A Root of Bitterness and Cynicism

by Ben Hein
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Bitterness and cynicism are my strongest spiritual gifts.

Or so I used to think, anyways.

Before I became a Christian, bitterness was something of a hobby of mine. My early Christian faith merely gave me language to justify it. Bitterness gave me gifts of “discernment”; and didn’t God’s truth need me to defend it? Although I’d only been a Christian for a few years, it was obvious that the American church was shallow, and I would be one of the noble few to revive it. If I didn’t bully you into accepting John Calvin into your heart then who would, you know? I saw bitterness as a gift which gave me wisdom, knowledge, and courage.

All of that changed as I moved into ministry and began interacting with ministry leaders who were much older than me. I noticed that the leaders I revered and most wanted to imitate exhibited no hint of bitterness or cynicism in their public ministries. In fact, they were marked most by compassion, gentleness, and patience – often being publicly moved to tears out of love for Christ and his church. It was the grumpy pastors who were marked by bitter argument, incessant arguments, interminable complaints, and cynical slander who repulsed me.

I knew then that I had a choice to make: either dig up my root of bitterness (Heb. 12:15) or be consumed by it (Amos 6:12). It has been a daily fight since then not to give into this bitter fruit – this “wormwood” – but to continue pulling it out until I might be freed of it. I suspect I will be digging up this weed until I see Jesus face to face.

In Dr. King’s nonviolent struggle for true peace and justice, he would often exhort his audience to consider how the physical expression of nonviolence must flow out of a refusal to give in to an internal violence in one’s spirit. These exhortations would include the need to resist giving in to bitterness or hatred:

In struggling for human dignity the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns. To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. (Nonviolence and Racial Justice, 1957)

To fight against bitterness, one must use “Christian methods and Christian weapons”:

Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. (The Most Durable Power, 1957)

Such exhortations have served as necessary reminders for me as I continue my fight against bitterness which, as King said, can only multiply violence and hatred in the world.

I have noticed in my own heart the temptation toward bitterness has been strongest in two respects: in my presence on social media, and my commitment to fighting against injustice and abuse. Perhaps you can relate to one – or both.

I am connected to many people on social media, most of whom I’ve had very little real interaction with. As a result, I am conditioned to treat others more like an idea to be dissected, critiqued, or attacked, rather than a person with real feelings, thoughts, and other image-bearing qualities. There can be no doubt that social media conditions me to interact with others using mockery, hit and run thread dunking, cynical quote tweeting, and the like. Such behaviors are the fruit of bitterness; when they take hold of me, it is because something dead and rotten has taken over my heart, causing me to view other people as less-than.

I have gone back and forth on my views toward social media: Is there anything redeemable about it? Should I disengage entirely? I have – sometime for months at a time. In this season, I am trying to establish healthy rhythms and boundaries such that the benefits might outweigh the cost on my soul. I admit, such measures feel like I am playing with a fire that could burn out of control at any time.

Healthy boundaries on social media are necessary to protect my heart. If you’re on social media at all then I think they probably would be for you, too. For now, my boundaries include a commitment to staying out of my denomination’s Facebook groups (which are often filled with bitterness and cynicism), striving not to engage with people online who I have little relationship with, and taking regularly breaks (weekly and monthly). I also make liberal use of block and mute features, either to prevent others from provoking me, or to avoid certain subjects which will stir up bitterness in my heart.

I am sure this social media age is affecting my heart in other ways – including my posture toward fighting injustice and abuse. While technology has given a voice to the oppressed and often advanced the cause of justice (i.e., cellphone recordings going viral), the constant bombardment with news and information about injustice can feel like too much to bear. As a victim of spiritual abuse in the church, the failures of Christian leadership to reckon with abuse in our midst can make me feel hopeless.

These tidal waves of despair can plunge me into deep throbbing aches of bitterness. As a result, I can be pulled toward simply mocking, complaining, and tearing down others in the name of “justice.” This too, however, is simply a multiplication of violence and hatred that produces meaningless chaos. No redemptive good can come from bitterness.

Following his exhortations toward an internal nonviolence of the spirit, King would remind his audience of the goal of their struggle:

The nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win the friendship and understanding… The end of violence or the aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community. A boycott is never an end within itself. It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor, but the end is reconciliation. The end is redemption.(The Power of Nonviolence, 1957)

The end is redemption. Bitterness can never help us get there. So, what can we do? Three practices have been helpful for me.

First, drinking deep from the Scriptures. I need to drench myself in God’s creative love for his creation; the character of Christ, the nature of his redemption, and his love for the Church; and the sanctifying power of the Spirit who imprints an ethic of love onto my heart. This can only come from the power of God’s Word at work in my heart.

Second, I focus on the good work of people all around me. When the forces of injustice seem like too much, I remember the incalculable number of teachers, doctors, lawyers, public servants, church members, and so many others who are a force for justice and righteousness in my community. Many of them will never make the news. Their faithfulness is a testament to the Spirit of God at work in the world.

Finally, I pray. I pray not for what I think is practical based on what I see, what is possible through a God of perfect love and justice (Exodus 34:6-7). This includes prayer for a spirit of forgiveness, generosity, joy, gentleness, and love. It is prayer for God’s justice to show itself in my neighborhood and city. It is prayer for God to multiply redemptive love in the world through me.

May God give us grace to dig up our bitter roots and magnify his heart in us.

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)

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