Ephesians 4:31–32 (NKJV)
31 Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. 32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.
In our sermon today, we begin a study of Matthew 18. Jesus answers the question, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” As part of His answer, Jesus insists that the greatest in His kingdom is the one who deals with his own sins relentlessly and who deals with the sins of others compassionately. The truly great disciple is the one who realizes how much he has been forgiven by God and who therefore extends to his brethren the same grace that God has extended to him. As Paul commands the Ephesians in our text, be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. God’s treatment of us is the foundation for our treatment of one another.
Consequently, Paul commands us to put away from ourselves all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, evil speaking, and malice. Our attitude toward one another, our treatment of one another, is to be governed by the grace that God has extended to us. We are to deal with the sin of others compassionately. But we cannot do that if we are harboring bitterness and its evil sisters in our hearts. So what is bitterness and why is it imperative for us to rid ourselves of it?
Bitterness is hard to identify because of an optical illusion. Let us say that I explode at my spouse and then I feel sorry. Is that bitterness? No. That is guilt. Guilt is what I experience when I sin, when I wrong someone else. So what is bitterness? Bitterness is what I experience when others offend me. So my spouse explodes at me. Am I guilty? No. But let’s say I get upset and I begin to stew on their outburst, going over and over the details in my mind. What’s happening? I’m becoming bitter. But notice the optical illusion. When I’m guilty, what is it that I’m thinking about? My own sin. I yelled at my spouse; I shouldn’t have done that. But when I’m bitter, what am I thinking about? I’m thinking about your sin: you yelled at me; you shouldn’t have done that. And the more bitter I become, the more I stew over the matter, the more I am focused upon what? You and your sin. I am not focusing upon myself; I am not focusing upon my bitterness; I can’t even see it. That is why bitterness creates an optical illusion.
But make no mistake: bitterness is a sin and bitterness is my sin. The occasion of bitterness is the action of another; but the bitterness itself is my sin. It is my sinful response to someone else’s sin – or at least to a perceived wrong that I have suffered from them. And Paul commands me, he orders me, to put away all bitterness. In Hebrews Paul identifies bitterness as a root – it is an internal motivation that begins tainting all my actions. Therefore, I must repent. I must look squarely at my bitterness, cease making excuses for it, and confess it to the Lord. I must put away all bitterness; I must cease excusing it.
You see, if I do not deal with bitterness, my bitterness will deal with me. The bitter man treats his brother’s sin relentlessly. The bitter man declares, “How dare he do that to me? I will not forgive.” Consequently, the bitter man is not in a position to forgive his brother as he has been forgiven by God. His bitterness is killing his soul. Someone once quipped that a bitter person is like a man who consumes a box of rat poison and waits for the rat to die – he consumes the poison and thinks that that will harm the rat. But it won’t. Bitterness destroys the one who is bitter; like acid it corrodes the container it’s carried it.
So what of you? Are you bitter? What wrong, real or perceived, have you suffered and do you now find yourself stewing upon? What is it that is consuming your heart? Remember the optical illusion. If you are stewing upon something, take your eyes off their sin and turn them to your own, turn them to your bitterness and repent.
Reminded that we are to put away from ourselves all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, evil speaking, and malice, and that we often harbor these things in our hearts instead, let us confess our sin to the Lord. We will have a time of silent confession followed by the corporate confession found in your bulletin. And as you are able, let us kneel together as we confess our sins to the Lord.