Our Puritan forebears used to refer at times to ‘darling sins’ or ‘besetting sins’, meaning there are sins that can keep coming back at us and show us how fallen we still are, even after trusting in Christ. One of the most common sins is that of harbouring a spirit of bitterness and resentment. Having lodged in our hearts and minds, such a spirit may indwell us for years, and in fact be inflated with the passing of time. Often it can bubble to the surface when people are thrown together, as at weddings and funerals. It is usually greatest with people we know best, and can be especially virulent in our homes. There can be terrible scarcely-contained bitterness felt by one spouse towards the other, or by a child to a parent, or even parents towards a child who has disrupted their easy lifestyle.
Almost anything can trigger off such a spirit. There was a measure of resentment in Martha’s complaint to Jesus when her sister, Mary, sat at Jesus’ feet to listen to Him instead of helping with the chores: ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me’ (Luke 10:40). Something similar took place when James and John, presumably at the instigation of their mother, asked Jesus whether they could sit, one at His right hand and the other at His left in His glory (Mark 10:35-37). Jesus replies to them, but note that when the other ten disciples heard about this, they began to be indignant at James and John (Mark 10:41).
Presumably, Martha and the ten disciples – even Judas – got over their resentment in one way or another. Nevertheless, we are confronted with this time and again in our own lives. It is not something that we ought to be content to drift through in the hope that we will forget most episodes and become more pleasant to live with. We are to be more decided than that. There is a ‘put off’ to be performed first. So, Paul tells the Ephesian church, ‘Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice’ (Eph.4:31). To confess the grace of Christ and to be full of resentment is dangerous and contradictory. ‘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’ (Heb.12:15).
Paganism is not noble and free, as it is often portrayed, but full of unresolved resentment. In June 2009 I visited the Roman baths in Britain, and was shocked by the pagan ‘curse tablets’. Here is one of them: ‘Lord Neptune, I give you the man who has stolen the gold coin and the six silver coins of Muconius. So I give the names who took them away, whether male or female, whether boy or girl. So I give you, Niskus, and to Neptune the life, health, blood of him who has been privy to that taking-away. The mind which stole this and which has been privy to it, may you take it away. The thief who stole this, may you consume his blood and take it away, Lord Neptune.’ The curses were extraordinarily severe compared to the relatively minor nature of the offence (usually related to stealing a towel or money at the bath house). Apparently, Roman pagans in Britain knew how to be unforgiving.
Let me raise three points that ought to help the Christian to go to the ‘put on’ stage, whereby he or she can overcome evil with good (Rom.12:21). First, look to the example of Christ: ‘When He was reviled, He did not revile in return’ (1 Pet.2:23). His suffering and death on the cross were atoning for sinners – that is crucial to recognise – but they also leave us with an example, indeed, the supreme example. We sinners ought not to resent other sinners when the Sinless One did not lash out at them.
Secondly, remember the judgment which will disclose the purposes of the heart (1 Cor.4:4). Unrighteousness is a real issue for us before God, but so is self-righteousness. Australia is at present tearing its political leaders apart when it has itself lost its moral compass. Adultery is wrong, but we must be free to pursue ‘love’ wherever it leads – what kind of a moral philosophy is that? God is not so superficial. His judgments are searching, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart, leaving us utterly exposed before the One with whom we have to do (Heb.4:12-13). That ought to soften us, as well as awaken us.
Thirdly, live in the light that God is both good and sovereign. In this way, Joseph kept himself from bitterness in dealing with his brothers who had sold him off as a slave, and left him for dead. When they finally met again, over twenty years later, Joseph reassured them ‘God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors’ (Gen.45:7). A bitter Joseph would have been understandable; a forgiving Joseph is a result of knowing the sovereign goodness of God.
So may this besetting sin become less besetting amongst the people who profess the name of Christ.