When Bitterness Consumes You
Any cat lovers here today? It’s ok. We let cat people worship here too. Even though dogs make better pets. I think I can defend that theologically. I’ve never understood why people want such angry pets. There’s an article on the website The Science of Us that lists what they called “17 Things We Know About Forgiveness.” And maybe the most interesting scientific study on forgiveness that they list notes who, or what, forgives, and who, or what, doesn’t. The article summarizes the research this way:
Cats never forgive. Scientists have observed conciliatory behavior in many different animal species; the bulk of the research has been on primates like bonobos, mountain gorillas, and chimps, who often follow confrontations with friendly behavior like embracing or kissing. But scientists have observed similar behaviors in non-primates like goats and hyenas; the only species that has so far failed to show outward signs of reconciliation are domestic cats.
I guess cats have a loooooong memory. You make one mistake – ever – and they hold it against you to the grave and probably beyond. Unfortunately, most of us really are like cats. We carry grudges around with us like backpacks and never let them go, never put them down – hearts filled with bitterness and anger, even hatred. Turn with me to Jonah 4:1-11. We’ll actually be starting with the last verse of the previous chapter.
Jonah is bitter, and he’s angry. Angry at God. That in itself isn’t wrong. It isn’t sinful. The Bible is full of people who at some point or another got angry with God. There’s a whole category of Psalms written by people whose hearts were, in the moment, overcome by anger and bitterness. We call them “imprecatory Psalms.” I call them the “Get them, God!” Psalms like Psalm 69, where the Psalmist cries out to God in anger, asking God to destroy his enemies:
“Let their own table before them become a snare; and when they are at peace, let it become a trap. Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually. Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them. May their camp be a desolation; let no one dwell in their tents … Add to them punishment upon punishment; may they have no acquittal from you. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous” (Vv. 22-25, 27-28).
Those are strong words! But it’s normal to feel anger when someone hurts us, and it’s a good thing to pour that anger out to God. To admit it and express it. Because God is big enough and strong enough to handle it. And God is free to let us express our hurt and our anger, which is a healthy thing to do, and not act on our request to drop a piano ten stories onto that person. The problem comes when we refuse to let it go, and we let it sit and simmer inside us, becoming more and more and more bitter and angry. It may not be as explosive as it was when we were first hurt, but its every bit as powerful. Bitterness. Holding onto the hurt and letting the anger sit and simmer at a lower, less explosive but more pervasive level. It’s the inability to allow for forgiveness.
According to researchers at Erasmus University carrying a grudge can weigh you down – literally. They asked study participants to write about a time when they’d experienced a conflict. Some were instructed to reflect on a time when they didn’t forgive the offender, others were told to think about a time they did forgive the person, and a third group wrote about a comparatively dull social interaction.
They then asked their human guinea pigs to jump as high as they could, five times, without bending their knees. Those who had been thinking about a time when they’d forgiven the offender jumped highest, about 11.8 inches on average; those who had written about their grudges, on the other hand, jumped 8.5 inches. There were no significant difference in the jumps of those in the non-forgiveness and neutral conditions. In another, similar experiment, people who’d been set up to think about a time they held a grudge estimated that a hill was steeper than people who were thinking about a time they forgave someone.
The results suggest that the “weight” of carrying a grudge may be more than just a metaphor. The lead researcher for the study wrote, “A state of unforgiveness is like carrying a heavy burden – a burden that victims bring with them when they navigate the physical world. Forgiveness can ‘lighten’ this burden.”
I do a lot of marriage counseling in my counseling practice. Virtually every couple I’ve worked with in the years I’ve been counseling, and it’s a lot of couples, involves a wounded and angry wife and a sullen and defensive husband. In the process of working with these couples, I’ve found that the extent to which the wounded and bitter one is willing to let go of that bitterness is the extent to which that couple succeeds in therapy. Provided the other one is willing to seek forgiveness and actually begin to grow and change. Oh, I push the one who caused the hurt hard, to be sure. But when the bitterness of the wounded one doesn’t subside even a little over months of working with them, I begin to push them too. And almost to a person, I hear something like this: “Ten months of growth and better behavior doesn’t outweigh ten years of hurt and pain.” To which I reply, “You’re right, of course. So are you planning to punish him for the next 9 years to balance the scale?” Without real change in the one and, eventually, real forgiveness in the other, there isn’t much of a path forward for them.
