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Battling the Unbelief of Bitterness

We overcome the dangers of anger by allowing God to be our avenger.

One pastor confided in me that he gets angry very easily and he often feels a lot of anger inside that his people don't recognize because of his ability to keep up a good front. I think he was speaking for a lot of us. A lot of people are angry and keep it corked inside and it ferments. Other people are different than that. They blow off as soon as anything happens to them. Others turn red in the face and grip the edge of the chair and their knuckles turn white. Others become sullen and very quiet in a group and just kind of slink back out of sight. Others become very caustic and cutting with their tongue when they are angry. Whatever way you handle or respond to this rising thing called anger, it's a universal experience; and everybody has to learn to deal with it one way or the other, and most of our anger is not good.

The Bible warns us about the dangers of anger

Now I base that on James 1 where it says: Be slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God. In other words, be slow to anger because most of our anger is a lot of man and very little God and does nobody any good and brings no glory to God. Most of our anger is like that, but not all of it.

Jesus was a man without sin. And according to Mark 3:5 he was in the synagogue and it says: He looked out upon them with grief, angered at their hardness of heart. And he committed no sin. And in Psalm 7:11 it says: God is angry every day. And in Ephesians 4:26 it says, "Be angry and yet do not sin."

So I conclude not all anger is bad. In fact, some anger is very good. If it weren't there, something would be wrong with us, morally wrong. It's right and it's justified. But mainly the Bible warns against anger. The Bible is very suspicious of our capacity as sinful human beings to have good anger. And therefore, mainly it says things like be "slow to anger, for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God," James 1:1920; "Put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice," Colossians 3:8; "Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice" Ephesians 4:31; "Now the deeds of the flesh are evidentstrife, jealousy, outbursts of anger," Galatians 5:1920; "Everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court," Matthew 5:22. Anger is dangerous.

If you let it begin to take root and become an abiding grudge or an unforgiving spirit, it can destroy you, ultimately destroy you. That's the point of the parable in Matthew 18, where the king has this servant who owes him 10,000 talents, which is $10,000,000. The king mercifully lets it go, cancels the debt. And this rascal walks oututterly unfeeling and uncherishing of this giftand strangles his friend who owes him $10 and won't cancel his debt. The king hears about this and is enraged and throws this rascal into jail permanently. The parable closes with this warning to us, the disciples. "So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart," Matthew 18:35. In other words, if you don't stop holding grudges, if you keep having an unforgiving spirit, you will be cast out.

Our anger and unforgiveness are expressions of unbelief

It's very dangerous to be angry and stay angry. It can take over your heart and dominate you, and you will be judged. "If you do not forgive men their trespasses, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions," Matthew 6:15. To let that have its appropriate impact we've got to break that down into three statements.

Statement number one: No one goes to heaven unforgiven by God. Heaven is a place for forgiven sinners, not unforgiven sinners.

Statement number two: No one is forgiven by God who will not be forgiving, Matthew 6:15.

Statement number three: Therefore, no one who is unforgiving goes to heaven.

Is salvation then by works? No. Salvation is by grace through faith. And the opposite of salvation, judgment, is by works through what? What's the opposite of faith? Unbelief. The pathway that leads to salvation is the grace of God trusting in the promises of God, and the pathway that leads to judgment is the performance of works disbelieving in the promises of God. Therefore, when Jesus said: If you don't forgive those who sin against you, you'll go to judgment, he meant an unforgiving spirit is an unbelieving spirit. An unforgiving spirit is an unbelieving spirit, and therefore the fight against bitterness is the fight against unbelief.

About 18 years ago, when I was still in seminary, I was in a group with some other couples with Noel. One night it became tense because one of the young wives said that she would not forgive her mother for what happened to her as a girl. We all just kind of gulped and we talked for about an hour about the commands to forgive, and we talked about the forgiveness of God towards us and our sin. She was adamant, "Never will I ever be able to forgive her. And so I said to her, "Don't you realize that if you're unwilling to forgive your mother, God will be unwilling to forgive your sin and you won't go to heaven? That didn't phase her. She was not the kind of person who is governed by principle or by the Word. She was emotion driven, and this feeling of indignation in her justified itself absolutely. It was impervious to biblical warnings. And the reason that she was in danger of losing her soul is not because she wasn't working hard enough for God but because she was not trusting God to work hard enough for her to take care of this wrong that she had experienced.

