Thursday, November 29, 2012

Mind Games

So, think about this: what goes on in our minds?   Sure, there is lust, covetousness, or envy.  And there is hatred, lying, or a desire to harm someone.  In a discussion of what goes on in our minds, we might examine pornography and its fallout.  Then there are the things that we hide in our minds that no one knows about.  Have you ever found yourself harboring bitterness against someone?  Be honest.  Don’t just call it by a different name just to minimize how it sounds.  I know I’ve done it.
That is what we will look at this morning—what the Scripture has to say about bitterness and reliving the evil that is done to us.  And I’ll ask you straight up—are you bitter?  Are you reliving some horrible event in your life from the past?  Don’t immediately say, “oh, no, I’m good”.  Think about it.   If there is one thing I’ve learned in my six decades here on earth, it is that we all experience the same kinds of things—some seemingly have more such experiences than others—but the same kinds of things nonetheless.  Paul points that out: 

No temptation, that is, no enticement to sin, has overtaken you that is not common to man.  Everybody deals with the same things.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, an exit, a way out, that you may be able to endure it, that you may be able to bear up under it.  (1 Corinthians 10:13 ESV)[1] 

So, for example, I understand that if I have issues with battling bitterness and reliving injustice, it means you do too, and vice versa.  And let me assure you, I do battle bitterness and reliving injustice.  At the same time, we cannot be people who are driven by emotion as a result of experiencing injustice or evil at the hands of others.
Understand, there is no way to exhaust this issue of bitterness and/or reliving evil committed against us…I would encourage you to think though—think about bitterness and think about reliving evil committed against us.  At the same time, understand that getting rid of bitterness is very different from forgiveness.  But like I said, it would take weeks to adequately air the whole subject.   
This morning I would ask you to walk away thinking—thinking about bitterness and what God has to say about it all.  Allow yourself to be stretched, allow your thinking to be stretched.
Injustice Done to Us
All of us experience injustice—a violation of who we are—at one time or another.  It may take the form of a physical attack, a verbal attack or an emotional attack.  It may take us by surprise, or we may see it coming a mile away.  It may come at us from a spouse, a child, a parent, a co-worker, a supervisor, a fellow church member, or even someone we’ve never encountered previously.  We may think we didn’t have that coming, or, at the other end, we may believe the person who harms us is “just having a bad day”, but we all experience what we would term injustice or evil on more than a regular basis. 
But we are not alone in suffering injustice.  Think of the injustice suffered by the Lord Jesus Christ.[2]  He was plotted against, ridiculed, mocked, spit on, beaten, accused, abandoned, betrayed, went through an unjust trial, died for my sin and your sin, which is the ultimate injustice.  How did he respond?  Was he bitter?  No!  “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but [he] continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly”.[3]  Wow.  He continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

Bitterness is Sin
Now, guilt is what we feel when we sin.  Bitterness, on the other hand, is what we can feel when others sin against us.  Bitterness looks to the action of another, it is a smoldering resentment, a brooding, grudging, unforgiving spirit we all tend to harbor or at least are capable of harboring within our hearts.  It is something that takes place within us, an illicit kind of resentment against another.  
Bitterness is having a heart that is hardened toward other people who may have sinned against us, a hardness of heart that will not release a past offense (different from biblical forgiveness), a hardness of heart that will continue to play over and over in one’s mind. 
The word has to do with deep-seated ill will toward another. It is something that produces even more bitterness.  More?  Yes, more.  Bitterness tends to accumulate, that is, it tends to increase over time. Unless there’s a resolution to it, people do not get less bitter with maturity. They get more bitter over the years. It just gets worse and worse.
Finally, bitterness is most often involved with those we are close to, those we love.
Now, if you know what I’m talking about, say Amen!
So, someone sins against us—maybe even grievously.  They are unrepentant.  We stew, we simmer, and we begin to boil.  We think, “he’s a believer, she’s a believer!  He should know better.  She knows she should ask forgiveness.  They think they can get away with this!  How rude!”  We go on and on in our minds, “I was right!  They are wrong!  I have a right to be upset.”  Wow.  We all do this.  But know thisallowing bitterness to fester within our hearts is nothing less than playing with fire.  Literally.  Do you want to get burned?  Then just allow bitterness to continue to fester.  Satan’s scheme is to divide and conquer—and bitterness moves that right along.

