honeymoon to Switzerland. And she was struck by lightning on their honeymoon and crippled all her life. She lay in bed or in a chair the rest of her life. And he stayed married to her all their long life.
When I heard that story, I knew his theology, more or less. I wanted to see what he said about Romans 8:28. A lot of people mock the use of Romans 8:28, and I suppose you can use it in a very careless, callous, insensitive way. I know that can be done. I don’t mock Romans 8:28 in any circumstance. It is precious beyond words to me, as I think it was to Warfield. And so I went to his little book called Faith and Life, which is a collection of meditations, to look for Romans 8:28, and this was just one sentence from that meditation:
God will so govern all things that we shall reap only good from what befalls us.
So a man who has remained faithful to a crippled wife — he had dreams of another life. In fact, the story is told that Warfield never accepted any position in the Presbyterian Church as an officer, because it would require him to leave the town of Princeton, New Jersey and his wife. He never left her. During the day, while he taught, he would go home in the middle of the day to spend time with her.
This is a beautiful and a glorious thing. And all the virtues tend to come together that we’ve been talking about on this one — namely, patience. I’m in an unplanned place, and I’m moving at an unplanned pace. I didn’t want to be here, and I am here by God’s providence. How do I fight the sin of impatience and all the other sins.? Answer: faith in future grace. It is the way to pursue and fulfill the passion for God’s supremacy in all things. It is the way to fulfill the passion for our joy. And it is the way to fulfill the passion for freedom from sin, radical holiness, and sacrificial love.