“The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.”A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
In deciding what to write to kick off the month of December, I couldn’t help but think of Ebenezer Scrooge—that crotchety, bitter old man from Dickens’ classic tale. It’s a tradition in my family to watch some rendition of the story around Christmas, and this year proved no different. Only this time, I was struck by the similarity between the description of Scrooge above and a little old lady from a church I attended as a child.
Mrs. Smalls. She had white hair tinged a sickly yellow, smelled liked Vix Vapor Rub and old fruit, and wore a scowl that could scare the curl out of a pig’s tail. All the kids in church (myself included) were terrified of her, and when a first-time visitor would unknowingly sit in her seat, we would hunker down behind a pew and wait for her reaction with fearful glee.
It tickled me as a kid, but looking back, I can’t help but feel sorry for Mrs. Smalls. What had happened in her life to make her so miserable? What had fixed that frown and angry brow to her face so permanently? I’d argue that it was the same thing that spoiled Scrooge…
Is there a nastier word? To say it is to have hair on your tongue. To live it is to poison your soul. It’s completely incompatible to the Christian life and the Bible tells us what to do with it in no unclear terms.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.Ephesians 4:31-32
There are many avenues for bitterness to enter the soul—unforgiveness, envy, continued disappointment—but at the root of bitterness, is pride. It’s the pent-up, unreconcilable, haughty disposition of those who believe they deserve a better hand than the one they were dealt.
Pride that leads to unforgiveness says, “Jesus forgives me of my sins but I’m more just than Christ and can’t forgive that person.”
Pride that leads to envy says, “They’re not as worthy and valuable as I am. God should have given that to me.”
Pride that leads to bitter disappointment says, “Your gift of salvation was not enough God. I want the white picket fence too.”
I don’t say this to diminish the trials, disappointments, and offenses we experience but rather to warn about the dangers of dwelling there. Too much focus on ourselves–too long a pity party–is a recipe for bitterness. When the temptation to dwell arises, we must take that thought captive and bring it under the authority of Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5).
And we must be quick about it. Bitterness is a root, and like a root it can spread for miles hidden beneath the surface; rotting our insides long before it ever breaks through and bears fruit.
Mr. Scrooge is a good example of this. When the Ghost of Christmas Past takes him back in time, we are greeted by a happy, kind man—a man at odds with the miserly Scrooge we’ve come to know. But as we travel with him through his past, we see how bitterness took root and how over time it “…shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait.”
So, what’s the remedy? What’s the cure for a bitter soul and how do you and I avoid it? Well, if pride is at the heart of bitterness, then we need a dose of humility. We must battle this beast daily by remembering that we are called to be servants as Christ was a servant–to value our brothers and sisters above ourselves and forgive even the greatest offenses. It’s hard to be bitter with such a mindset.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, do not merely look out for your own personal interest, but also for the interests of others.Philippians 2:3-4
At the end of A Christmas Carol we see Scrooge transformed. Humbled by his strange journey with the three spirits, he’s no longer a greedy, bitter, selfish man but rather a tenderhearted one who cares about the welfare of those around him more than padding his pockets. His bitterness is swept away!
We too have been transformed by a spirit–the Holy Spirit–who convicts, teaches, and enables us to be victorious over sin. If you’re guilty of the sin of bitterness, repent and turn to Christ. Be reminded this Christmas (and beyond!) of the humility behind Jesus’ birth. That the Son of God would come to Earth as a babe to save wretched sinners like you and me…O what a thought! Be filled with that same humble love for your brothers and sisters–so filled that bitterness finds no footing in your soul.
Until next time, salutations and selah.