Bitterness, Forgiveness, and Being Like God

Series: God's New Family: An Exposition of Ephesians

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 28, 2006

Ephesians 4:31-5:2

Download Audio

The Lord's Day Morning

May 28, 2006

Ephesians 4:31-5:2

“Bitterness, Forgiveness, and Being Like God”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Ephesians, chapter four. We finally come to the end of this chapter, but Paul's line of thought continues on into chapter five. In fact, this section from Ephesians 4:25 doesn't really end until about Ephesians 5:4. The same train of thought continues.

The Apostle Paul has been calling on us as Christians to live distinctly as Christians in this world, both to enhance the unity of the body of believers, especially in the local church, and to glorify God. And he has been giving us specific areas in which we are to live distinctively as Christians. Having been saved by grace, we are to live distinctly as Christians. We’re to pursue holiness in order to unify, and to demonstrate and to enhance the unity of the body, and to bear witness to God's glory in the world.

And he's zeroed in on four areas so far. He's talked about truth-telling. He said ‘Christians, by lying you undermine the unity of the congregation. You bear a bad witness to the world. So, tell the truth.’

He's spoken, of course, about dealing with unrighteous anger, or sinful anger. He says that we undermine the unity of the body when we express anger sinfully, or when we express sinful anger.

He has spoken not only about lying and about anger, he's even spoken about stealing. Obviously, stealing from the brethren would undermine the unity of the body and bear a bad witness in the world.

And he's also dealt with the issue of unwholesome speech, and urged us in the way that we talk to have a view to encouraging our brothers and sisters in Christ.

And that leads us to the fifth particular example that he wants to give to us on how we live out the grace of God, how we enhance the unity of the body in our living, how we distinctively live as Christians in this world and bring glory to God: and, it is in this whole area of the attitudes of our hearts expressed in words and actions, in patterns of behavior.

And he wants especially to deal with the problem of bitterness, and contrast a life of bitterness expressed in attitudes and words and actions with a life of kindness and love and forgiveness. And he wants, again, us to express our lives in kindness and love and forgiveness, because it enhances the unity of the body and it bears witness to the world that the grace, the sovereign grace of God, is at work in us and has made us different from the people around us who are turned in on themselves and bitter about life, and express that bitterness in their words and in their attitudes and in their actions.

So let's look to God's word here in Ephesians 4, beginning at verse 31. We’ll read down to verse 2 of chapter 5. Before we do, let's pray.

This is Your word, O God. Open our eyes to behold wonderful things from your word. Show us our own hearts, our own sins, in this passage. Convict us of them, and show us the way of the cross, the way of Christ, the way of grace, the way of holiness. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear the word of God:

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

The Apostle Paul is saying something quite extraordinary and quite impossible to us, apart from the grace of God. The Apostle Paul is telling us that we are to put away attitudes and words and actions that show resentment against God's providence in our lives. We’re to put away attitudes and words and actions that show that we resent what God has done in our lives; that we don't believe in the goodness of God's providence over our lives, and so we have become bitter; and we begin to express that bitterness in attitude and in word and in action. He's saying that we're to put away attitudes and words and actions that show resentment of God's providence, and instead, we are to live lives of kindness and forgiveness because of God's kindness to us, and forgiveness of us.

Indeed, the Apostle Paul says we're to aim to be like God in our behavior; that we're to love like Christ loved us. And I want you to see three things in particular today that Paul is teaching us.

The first thing has to do with our sinful inclination to resent God's providence in our lives and to become bitter. The second thing has to do with a godly predisposition–a predisposition, an attitude, an instinct–towards being kind and forgiving. The third thing has to do with the foundation of this as we imitate God our Father and Christ Jesus, His Son, our Savior.

Let's look at those three things together.