Reliving Injustice is Sin
As if bitterness was not enough, we really must recognize that reliving injustice done toward us is nothing short of sin against God.  Believers are not immune to reliving injustice.  As a result of the injustice done to us, as a result of evil done to us, we want to hold onto the memories of what happened to us, because we believe that we have a right to do so.  Bitterness is maintained by memories of what happened between us and another person.  We emphasize—in our minds and to others—what has happened to us, what others have done to us.  But, it's not really about what others have done to us, but instead, it is about our actions, our reactions, that is, our response our sufferings.  
When we replay these horrible events in our minds, we are allowing Satan to have a front row seat as we mull things over.  We allow the situation to move in and take up residence within us.  In effect, we allow the person who offended us to control us!
This battle of “Mind Games” is a battle, no, it is a war, we cannot lose no matter what.  Do not lose this war for your mind!

How Can I Tell If I’m Bitter?
So you might ask: how can we tell if we are bitter?  We can start by asking ourselves if any of the descriptors I’ve mentioned characterize our lives.  And, I can give you one more descriptor: Bitterness remembers the details, in detail.  If we are bitter, we will tend to do what I just talked about—we will relive the negative experience over and over.
Why do we do this?  Well, in my experience, we just seem to think we have a “right” to do so.  So, we review over and over and over ad nauseum, the negative things that happen to us, especially evil done to us verbally, emotionally, or physically.  We zero in on who was right (in our minds).  We think, “oh, I should have said this or that”, or “I could have pointed this or that out”.  Or we begin to plot how we might get even.  I know—I’ve done all of this and more.  Doing this will tend to lead to destruction—
·   destruction of our relationship with another,
·   destruction of our peace with God,
·   destruction of our peace with family members,
·   destruction of the joy that is ours in Christ
Reliving all the negative experiences from the past will also cause us to defile others—we’ll address that in a minute.  So what does Paul tell us to do with all of this?  He says,
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  (Ephesians 4:31 ESV)
We’ll unpack that in a minute.  First I want to point out something else, and that is this.

An Outline of the War
Like I said earlier, folks, we are at war.  We are at war!!  We must face up to the fact that spiritual battles take place every day in our hearts and minds.  Too often, we just ignore that facet of our lives.  Paul called it war:
…[T]hough we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war [we are not fighting] according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds…  (2 Corinthians 10 ESV)

The war described here is a series of spiritual battles, each of which has a winner.  We war against those things that are unseen, those things we rely upon in place of Christ, those things that are fortresses in our spiritual battles.  This includes bitterness.  
For we do not wrestle [we do not struggle] against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  (Ephesians 6 ESV)

The wrestling match described here is a contest between two individuals or entities, in which one tries to overthrow the other.  It is a struggle that is decided when the winner is able to hold his opponent down with his hand on his neck.  Paul is describing the wrestling match, the struggle, of the believer with the power of evil.  The evil we face, the evil we do battle with, wants to defeat us, to hold us down by our necks.  Unfortunately, we too often surrender early in the battle, thereby giving in to sin. 
Again, Paul:
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  (Ephesians 4:31 ESV)

Paul is telling us that if we have bitterness in our hearts, if we maintain that bitterness, we can then expect wrath and anger and clamor and slander and malice to result.  All of these sins can have their beginning in bitterness, that inner resentful attitude toward another person.
The natural results from this attitude include:
·   Wrath has to do with passion, anger boiling up and subsiding again—we simmer, blow our cork, relax, simmer, blow our cork, relax, and on and on.  It’s that feeling you and I experience deep inside the pit of our stomach that eventually erupts.
·   Anger is an agitation of the soul; it is impulsive, blowing the cork without any simmering, and has to do with any violent emotion or reaction.  It’s having the short fuse—one little spark lights it, and kablooee!   It is frequently something that wouldn’t normally set us off, but does—because of the bitterness festering in our hearts.  I’m referring to sinful anger here, not righteous anger. 
·   Clamor is shouting, blowing one’s gasket, in public and in private.  We’ve all witnessed that in a store or elsewhere.
·   Slander is speaking disrespectfully of someone, speech that causes injury to another person’s good name.  We do not have the RIGHT to speak ill about another.  We do it because of the bitterness we have toward that individual.
·   Malice is any ill will we have toward another, any desire to injure another in any way.  This would include plotting ways to get even, to seek vengence.  It is a heart attitude that results from bitterness toward the person with whom we want to get even.
We are to put bitterness away, Paul says, and we are to put it away violently, as if we are fighting for our lives.  That is how important it is to get rid of it!  Putting it away means to remove it so that it no longer exists.
Remember, we are at WAR!  Failure to put it away will result in all sorts of damage, all sorts of injury!  All of the things that result from bitterness are wicked and evil, and they result in nothing but trouble for us and for others!  Again, they have their beginning in bitterness!

