Kingdoms and Bitterness


Ben Witherington discusses what he sees as the Christian response to bitterness over at his eponymous blog. He notes the distressing tone of cynicism and bitterness in the lives of young people today, feelings Ben did not witness in his own generation, even though both generations have endured similar reasons for becoming bitter.

Ben says the key to resolving this bitterness is to forgive the individuals who have wronged us.

Unfortunately, he’s missing the real reason why this younger generation is bitter.

If I were bitter because my neighbor shot my dog, poisoned my well, and plundered my fields, I would be angry at a flesh-and-blood person. I can see him. I can have a relationship with him. I can forgive him.

But if I were bitter because the government shot my dog, poisoned my well, and plundered my fields, there’s no individual flesh-and-blood cause for my anger. I can’t see the government system. I can’t have a relationship with a system. How do I forgive a nebulous entity that is neither him nor her—and may even include me?

The forgiveness fix Witherington advocates works fine for dealing with interrelational bitterness. But the bitterness he sees in today’s young people doesn’t have its roots in a teacher that unjustly slapped wrists or a love interest who done wrong. The bitterness in today’s youth comes from being mugged by systems and seeing no way to respond.

Consider a well-known system currently on display in the theaters. Slavery epitomizes a system that grinds up people and mangles everything it leaves in its wake. We get a good feel for this in the movie Amazing Grace. Did the Africans subjected to that monstrous system become bitter? Who could they forgive? It wasn’t individuals that enslaved them, but a system.

While forgiveness is always called for when dealing with any wrong, even those perpetuated by a system (in as much as it is possible, especially toward the most guilty individuals within the system), the proper Christian response is to bring the Kingdom of God against the system, against the kingdom of darkness (or even murky grayness) it represents. Too many of us fail to see that systems that break people’s spirits get their power from demonic sources, and we Christians must wrestle against them.

This is exactly what William Wilburforce did. He brought the entirety of his faith in Christ against that unholy kingdom/system of slavery and vanquished it. He understood that systems must be assaulted in ways that individuals can’t be.

As Christians, we forgive individuals, but we pull down ungodly systems.

Our society today runs entirely on systems in a way that it did not just forty years ago. Even our churches have become systemized. Some paleoconservatives have deemed this shift “The Managerial Society,” and it’s a form of socialism like the kind we Americans used to routinely mock in the old Soviet Union. Nearly every encounter we have in daily life within the US today has a system lurking behind it. Those systems explain why we have no great men in government now, only systems. Great men and women stand up against political injustice, but systems toe the system line, even if it’s bad for the whole the system operates within.

Young people today are bitter and cynical because they’ve grown up within these systems and they can’t see any way to transcend them.

Sadly, the one group designed to beat the system, the Church, can’t seem to get off its duff and do what Christ charged it with: tear down strongholds. Take a wrecking ball to it!The glaring error I see within the Church, even in those churches that understand strongholds, is the failure to acknowledge that they go far beyond individuals. We may talk about strongholds in a person’s life, but do we ever talk about strongholds in the entire culture? Not very often!

How does the Church go about performing this duty?

Ford will close the transmission plant near where I live. Thousands of longtime autoworkers will see their only hope for work in this region go up in smoke. I suspect a lot of folks will be bitter. They’ve put in years, and now what? What does a 52-year old autoworker do when he’s one of two thousand let go in a town of about ten thousand? Who does he forgive for his bitterness? Is there a face he can envision when he attempts to bestow forgiveness?

Too many Christians would ask him to do just that. But that’s not the Christian response. The Christian response looks deeper and broader. On a macro level, it asks questions about the way our economic system works and what it does to create these bitter people. Then it finds solutions to ending the cycle that churns up workers and later buries them. On a micro level, it stands beside the autoworker in its midst and makes it our singleminded obsession to help him find good work, keep his home, and take care of his most basic needs, be they material, physical, or spiritual.

That’s bringing the Kingdom into a system, opposing the cycle that breeds bitter people. And we’re simply not doing that. We’re asking people not to be bitter, but we stand on the sidelines and let the system grind ’em to pieces.

When the Roman system tossed aside the sick, Christians fought the system and took care of them. Later, the Roman system fell, in large part, because the Kingdom of God toppled it. Throughout history, Christians have been at the root of bringing down unholy systems and kingdoms–and not just because they forgave, but because they understood that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

It is easy to tell bitter people to forgive. It is far harder to roll up our sleeves (all the while remembering our Kingdom cannot be vanquished) and fight systems that breed bitter, broken people. That first answer consists of words, the second of blood, sweat, and the strong right arm of our triumphant God.