I. Put away sinful dispositions, attitudes, words and actions

The first thing I want you to see is Paul speaking to us in our sinful inclination to resent His providence in our lives and to become bitter. He says, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”

You see, the Apostle Paul is telling us there to put away sinful dispositions, sinful inclinations, sinful attitudes, words, and actions. He's talking about an attitude of heart, an outlook on life, that, when we receive blessings in this life we don't adequately acknowledge that God has given those blessings; and then, when we come to hard things in this life and trials in this life, we become bitter because we think that somehow God has shortchanged us, that He doesn't really care about us, that He's not good...and that bitterness then turns into words, it turns into resentment, it turns into anger towards others. It's expressed in verbal activity, but it's also expressed in a heart attitude that bears ill-will to others, resents others who have blessings that we don't have, doesn't rejoice with others when they do have blessings, thinks that God is better to other people than to ourselves. He's talking about a fundamental attitude issue here.

I don't know whether you remember it, but when you used to go to the Primos Deli at Northgate, on the cash register or somewhere close to it was that famous Charles Swindoll quote about attitude. Do you remember it? Some of you have seen it many a time. I've read it over and over, waiting for my okra or for my lima beans at Primos Northgate. It goes like this:

“The longer I live [Swindoll says], the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude to me is more important than facts, it's more important that the past, it's more important than education, it's more important than money, circumstances, failures, successes. It's more important than what other people think or say or do. It's more importance than appearance, giftedness, or skill. It will make or break a company, a church, or a home.
“The remarkable thing is that we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace. We cannot change our past. We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string that we have, and that is our attitude. I'm convinced that life is ten percent of what happens to me and ninety percent of how I react to it.”

And the Apostle Paul is dealing with the issue of a heart predisposition or attitude, and he speaks specifically of how that attitude manifests itself, using six particular words in this passage.

One is the word bitterness, which refers to an embittered or resentful spirit. He speaks of wrath — sinful emotional rage; anger–a settled, sullen hostility; clamor — what's that? Well, have you ever heard a raised voice in an argument? Someone yelling at someone because they’re angry or they’re bitter about something? Slander - speaking evil of others, especially when they’re not around; malice - just a general ill-will towards others; and the Apostle Paul is saying this complex attitude, this predisposition of the heart — that has got to go! That kind of bitterness is not to display itself in the family of Christ, in the body of Christ. We’re to be different from the world. We’re to be distinct.

But you understand that underneath that mindset, that predisposition, that outlook at life, that attitude expressed in words and actions, is fundamentally a resentment about the providence of God. When you come to those points in life which are hard, thinking in your heart (even if you don't say it out loud), “God has not been good to me. I've been shortchanged. I've been done wrong. I don't deserve this. I deserve better than this. It's not fair.” And it builds, and it builds, and it builds until there is an attitude, a heart disposition of bitterness that begins to express itself in actions and in words, and ultimately in a grudging attitude that doesn't desire the best for other people.

Jesus talked about this in one of His most famous parables. If you have your Bibles, you may want to turn back to it...Luke 15. It's the parable of the prodigal son.

When we teach that parable, we often focus on either the younger son...and rightly so. It's an amazing story, isn't it, of this guy who goes off and squanders his inheritance, and then comes to his senses and goes back to his father. It's a remarkable story.

We often focus on the father...that's appropriate. He's a remarkable father. He's been deeply wounded by this son, and yet with open arms he welcomes him back.

But, you know, Jesus, I think, probably primarily wants us to think about somebody else in this parable, and it's the person who's talked about in Luke 15:27-32. Who is it? It's the elder brother. Now, I say that because Jesus ends the story talking about the elder brother, and usually when you tell a story, it's the last thing that you say...it's your punch line that you want people to remember.

And you remember the elder brother. I mean, you can read the passage at Luke 15:27-32, but I believe it's in verse 28 where you see encapsulated the elder brother's attitude towards his father. The prodigal has come home, the dad has slaughtered a calf, a party has been struck up — ‘My son that was lost has been found again, he's come home to me, he's in the family!’ and the brother's response to his father is (you remember?) ‘You never did this for me.’ It's this grudging, bitter, attitude both towards his father and towards his brother. And you remember, even worse than that, it wasn't true! You remember what the father said, when his son said that? ‘My son! Everything I have is yours.’ It's just not true. But he was bitter. He felt that he had somehow got the short end of the stick! He wasn't being treated as he deserved, even though everything that the father had was his. He was bitter.

