Life & Soul

How to avoid bitterness

As Christians, we are asked to imitate Christ. How do we do this? One way is to imitate Jesus’s action of holding, carrying, purifying and transforming tension; that is, by taking in the bitterness, anger, jealousy, hatred, slander and every other kind of thing that’s cancerous within the human community, and not giving it back in kind.

In essence, Jesus did this by acting like a purifier, a water filter of sorts. He took in hatred, held it, transformed it and gave back love; he took in bitterness, held it, transformed it and gave back graciousness; he took in curses, held them, transformed them, and gave back blessing; and he took in murder, held it, transformed it and gave back forgiveness.

Jesus resisted the instinct to give back in kind, hatred for hatred, curses for curses, jealousy for jealousy, murder for murder. He held and transformed these things rather than simply re-transmit them.

And in this, he wants imitation. Christian discipleship invites us, like Jesus, to become a purifier, who helps take tension out of our families, communities, friendship circles, churches and workplaces by holding and transforming it rather than simply giving it back in kind.

But that’s not easy. To carry tension is to fill with tension ourselves and, as we know, this can be unbearable. We don’t have God’s strength and we aren’t made of steel. As we try to carry tension for others, what do we do with our own tensions? How do we carry tension without becoming resentful and bitter? How do we carry another’s cross without, however subtly, sending him or her the bill?

This isn’t easy, as every health professional can tell you. Tension wreaks havoc inside us, physically and emotionally. You can die of high blood pressure or of disappointment. But there are some rules that can help.

First, carrying tension for others does not mean putting up with abuse or not confronting pathological or clinical dysfunction. To love someone, as we now know, does not mean accepting abuse in the name of love.

Second, we need to find healthy outlets to release our own tensions. However, we should never download them onto the same people for whom we are trying to carry them. For example, parents carry tension for their children, but, when frustrations build up, they should not angrily vent those frustrations back on the kids themselves. Rather, they should deal with their own tensions away from the children, with each other and with friends, when the kids are in bed, over a bottle of wine. The same holds true for everyone.

Finally, in order to deal with the frustrations that build up in us, we need, in the midst of the tensions, to be connected to something (a person, a friendship, a hand, a creed, a perspective) beyond ourselves and the situation we’re in.

Scripture offers some wonderful images for this. It tells us, for example, that as Stephen was being stoned to death out of hatred and jealousy, he kept his “eyes raised to heaven”. That’s a commentary on how Stephen kept himself from drowning in the spinning chaos that was assaulting him. He stayed connected to a person, a hand, a friendship, an affirmation, a perspective and a divine power outside of the madness.

We see the same thing, just a different metaphor, in the story of the three young men who are thrown into the blazing furnace in the Book of Daniel. We’re told that they walked around, right in the midst of the flames, untouched by the fire because they were singing sacred songs. Like Stephen, they sustained their love and faith amid bitter jealousy and hatred by staying connected to something outside of the fiery forces that were consuming everyone else.

We need to contemplate that lesson. Like Jesus, and like everyone else who’s ever walked this planet, we find ourselves forever inside families, communities, churches, friendships and work circles that are filled with tension of every kind.

Our natural temptation, always, is simply to give back in kind, jealousy for jealousy, gossip for gossip, anger for anger. But what our world really needs is for some women and men – adults – to step forward and help carry and purify this tension, to help take it away by transforming it inside themselves.

But that’s not easy. Like Jesus, it will involve “sweating blood”. So, as we volunteer to step into the fire, it’s wise not to go in alone, but to stay connected to some hand, some friend, some creed, and some God who will help sustain us in love and faith, right inside the madness and fire.