Read the series so far.
The humble, submissive, thankful attitudes of worship are what make any response to bitterness genuinely Christian. Honoring God with our attitudes is at the heart of why it’s worth the trouble to avoid prolonged bitterness.
But believers struggling with bitterness should also take advantage of practical wisdom. We need to be tactical as well as strategic. With that in mind, my aim here is to commend one practical response to bitterness, along with some caveats and cautions.
Simple though it is, this strategy has made a huge difference in my own life.
Exit the Roundabouts
Here in western Wisconsin, we have a growing number of roundabouts (a.k.a. “traffic circles”) where two- or four-way stops used to exist. Instead of coming to a stop, looking both ways, and moving on, you enter a circle and drive around it until you see the exit you want. But if you get distracted or can’t figure out which exit is right, etc., you end up going around again. As the Brits (and maybe Canadians) might say, you can keep going “round and round” until you run out of “petrol.”
Bitterness tends to be like that. Bouts of bitterness take us into loops. We ruminate on our failures (remember Peter and Esau) or losses (Naomi) or disappointments (Hannah) or unfair sufferings (Job). The roiling regret or grief or resentment feeds attitudes such as anger, despair, anxiety, and other flavors of negativity. Then we’re ruminating again, only with more intensity, and the cycle continues. The longer we loop, the harder it becomes to see and choose a good exit.
So strategy #2 for battling bitterness is simply to immediately exit all roundabouts. By doing so, we escape from bitter attitudes before they pull us into unfruitful, self-perpetuating brooding.
There’s a time and place for reflecting on past errors and hurts—and even more times and places for reflecting on present ones—but we all know that there are painful realities of life that are simply beyond our control. There is nothing (or nothing more) we can do.
As far as our attitudes and responsibilities are concerned, the only sensible thing to do is treat thoughts on these matters like roundabouts and, whenever they arrive, find a quick exit. These situations call for turning our minds promptly to the true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent or praiseworthy (Php 4:8).
I recall a phrase my mom would use from time to time growing up. If a conversation was getting unhelpfully tense or ugly or depressing, she would say, “Let’s talk about something else.” Beating bitterness is often that simple: it’s saying to myself, “Let’s think about something else,” then getting quickly down that new path.
Thinking on Better Things
The context of Philippians 4:8 is not as far from the bitterness-roundabout scenario as it may seem. The apostle is clearly interested in helping the Philippian believers be at peace. Peacefully resolving a conflicted relationship is the focus of Philippians 4:2-3. Prayer is the alternative to merimnao (being “anxious” in most translations) in Philippians 4:6-7. And the famous “think on these things” of 4:8 is immediately followed by a call to obedient imitation of Paul’s way of life (Phil. 4:9), with the outcome that “the God of peace will be with you.”
For our purposes, the key point is that there are multiple factors involved in peaceful, joyful living and multiple ways to turn away from unfruitful, bitter brooding.
A common mistake here is to try to step from the dark, painful, and stormy attitudes of bitterness to the bright, encouraged, peaceful attitudes of thankful joy all in one stride. Most of us creatures of dust just don’t have legs that long, so to speak, and our efforts quickly end in frustration.
Instead, we’re usually better off keeping the ultimate goal in mind but focusing first on a small, simple, concrete step away from the roundabout. An old saying claims that “the good is the enemy of the best.” Voltaire, on the other hand, claimed that “the best is the enemy of the good.” I’m usually not one to take Voltaire’s side in a debate, but applied to the present case, he’s on to something. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of small, simple changes.
Asaph’s pivot in Psalm 73:17 is a case in point. His exit from bitterness onto a path of peace and joy is so small and simple, it’s easy to miss: “I went into the sanctuary of God.”
Asaph chooses to pursue the highest of human activities, but it really begins by just taking a walk—by changing his physical location and going somewhere pleasant.
A similar pattern is evident in Psalm 77, only this time his exit is a song: “Let me remember my song in the night” (77:6). This small step is followed by a lot of meditating, diligent searching, and intentional remembering. But it starts out with simply switching the internal channel to a better song.
Some ordinary small roundabout exits that have often proved helpful to me:
- A period of immersion in some analytical task
- Successful completion of a simple chore
- Conversation with someone on some completely unrelated topic
- A few minutes of funny cat videos on YouTube
- A change of scenery
When we’re stuck in a worsening loop of negative, bitter brooding, just about any exit will do—because very few options are worse than the loop itself (though, yes, some are much worse).
Escape vs. Escapism
This is where the caveats and cautions come into play. I anticipate the objection that what I’m advocating here is escapism, and it’s true that using ordinary distractions to put bitter brooding in the rear view mirror carries a certain amount of risk of escapism.
But rejecting pointless cycles of painful, self-defeating rumination is not the same thing as running away from important but unpleasant responsibilities or refusing to work through difficult questions. The series of contrasts below may help sharpen the distinction.
Get away from the unfruitful
Responsibility is fulfilled
Feeds right thinking
Seeks to do right, be wise
Get away from the unpleasant
Responsibility is evaded
Feeds more escapism
Seeks to be happy
In my own struggles with bitterness, few things have helped more than developing the habit of quickly exiting from roundabouts. And though we may be unsure which exits are best, we can be certain that cycles of bitter thinking are truly escapable.
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Cor. 10:13)
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is Information Coordinator for a law-enforcement digital library service.