The Christmas season tends to magnify everything. Snow is more beautiful and magical in December than it is in February. Seeing lights on everyone’s homes fills us with joy during December, but we laugh when they are still up in April. Candy canes taste sweet before Christmas but by New Year’s Day we are ready to throw them away, and Christmas carols fill our hearts this month but seem completely out of place on the Fourth of July. Everything good suddenly seems great during the Christmas season – but everything that is not good also gets magnified.
Loneliness seems more acute and painful during the holidays. The ache of lost loved ones is felt more deeply. Financial problems are escalated, depression runs deeper, and disappointments in life seem so much greater and more tragic than at other times of the year. For many, Christmas is simply a season to endure because everything just seems so much worse.
Perhaps the thing that is most difficult to deal with during the holidays are the difficult relationships we have with family and friends. Broken relationships also gets magnified during this season and what are painful situations on ordinary days become devastating and impossible situations during the holidays. This month we are learning that to experience the fullness of this season, we need to travel light and that means letting go of the bitterness that comes with broken and difficult relationships.
Jesus came to be the prince of peace but that doesn’t primarily mean the prince of peace among nations or political parties- although we need that kind of peace right now – it means the prince of peace in our own hearts and lives, but peace can never be achieved if we aren’t willing to let go of the bitterness we hold toward others. Hebrews 12:14-15.
The author of Hebrews tells us that bitterness is a dangerous root that can undermine everything in our lives. Think about the roots of a plant, we can’t see them, but they are there and they are growing. Many times bitterness is not something we see, but left unchecked it will grow and strengthen and in time undermine everything in our lives.
Bitterness comes when we are offended in some way and then hold on to the offense, and it can start in very small ways. We text someone and they don’t reply quickly so we get offended, and with every hour that goes by we get more angry and more bitter. Or we sent an email to a coworker and they never responded to it. Their lack of a response holds up our work, makes us look foolish, and we tell ourselves we are not going to forget it. We can be offended by the tone of someone’s voice, when we hear sarcasm or indifference, or worse yet, maybe we don’t hear anything at all. Are they ignoring me? I’m so offended!
Bitterness can start as a small offense, maybe even an imagined or misinterpreted word, but the offense is there and we hold on to it and just like a root underground, the anger grows. We may not even be aware that the bitterness is there, which can be dangerous because if we don’t acknowledge the problem we can’t work to overcome it, so it simply grows and spreads. Left unchecked, bitterness can undermine our hearts and all our relationships.
Certainly not all offenses are small. There are often very painful situations that we face and painful words and actions that scar our lives. Even in these difficult situations, if we simply allow the bitterness to grow it will be that dangerous root that will undermine everything else in our lives. While at times it seems impossible to think about forgiving those who have offended us, if we don’t, the destruction is often only experienced in our lives. Most of the time, holding on to bitterness and anger does nothing in the life of the one who has offended us, but it destroys us. Someone said that holding on to bitterness is like drinking poison and thinking that the other person is going to die. They don’t, but we do.
I had a roommate in college that never paid his fair share of the expenses in our apartment and instead of talking to him about it, I just allowed the offense to grow. I got bitter and angry and tried to show it to him and thought, he has to feel bad about all of this. He never even noticed. I was destroying myself and he didn’t even notice. That is often how bitterness and unforgiveness works, it only destroys us, we have to let it go.
Bitterness is not only a dangerous root in our lives, it grows into a poisonous fruit. Hebrews 12:15, grows up to cause trouble. As we hold on to bitterness, the poison begins to impact our thoughts, our attitudes, and our assumptions about ourselves and others, and then it impacts our words, and actions, and every one of our relationships. We become impatient and unkind with people, not just those who have offended us, but everyone. Bitterness can lead us to making decisions that are not in our best interest, or in God’s greater plan, and if left unchecked, the consequences of this poisonous fruit can be devastating.
In the Christmas story we see how bitterness began to grow and almost caused one person to miss the opportunity of a lifetime. Joseph had his life all set. He was a faithful man, engaged to a wonderful faithful woman named Mary, and life was good. And then one day Mary told him that God had visited her and said she was going to be the mother of the Messiah. IN fact, she said, she was already pregnant by the work of the Holy Spirit, and the child she carried was God’s son, the Messiah. Matthew 1:18-19.
