“Get rid of all bitterness” (Ephesians 4:31)
“When he was insulted, he did not answer back with an insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but placed his hope in God….It is by his wounds that you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:23-25)
The goal of this note is to help you purify your heart of bitterness and resentment. “The true Christian,” says Father Garrigou-Lagrange, “ought as far as possible to exclude from his heart all resentment, all animosity.” Easier said than done!
Right from the start see clearly that you cannot take bitterness and resentment with you into Heaven. The saint that God is fashioning you to be does not include a person with a bitter heart. You are going to have to get this mess out of the way! It’s not going to be easy. But you have to do it. This is a good start.
An immediate remedy, whenever you feel the movement of bitterness and resentment escalating in your heart, is to severely check it, and then pray, “Create in me a clean heart, Oh Lord, and renew in me a right spirit” (Psalm 51:10). This will work, if your prayer is sincere, and you commit to doing this each and every time you feel bitterness welling up in your heart. This can’t be a two week thing; it’s a lifetime commitment. But you will quickly discover that this little prayer from Psalm 51 is powerful!
A long time ago I planted a vine of some sort in the bed in my front yard. The vine was so prolific that it grew seemingly everywhere in no time. I cut it back, but it grew back with a vengeance! The vine was covering up the beautiful flowers in the bed, so I ultimately had to pull the vine up by its roots to save the garden from the tyranny of the vine. Scripture says that bitterness can become an evil vine in your heart and defile you. It says: “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….” (Hebrews 12:15). At Deuteronomy 29:18-19, 23 we read: “Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit . . . saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike . . . nothing growing . . . no plant can sprout . . .” (ESV).
And at Ephesians 4:31 we are directed to “Get rid of all bitterness….” But how are we going to do this? We can even see that bitterness has become part of our very personality, part of the description of who we are. Once when I was driving home I heard the “radio preacher” say: “Lord, you have saved me from hell’s dark abyss – now Lord, save me from the tyranny of bitterness!” Prayer is a very good start. We have to bring this problem directly to God. But it has to be persevering prayer. Prayer means that we are willing to be severe with our self when those feelings of bitterness crowd our mind and demand approval.
Here are SEVEN STEPS I put forth to assist you in your battle to overcome bitterness and resentment. I do not say they are “seven easy steps,” but rather seven steps requiring diligence and perseverance. I do believe, however, that they will be very helpful to you.
FIRST STEP: The keen and acute realization that you need to get the ruin of bitterness and resentment out of your life.
“Bitterness is just resentment that has been held on to. It has become rancid and rotten. It is kept in and it gets worse. The links in the chain continue. There is a connection between bitterness and hatred….” (Jim Wilson). And frankly, what is hatred, unless checked, but the raw material of mortal sin. “Psychology Today blogger, Stephen Diamond, Ph.D., defines bitterness as ‘a chronic and pervasive state of smoldering resentment, and deservedly regards it as ‘one of the most destructive and toxic of human emotions.’ I’d add that if we repeatedly ruminate over how we’ve been victimized, our ‘nursing’ our wrongs may eventually come to define some essential part of who we are. Take hold of our very personality. And so we’ll end up becoming victims not so much of anyone else but, principally, of ourselves” (Mike Jones at psychologytoday blog).
The great F.W. Faber adds: “Look what an amount of bitterness we have about us! What is to become of it? It plainly cannot be taken onto heaven. Where must it be left behind? Certainly one important feature of heaven will be the absence of all bitterness and criticism, and the way in which our expanded minds will be possessed with thoughts of the most tender and overflowing kindness” (edited from Spiritual Conferences).
Finally, as a post from the Mayo Clinic states, “Letting go of grudges and bitterness can make way for improved health and peace of mind. Forgiveness can lead to:
- Healthier relationships
- Improved mental health
- Less anxiety, stress and hostility
- Lower blood pressure
- Fewer symptoms of depression
- A stronger immune system
- Improved heart health
- Improved self-esteem (Mayo Clinic)”
The physical and psychological consequences, then, of harboring bitterness and resentment are not good.
SECOND STEP: Making the healing of bitterness and resentment a special object of your prayers.
I must emphasize here persistence in prayer! Persevering prayer goes to the essence of prayer. “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes. 5:17). You could pray every morning: “Dear Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto yours. Oh Jesus, Savior of the human race, remove all bitterness and resentment from my heart. Let me live in the newness of life given to me in baptism. Let me be healed through the power of your wounds.” Naturally, you are free to enter into personal conversation with Jesus about your life and the problems you are trying to overcome, and this intimate conversation with Jesus is very helpful.
At the end of each day you are going to make an examination of conscience. This examination of conscience will be very helpful to you. In this examination you will simply review your day in the presence of the Lord noting any instances where you failed to mortify the inclination to entertain bitterness and resentment (refer to the third step on the practice of purity of heart regarding how to do this). Tell the Lord of your sorrow for having entertained bitterness or resentment, and ask him once again for the grace to overcome these vexing inclinations. Of course, if you are making progress, rejoice with the Lord in the good he is accomplishing in your soul.
THIRD STEP: The practice of purity of heart.
One of the great advocates of the practice of purity of heart was the gifted spiritual writer, Father Louis Lallemant, whose students included Issac Jogues and Jean de Brebeuf, both of whom became canonized saints. Father Lallemant stresses that so much good in the spiritual life is accomplished by the practice of purity of heart. By the practice of purity of heart you become a keen and diligent observer of our own thoughts.