38 thoughts on “Kingdoms and Bitterness

  1. fernando

    Very clear and well put. Forgiveness is the way on a micro and personal level, but on a macro level we need to tackle the systemic faults, practicing forgiveness at each level when we encounter people.

    I agree.

    For me, one of the biggest sources of angst and bitterness has been racism. God has led to a lot of release by forgiving people, but there is no doubt that to really do someething, we have to deal with the social and educational issues, to break the system that breeds and endorses racism.

    Interestingly, when it feels like progress is being made on the macro level, it often feels easier and more meaningful to fogive on the micro level.

    • Fernando,

      Racism is a tremendous example of a system, even if it’s not an organized one. Thought systems are very powerful. Christians have long been on the forefront of eliminating racism, though I suspect we’ve conceded the fight to more liberal forces who wish to tack on other, more subtle, systems (such as tolerance and multiculturalism) when fighting it.

  2. Great post, it charges and pushes me to change the world, and not only that but declares it possible. I love it.
    Thanks for the post, I’ve linked to it on my blog.

  3. jettybetty

    Excellent thoughts! I pray I can be a part of the church that comes to the side of hurting people–instead of just preaching to them. Thanks for your insights on this.

    • Jettybetty,

      Long time, no comment! Glad you liked the post. How would you institute real Kingdom responses to something like the Ford plant shutdown in my neck of the woods?

      • Area churches can cooperate with one another and state and local agencies and provide:

        1) local financial planning help to the community-Before the layoffs begin, so people can start ordering their finances for hard times ahead. Most churches have accountant and others of their ilk lurking in their midst.
        2) Help finding jobs, connecting work with workers, whether short or long term, in cooperation with any local job-banks and the team that will inevitably arrive at Ford. They may feel like it, but rarely are these people simply “cut loose”. Even the most incompetent lay-off has some kind of program to help those losing their job find another one. Church members should keep their ears and eyes open for opportunities to coordinate and be catalysts for action. Local business is always affected by large layoffs, so it’s a good idea to work with local businesses to keep the focus on growth, which can occur independant of major employers.
        3) For those given retirement packages, help with understanding and planning with whatever is provided.

        Most of all though, the body has to be active, constantly planning involvement in the community, allowing them to be pro-active, which is always better than reacting to the problems that arise 6 months down the line. It’s not enough to keep the food pantry stocked, folks! If you are not a part of a body that is actively engaging the community around you, then do it yourself and drag your fellow church goers into it! We don’t need to wait for someone in the elders or deacons to act, we need to do it ourselves! This is hardly an area for theological debate: “Love thy neighbor” is pretty clear.

      • I almost forgot. provide or coordinate free counciling for depression, divorce and domestic violence. There are inevitable results for tying one’s sense of self-worth to one’s job instead of Christ, and these are some of the most damaging.

  4. Diane Roberts

    Well, you got my dander up Dan…LOL. I tend to disagree but I decided my comments were too long for here so I did my own post on this. But to summarize in a couple of words – look at their parents. And that is just for starters.

    • Diane,

      The only problem with your theory is that I had good parents who raised me right, yet I feel the systemization constantly. So do a lot of my peers. I’ve tasted the punch to the face from several systems myself. I’m not imagining them.

      Are kids today a bit off? Well, aren’t they always? 😉 I’m sure your parents shook their heads at your generation. No, that doesn’t excuse the problem, but in many ways, kids today are more conservative and moral than their parents. The difference is they grew up in a systematized America that didn’t exist when their parents were kids. They’ve got a learned hopelessness as a result of fighting that system. They think you can’t beat the system, so why try.

      • Perhaps your bitterness and anger is a reflection of that of this wounded generation. Another of the effects of media saturation is that we readily adopt the emotions fed to us. We are bitter because everyone else is, and everyone else is because we have been handed the line that we are helpless in the hands of a disinterested, faceless “system”.

        Come on, people, we are the Body of Christ, the maker of the Universe! What “System” can stand against us? This is not about forgiveness or bitterness. This is about being asleep. We cannot because we do not.

        • David,

          I just talk with people. I see where they’re coming from. Yes, I’m empathetic, but more than anything, I’m tired of looking around and seeing us—as you so ably note—asleep.