Earlier I pointed out that we cannot be people who are driven by emotion!  Now, this may sound harsh, but consider it anyway—when we allow emotion to drive us, we are demonstrating a failure to believe the truth of the Word of God.  John Piper said, “The battle against bitterness is a battle against unbelief.”[4]
The war against bitterness is a battle to really believe what God has said, to really believe the truth of his Word.  What truth you ask? 
·   The truth that vengeance belongs to God[5] Do you believe that?  I mean, really believe it?  Folks, we HOPE in this truth![6]  It is not ours to exact vengeance against another, but God has said he will take care of it!
·   The truth that his justice will triumph[7]  Our God is a just God—nothing escapes his notice!
·   The truth that God is sovereign over all that happens in our lives[8]  Nothing happens apart from his perfect plan and purpose.
·   The truth that God is working all—hear that, ALL—things together for the good of those who belong to him[9] 
·   The truth that his grace is sufficient[10] for all of the circumstances in which we find ourselves
·   The truth of who we as believers are in Christ[11]  Think Romans 6.
·   The truth that he is always with us,[12] never forsakes us, is for us and not against us[13]
Really believe these things, and we will beat up bitterness, win the battle, and put it away every time!  Notice I said believe—it is faith at work, it is God at work in our faith, all by grace!
One more thing, and this is crucial to “get”—remember that in the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul told us who we are in Christ.   He described what God has already accomplished in us.  In the last three chapters, he outlines what it looks like to be that person in Christ and at 4:1, he begins that lengthy exhortation saying,
“I therefore [based on what I have told you about who and what you are in the first part of the letter], a prisoner for the Lord, I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called…”  (Ephesians 4:1 ESV) 
He then gives us, in much detail, what that will look like.
In Ephesians 4:31, Paul describes, in part, the life lived out by the person described in the first three chapters.  He is saying that if you truly are a believer, then this is how you will act, this is how you will behave, this is how you will liveAnd how is it we will be living?  We will [P]ut away all wrath and anger and clamor and slander, and all malice, all of which have their root in bitterness!!  Bitterness must be disposed of.

Defilement by Bitterness
Now, the Bible addresses the impact that a bitter individual can have on others around him, and God, in his Word, makes no bones about it.  The writer of Hebrews cautions:
[See to it] that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled  (Hebrews 12:12-15 ESV)

As a root, bitterness is something that may not be easily discernable, that is, it may be hidden beneath the surface.  So, as it moves toward the surface, we may be tripped up by it and others may be tripped up by it.  But more importantly, a bitter root will produce bitter fruit.  Our lives (the fruit) will show how bitter we really are, and that bitterness will defile those around us.
The person who personifies a bitter root—the person who is constantly reliving the events of the past and is stewing, simmering, boiling and spewing bitterness to those around him—this person will defile, he will poison and prove to be a toxic influence on others, he has the potential to pollute and ruin those in whose lives he has any standing, any influence.  He will tarnish, denigrate, contaminate, and soil the lives around him. 
That is why the only thing to do is to root out the root, that is, uproot the basic underlying cause of the bitterness that drives the bitter person, and confess it as sin.

