The Lord’s Day
May 28, 2006
“Bitterness, Forgiveness, and Being Like God”
Dr. J. Ligon
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
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,
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
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
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
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
III. Be like God, and live in love
in light of Christ’s love for you
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
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
Everybody knows that the sweetest
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
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.
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.
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