Jonah’s heart is full of bitterness and hatred toward the people of Nineveh, and the Assyrian empire they represent. But who is Jonah to get angry? He praised the grace and love and mercy of God when he was rescued from the seabed. He loved it when HE received it. He deplores it when the Ninevites receive the same thing. Look at Jonah’s words in V. 2. “This is what I said …” What HE said. Not God, him. He wants HIS word, HIS perspective to rule the day, not God’s. He thinks his word was right, and God’s wrong. And he is focused on himself, on how HE feels and what HE thinks. The words I, my, or me appear nine times his rant in the original, six times in the translation to English.
Jonah is stuck on himself, on his perspective, and on his solution to the problem. And he knows what God’s perspective is. Look at V. 2. Jonah knows that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and that God WILL relent in the face of repentance. It isn’t that Jonah misunderstands God. His view of God is clear. He knew what God was like before he ran. His view of God, a healthy and right view of God, is the reason he ran. And he’d experienced God’s grace and forgiveness when he knew he deserved death himself. He just disagrees with God. He wants forgiveness for himself. He just doesn’t want it for those who had, were, and would hurt and maim his people.
Ah, but lest we judge Jonah too harshly, we should probably put ourselves in Jonah’s shoes. Jonah has reason to be angry and bitter and resentful of the people of Nineveh. They were Assyrians, citizens of one of the most bloodthirsty and tortuous civilizations ever to exist. No nation on the earth could stand against their army, and the peoples of the earth feared them long before they encountered them because their reputation for excruciating and inhumane torture preceded them. Their enemies were cowering in fear long before they met on the battlefield. They had hurt his people and desecrated the land of his people. And he hated them.
That’s why, when God told him to go east to Nineveh, he went west to Joppa, and chartered a boat to take him further west, as far west as he could imagine, to Tarshish. That’s why, when the storm battered the ship he had hired and terrified the professional sailors aboard, and when they at great risk to themselves and their ship tried to row back to shore to drop Jonah off where they’d picked him up, he decided he’d rather die by the hand of God in the sea than go to Nineveh, so he told them to toss him overboard. That’s why it took Jonah practically drowning on the seabed in the Mediterranean Sea, seaweed wrapped around him and entangling him to get him to cry out to God for help. He wanted God to smite them, not save them, and if that meant dying as he tried to run, so be it. Until he actually was dying. His heart was full of bitterness and anger and resentment. It had poisoned him. As a prophet of God, he was more than happy to proclaim hope to his own people. Even other gentiles. Just not the Assyrians. Not the residents of Nineveh. Not THEM.
Resentment almost always comes from real hurt. Real pain. Real damage done by them. Or him. Or her. Physical pain. Emotional pain. Spiritual pain caused by someone else. Resentment is defined as a dysfunctional form of fairness that seeks to punish the person or people who hurt you, but it only ends up punishing you. High levels of resentment have been correlated in research to clinically significant levels of depression, anxiety, headaches, back pain, abdominal pain, skin rashes, insomnia, and increased susceptibility to illness of any kind. Why? Because bitterness chronically activates our fight or flight response. It’s a response that isn’t intended to be activated all the time. And part of the fight or flight response is to lower the response of your immune system. People filled with resentment show higher heart rates and blood pressure, and the platelets in their blood increase in adhesiveness, making your blood stickier to stop the bleeding if you’re injured.
God, they’ve hurt me. They’ve hurt us. They’re destroying our lives and threatening our very existence. They don’t think a thing about trying to destroy us, about inflicting pain on us and then celebrating it. It’s just what they do. It’s who they are. And they don’t just go after our military. They hurt and kill women and children too. They’re terrible God. If anyone ever didn’t deserve your grace and mercy, it’s them. Please, please, don’t offer it to them. Please God, no. They’re Hitler. They’re Pol Pot. They’re the men who flew planes into the towers in New York on 911 and the terrorist networks who recruited, trained, and financed them. They’re the rapist. The murderer. The abusive parent. The abusive spouse. They’re the one who bilked you out of thousands. The company that took advantage of you. They’re the person who cheated on you. The one who stole from you. The one who drove drunk or high and took the life of someone you care about.
Now, understand, God isn’t asking Jonah to permanently move to Nineveh, or to become best friends with someone there, although that could certainly happen. He isn’t asking Jonah to form a permanent relationship with them. It would be just fine for Jonah to keep a safe distance, once he has warned them. He’s just using Jonah as his mouthpiece to warn them. And finally, he agrees to that. And – and this is the key – they repent. From the king to the cattle, they mourn, and they repent. And the king makes sure it isn’t just lip service and a show. He tells his people to “turn from [their] evil way and from the violence that is in [their] hands” (Jonah 3:8). They repent. And Jonah is horrified, because he knows that God will respond with mercy and forgiveness. That is who God is. That is what God does.
Now, Look at Vv. 4-5. Jonah sets up camp outside the city to watch, hoping and probably praying that fire will rain down from heaven in spite of their repentance. And God asks him a question. “How’s the anger and resentment working out for you, Jonah?” He doesn’t get angry with Jonah. He understands Jonah’s anger. But he wants Jonah to face it and deal with it.
And then he teaches Jonah a lesson. Look at Vv. 6-8. Jonah makes a shelter for himself to protect him from the sun. Apparently it wasn’t a very good shelter, because God then causes a plant to grow up beside the shelter to be a real shade for him. And the Bible says that Jonah was “exceedingly glad” for the shade the plant provided. He is overjoyed. And then the next morning a worm started eating at the plant at the base of it, and it withered and began to die. It no longer provided shade. And then a hot east wind began to blow, and the sun beat down on him. And Jonah goes from extreme happiness to wishing he were dead. And so God asks him again, “How’s the anger working out for you Jonah? Are you mad about the plant dying? Does that bother you?” To which Jonah replied, “YES!” And then God brings the lesson home with a jolt. “You didn’t make that plant. You only loved it because it brought you shade. When it died, you weren’t sad about the plant. You were sad that it no longer provided shade and shelter. Your anger is selfish and self-centered. It is about what the plant was doing for you.
I however, created that plant. I made it grow. Just as I created the 120,000 residents of Nineveh, and their cattle. As the one who created the plant that died, and made it grow, I certainly care about it more than you did, who only cared about the plant to benefit from it. Don’t you think I care even more about the residents of Nineveh whom I created, and also the animals that support them. And they don’t even know their right hand from their left. In other words, they’re products of their culture and way of life. So I wanted you to teach them, to give them the chance to repent, so imagine and embrace another way of life – life in my kingdom, in relationship with me. And if they repent, yes, I will show them mercy. Because, as their creator, I love them.
Now, rest assured, God’s judgment will come eventually. But God is patient, giving even the worst time to repent. If they repent, their judgement was meted out on Christ on the cross, through his horrific and brutal death. A truly innocent man suffering on behalf of the guilty. Their punishment was meted out on him, just as your punishment was. And if they don’t repent, they will stand before God alone. A God angry at their sin, and heartbroken at their refusal to repent.
And then the book just … ends. The story begins and ends with the voice of God. God asking Jonah to go to Nineveh, and then God gently explaining to Jonah why he showed them mercy and grace. Love. God’s steadfast love. And then … nothing. No neat and tidy bow. No “And Jonah understood what God said, and they all lived happily ever after.” Nothing. Just God’s words and then … nothing. It just ends. The brilliant author of Jonah leaves us to find a little bit of Jonah in us. He invites us to allow God to root out our own bitterness and anger and resentment. To be more like a dog, forgiving and filled with joy, than a resentful, angry, bitter cat. So let me ask you, who is your Nineveh? Who is the target of your anger and bitterness?
Until his death last year, Paul Yonggi Cho was pastor of the largest church in the world. Several years ago, as his ministry was becoming international, he told God, “I will go anywhere to preach the gospel – except Japan.” He hated the Japanese with gut-deep loathing because of what Japanese troops had done to the Korean people and to members of his own family during WWII. The Japanese were his Ninevites.
Through a combination of a prolonged inner struggle, several direct challenges from others, and finally an urgent and starkly worded invitation, Cho felt called by God to preach in Japan. He went, but he went with bitterness. The first speaking engagement was to a pastor’s conference – 1,000 Japanese pastors. Cho stood up to speak, and what came out of his mouth was this: ‘I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.” And then he broke and wept. He was both brimming and desolate with hatred.
At first one, then two, then all 1,000 pastors stood up. One by one they walked up to Yonggi Cho, knelt at his feet and asked forgiveness for what they and their people had done to him and his people. As this went on, God changed Yonggi Cho. The Lord put a single message in his heart and mouth: “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
Sometimes God calls us to do what we least want to do in order to reveal our heart – to reveal what’s really in our heart. How powerful is the blood of Christ? Can it heal hatred between Koreans and Japanese? Can it make a Jew love a Ninevite? Can it make you reconciled to – well, you know who? Let us pray.