Personal Experience: Reliving and Bitterness
Up until 10 years ago, the only difficulties in this area that I had occurred at work, where a couple of pagan supervisors made life pretty difficult—they didn’t deal well with someone that did the right thing because it was the right thing to do.  That was one thing. 
But then between 2002 and 2007, a number of things occurred in our lives that made life downright miserable.  Much of it had to do with people I was close to, people that really mattered to me.
I have shared with you before about how I’ve struggled with this very thing—reliving awful experiences—and how I’ve wrestled with pushing “play” and “rewind” and then “play” again.  I’ve done the whole “I could have said this”, “I should have said that”, “I’m right, they’re wrong” thing too.  I’ve replayed the entire course of events in my mind, to my detriment and to the detriment of my family.  Oh, yeah, in detail too.  Remember a little while ago, I talked about bitterness being the ability to remember the details, in detail?  Well, I’m sad to say, that was me.
But thankfully, God has been renewing and reforming my faith over the course of the past 10 years.  He who began a good work in me is bringing it to completion in preparation for the day of Jesus Christ.  God has brought me to a different understanding of himself, his Word and his Son. 
I read the account of a fellow who was going through this refining process.  He and his wife got into it over something that was not all that important.   She walked out of the room, and he resolutely stayed put.  “I’m right, and she’s so wrong” he thought to himself.  At the same time, he knew he had to make things right with his wife.  So he dropped to his knees and prayed, asking God’s forgiveness, and praying his wife would forgive him when he went to her in repentance.  He got up to walk out to where she was, and as he walked, he was thinking, “I’m still right”.  He saw how wrong that was, and dropped to his knees again.  He got up, and as he was walking out to his wife, he was replaying what she said in his mind.  Dropped to his knees again.  Took him 45 minutes, he said, to be able to get up without replaying it all in his mind, and to be able to ask his wife’s forgiveness, truly repentant.
I’m thinking that’s where most of us fail.  We are not willing to do the hard work of imploring the sovereign God of the universe to resolve the bitterness in our hearts.  We want a quick fix instead, and we seem to think it’s up to us, so we just “choose to move on”—that is truly a cop-out.  We seem to be “okay” with living with the bitterness.  I know that’s where I fail.  I also know that’s where God is at work in my life. 
I truly wish I could tell you “it’s all better!”  But it takes time; it’s a process, and any process that is effective takes time.  That process is called sanctification, and it is God at work in us.  Our sanctification in this area is, like all areas of our lives, a progression that takes place.  It just doesn’t happen overnight.  But remember, it is God at work in usNothing we do for self-improvement will accomplish anything!  Why?  It is because the “gospel of self-improvement”, and the “gospel of behavior modification”, are false gospels!  Again, it is God at work in us!

Getting Rid of It: How the Gospel Impacts this Process
So what might that all look like, I mean God at work in us?
Paul said to get rid of all bitterness. Before we begin discussing how this is accomplished—we’ve already talked about the “why”—it is crucial to realize that the basis for all our actions in this regard must be in what Jesus Christ has done for us on the cross.
We do not get rid of bitterness of our own accord.  We do not just wave a magic wand and pronounce bitterness gone!  It is something that God does in us, though.  It is something he accomplishes—and it does not matter, it is not contingent upon what action, if any, the person who offended us takesThe only way to get rid of it is to confess it as sin, sin for which Christ died!  Remember, as Jesus said, “It is finished!”  If we have any hope of ridding ourselves of bitterness, we must admit it is sin, admit it is evil, admit it is unbelief, admit it will defile those around us, and admit that bitterness is MY sin, not the sin of the other person
My sin and not the sin of the other person?  You might argue, but they are the cause of it!  Doesn’t matter.  Bitterness is my sin, it is your sin—it is our response to evil committed against us.  Look again at what Paul said:

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  (Ephesians 4:31 ESV)

The command regarding bitterness has to do with each of us individually.  Notice Paul specifically says, “you”.  We are not charged with putting away these things from someone else, but from ourselves.
We can do this because of what God has done in us as believers.
What is it specifically that God has done?  Oh, my, so much!  He has:
·   Blessed us
·   Chosen us
·   Predestined us
·   Redeemed us
·   Forgiven us
·   Sealed us

