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As I made my way home from work this evening, I looked down one of the streets connecting to Vermooten and noticed two cars stopped with doors open. Men from the car in front were standing on the street and surrounding the car behind. The driver of the car behind was a woman who was in the process of getting out of the vehicle. Naturally, I thought that something looked fishy, and so, after a brief internal struggle about whether to ignore what I had just seen or intervene, I turned around to see if I could help.

Arriving on the scene, I found two principal actors—a man and a woman—who were screaming into each other’s faces at the top of their lungs, while the others watched. Each one was shouting their grievances and it seemed like the situation was escalating quickly.

I approached the pair to mediate. Both parties turned to me, addressing me like I was either the school principal who had caught naughty children fighting over a soccer ball, or the father and they were two bickering kids. Being a pastor, the situation felt strangely familiar, but realising that, in this particular situation, I had no intrinsic authority, I mentally acknowledged the weirdness of it all, and then shrugged my shoulders and hopped in for the ride and hoped for the best.

As I listened in turn to each of their stories, I found that the case was quite simple, really. The man had done something to annoy the lady further up the road. When he stopped at the stop sign, she had inadvertently driven into the back of him. The damage was minimal and both parties were insured. The core of the angst seemed to lie in the fact that the lady had responded badly, having gotten out of the car following the bump, her proverbial guns blazing, and accused the man of being the cause of the accident. He felt terribly offended by this attitude knowing he was innocent. As we discussed the matter, the lady apologised for her response and took responsibility for the accident.

Hoorah! Problem solved, right? Wrong! The man went back to his grievance over her initial reaction. He repeated the story to me over and over.

When I pointed out that she had, in fact, now apologised and taken responsibility, he would reply that this was what she was doing now, but earlier she had offended him by shouting at him.

You can imagine how tedious the situation became as we went round and round the same relational mulberry tree together, and so I was only too pleased when a police vehicle pulled up and the constable got out to mediate.

He did a sterling job, and I left the unhappy couple in his capable hands. As I rode away into the sunset, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of futility and sorrow over the man’s lack of forgiveness.

He had been wronged, but the person who had wronged him had asked for forgiveness and accepted responsibility, but somehow he just couldn’t let go.

I thought about the bitterness I could hear in his voice. He was not a happy man. He kept insisting that the situation was such a small issue which didn’t warrant the lady shouting at him, and yet he proved by his actions that, his day was, in fact, ruined.

I certainly didn’t know what else he wanted, but the sad thing is that I don’t think he knew either. I pondered the hopeless situation that unbelievers face, not knowing forgiveness themselves, and therefore finding it so hard to forgive others. The sinner is trapped in his crime forever, and the person sinned against is permanently damaged by the sin. That’s awful! Praise the Lord for the forgiveness every child of God knows!

And yet, sadly, even in the church, those who know what it means to be forgiven much often hold onto wrongs against them for years and years and years.

Sometimes the sin against them was large, but very often it was something minor. Some minor offence. Sometimes the person who sinned against them had not sought forgiveness, but many times they had.

Regardless, when a person dwells on a wrong committed against them for a long enough time, eventually bitterness develops. Eventually the aggrieved party can’t even tell you what would fix the situation. How things could be made right. The situation has become hopeless. They have become bitter and twisted.

In the words of the apostle Peter, they are “in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity” (Acts 8:23).

What a terrible prison of your own making to live in! The worst part about it is that the only people who really suffer are you and those around you. The one who wronged you remains none the wiser.

In addition to growing miserable, those who fall into bitterness find that “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Or in the words of Paul to the Romans, “their mouth is full of curses and bitterness” (Romans 3:14). Bitterness causes bitter words, gossip. and cursing.

So how do we stop this? How can we avoid being like the guy at the stop street who couldn’t let go of a wrong?

If you find yourself bringing up past grievances against you in your heart, whether the guilty party has asked for forgiveness or not, what are you to do in order to prevent a heart of bitterness?

The writer to the Hebrews exhorts the church to “strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:14–15). Similarly, Paul exhorts the Ephesian believers, saying, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31–32).

Do you see how none of this has any reference to the actions of the person who wronged you? Regardless of what they have done, you let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour and slander be put away from you.

It’s not about them: It’s about you and your heart attitude. As we heard from 1 Peter, vengeance belongs to the Lord. We can respond in a godly rather than fleshly way because we trust God enough to leave the person who sinned against us in his all-wise hands.

The key to this attitude is remembering our forgiveness. We can forgive, and we can let go because we have been forgiven. So may the Lord increasingly help us to let go of our grievances, to taste the gospel afresh, enjoying and experiencing the freeing fruit of free grace in Christ!

Anton Beetge - 7 September 2022

Bitterness and Bumper Bashings

BBC Shorts

May the Lord increasingly help us to let go of our grievances, to taste the gospel afresh, enjoying and experiencing the freeing fruit of free grace in Christ!

From Series: "BBC Shorts"

Occasional pastoral thoughts from the elders of Brackenhurst Baptist Church.

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