A life-changing crisis can happen at any time. And with little warning. It feels as if your security blanket has been pulled out right from under you. Some of us have the support systems we need to make it through these crises — the psychological, financial, and relational strength needed to withstand the storms of life. But for the times when disaster comes crashing down, leaving destruction in its wake, we have to take the time to not only heal the outer effects, but the inner wounds, as well.

If we’re not careful, these crises can have lasting effects not just on our lives, but on our hearts. When trauma, tragedy, or disaster strikes, we have to guard ourselves against the creeping disease of bitterness that can turn a one-time event into a lifetime of heartache.

How Bitterness Enters Our Hearts

It happens when bad things happen, and you turn around to find someone to blame for your predicament — a totally human reaction to tragedy in the world. Like if you help your friends with sickness, insecurity issues or bouts of depression, but are abandoned by them when you pass through the same sort of troubles.

Bitterness begins with a loss of dignity, coupled with feelings of righteousness on our part. We believe we are “wronged” and that we are “in the right” with respect to our own thoughts and actions. This is a perfectly normal reaction. In fact, if we didn’t feel hurt by someone’s transgressions against us, we would have no self-worth. But these are the times when bitterness sneaks in — when our natural reactions of blaming aren’t corrected by rational, faithful thought. Instead of accepting the bad and trying to grow and learn from the challenges in our life, we fall prey to the all-consuming disease of bitterness.

The Prolonged Effects

That feeling of bitterness can last for days, months, years, decades. But the longer bitter feelings last, the more they resemble resentment. The longer resentment lasts, the more it resembles hatred. The longer hatred lasts, the more it resembles vindictiveness. The longer vindictiveness lasts, the more it resembles destruction — of your personality, your relationships, and your ability to bring good into the world.

Bitterness is the trigger that sets off an ever-deepening personal trap. Once it enters its destructive capacity, all love, all relationships break down. Bitter persons even start hating and destroying themselves through addictions, self-inflicted wounds, and in the extreme, even suicide.

Prolonged bitterness puts a clamp on our life’s mission, since we are fully absorbed in hating and destroying, even the potential good we can produce in our own vocations. So much so, that we stop moving forward on our vocational endeavours.

A Difficult Pill to Swallow

How do you break this pattern?

On paper, it’s easy. It is called forgiveness. We must learn to pardon those who have harmed us. We must even forgive ourselves, for having voluntarily harmed our own body and soul while persevering along a self-destructive path.

Forgiveness is easier said than done. It takes looking into the human heart of the other and recognizing how equal we are to their transgressions and failings. It requires seeing them with the eyes of God as children on the path to holiness, not as instruments of pain in your life.

Once we have forgiven our transgressors, we must find some way to love them or at least wish them well. Likewise, we must begin loving ourselves or minimally want to improve and do well. This is the only way to reverse course, by moving forward.

What is dangerous about bitterness is that once it becomes a deeply engrained habit, our character begins being formed by it. Furthermore, no one likes being around angry and hostile people. Our total isolation is the tragic result.

The key to preventing bitterness from ever entering our hearts is to immediately address it. Our ultimate strength is found in ways to remove bitterness immediately from our spirit so as to plant seeds of self-love and pardon. This we way we can flourish and endure without the heavy weights of grudge and regret on our heart while pursuing our vocation.

As the Canadian philosopher and entrepreneur, Matshona Dhliwayo, once said, “Never let bitterness make a home in your heart; raise the rent and kick it out.”

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