By David Hegg
I have noticed lots of bitterness floating around our society recently. People are bitter over wrongs suffered, and their bitterness fuels their anger. Too often this anger drives their behavior, and their angry behavior hurts others around them. Then, those they hurt get bitter and the cycle becomes self-perpetuating.
Just what is bitterness? Ethically, bitterness describes a two-sided situation. One side of the coin is an unwillingness to forgive a wrong suffered. This is coupled with an intentional desire for revenge or retribution. Not only won’t I forgive, but I intend to do something to even the score, even if it hurts those who hurt me.
While we would all decry bitterness as harmful, the dirty little secret is that bitterness actually can become a welcomed inhabitant in our hearts. Here’s why: Bitterness is the residue of wrongs suffered that allows us to feel good about acting badly. As long as we can keep the fire of pain burning brightly, we can justify angry, hurtful feelings and actions. Bitterness is that raging resentment we use as the reason for our own unreasonable actions.
We are seeing it played out in the headlines and video segments every day. We have front-row seats on a “Hatfields and McCoys” phenomena that is flooding our nation. And no matter how far you are from the front lines of the cultural battle, eventually you’ll be forced to take a side. Why? Because bitterness demands to be heard and felt, and reasoned discourse in pursuit of mutual understanding in a context of kindness and respect just won’t scratch its itch.
But bitterness has never been the driving force behind substantive improvement in society. Anger does not form a strong foundation for lasting change. Violent behavior may grab public attention, but separated from the moral high ground it will only produce fear, pain and more bitterness.
It seems to me that the issue of “identity” has a lot to do with why we become embittered in the first place. It is all too easy to minimize our identity down to some homogeneous label, even one that is important to us. What I mean is this: we all are much more than our ethnicity, our color, or our political views. We are much more than just a member of some demographic group the sociologists have concocted. What is most important about us – and should be to us – is that we are human beings, unique, noble individuals who can love and learn and change and grow and who must refuse to be swept along with a crowd that wants to represent us in ways that do not align with our deepest-held values and convictions.
For me, this all comes from understanding I have been created by God to represent him. The Bible calls this being “created in the image of God.” And while this certainly means that humanity forms the crown jewel in all creation, it also means human life has great value – each and every life! It also means the way I choose to live my life matters, both to God and to those who will feel the effects of my behavior. I am an individual, but I do not live alone. I live in relationship with my world and all those in it. I don’t have the right to allow my personal bitterness to become an obstacle to their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness no matter how badly I have been hurt.
We live in a risky, broken and violent world. Those who hate America are committed to attacking us from without. But even worse is the thought that we could unravel from within, as the bitterness of past hurts is stockpiled by those who would stir up emotional fires with flimsy rhetoric and challenge the rule of law.
Democracy only works when good people remain good during bad times. Let’s pray that the bad times bring out the best in all of us even as we recognize bitterness and its fruits as the real enemies. Let’s also pray that we will live up to the nobility and privilege that is ours as human beings, made in the image of God.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.