          Part of our problem, though, is the way our entire society works so that Christians get swept along and never question why things are the way they are. One of my favorite whipping boys is the way we work. Is it natural to have one parent away from home constantly? Is it natural for the other parent to have to pick up everything that parent leaves behind? Did God intend for us to live like that? I don’t think so. What then? If we can’t get other Christians to say something about that system, will we ever have enough voices to fight it? Or will we just be carried along down whatever river it carries us? That kind of passive acceptance bugs the heck out of me, especially when I see so many damaging results from it, results the Church tries to fight, but without understanding why they truly happen.

          • Dan, I understand where you’re coming from. But how are we going to get the voices woken up, or even interested? It can’t be forced. The power to do so can only come from God, as given for that purpose by Him. The ones in position to do anything have to want to, and those in position to influence them have to want to. And so on, down to every personal interaction we have. All any of us can do is operate within our own spheres of influence; the rest is God’s arena.

            As far as the Church goes, as long as it cares about itself, about sustaining itself via earthly conceits, it will not be effective in either promoting the gospel or helping society. I think this is true of all of us as individuals. I still think that positive change is effected mostly through persons, through relating to one another and then using whatever other positions we have to effect more change.

            The trouble is, people often aren’t interested! They don’t listen to even the voices that are speaking. And there’s nothing anyone can do about that except to pray, and keep on loving, and being faithful.

          • The world has always wanted people to just “go with the flow” as it’s the simplest way to get people to go off the edge with the rest of the flotsam. Christians should know better.

            It’s labor intensive to question, and that’s why most people don’t. How many people actually believe the stuff in supermarket tabloids? It’s easier to read it and tsk than to question it. Pearl S. Buck eloquently showed how simple it is to go with the flow, until the flow becomes too much to bear. No wonder God said He would spit the lukewarm out of His mouth! It is better to argue vehemently with God than just lay back and let things happen. A passive life is proof of one thing: God is not at work in that life. And that should be a frightening thought

  5. Very insightful, Dan. Gives me a new way at looking at the creeping socialism we’re sinking into…and incentive to think about my own response to the challenges of others.

    As I learned the hard way over many years of marriage, sometimes hurt people don’t want you to solve the problem for them, they just want you to listen, and to care. And in this distracting and hard-hearted world, that’s often the most difficult thing to do.

    Thanks for the topic, I’ve linked to it as well from .

    • Sir Chuck,

      Have you commented before? If not, thanks for doing so!

      Yeah, I worry that so much of our existence is beholden to systems and that plenty of Christians support those systems rather than fighting them.

  6. francisco

    And where people find comfort when they lose their jobs? Will they sit at home and mourn that there is no job for them? I guess America has an answer to ‘heal’ that and it exports it and people don’t seem to notice: ENTERTAINMENT. When people find nothing to do, they entertain themselves. Would we rather talk to each other, build each other up with words and deeds? It seems that to some videogames, t.v., soap operas, etc are a escape to reality whether they hold a job or not. Now, what if all of the sudden all the peoples of this country decide not to entertain themselves anymore? Well, I guess they would turn to more and more education…and then? what else? What is life if we don’t share it with others! Someone said “if this life is all what we expect, then the beasts are the happiest creatures on earth”….Oh, that I may never loiter in my heavenly journey!

  7. Joe

    I found Witherington’s latest dispatch on “Bitterness” it to be disturbing but at the same time quite revelatory, particularly the story about his friend.

    How is it that a story about his friend scheming with a Christian bookseller to sell the image of the Lord Jesus Christ to make lots of money edifying in any way? Why is it such a tragedy when the bookseller counter-schemes and defrauds his fellow panderer of the image of the Lord Jesus Christ? Why is it so touching that BW’s friend gets his picture back along with the copyright (to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ?!)? I found it sickening myself. I couldn’t relate to it at all.

    But I can see how it relates to BW.

    He makes HIS living by peddling his unique (copyrighted?) takes on the Lord Jesus Christ and now he finds his bread-n-butter endangered by his involvement in the recent nasty Jesus Family Tomb mess.

    Here are BW’s own words nested within his weird meditation on “Bitterness:

    “It would be easy for me to get bitter about the nonsense propagated in the Jesus tomb theory. To become bitter that the other side of the story has not adequately been told. That there is an unfairness in all of this, especially since I spent years of my life dealing with the James ossuary and the remarkable implications of that, which is still a genuine relic from the family of Jesus.

    From his own words, it’s even more obvious now that the ONLY dog that BW had in this Jesus Tomb fight was the one that he hoped would free his James ossuary from its association with the ossuaries from the “Family Tomb.