And that is just a quick pick from the first 11 verses of Ephesians 1!
Because of what he has done, we can put bitterness away by faith—faith in the truths I listed a bit ago.  We can deal with bitterness because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  We are not being commanded to do something that will get God to adopt us, something to earn his favor, something that will allow us to be in God’s “good graces”, or to do something in our own power or strength.  No!  We are commanded to live like those who know, who know that they know, that they are already sons and daughters of the living God!  And we are able to do that because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
When people do evil to us, we need to remember that God loves us, has chosen us, and that this evil done to us will make our faith much deeper, and will make us more holy.  So instead of being bitter toward the doer of the evil, we thank God that he is at work in our lives.  You and I must trust that God is at work in us and for us to accomplish his purposes in our lives. 
When Dan preached on 1 Samuel 24, when David was hiding in the cave, he talked about the importance of trusting in God’s justice.   He pointed out that believers are to show mercy, speak truth with respect, and demonstrate kindness.  God actually gave my wife and I the opportunity to do just that a while back when we actually put ourselves in a situation where we would more than likely encounter a person that had committed a grievous offense against our family.  We could have been busy pushing “rewind” and “play” over and over, but in his mercy, in his kindness, God enabled us to show that particular individual mercy, respect and kindness.  God is so very faithful!
Not only that, but Romans 8:28 assures us that God is at work in our lives!  He takes all circumstances and all situations in the life of a true believer, and sovereignly works them ALL TOGETHER for our good.  In his providence, he works in our lives, through our circumstances, to free us from bitterness!
We must remember that our sin causes us to look at ourselves, whereas the gospel causes us to look away from ourselves and to those around us.  Who do you want to be looking at?
Again, I would remind you—there is no way to exhaust this issue of bitterness and/or reliving evil committed against us…and again, remember, there are major differences between bitterness and forgiveness, between bitterness and having a willingness to forgive if the biblical standards are met.
So, we must ask, what is the proper response to bitterness?  I would suggest six things to consider.  As I list them, allow yourself to be sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and if one of them resonates with you, grab it and deal with it.
   1.    Focus on and look to Jesus, who is the founder and perfecter of our faith.[14] 
a.    Fix your eyes on him alone.
   2.    Focus on his Word.  Remember, our help as believers comes from the Lord, and from the Lord alone![15] 
a.    Out strength is from the Lord alone. 
b.    And where do we find that help?  In the Word of God! 
c.     Anyone who has been in combat—hand-to-hand or a firefight—will tell you that the time to study and get ready is not on the battlefield. 
d.    Prepare!
    3.    Listen to wise counsel[16]—it is important to ask questions and guidance of those who are walking with Christ, those who will “give it to us straight”, based on what the Word of God tells us!  
a.    You do not want someone telling you what they think you want to hear.  (Prior to that situation I told you about, where my wife and I intentionally placed ourselves in a situation where we would more than likely encounter a person that had sinned grievously against us, we sought wise counsel, and implemented it.  God worked in and through that counsel!)
   4.    Pray[17], giving thanks for all that comes to your life, recognizing and acknowledging that God is at work in you
a.    If you are a true believer, he is working for your good![18]
  5.    Believe that vengeance belongs to God alone—he will repay.[19] 
a.    God calls us to HOPE in that truth!
    6.    Remember, it is finished![20]
a.    Jesus has accomplished it all on our behalf! 
b.    Again, remember he said, “It is finished”.  That is exactly what he meant—there is no more for us to do.
c.     The focus of our lives must not be our work but his work; not on our holiness, but his holiness; not on our performance, but his performance!    

Therefore, you, Paul says, are to put away all bitterness…

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Emphasis mine
[2] Hebrews 2
[3] 1 Peter 2:23
[4] John Piper, “Battling the Unbelief of Bitterness”, 11/20/1088, accessed 11/05/2012
[5] Romans 12:19, Hebrews 10:30
[6] Hebrews 10:30
[7] Luke 18:7
[8] 1 Timothy 6:15
[9] Romans 8:28
[10] 2 Corinthians 12:9
[11] Romans 6
[12] Matthew 28:20
[13] Romans 8:31
[14] Hebrews 12:2
[15] Psalm 121:1-2
[16] Proverbs 15:22
[17] I Chronicles 15:34; Psalm 9:1, 30:4, 44:8; I Corinthians 1:4; I Thessalonians 5:18; 2 Thessalonians 2:13
[18] Romans 8:28
[19] Hebrews 10:30
[20] John 19:30

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