And Jesus shows us this root of bitterness, and the Apostle Paul is saying that's not how we're to be as believers. We’re not to have that bitterness expressed in attitude and word and action in the Christian life. But you know, that's very easy to say...and there are some very hard things in this life that make it very easy to nurse that kind of bitterness.

So, to say ‘Don't be bitter’ is a bitter pill to swallow for people who have been dealt a blow that leads to bitterness. So surely Paul has something more to say to us than simply ‘Don't be bitter.’ Thank God, yes, he does.

II. Instead, be kind and forgiving to one another, in light of God's forgiveness of you

Let's look at the second thing. Notice what he says in verse 32:

“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”

Paul says not only don't be bitter, but be kind and forgiving to one another. And be kind and forgiving to one another in light of God's forgiveness of you. You see, the Apostle Paul not only says that in stark contrast to this life of bitterness in which we resent what God has done and doubt His goodness, no, we're going to live a life of kindness and forgiveness. And we're not going to do it just because we've decided to do it.

We’re going to do it because we have realized that that is exactly what God has done to us. He has been kind to us when we have not deserved to be kind to. He has been forgiving of us when we did not deserve forgiveness. And so you see, the Apostle Paul is saying ‘This is the key, friends.’ It is only when you realize that you are the recipient of a kindness that you did not deserve, it is only when you realize that you are the recipient of a forgiveness that you did not deserve, that you are then suddenly freed from the power of your bitterness to realize that God has been better to you than you dared dream; and that in His love and kindness and goodness to you, He has set you free to be kind to those who don't deserve to be kind to in this life, and to forgive those who have deeply offended you and who don't deserve to be forgiven. He's freed you! How? By simply telling you to do it? No. By showing you His love and kindness and forgiveness first, and showing it to you in such a lavish way that it literally changes your life.

You know, Jesus tells a story of a woman just like that. Back in Luke again, it's in Luke 7. It's the story of that immoral woman, a woman with a terrible reputation in the community, and she shows up at the house where Jesus is staying one day, and she begins to anoint His feet. And the Pharisees that are there are indignant: ‘If this man were really a prophet, he’d know what kind of a woman was touching his feet!’ And you remember Jesus turns to them and He says ‘Let me tell you a story.’ And He tells them a story, and the punch line is found in Luke 7:47. And He says ‘You know what? This woman loves much because she has been forgiven much, and you love little because you have been forgiven little.’

In other words, Jesus is attacking their attitude. They didn't think they needed forgiveness, and consequently they didn't love Him like they ought to. But this woman knew that she needed forgiveness, and she had received the gracious forgiveness of Jesus Christ, and she loved Him with all her heart. It had radically changed her life.

And you see, Paul's point, as Jesus’ point, is simply this: that those who have been forgiven much are able to love and forgive much. Those who realize that they have been forgiven much by God in Christ are thus disposed to love much and are prepared to forgive. So the secret of not living this life of bitterness and instead living this life of kindness and forgiveness, is realizing the grace of God to us in Jesus Christ.

And if you haven't realized the greatness of this grace, I can tell you, my friends, you can't do what the Apostle Paul is asking you to do this morning. In that area of your deepest wounding in this life, there has just got to be more than some pundit's standing up and telling you ‘Stop being bitter. Start being kind and forgiving.’ There's got to be more. There's got to be a prevailing, supernatural, overwhelming experience of the forgiveness and love of God in your life in Christ Jesus. But when that prevailing, powerful, supernatural, experience of the love of God, the forgiveness of God, the kindness of God in Christ comes, it sets us free to stop being turned in on ourselves and nurse our bitterness, and to deny ourselves and give ourselves away in love and forgiveness.

And that's what the Apostle Paul is saying today. He's saying that we're to be kind and forgiving to one another, precisely because we realize how kind and forgiving God our Father has been to us in Jesus Christ.