    Most people agree that his J-o was not one of the ten, but he only dragged his credibility farther down a black hole because he was forced to rely on the word of Oded Golan to establish a sort-of provenance for his ossuary and almost every mention of the J-o in the press was surrounded by variations on the words “fraud, “forged or “fake.

    RE: “…the other side of the story has not been adequately told

    I have to agree with him here. Even though there were archaeologists, scientists and even Biblical scholars aplenty to refute the claims of the JFT-crowd, Witherington just had to jump in bearing the ridiculous baggage of his own ossuary claims. The case against the JFT would have been more than adequate without his input. He was an unneeded distraction.

    Re: “I spent years of my life dealing with the James ossuary and the remarkable implications of that, which is still a genuine relic from the family of Jesus.


    Still unrepentant. He’s the one who started this whole trend of bone boxes being used against the Christian Faith with his collaboration with Shanks at the BAR, then with his collaboration Jacobivici to produce the FIRST phony bone box assault against the Faith. Remeber the James Ossuary special shown on EASTER SUNDAY in 2003 on the Discovery Channel? That’s Witherington’s work.

    I’m not at all impressed by Witherington’s heartfelt paean to the hurt that he inflicted on himself and others by trying to sell out the Lord Jesus Christ for money.

  8. Dan, perhaps systems are larger and more entrenched in our society than before, but social and cultural systems have been in place since the dawn of man. Since they are devised by (imperfect) people and made up of people, it’s unlikely that they will ever be devoid of problems. Policies, however, can be instated or changed for the betterment of people’s lives and their systems.

    But I think all this is moot when you consider the story of Joseph. He had every reason to be bitter, but wasn’t. He told his brothers, “…you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” Gen 50:20. Really we have no cause for bitterness against anyone or anything because all is in the hands of God. The cure for bitterness is to place one’s trust in Him, and Him alone.

    But certainly we must also do what we can on all levels to care for our fellow human beings, as you say.

    • Bonnie,

      Yes, we have always had systems. Our problem today is not only one of them being bigger and more entrenched, but those things that resisted systemization are now systemized. Even our churches.

      While I fully acknowledge the Genesis passage you quote, we can also use it as an excuse to do nothing. The man lying robbed and naked on the side of the road could be said to be merely waiting for God to do something in his life. I suspect this is the same line of thought used by the priest and Levite who walked on by. The Samaritan, however, realized he needed to take charge of the poor man.

      God has equipped us Christians with tools of war. When we stand idly by as demonic forces ravage people, we dishonor Him. God intended us to use our weapons to tear down strongholds. Our churches are too passive today. They need to rise up and get to work.

  9. Bonnie,
    At the risk of sounding corny (I excel in corn). It doesn’t matter if anyone else is interested. It doesn’t matter if one other person joins us in our quest to make a perfect ‘system’.
    What matters is that we do it.
    I have to fight for the kind of world I want to live in. Even if I know it’s a losing WAR, I might win a few battles along the way. I might be the only person in my entire community, state, country that cares about it. But that doesn’t lessen the absolute necessity of me fighting for the kind of world, the kind of systems, that should be out there.
    But truthfully, so far there’s been 22 comments on this very blog that pove to me that I wouldn’t be alone. There’s going to always be Davids, Dianes, and jettybetty’s that feel the exact way I do.

    • Elijah was disheartened after winning a battle. He wandered off into the desert and whined about being all alone. As God so ably pointed out, we are never alone, and we know that God wins the War.

      But you are absolutely right. We don’t need to wait for others to join us. In fact, as God showed Gideon, sometimes we need less help. That way we know the battle belongs to the Lord. We are called to gird ourselves for battle, and go.

      In Greek, the great commission reads something like this: “Go out into the world, and while you are going, make disciples of all nations…” We don’t have to wait for some booming voice to tell us what to do. We don’t have to wonder “What is God’s will for my life?” It’s all there in red and white: Live your life! Being careful to do all Jesus commanded us to do, which is to Love God with all our heart, soul, body and mind, and to love others as Jesus loved us, willing to die so they might live.

    • Flyaway, you’re not corny (though I love corn.) I think we’re saying the same thing. Dan commented about needing more voices in the church speaking out for helpful change. I suggested that we not try to be responsible for what others are or aren’t doing, but each of us direct our energies toward living godly lives in our own spheres. This includes doing all that we ourselves can do to live the gospel. That might include speaking out, or doing some of the things that David suggested, or other things, each in our own circumstances and giftings. But certainly not apathy.