Mary being pregnant before they were married was an offense to Joseph. Mary getting this news before Joseph heard anything from God may have offended him as well. How could they possibly continue on in their relationship? How could they get married now? How could Joseph ever trust Mary again? The relationship was strained to say the least. While Joseph was honorable and didn’t want to publicly shame Mary, he also didn’t want to continue in the relationship – so he planned to dismiss her quietly. Cast her aside and move on. That is one way to deal with bitterness, but this doesn’t root out the problem. The bitterness and disappointment would have remained hidden in Joseph’s life like an underground root poisoning every other relationship in his life.
What happens to Joseph shows us how God wants us to root out and destroy bitterness in our lives. What we see here is the appropriate way of letting go of bitterness. Matthew 1:20-25. Joseph is told to overcome his bitterness with compassion – don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Don’t give in to the offense you feel Joseph, and don’t walk away – instead walk toward Mary. Walk with Mary.
In Ephesians 4:31-32 it says, Get rid of all bitterness… Be kind and compassionate to one another. Forgive one another as in Christ, God has forgiven you. Forgiveness is how to root out bitterness. Forgiveness isn’t walking away in anger or disappointment, it often means walking toward the person who has hurt or offended us to seek ways to work through the problems and resolve our differences and misunderstandings. Forgiveness means walking with the person and working for lasting peace and reconciliation. Forgiveness isn’t walking away and ignoring the situation, which is what Joseph wanted to do, it is confronting it, releasing any offense we may feel, and allowing God to heal and restore the relationship if possible. For Joseph and Mary it meant becoming husband and wife and creating a family to raise up the son of God.
In Joseph we see how to root out bitterness and overcome the poisonous fruit of anger and frustration. We choose kindness. We choose to forgive and release the offense of others. The pastor and author Andy Stanley talks about choosing to fill the gaps that we often find in relationships with trust and not suspicion. If a text goes unanswered, an email isn’t replied to right away, someone seems distant and unresponsive to us, or someone has offended or let us down – a gap in a relationship is created. No matter what the gap is, we choose how to interpret the actions that have created it and what fills the gap. Andy Stanley says, We choose what we place in those gaps. Our choices determine the integrity of the relationships. We can choose to fill them with trust or suspicion.
Suspicion leads to feeling offended. Being offended leads to bitterness. Choosing to trust the other person, however, can lead us to compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and a restoration of relationships. At first Joseph was offended and suspicious, but God leads him to a place of forgiveness and trust, and that restored relationship with Mary allowed Joseph to experience the power of Jesus in his life.
To experience the power of Jesus in our lives, we have to learn how to let go of bitterness and choose to trust others when we can, but to trust God always. Sometimes letting go of an offense and forgiving someone who harms us just doesn’t seem like the right thing to do, in those moments can we choose to trust God who not only tells us to forgive but to actually bless those who have offended us. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.Luke 6:27-28
Joseph would have missed out on the gift of Jesus in his life if he had held on to the bitterness he felt when Mary told him about her pregnancy. He would never have had the blessing of seeing the birth of the Messiah, hearing the message of the angels, or knowing that he was part of God’s plan of salvation for all the world. He would have missed out on so much if he had allowed himself to continue to be offended and allowed the root of bitterness to grow and poison his life.
We will miss out on the gift of grace and peace that God has for us and we will miss out on the life that God has for us if we hold on to the offenses we feel and allow the root of bitterness to grow in our lives. To truly experience the gift of Jesus in this season, and all through our lives, we need to let go of bitterness and disappointment. We need to choose
trust over suspicion,
forgiveness over offense,
compassion over bitterness.
Travel Light – Letting Go of Bitterness
Questions for Reflection
- What offense and bitterness do I need to let go?
- Where can I choose compassion as a response to others this week?
1. Read the story of Joseph in Matthew 1:18-25.
- What offense did Joseph want to hold on to?
- How would that bitterness have affected his life?
- How did Joseph choose compassion?
2. Where has bitterness become a dangerous root in your life? What offense caused this bitterness? How is it producing poisonous fruit?
3. What gaps are there currently in your relationships
- At home?
- At work?
4. How can you choose to fill this relational gap with trust and not suspicion?
5. Who is it that you need to forgive? Take one step toward forgiveness this week.
6. Compassion in any form can help keep bitter roots from growing or forming.
- Look for one act of compassion this week and do it.
- Commit to an act of compassion during the Christmas Season that can help make a difference in someone’s life.
- Pray for eyes to see and a heart to act when compassion is needed.