The battle against bitterness is a battle against unbelief, and the peace, which is the opposite of bitterness, is clearly shown in Romans 15:13 to be by believing. Peace replaces bitterness by faith. So my aim is to show you from Scripture four ways to battle the unbelief of bitterness.

Believe what the Good Physician prescribes is good for you

Number one: Believe that what the Good Physician prescribes is good for you. He prescribes in Colossians 3:8: Put away anger. It's like the doctor saying, "Put away coffee. You just have to believe it. If you believe him, you'll do it. If you don't believe him, you won't.

Leroy Imes tells a story of his conversion and his anger in those early days. I take this out of his book The Lost Art of Discipleship.

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 verse: "But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language. I tried to slide past this verse, but the Spirit kept bringing me back to the words "Put off anger. At the time I had a violent temper, and whenever it flared up I would haul up and bash my fist into the nearest door. In spite of the fact that I often bloodied my knuckles and on one occasion had completely smashed a beautiful diamond and onyx ring that 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 Colossi centuries ago. It was God speaking to me at the moment.

So that week I made 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. [In other words, the doctor's advice on his prescription was not thrown in the waste can. It was used. Taken to the drug store and cashed in on the memory.] 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 first way is simply believe the Doctor's prescription is good for you when you read it in the Bible. Don't pass over it and go on to the next one and say, "Oh, I like this one. I like this one. It says 'Rejoice in the Lord.' I like this one. But if the Doctor says, "No more drinking at the cup of anger," believe him. It's good advice. Now that doesn't solve the whole problem. That's step number one.

Cherish being forgiven by God

Here's number two. Cherish being forgiven by God. Ephesians 4:32 says, "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another That's the opposite of grudges. "Forgiving one another just as God in Christ forgave you. Now the point of that verse is being forgiven by God is going to have some amazing impact on your capacity to forgive other people. And so if I were to ask you right now what's the link between being forgiven by God and being a forgiving person? I wonder what we'd answer. I hope we would all answer: faith.

But that woman 18 years ago, subsequently whose marriage has fallen to pieces, that woman believed she was forgiven with all her heart, and that was the justification of her grudge. Something's wrong here. And what's wrong is this: Defining saving faith as the simple belief in your head that God forgave you is wrong. That's not the definition of saving faith. All kinds of people can be deluded into thinking they've been forgiven by God for all kinds of wrong reasons. What is saving faith then? Saving faith is believing that being forgiven by God is an awesome thing. Saving faith is looking at the holiness of God, looking at the horror of my sin and being staggered by the thought that I am forgiven. Not just the simple conviction in the head My sins are forgiven because Jesus died for me. That's not saving faith. You can go right on cruising in your life of unforgiveness and a grudge and justify it by believing you're forgiven, if you're not stunned by being forgiven, if you don't cherish being forgiven. You see, faith is a union with Christ that is overwhelmed with the impossible thought that I can be forgiven by a holy God. And when you're ravaged by it, when you look at the forgiveness of God towards you and it staggers you, stuns you, silences you, awes you, wraps you up, then it becomes a psychological impossibility to turn towards those who have wronged you and say But I'm not going to pass it on to you. You can't do it. It is a psychological impossibility to cherish the beauty of being forgiven and then not to share it with those who've wronged you. There is a link. The battle against bitterness is the battle against unbelief, but belief is not a mere head conviction that Christ forgave you but a heart conviction that that is the most awesome thing you've ever experienced.

Trust that God's justice will prevail

The third way to battle unbelief of bitterness is to trust that God's justice will prevail. All of us know from experience that one of the causes of bitterness is being wronged, really wronged by somebody. "They lied about us. They stole from us. They were unfaithful to us or they let us down or they rejected us." And we feel not only that it shouldn't have happened to uswe didn't do anything to deserve thatbut they should be punished. And you know what? You're right. Many times you're right, and it's precisely the rightness of it that just chews inside. "I'm right. I'm right. They should not get off so easy after what they said or after what they did." And it's the rightness of it, being in the right that just chews away inside and can destroy you.

