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Category: Bitterness

Breaking a hard heart

Recently my church offered a time of prayer for healing. As I waited for my wife, who was praying for someone, an elder approached me and asked if I myself needed prayer.

I thought I didn’t, but my heart knew. Immediately I said yes, and when I was asked what to pray for, the words rushed out: “My hardened heart.”

05-19-2011I realized just how badly my hard heart did need healing prayer. After a wonderful advent season, as 2016 began I had started to feel deluged by political speeches, social media debates, and “awareness” campaigns over injustices about which I can do little, except worry over how little I can do. At such times, my old patterns of cynicism, sarcasm, and apathy tend to start sneaking back into my heart. After all, my flawed logic assumes, if I act superior or uncaring, then all of the bad things can’t bother me.

But this assumption is not true; those things still do bother me. And so my heart unconsciously hardens. I build a wall against the world—a defense against watching humanity make one bad choice after another, with evil flooding in wherever goodness seems weak or absent. At times I‘ve tried to deflect my feelings with humor, but sometimes that can offend people too. So withdrawal and apathy seem to provide better protection from the overwhelming feeling that the world is spinning out of control.

I begin to see myself as a detached, objective observer, sitting above other humans and mocking them as idiotic Neanderthals. However, my passion and emotion always seem to slip out as sarcasm, passive-aggressive put-downs, and biting comments. Though I try to stuff it inside, I seethe until I reach a boiling point. Then, I launch.

Unfortunately, the sinful choice to withdraw and harden my heart has serious side effects. The heart, as strong as we think it is, cannot completely close itself off from others. It cannot create an unbreachable wall. We angrily try to make sure no more pain gets in, but we cannot prevent our own corrosive bitterness and aggression from leaking out.

I’m guessing this is not God’s intended modus operandi for Christ-followers.

After all, when Jesus approached Jerusalem for the final time, scripture says that he “wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19:41-42, NIV).

What brought on Jesus’s deep, unexpected emotion?

Simply put, his heart broke for the people.

In Jerusalem at that time, the Jews were hard-pressed on every side – taxed, abused, and marginalized in their own land by Roman occupiers. Seeking freedom from Rome, some Jews—one could even call them terrorists—issued stealth attacks against both the Roman oppressors and their Jewish collaborators. The city was in great turmoil and unrest.

But that wasn’t all. In addition to external oppression from Rome, the Jews also faced internal oppression from their own spiritual leaders, who had created a huge body of religious regulations governing every detail of life. Breaking just one small rule, intentionally or not, could lead to serious consequences and penalties – so everyone lived in constant worry and fear, trying to follow all of the rules. In about forty years, Jerusalem would be razed and its temple destroyed. And within a week, Jesus’s own fellow Jews, who would at first praise him as their king, would turn on him and kill him.

Yet his heart broke for them.

Me? Most of the time, I just want to shake my head in disgust and brush the dust from my shoes as I desperately seek a saner, less stressful life. “The world is going to hell in a hand basket,” I say to myself from my lofty perch. “Screw it. Let them. World, meet sin. Good luck. I will have no part of it.”

pulling stone heartBut I’m pretty sure my response is not the right one. I don’t need a tough, hard heart. I need a broken one—one that weeps for my city, my country, my world. A hardened heart wants to fight; a broken heart wants to heal. A hardened heart is selfish and stands apart to judge; a broken heart is selfless and jumps in to help.

So how can a hard heart be softened – or, better yet, broken?

Once I understood the process my heart took to become rock-hard, I realized that I cannot soften it through will-power. That’s what prayer is for. Only prayer and repentance can undo the damage.

In the last year, some political and spiritual leaders – even some Christian ones – have implied that praying is basically doing nothing. But these skeptics are blinded to the supernatural power found in prayer.

Prayer acknowledges our helplessness. It is a concession that despite all of our supposed knowledge, we cannot fix our problems but can only present them to a good and holy God and ask for his help.

Prayer includes our confession. It is an admission that we are—I am—responsible for breaking this world, which God created as good, and it forces us to see things through God’s eyes instead of our own.

Prayer restores our unity. It is an affirmation that I am not apart from the world God created; instead I am involved in it, both as part of the problem and as a living reflection of grace. And I definitely can’t reflect grace if my heart is hard.

Every heart must be broken. God can get us there in infinite ways—some very forceful and painful. However, having experienced some of those other ways, I do not recommend them. I think prayer is God’s preferred method.

Because becoming like Jesus requires that our hearts break over the world, seeing it the way he saw Jerusalem.

This is the world he died for.

This is the world he loves.

This is the world he invites me to love as he loves.

And that invitation to love starts with prayer.

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Heart check on bitterness

Blog BitternessFor months now, the news has been filled with stories of the destructive power of bitterness.

In local communities, neo-bullies force political correctness on any who disagree, sometimes with verbal or emotional violence. Across the U.S., cities erupt in frustration and rage, and many may never recover. In the Middle East, Christians are slaughtered for their faith, and my country’s perceived response is indifference. And we, the body of Christ, respond not by crying out to the Prince of Peace for help, but by launching grenades of hate and shame at each other because we can’t agree on the causes of and solutions to these tragedies.

