Battling the Unbelief of Bitterness

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By John Piper About Sanctification & Growth
Part of the series Battling Unbelief

Romans 12:17-21

Everybody Must Learn How to Deal with Anger

While I was at the midyear board meetings of the Baptist General Conference in Madison this week, one pastor confided in me that he gets angry very easily and sometimes has a lot of anger inside even when his people don't know it from the way he looks.

He was speaking for many. For some people anger is corked under a calm exterior. It ferments where no one can see it. Others spout off instantly if they get angry. Others turn red in the face and tremble. Others become sullen and silent. Others become caustic and cutting with their tongue.

But everybody has to deal with it one way or the other—anger is a universal experience, and most of it is not good. I base that on James 1:19–20 which says, "Be slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God." We should learn how to be slow to anger because what comes quickly is usually tainted by unrighteousness. It's simply human rather than being godly.

But we know that not all anger is bad. Jesus was a man without sin, yet it says in Mark 3:5, "He looked around at them with anger grieved at their hardness of heart." And Psalm 7:11 says, "God is angry every day." And Paul says in Ephesians 4:26, "Be angry and sin not." Not all anger is bad. Some is good and right and necessary.

But mainly the Bible warns us against the dangers of anger. "Be slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God" (James 1:19–20). "Put away all anger and wrath and malice" (Colossians 3:8). "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor... be put away from you with all malice" (Ephesians 4:31). "Now the works of the flesh are plain: ...strife, jealousy, anger..." (Galatians 5:20). "Every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment" (Matthew 5:22).

Anger Is Very Dangerous

You can see from that last warning that anger is very dangerous. If it takes root in your heart and becomes a grudge or an unforgiving spirit, it can destroy you. That's the point of Jesus' parable in Matthew 18 about the unforgiving servant: after having his massive debt cancelled by the king, he refuses to cancel the tiny debt of his friend. And so the king throws him into jail for his heartlessness. Jesus closes the parable with this warning in verse 35: "So also will my heavenly Father do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."

Anger is very dangerous. It can take over your heart, turn into a lasting grudge, or an unforgiving spirit, and the result will be judgment. Jesus said very plainly in Matthew 6:15, "If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." To feel the weight of that warning let's put it in three parts:

1. No one goes to heaven unforgiven by God. Heaven is a place given only to forgiven sinners.
2. No one is forgiven who is unwilling to be forgiving.
3. No one goes to heaven who is unforgiving.

Jesus treats anger the way he treats lust. If you don't fight lust, you don't go to heaven (Matthew 5:29). If you don't forgive others, you won't get to glory (Matthew 6:15).

A Battle Against Unbelief

Is this salvation by works? Does this teach that we earn our way to heaven? No. Salvation is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). And the opposite of salvation, judgment, is not by grace through faith, but by works (the opposite of grace) through unbelief (the opposite of faith). So that's what Jesus means.

Therefore when Jesus teaches that an unforgiving spirit or bitterness leads to judgment and not to salvation, he means that bitterness is a kind of unbelief. And the way to fight against it is to fight the fight of faith. The battle against bitterness in our hearts is not an effort to work our way to heaven. It's a battle to believe the Word of God, and bank on the promises of his grace.

Back during my seminary days Noël and I were in a kind of 20:20 group with some other couples. One night we were discussing forgiveness and anger, and one of the women said that she could not and would not forgive her mother for something she had done to her as a young girl. We talked about some of the biblical commands to forgive, and we talked about being forgiven by God, but she was adamant.

So I said, "You know, don't you, that you are in mortal danger of being cast into hell? If you're not willing to forgive your mother her sins against you, God will not be willing to forgive your sins against him. No unforgiving people will be in heaven." But she wasn't the kind of person who submitted easily to Scripture. She was driven by emotion and the strength of her indignation simply justified itself.

The reason she was in danger of losing her soul is not because she didn't work hard enough for God, but because she didn't trust in his willingness to work hard enough for her.

The battle against bitterness is a battle against unbelief. And the peace and rest and joy that come in place of anger and bitterness are the peace and joy that Romans 15:13 says explicitly come by believing in the God of hope.

Four Ways to Battle Bitterness by Battling Unbelief

What I want to do then this morning is lay out four ways to battle bitterness by battling unbelief. If God empowers his Word now, there will be great results: your heart will be freed from the burden of bitterness; at least from your side relationships can be healed; one more obstacle can be removed from an authentic witness to Christ, and God will be greatly honored by your trust.

1. Don't Ignore the Good Advice of the Doctor

The first way to battle the unbelief of bitterness is very basic: namely, consider what the Doctor says good advice. If the Great Physician says, "Put away anger," don't ignore the counsel. Put it in your mind and resolve to keep it. That's what you do if you trust your Doctor.

Listen to the story of Leroy Eims' battle with anger. Here is a Christian leader who discovered that the secret was in listening to the Doctor's orders.

Shortly after I became a Christian, I was . . . challenged to make personal applications as part of my weekly Bible study. One of the first books I studied was Paul's letter to the Colossians. As I was studying chapter three, the Holy Spirit caught my attention with this: "But now you must rid your selves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language" (Col. 3:8). I tried to slide past this verse, but the Spirit kept bringing me back to the words "put off anger" (KJV). At the time I had a violent temper, and whenever it flared up I would haul off and bash my fist into the nearest door. In spite of the fact that I often bloodied my knuckles and on the one occasion had completely smashed a beautiful diamond and onyx ring my wife had given me, I couldn't seem to stop. And yet here was God's Word: "Put off anger." It was clear to me that this was not just some good advice given to the people at Colossae centuries ago. It was God speaking to me at that moment.