Now what do you do in that, when you're right? "Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God," Romans 12:19.

Why? See, there's the prescription from the Doctor. "Now, what basis, Doctor, do you give me for this being a wise therapy?" Answer: a promise. "For it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord. What that text says is that God has made a promise that he will repay those who have wronged you in a perfect measure. His justice will prevail.

As you compare yourself as a candidate for vengeance and God as a candidate for taking vengeancewho would make the best of it? Consider God for a minute. No wrong ever committed against you, not in the darkest hour of any night, has ever been missed. It is written in a book in heaven. He knows every wrong committed against you. He sees the evil of the wrong far better than you see it. He hates the evil of the wrong 10,000 times more purely and righteously than you hate the evil of the wrong. He claims the right to settle accounts for you. And the big issue then is do you believe he will? Do you trust him when the wrong comes and you're really wronged and they're really wrong and you're right and all your moral indignation rightly cries out No! to this, are you willing rather than let that fester and seethe and chew at your insides, are you willing to believe the promise when it comes?

Look, it 's God talking. I saw it. You're right. They're wrong. I hate what they did to you. you give me that anger. I'm going to settle this for you, and I will settle it better than you could ever settle it. Justice will prevail. Do you trust me? That's the word of God to us this morning if we're holding on to a grudge.

What do you do with it? You do what Jesus did. Have you ever put yourself at the foot of the cross at that moment and considered the rip off that Jesus Christ got? Consider it. Nobody in this world has ever been wronged like Jesus has been wronged. Nobody in this world has ever gotten a raw deal like Jesus got from his contemporaries. Nobody has ever been abused more than Jesus was abused. Nobody has ever been rejected more deeply than Jesus was rejected. And nobody was more undeserving of it all or innocent than Jesus.

Now what did he do with it? Did Jesus not feel anything? Did he just say, Oh, it doesn't matter; oh, it doesn't count; oh, I don't feel anything? That's not the way Jesus responded. Jesus felt it all. He felt every bit as much pain as you've ever felt, and he was angry. He hates sin. But what did he do with it according to 1 Peter 2:23? "And while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously."

Why did he do that? Why did he take all the righteous and moral indignation that came up in his heart for all the sins that were directed against him and instead of keeping it inside and seething with it and lashing out with it just empty it right into the hands of the Judge? Why did he do that? He did it because he had become one of usweak, human, frail, and he wanted to set an example of what we should do with it. And what we should do with it is to gather it all up and then to hand it over to the Judge who judges justly.

Maybe this will stick in your mind. If you hold a grudge, you slight the Judge.

Trust God's purpose to turn the cause of your anger for your good

Number four, the way to battle unbelief and bitterness is to trust God's purpose to turn the cause of your anger for your good. I take this from 1 Peter 1:67 which says, "In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."

And here's what that text says. God allows trials to come into your life. Now, a trial is anything that tends to make you angry. If it didn't tend to make you angry it wouldn't be a trial. What's to be tried? A trial is something that tends to make you angry, either at God or at people. So these trials are allowed, it says, to treat your faith like a refiner treats gold. What God is after in your life, more than he's after anything else, is genuine faith. So the faith in our lives, every one of our lives, no matter how far along you are in the process of sanctification every single person in this room has sullied faith. It's got dross in the metal. And therefore, God allows us to be put in a crucible. You know what a crucible is from chemistry class. And then heat comes and the metal pops in the crucible. And at that moment you've got a choice to make and it's a choice of faith. Will you give way to unbelief and shake your fist in God's face or in people's face and say, "I didn't deserve this and I won't tolerate it ? Or will you yield to the promise of 1 Peter 1 where God says: Look, my purpose is your dross to consume and your faith to refine.

John Piper is senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His books include The Supremacy of God in Preaching, (Baker, 1990).

(c) John Piper

Preaching Today Tape #249


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John Piper is a theologian, pastor, and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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Sermon Outline:


There are four ways to battle the unbelief of bitterness.

I. Believe what the Good Physician prescribes is good for you.

II. Cherish being forgiven by God.

III. Trust that God's justice will prevail.

IV. Trust God's purpose to turn the cause of your anger for your good.


Anger is an opportunity to put your faith to the test.