By the practice of purity of heart we keep a very careful watch over all the thoughts being presented to our mind and over all the affections and passions being presented to our heart. By this careful watch, we almost immediately intercept and delete the thoughts and affections which violate purity of heart. Thus, as a very simple example, should I suddenly feel the desire to gossip about someone, I check out this movement of my heart, examine it, and ultimately suppress or delete it since it violates purity of heart. Or, as another example, should I suddenly feel swelling up in my heart ill-will towards a certain person, the practice of purity of heart obligates me to take a close look at this movement of my heart, and to mortify it, and to replace it with Christian charity and forgiveness. Gradually, by steadfastly and diligently practicing purity of heart, our heart becomes cleaner and cleaner. What do we want more in our lives than purity of heart?
Purity of heart is a mechanism of introspection whereby we carefully look at our thoughts and affections, even moment by moment, to place them under Christ’s law of charity. As soon as we observe that our mind or affections are tending in a sinful direction, we immediately mortify such thoughts or affections, giving them no chance of growth within our souls. Its sort of like we’ve installed security software in our brain that immediately detects and deletes bad stuff (God’s given us the software and all we have to do is learn how to use it!!).
Thus, says Father Lallemant, “one of the greatest graces which God bestows upon us in this life…is to be so watchful over our heart as that the least irregular movement shall not secretly arise in it without our perceiving it and immediately correcting it….” We ought to pray to God for the grace to practice purity of heart, which will be so helpful to us in purifying our thoughts, remembering the biblical admonition to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
FOURTH STEP: The regular use of sacramental confession.
The power of the Sacrament of Confession cannot be overstated. Saint John Paul II drew attention to the healing power of Confession, saying:
“It [sacramental Confession] also performs an authentic ‘spiritual resurrection,’ restores the dignity and the good of the life of the children of God, the most precious of which is friendship with God.
It would be illusory to desire to reach holiness, according to the vocation that each one has received from God, without partaking frequently of this sacrament of conversion and sanctification,” that, together with the Eucharist, “accompanies the path of the Christian towards perfection.”
“[Sacramental]Penance, by its nature,” he explained, “involves purification, in both the acts of the penitent who lays bare his conscience because of the deep need to be pardoned and reborn, and in the effusion of sacramental grace that purifies and renews.” (summary by Catholic New Agency, May 29, 2004)
If bitterness and resentment have captured your heart, being something akin to a venial sin virus in your moral anatomy, touching upon the possibility of mortal sin, let the power of Sacramental Confession eradicate this illness and set your heart at peace! Remember, this was a sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ (see John 20:21-23). Jesus is there when you go to Confession.
FIFTH STEP: Forgiveness.
“The one and only thing that can prevent these adverse developments is the timely act of one’s will, namely forgiveness. I am convinced that when Jesus taught us to pray the Our Father, He had in mind our psychological well-being as much as our spiritual wholeness. He knew that every one of us would repeatedly be in situations in which he had “every right” to feel anger and resentment as natural reactions to ill treatment by others. Wanting us to be happy even in those circumstances, He gave us – in addition to reason and common sense to be used for the purpose of defense and attainment of justice – the ultimate “tool,” so to speak, to be saved from the consequences of chronic, unresolved anger and resentment. That particular “tool,” of course, is the act of forgiving” (Catholic psychiatrist Conrad W. Baars).
SIXTH STEP: Growth in the Gift of Piety.
By a supernatural elevation – that is, by the Holy Spirit’s Gift of Piety received in baptism – a hardened and bitter heart can be made loving and tender towards someone who has deeply hurt him. The great spiritual writer and mystic, Tauler, so often praised by other spiritual writers, calls the Gift of Piety the “gift of tender-hearted gentleness.” He indicates that this gift, among other things, “takes away all meanness and hardness of heart, all interior bitterness.” Father Faber talks about Piety as “softness to God and to others,” and Father Lovasik states that this softness extends all the way to the “most abandoned on earth.” The “gift of piety further extinguishes in the heart those fires of tension and division which are bitterness, anger and impatience, and nourishes feelings of understanding, tolerance, and pardon. Such a gift is, therefore, at the root of that new human community which is based on the civilization of love” (Pope John Paul II).”
To attain a deepening of this Gift of Piety, Saint Pope John Paul II recommends prayer to Mary, saying: “Let us ask the Holy spirit for a renewed outpouring of this gift, entrusting our prayers to the intercession of Mary, sublime model of fervent prayer and maternal tenderness.” See also Father Lovasik’s small book, Favorite Novenas to the Holy Spirit, as a means to deepen and harness this Gift of Piety.
SEVENTH STEP: Regular Eucharistic Adoration.
See my post:
CONCLUSION: As Christians we are called to remove the roots of bitterness and resentment from our hearts. What a painful, difficult obligation! But we must do it. I feel confident that the seven steps mentioned above will greatly assist you – with God’s grace – in accomplishing this noteworthy goal. “Oh Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto yours!”
Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.
Ref. In addition to the sources listed above, I see that the tone of my note is influenced by F.W. Faber. He’s the one who says that you are going to need “to get this ruin out of the way,” or something close to that.
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