So that week I make a covenant with God. He had spoken to me about my sin of anger, and I promised the Lord I was going to work on it . . .

My first step was to memorize the verse and review it daily for a number of weeks. [The doctor's advice is not ignored. You get serious about getting it into your head and heart if you trust him.] I prayed and asked the Lord to bring this verse to mind whenever a situation arose where I might be tempted to lose my temper. And I asked my wife to pray for me and remind me of that passage if she saw me failing in my promise to the Lord. So Colossians 3:8 became a part of my life and gradually God removed that sin from me. (The Lost Art of Discipleship, pp. 78f.)

So the first way to battle bitterness by battling unbelief is to believe that the Doctor's advice is good. If you trust his counsel, you will take pains to get it into your head and heart. You will not ignore it or reject it.

2. Cherish Being Forgiven by God

The second way to battle the unbelief of bitterness is to really cherish being forgiven by God. Underline the word cherish.

Paul said in Ephesians 4:32, "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." In other words, being forgiven by God should have a powerful effect on our being forgiving people and not hold grudges, and not being bitter.

How does being forgiven make you a forgiving person? We answer: by faith in our being forgiven. By believing that we are forgiven.

But that woman 18 years ago who would not forgive her mother believed that she was forgiven. She would not let the sin of her grudge shake her security.

What's wrong here? What's wrong is that she didn't know what true saving faith is. Saving faith is not merely believing that you are forgiven. Saving faith means believing that God's forgiveness is an awesome thing! Saving faith looks at the horror of sin and then looks at the holiness of God and believes that God's forgiveness is a staggering beauty and unspeakably glorious. Faith in God's forgiveness does not merely mean confidence that I am off the hook. It means confidence that this is the most precious thing in the world. That's why I use the word cherish. Saving faith cherishes being forgiven by God.

And there's the link with the battle against bitterness. You can go on holding a grudge if your faith simply means you are off the hook. But if faith means standing in awe of being forgiven by God, then you can't go on holding a grudge. You have fallen in love with mercy. It's your life. So you battle bitterness by fighting for the faith that stands in awe of God's forgiveness of your sins.

3. Trust That God's Justice Will Prevail

The third way to battle the unbelief of bitterness is to trust that God's justice will prevail.

One cause of bitterness is the feeling that you have been wronged by someone. They have lied about you, or stolen from you, or been unfaithful to you, or let you down, or rejected you. And you get this feeling not only that you should not have been hurt, but that they should be punished. And you may be right.

And in feeling right you dwell on the injustice of it. You go over it again and again in your mind, and it chews at your insides. You think of things you might say to put them in their place. You think of things you could do to show others their true colors.

Now God is not pleased by this bitterness. And the reason he's not is because it comes from unbelief in the certainty that God's justice will prevail.

Romans 12:19 says, "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'"

What this text says is that God has made a promise that he himself will repay all wrongs in perfect measure. His justice will prevail. No wrong has escaped his notice. He sees its evil far better than you do. He hates it far more than you do. And he claims the right to take vengeance.

Do you believe this promise? Do you trust God to settle accounts for you far more justly than you could ever settle them? If you do, this text says, you will stop savoring revenge. You will leave it to God, and you will be free to return good for evil and bless those who persecute you (Romans 12:14, 20).

The battle against bitterness and vengeance is a battle against unbelief in the promise of God to vindicate us in due time and to make justice prevail (Psalm 37:6). If we believe he will do it, and do it better than we could, then we will do what 1 Peter 2:23 says that Jesus did.

No one was wronged worse than Jesus. No one got a raw deal as bad as his. No one was abused more. No one was rejected more. And no one was as innocent. So what did he do when his heart filled with moral indignation?

When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly.

That is, he handed over his grievance to God. Why? Because he had become one of us, and he was showing us that vengeance is God's and that justice will prevail. With that confidence Jesus never allowed any sinful bitterness to rise in his heart. And we shouldn't either.

The way to battle bitterness is to believe that vengeance belongs to the Lord and he will repay. If you keep a grudge, you doubt the Judge.

4. Trust God's Purpose to Turn It for Your Good

The final way to battle the unbelief of bitterness is to trust God's purpose to turn the cause of your anger for your good.

1 Peter 1:6–7 says, "For a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."

In other words, God allows trials in our lives that could make us very angry. If they couldn't, they wouldn't be trials. But the reason he does is to refine our faith the way gold is refined by fire.

This means that the battle against bitterness in the midst of trial is nothing other than the battle against unbelief. Will we look to the sovereign goodness of God, and believe that he means us good in the refining fire? Or will we surrender to unbelief, and let bitterness grow?


Let me summarize our four points about how to battle the unbelief of bitterness:

1. Believe that what the Great Physician says is good advice. If he says, "Put away anger," don't ignore the counsel. Put it in your mind and resolve to keep it.
2. Believe that you are forgiven, and that being forgiven by an infinitely holy God is an awesome thing.
3. Believe that vengeance belongs to God, that he will repay those who do wrong.
4. Believe that God's purpose in all your trials is to turn the cause of your anger for your good.
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