Anger turns to bitterness the longer we sit with it. We have mentioned already in this series that anger can be a right, even godly, emotion. The whole purpose of this series is to help us discern the difference between righteous anger and sinful anger. Anger can be right when it is directed at the right things and expressed in the right ways. Yet, even here we must be careful that our anger is not prolonged beyond what is appropriate and healthy. Righteous anger has a short duration.
There is an element of subjectivity to this language, isn’t there? What, after all, is “appropriate and healthy” or “short”? There is no specific timeframe that we can look to as if to assert this is how long your anger can last. The marker we are looking for, however, is a transition from straight anger to bitterness specifically. Bitterness arises from dwelling too long on a hurt, it is anger combined with resentment over a past offense. It serves, according to Scripture, as a poisonous root in the soul:
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled (Heb. 12:15)
Bitterness, in other words, serves to inflict harm on others but is actually poisoning us. Furthermore, according to this passage, it “causes trouble” and by this sin many others become “defiled.” Bitterness destroys relationships, destroys productivity, destroys our sense and experience of the world, and ultimately destroys us.
It can be right to be angry at the initial offense, and it can be right to seek the repentance of the offending parties, and even, where appropriate, to see the justice of legal authorities. It is not right, however, to harbor the offense and to replay it in one’s mind over and over again. It is not right to allow the anger to sink deep roots into our lives and to shape our perspective of people, of life, and of even of God. It is not right to allow anger to color our attitude to such a degree that we become sour souls who can see nothing but offense and potential offense. Bitterness will make us hyper sensitive to the failures of others and prone to justify and excuse all our angry brooding. Whatever the inappropriate length of time seems to be, the evidence that we have crossed that line is the presence of bitterness. Brad Hambrick helpfully suggests that “One good measure for bitterness is how many details you remember about the offense” (Overcoming Anger, 14). Anger that turns to bitterness is never righteous.
Consider, in addition, whether the offending party has sought forgiveness and is striving to make changes. Does your anger persist in spite of their repentance? Would you rather see them “pay” for their offense, feel hurt over it, than to change and grow? This is anger that has an inappropriate duration. This is not to say that we should not still grieve perhaps over the impact of an offense of the implications of it. It is not to say that we should not still seek proper consequences where appropriate, but anger is distinct from these things – even while anger might be the starting place that moves us to action.
What about when repentance is not present? Is lingering anger justified in these moments? A proper understanding of forgiveness allows us to resolve this anger too. Forgiveness is not limited to reconciliation with the offending individual. Forgiveness begins with a proper vertical orientation. We want to be able to relinquish to God our right or expectation of recompense for an offense. When we surrender vengeance to the Lord – because it belongs to Him anyways (Rom. 12:19) – then we are free to let go of bitterness too.
Righteous anger may be directed at the right things (right trigger) and expressed in the proper way initially, but it can morph into bitterness if it has the wrong duration. We need to assess and analyze our angry responses to evaluate the validity of our anger. Bitterness is destructive and sinful. The person it most harms, however, is us. Some have compared bitterness to drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. It seeks to harm others, but it mostly destroys us. Has your anger lingered too long? Has it turned to bitterness? Take time to evaluate. Those who have offended you need to repent, but perhaps you do too.