      Apathy represents a lack of understanding the gospel fully. I’m not sure we get people to understand it through angry-fisted diatribe, though. Not that diatribe doesn’t have its place, but as a general technique I question it. Anger generally begets anger, so if it wakes people up they may not wake into the kind of state we are hoping for.

      Bitterness and anger consume energy and generally direct themselves in blame against someone or something, whether specific or general. I also think that when they are ongoing states, they reflect a lack of trust in God. At least they did for me. Anger or concern may be perfectly reasonable reactions to certain things, but best that they prompt loving and forgiving action in the long run. This is a much better use of personal resource than anger and bitterness.

      And by looking to God I don’t mean meditating in a corner somewhere, though that may have its place. I mean acting on a trust in God which results in love for others, which itself will prompt positive action. That’s what I mean by being loving and faithful.

    • francisco

      Someone said that a bitter person is “someone who by drinking poison expects that the other party die”. Or if you want it in one word: bitterness = foolishness.

  10. Great post, really got me thinking. It brought to my mind a book I’ve read that talks about this a bit, so I thought I’d mention it to you. It’s called Demolishing Strongholds by Dave Devenish, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in the spiritual warfare category. Thanks for such insightful writing.

  11. Marta Odum

    Great post, as always. This one hit home. I listen to people at my job complain all the time, and the sad thing is I either ignore it, or on a bad day join in. I have Christ to offer to the situation, yet I rarely do so. This post has inspired me to want to be a better witness.

  12. Dan, your ideas certainly make me think.

    I have to agree that the church has strayed from its God-given intent, but as I recall that purpose is to make disciples, not change systems.

    I think the church has become sidetracked.

    I also think forgiveness is not just about making things right with individuals. It is about not complaining against God for the circumstances which He is in control over and to which He has subjected me. I am to pray for those in positions of authority. I don’t find it a particularly easy thing to do when I am bitter.


    • Rebecca,

      If we Christians did not address systems, we would have no hospitals, no orphanages, and no democracy. Communism would still run rampant in many parts of the world. Slavery would still be common in the West.

      There is no sidetracking. Opposing evil systems and power structures is part and parcel of what it means to be a Christian. One of the reasons Christ came is to destroy the works of the devil. The Bible states we are to do the same.

  13. Example of the stinking “system” at work: Those buffoons in Congress messing around with our clocks once more.

    There are days, my dear Dire Dan, when I get so sick to death of everything being controlled by that crowd of greedy, self-serving, phony, lucre-worshipping corporationists, lawyers, lobbyists, merchants, and politicians.

    There are days when I just want to scream.

  14. Followed a link to your blog and enjoyed your comments.

    I’m one of those who feels beaten by “the system.” I have a son with autism. We get Medicaid in order to help pay for his therapy. Every year we have to reapply and last year, we lost the Medicaid briefly. I don’t like taking government help, but our health insurance will only pay for our son’s therapy up to a point. We face the real prospect of slow bankruptcy without government help–as do thousands of other families whose children have conditions worse than my son’s.

    I have struggled for years with forgiveness. There are days I think I’ve forgiven people who have hurt me and then there are days when the hurt and anger come back so strongly I could scream.

    I will take you up on your offer of prayer!

    Feel free to drop by my blog and leave a comment.

  15. Dan, sorry I haven’t been back to read your comment. And I see you’ve gone on to other topics. Still, I thought it might bear responding. You said f we Christians did not address systems, we would have no hospitals, no orphanages, and no democracy. Communism would still run rampant in many parts of the world. Slavery would still be common in the West.

    My thought was, I wonder how much sooner communism would have crumbled–or maybe never found a toe hold–if we were serious about making disciples. Look at Wilberforce to see a life turned against slavery because of Christ.

    My point is, the evil is not poverty or homelessness or orphans. The evil is a rejection of The Way, The Truth, The Life.

    I wonder how much would change for the positive if Christians in the US took the time they complained or worked to alter the status of prayer in schools and used it to actually pray.

    I believe we should be about the job God gave us … and let Him take care of the rest.

    Did Jesus lobby against Rome? Despite the debauchery and the persecution He knew the caesars would initiate, He did not. He did not tell Matthew or Nicodemus to clean up their dishonest tax practices. Rather, they chose to do that because of spending time with Jesus.

    True conversion is the only way to bring about systemic change.


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