In no way do I want to judge or diminish all of this suffering and chaos, but in each case—including the infighting among Christ-followers–I see offenses of bitterness beneath it all (Hebrews 12:15) And the terrible fallout is not only individual but also collective—with familial, societal, and even global implications.

The pain of it has filled me with confusion and anger—along with a wish to climb to the heavens and shout: “Stop!” I’ve longed to find some verse I could post to convince everyone to put away bitterness and give life instead of death.

Funny thing is, Scripture doesn’t always give me what I’m looking for. Sometimes it gives me something completely different.

Just before I started this blog, as I was reading through Proverbs, suddenly one verse punched me in the liver:

“Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.” (Proverbs 14:10)

I tried to move on, but those words kept drilling into my ears. The irony was obvious: I wanted to find a verse to convict others of their bitterness, but God gave me a verse to convict me of mine. I wanted to use God’s word to go all prophetic on everyone else, but instead God’s word went all prophetic on me. I wanted to call out the hearts all around me, but this verse called out my own.

I hate it God when does that.

I think the reason this verse hit me so hard is that it is both an observation and a warning.

Let me explain.

Bitterness says, “I don’t deserve the bad that has happened to me.” Much of my life has felt that way—like one undeserved land mine after another. Forgive me if you’ve heard my backstory: broken by my parents’ divorce and battered by nonstop bullying, I dropped out of and flunked sixth grade, struggled through my teens and twenties and then, in adulthood, lost my dream job, my postgraduate degree, and my future all at once – the rotten cherry on top.

Yeah, I could be bitter. Surely, I told myself, I had a right to hold on to some of that rancor.

But God says no (Hebrews 12:15, Ephesians 4:31, James 3:14). Apparently, he can see something I can’t about the great dangers of bitterness—even the tiniest little bit of it. And as I’ve watched the world erupt into chaos, I’ve started to see those dangers too.

So instead of what I wanted—a verse to launch like a hand grenade at what others are doing—I found this verse, which forced me to look within and strongly convicted me of what I myself must do:

Stop denying and start acknowledging the existence and the degree of my bitterness. From Proverbs 14:10 I take two main points: 1) Only the heart can see the bitterness within; and 2) Only the heart knows the full depth of that bitterness. No one can see into another’s heart and detect its bitterness, or measure how much is there. Face it, we are all pretty good at throwing up a façade of “Who, me? I’m not bitter” to fool others and even ourselves, excusing and denying our bitterness while it festers for years or even decades, consuming us from within. We say we’re not bitter; we’re just a little miffed, upset, teed off. We even give our bitterness watered-down names like “resentment” or “grudges.” But after years of coddling those grudges like pets – when in truth they are wild beasts which will devour me – I believe I am finally starting to admit and deal with my bitterness. Which leads to the next point…

Understand that my bitterness will destroy me. Many scriptures teach that bitterness ends in destruction and death. Proverbs 14:10 is part of a longer passage, Proverbs 14:8-15, which is a type of chiasm (sometimes called a chiasma or chiasmus) – a mirrored parallel structure which introduces words or concepts and then reverses them (for example, “All for one and one for all”). In this type of chiasm, the most important point is placed in the center for emphasis. So verses 8 and 15 contrast wisdom vs. foolishness; verses 9 and 14 contrast sinfulness vs. uprightness; verses 10 and 13 contrast bitterness vs. joy; and verses 11 and 12 contrast the way of life vs. the way of death:

 The house of the wicked will be destroyed, but the tent of the upright will flourish.

There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.

These two verses are the center – the most important point – of the chiasm. The writer wanted to emphasize that the righteous behaviors in the surrounding verses, like wisdom and thoughtfulness, will surely lead to life, while sinful choices like foolishness and bitterness will certainly lead to death. So there is only one remedy…

Allow God to clean out my bitter heart and give me a grateful one.            IMG_0020Bitterness never goes away on its own; it is defeated only when God barges into our hearts, entering rooms we wish he wouldn’t. Fortunately, he is fully able to break open all the darkest cabinets and deepest closets, dig into the muck and mire, and clean everything out. It may be true that I haven’t “deserved” the bad things I’ve received in life—all of the rejections, losses, and failures; this is the voice of bitterness. However, the opposite is also true: I certainly haven’t “deserved” even one of the good things I’ve received either—not a single awesome sunset or a single amazing moonrise—and yet I keep receiving them, day after day; this is the voice of gratitude. Bitterness, if fed, destroys gratitude, bringing death to the soul. Yet gratitude, if fed, overcomes bitterness—bringing life and healing.

As I write this, the news is revealing yet another new situation involving deep-seated bitterness, threatening to destroy lives. There is no panacea to alleviate all the pain and turmoil, and there is nothing I can do to resolve it either. Bitterness can be uprooted only as each person opens his or her heart to a gracious God, and I can’t make anyone do that.

I can, however, begin by opening my own heart, giving Jesus the keys to every dark, decaying room, and allowing the King of Kings to start cleaning out the bitterness within.

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