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Letting Go of Bitterness

Back at the end of August when Daniel was still inpatient after his Norwood, I wrote a blog post titled “Letting Go” Series Introduction.I encourage you to read the series introduction by clicking the underlined link. It explains why I am writing this post and what I am hoping to achieve here. Here is a quote from it:

“I realized the other day that so much of growing through this journey involves letting go…. It is essential for us– not just parents of children with health problems, but all people– to learn to accept where we are today and live thankful for each moment. During this ‘Letting Go’ blog series, I will be exploring these feelings in depth and giving practical tips for letting go and supporting those going through the process.”

As sinful, fallen human beings, we all have a tendency to be self-centered. As we go about our daily lives, we tend to only think of how things affect us, how they impact our daily lives. This is never more true than when you are deeply suffering.

The last six months of our lives have been pure hell. I had to relocate to Houston to live in an RV in the middle of June to await alone the birth of my baby with HLHS. Then Daniel was born six weeks early, and we spend 52 days inpatient after Daniel’s birth. I was alone for most of that time, sitting bedside watching my baby struggle. Then Daniel was inpatient for 58 days beginning at the end of October.

Have you ever seen The Never Ending Story? There is a scene in that movie where Atreyu and his horse Artax are stuck in the Swamps of Sadness. Atreyu and Artax attempt to trudge through the thick mud and muck, each step harder than the last both physically and emotionally. Artax is swallowed up by the swamp, and Atreyu watches in impotent horror, unable to help Artax from sinking beneath into the depths. As I watched that scene as a kid, it wasn’t just the swamp itself that was the antagonist. It was the despair Atreyu and Artax so obviously felt. The hopelessness and helplessness were just as palpable as the mud and muck.

That is how it felt for me for all that time– I was living in this upside down world, this hell. How in the world can people go on with their lives while this is happening to Daniel? How can people be so oblivious to our struggles? It is ironic– when you are going through tough times, the people you expect to be there for you oftentimes are not, and the most unexpected people now become your emotional support. So it was for me. People who had felt intense loss and had been through deep struggle wanted to be there for me and sought out ways to support my family. Those who have never felt intense pain have no idea how to act or what to say, so it feels like they just fade into the woodwork.

Bitterness is insidious, and it has many forms. One can be bitter toward God, toward other people, toward fate or destiny. I had struggled before Daniel was born with bitterness toward God. I felt deep resentment– why do babies suffer? Why doesn’t our omnipotent God do something about this? Every time people said, “miracles can happen. God can heal!” I would think yeah, but will He? Throughout my questioning, I read my bible and prayed for wisdom and guidance. I prayed that God would align my heart with His. After Daniel had his pulmonary bands surgery, I had this surreal moment of peace. It was so weird. I just had this overwhelming certainty. I have no idea how this can be good, but if He wills it, it must be. 

The bitterness I write about below isn’t bitterness toward God. I think the devil constantly “prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8) and tries to find weaknesses within us to exploit. When he can’t get us to doubt God, he does the next best thing. He gets us to hate His (God’s) image bearers, our brothers and sisters who are made in the image of God, with whom we are called to share the Good News above all else. How can we love God, but hate others? It is impossible. I think bitterness toward others begins when people fail to do what you think they should. 

Why hasn’t she called me? He is my brother/father/uncle/cousin! Why hasn’t he come up to see me? Why hasn’t she offered to help? How can people be so uncaring about me, about my child, about our struggles?

Somehow the slights you feel become bigger than the blessings. Instead of praising God for the new relationships we are forming, we cry when people fail to love us the way we think they should. I have struggled with this my whole life, but never more than the last six months. Here are a few practical tips for recognizing the bitterness in your life and for letting go of it:

1. Identify it. Own it. When you are feeling bitter, admit it to yourself. I caught myself trying to relabel my feelings in an attempt to justify myself. “I don’t hate him, but…” or “I don’t feel bitter, I just don’t care anymore.” The definition of bitterness is anger and disappointment at being treated unfairly; resentment. It is imperative that we don’t let these feelings fester.

When I read the definition, one phrase stood out to me: “being treated unfairly.” At its root, bitterness arises when you feel like you are owed more. Look at all the things I have done for her. How can she treat me like this? 

These bitter feelings are condemned strongly in the book of James. James, Jesus’s brother, writes, “But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind” (James 3:14-16, NLT).

Instead, James writes that “wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:17-18, NLT).

Later in chapter 4, James alludes to Proverbs 3:34 when he reminds his readers that “God opposes the proud but favors the humble.” At the beginning of chapter 4, he asks “What is causing the quarrels and fights among your? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you?” The answer, he says, is to “humble yourselves before God” (James 4:7).

It is important to identify bitterness within ourselves because it is another tool for the devil to separate us from God, especially if we are able to pretend that it isn’t that big of a deal or that it is a “normal” human emotion.

2. Repent. When we resent others, it is because we are exalting ourselves, saying we are owed more, that we deserve better than what we are getting. And if you think about it, folks, that is the opposite of humility. Our treatment of others and our feelings toward them should have nothing to do with ourselves, what we deserve, or even what they deserve. Our treatment of others is about loving and imitating Jesus.

In Matthew 22, Jesus responds to an expert in religious law. Seeking to trip Jesus up, the expert questions Jesus, asking “Which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” Jesus replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36-39, ESV). 

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul defines love. He writes, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, ESV). 

Paul again writes in his letter to the Philippians, Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:3-8, ESV). 

Throughout my journey in the last few years, I have seen incredible things. My world has been opened. I have felt God’s love in tangible, real ways. I have learned the hard way that God’s Word is Truth. I have learned to trust in His will. I have learned to pray that His will be done. How can I love God, but openly disobey Jesus’ words to love my neighbor? How can I who have been forgiven so much withhold forgiveness to others, especially those closest to me? Feelings of bitterness–no matter how “justified” my inadequate, sinful mind says I am–have no place in the hearts of those who love God and are called according to His purpose.

3. Pray. Even though I know how wrong it is in my mind, I still feel bitter and resentful sometimes. And so I pray for forgiveness. I am praying for the people about whom I feel resentful. I am praying God removes these feelings from me and replaces them with love.

4. Something interesting happens when I pray. I usually read scripture from my chronological bible before praying because this helps me align my mind and heart with God’s so that I am more likely to pray for the “right” things. As I have unpacked my feelings of bitterness in my prayer mediations, I have realized a few things:

a) Don’t expect people to love you in every single way and in the exact way that you best receive love. If you have ever read about the 5 love languages, you know that each person has a primary love language that speaks most deeply to you. My primary love languages are quality time and loving words. Just because someone can’t meet ALL of my needs doesn’t mean they don’t care.

It is so silly and selfish to realize that is where bitterness arises– when we feel angry that someone isn’t meeting ALL of our needs. It isn’t fair to expect someone ill equipped to give loving words or quality time to give those to us. Instead of looking for ways people have slighted you, look for ways they are LOVING you.

b) I have been just as guilty about being seemingly apathetic toward others. Sometimes I really was apathetic because I didn’t understand their plight, and I was too wrapped up in my own little world. Now that my world has been opened, I realize how wrong I was. Sometimes I wasn’t apathetic, I was the opposite. I was deeply interested, and I prayed for the people and thought of them often, but I didn’t know how to show it. Go out of your way to give people the benefit of the doubt.

While my experience as a heart mom is somewhat unique because not many people have gone through it, the feelings of bitterness I have felt are not. I hope this blog post helped you recognize your feelings of bitterness so that you can repent of them and grow in both your struggling human relationships and your relationship with Christ.

It is 10:20 p.m., and I am out of words. Goodnight.