III. Be like God, and live in love in light of Christ's love for you

And that leads me to the last thing. You see it there in verses 1 and 2 of chapter 5:

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; want in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, and offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”

You see what Paul is saying there. It's shocking in its simplicity: Be like God. Be like God. Live in love, in light of Christ's love for you.

I want you to pause for just a moment and think about how radically God-centered is this way of life that Paul is teaching. Notice: copy God, learn Christ, don't grieve the Holy Spirit. It's so radically God-centered. It revolves around who God is. We’re to be like our Father, to be like our Savior. We’re not to grieve the Holy Spirit who loves us and wants us to be like our Father and like our Savior. So his whole approach to life is God-centered. It's all about God. It's all about being His image, being what He meant us to be.

But notice also the grace foundations of Paul's teaching on the Christian life. We’re to be kind, we're to be loving, we're to be forgiving — why? Because of God's prior initiating love and kindness and goodness and forgiveness to us. Because God has been kind to the ungrateful and selfish — us, we're to be kind to the ungrateful and selfish because God's forgiveness has been given to those who don't deserve forgiveness — us, we're to forgive those who don't deserve forgiveness; because Christ's love has been given to the unloving and the unlovable — us, we're to love the unloving and the unlovable.

It's an amazing thing. The Apostle Paul is saying that when we realize the greatness of God's forgiveness, kindness, goodness, and love to us, it is to have a heart and life transforming effect, so that instead of being turned in on ourselves and bitter about God not having given us what we really deserve, we suddenly realize ‘Lord, we didn't deserve anything, and You gave us everything.’

Some of you use Dave Ramsey's answer to “How are you?” (“Better than I deserve.”) I hope behind that reply is a deepening understanding that we do not deserve anything but God's condemnation, and yet He has given us life in Christ, and that that is a life-transforming thing.

Some of you like the song by that theologian and philosopher of our age, Martina McBride, Happy Girl. I've always been fascinated by the chorus:

“Oh, watch me go! I'm a happy girl!
Everybody knows that the sweetest thing
That you’ll ever see in this whole wide world
Is a happy girl.”

The song is about an attitude shift that she has gone through, where instead of being grumpy and complaining and bitter and ‘woe is me’, that she's had an attitude change that has led her to look at the world in a different way, and it's meant that she's a happier person.

Well, in a far profounder way than that kind of an attitude shift, the Apostle Paul is saying the key to not being a person who is bitter and instead being a person who is able to be kind and loving and forgiving, despite your circumstances and despite the way people do you, is realizing what God has done for you in Jesus Christ. And when that realization comes home, it leads to a congregation of people who are able to forbear with one another's sins, who are able to be kind and tender-hearted with one another, who are able to forgive one another, who are fixed on doing good to one another, who want to encourage one another and build one another up.

And when the world sees that, it says ‘What's going on with that? That's different. It's not self-centered. It's self-giving. I don't see bitter there, and, boy, has that person gone through it! How come that Christian in that congregation has gone through the same thing that my brother has gone through, but my brother is bitter and that Christian is tender, and sweet and kind and loving?’ It's because that believer recognizes that God is good, and that even the trials that go through He intends for our good. And so we can trust Him in His goodness.

And what's more, that believer realizes, ‘You know, what I deserve is hell. And He's given me life with Him now and forever, at the cost of the blood of His Son. What is it for me to forgive those who have wronged me? What is it for me to be kind to those who have been unkind to me? Oh, I want to live a life of sacrifice, so that my life is a sweet aroma offered up to God in thanksgiving for the goodness that He's shown this hell-deserving sinner.’

That's what Paul is calling us to. It's radical. It's impossible, unless you've received the grace of God in Jesus Christ...but it is glorious in what it does to build up the unity of this body and to bear witness to His glory in the world.

Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, only the deep, deep, love of Jesus can make people like this not bitter, but kind and forgiving and loving and tender-hearted. If that's the case, O God, show us the love of Jesus. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the web page. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template. Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any error to be with the transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permissions information, please visit the FPC Website, Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.

© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.