The beast of bitterness
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”
― Stephen Crane, The Black Riders and Other Lines
If asked to embrace the creature that thrives on bitterness, each one of us would quickly reject the request, running from it’s hideous beckoning. The vile beast has developed a pallet that savors bitterness, enjoying the tastes of that wretched trait, and actually enjoying the hostile flavor as he eats his own heart. To the author it is obvious that the creature is killing himself, but this is lost on the creature. By not answering the question of “is it good?” the beast actually reveals the answer- no, it is not good- yet he continues to eat, because he likes it.
The creature that enjoys bitterness is one that embraces jealousy, anger, envy, and comparison. Who or what is this confused beast? I would suggest that the creature is not foreign, not made up, not just the creation of a clever metaphor. I would suggest that, even though we would never invite this creature to keep us company, we actually welcome his presence often. When I evaluate my own life this creature show up in the mirror almost every day and even though I hate it, I allow it to consume my heart. More often than I’d like, this creature is me.
A few months ago I had gone through almost a year of bitterness to some people and circumstances in my life. I would have conversations with my wife, family, and friends about my frustrations, in an “attempt” to relieve the pressure. After months of blaming others for my issues I was counseled to realize that the very things I was blaming on others was rooted in bitterness that was consuming me. I came to the realization that talking to someone, with the mindset and attempt to relieve frustration, was different than talking to someone to re-live issues that would only entrench me in more bitterness. One of the biggest revelations that I had was that, like the creature, I loved the flavor of bitterness. I know this sounds so weird and I would never have thought this to be true. I really hated feeling lonely, angry, in a constant state of comparison. None of that was fun, BUT I realized that I liked it when I returned to my bitterness on a regular basis. I wanted out of it, but I kept returning to it. I knew it wasn’t good, but I continued to consume it.
Like the creature, when asked “is it good?” and he responds “it is bitter… but I like it, and it is my heart.” I believe the grotesque description of the creature is not because he is inherently barbaric, but that his physique is a result of what bitterness has done to him. In the same way my bitterness made me gross, and mangy and yet I continued to allow the flavor of bitterness to drive my actions. I hated it, but I found myself returning to it over and over, I liked it.
When Paul writes to the church in Ephesus he addresses this issue in two parts. First he identifies what needs to be removed, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior.” He then follows the statement of removal with and action of replacement. “Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” (Eph 4:31-32)
What I learned as friends called me out, and as the Spirit revealed my bitterness, was that I was playing the biggest role in the bitterness I blamed on everyone else. I realized that I needed to take proactive action by replacing it. This included setting an alarm on my phone to go off at 9:30 each night with the names of those I found myself bitter towards. The reminder was to pray for each of those people by name, to pray they would be successful and loved. It included getting together with some of them and apologizing for my attitude and admitting that I was harboring these feelings. I also pursued relationships with those I could and limited my interactions with those that it was not healthy to, all while continuing to pray.
I am not done, I’ve got a long way to go, and I’m still more of that creature than I’d like to admit, but thank God, I’ve come a long way. I want to encourage you to see where you are like the creature. What traits are consuming your heart and where may you be enjoying the flavors of bitterness, rage, hate, envy, comparison, and jealousy?
May we see that bitterness is only killing us, consuming us with frustration, making us into ugly creatures that push people away. Instead, may we enjoy the flavors of kindness, forgiveness, and God’s goodness.