A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

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Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 08/15/1999

Ephesians 4:31-32

Bitterness...or Forgiveness "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has also forgiven you." INTRODUCTION

We have seen that the specifics of walking worthily include telling the truth, working with our hands, being angry without sin, and speaking words good for edification. Today at the end of chapter 4, we encounter another set of attitudes which are crucial for success in the worthy walk: "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has also forgiven you." We should notice first of all that this passage is mainly about forgiveness. Everything else is related to that. The negative attitudes in v. 31 are rejected as incompatible with forgiveness, and the positive ones in v. 32 are urged as compatible with it. Why is this so important? Because forgiveness is an absolutely essential prerequisite for any relationship between fallen men and women. This is true whether they be friends, family, or members of our church family. There can be no healthy ongoing relationship between any two fallen human beings without the practice of forgiveness on both sides. Paul develops this need in what is becoming the familiar pattern of a negative command, a positive command, and the reason or motive for both: what not to do, what to do, and why to do it.


Bitterness is PIKRIA. As with the English word, so the Greek refers primarily to an unpleasant taste and is used metaphorically to refer to an attitude. I once had a neighbor who defined that attitude well. He had three vehicles: a car, a van, and a light truck. And on each of them was the same bumper sticker, which beseeched the military to "Please draft my ex-wife." Now, that is bitterness! Aristotle defines bitterness as "a stubborn unwillingness to be reconciled." That definition helps us see that bitterness is really the key to whether forgiveness is going to be possible or not.

When I was a new pastor at a previous church, several people in the congregation were complaining that there were no youth activities. So one week in prayer meeting I innocently said, "We need to pray that the Lord will call someone to serve as a sponsor for our youth group." Unfortunately, I had never been told that there already was a person in that role! Instead of obeying the biblical commands for dealing with such a situation and coming to me--I would gladly have apologized even though I had "slighted" her unintentionally in complete innocence--this lady quietly brooded over this "insult" for years. She ended up starting the most vicious and ungodly campaign of gossip and slander behind my back that I have ever seen used against a pastor. The church still has not recovered from the ugliness that resulted. Bitterness that is allowed to fester always hurts the bitter person, and usually will eventually break out to hurt others. In this case, it led to precisely the same set of resulting attitudes and actions that are delineated in v. 31.

Wrath and anger (THUMOS and ORGE) are near synonyms. If they are to be distinguished, perhaps one refers more to an outburst and the other to the attitude behind it. Both are problems for sinners. Clamor (KRAUGE) comes from anger, and often takes the form of slander (BLASPHEMIA), speech that is designed to harm someone's reputation. We get our English word "blasphemy" from this word; blasphemy is slander when applied to God. Malice is KAKIA, which means a desire to harm another person. And all this proceeds from the root of bitterness. It is important then that we learn to distinguish the symptoms--anger, wrath, clamor, slander, malice--from their cause. If you want to overcome any of these symptoms, you have first to deal with the pathogen causing them, which is bitterness. Are you unable to forgive? Unable to cease from these other hurtful attitudes and actions? The reason is a root of bitterness you have allowed to continue growing in your heart. Acknowledge that as sin, confess it, repent of it, and ask God to help you deal with it, and then you will be able to make progress in these other matters.


Kind is CHRESTOS, which means being good to people or useful to them. Tender hearted is EUSPLANGCHNOI, which literally means having good or well disposed intestines. It denotes a compassion that comes from deep within, from what we in English would call the heart or maybe the "gut." We can have this compassion even for those who have hurt us when we realize that they are victims of sin just as we are. For the word translated "forgiving" is CHARIZOMAI, which is related to the word for grace, God's unmerited favor, CHARIS. To forgive someone is literally to "grace" him. It helps to realize that biblically, forgiveness is an extension of grace. In other words, it is for the undeserving--for people just like us! And as an extension of grace, its goal is not just restitution but more: restoration, reconciliation. God's forgiving us is the ultimate model for our forgiving others. Why? Because otherwise the Church will not be living the life of Christ!


Why then must we consciously and deliberately reject bitterness in favor of forgiveness? Because Christ also forgave us! Not because it is the nice thing to do; not because it is a healing act not only for us but for others in the Body and for the Body itself; not even because it is good for the cause of the Gospel (though all these things are true); the ultimate reason we are to reject bitterness in favor of forgiveness is that to do so is to be like Jesus!

This, let me remind you, is tied to the very mission statement for the Church which is the backbone of the whole epistle to the Ephesians. The summing up of all things in Christ (1:10), to be to the praise of his glory (1:12), to make known his manifold wisdom (3:10): that is the reason we as a Church exist. And therefore we let him dwell in our hearts through faith (3:17) so that we may know the love of Christ (3:19) and thus walk in a manner worthy of our calling (4:1). The glory of God is the greatest good; the Church is the eternal Temple he is building to that end; God is glorified by being made known in Christ; Christ is glorified supremely in his self sacrifice for the Church; and this grace is not only to be embraced for our personal salvation but lived out in the Church so that it becomes the place where Christ is revealed and glorified, where he, being lifted up, may draw all men unto himself. God makes himself known in Christ; Christ makes himself known in his people. And therefore we too must show grace--must "grace" people, CHARIZOMAI them, forgive them--because that is showing Christ.

Think of the parable of the wicked servant (Mt. 18:21-35) who, after he was forgiven a huge debt by his master, refused to forgive his fellow servant a pittance and was fired for that offense. Think of the codicil to the Lord's prayer (Mat. 6:14-15), which says that if we do not forgive our brother's sins, neither will God forgive ours. This passage before us today brings into sharp focus the truth in those passages: An unforgiving spirit is simply impossible for those who know that they themselves have been forgiven. To stubbornly cling to bitterness is so incompatible with our identity in Christ that it is simply not to be contemplated or tolerated; so incompatible that to do so after receiving the warning in these passages is prima facie evidence of a false profession. And so we refuse bitterness and choose forgiveness instead, not for our own sake but for Christ's, who forgave us.


Let us therefore "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has also forgiven you." Let us do this not because otherwise we would not HAVE a church, but because otherwise we would not BE the Church, that is the Body of Christ, the Temple in which his grace is revealed and hi glory made known to principalities and powers in the heavenly places, to a watching world--and to us.

Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams