Bitterness is a Poison

It destroys our ability to trust and suffocates our relationships with others

In 2010, California passed the Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention Act. This required all residential properties from one to four units to be equipped with carbon monoxide detectors.

Carbon monoxide is dangerous because it’s odorless, colorless, and tasteless. In other words, there’s no way of knowing that you’re being poisoned. This is what led to 115 deaths in California between 1999 to 2004.

Carbon monoxide poisoning works by depriving the body of oxygen. Once inhaled, it travels from your lungs into your bloodstream. From there, it latches onto your blood cells and then refuses to let go. This is a problem because it doesn’t drop off its single oxygen atom to the parts of the body that need it to function like your brain or your heart. If enough carbon monoxide enters into your system, the end result is asphyxiation.

Bitterness is Like Carbon Monoxide

Bitterness is similar to carbon monoxide in a lot of ways. It’s dangerous because we often don’t realize we have it.

Bitterness enters into our lives through painful experiences. The pain then travels into our minds and hearts in the form of a memory. From there, the pain latches on and refuses to let go. Whenever we think back to that memory or have a similar experience, the pain floods back and adds to or even deepens its hold on us.

In this way, bitterness poisons us. It deprives us of the ability to trust and suffocates our relationships with others.

My Story of Bitterness

When I graduated from UCSD, I went on a missions trip to the Philippines for three months. My team did a lot of things while we were there like hosting workshops in juvenile halls, relief works in the slums of Agdao, and street evangelism. In the beginning, we had a lot of fun. We were all on the same page, all bought into the same vision, and we loved getting to know the people of Davao.

Me getting chased by a kid. Multiply this by 50 and you get the whole picture!

But towards the middle of the trip, things started getting really difficult. Our leader (let’s call him Bob) struggled with insecurity and would randomly lash out at us in anger. We were never sure what would set him off and so we were very cautious about everything we did.

There was one night that was particularly painful for me. The team was having a group discussion and I had disagreed with a suggestion that Bob had made. After the meeting, he pulled me aside and yelled at me. He told me that I was rebellious and had no respect for authority. This devastated me because Bob was a leader that I trusted and I was trying my best to make sure he felt respected. He was also someone I wanted to look up to as an older Korean male.

After I got home from the missions trip, I held onto this pain for a long time. I refused to forgive him. I felt like if I did, it would in some sense justify his actions or make what he did okay. I believed that holding onto this anger was my form of justice. My form of having control over what happened. By holding onto this pain, I believed I was punishing him.

This is when bitterness started settling in and deepening a mistrust I already had in authority figures. It made me angry in situations I shouldn’t have been. It made it difficult to trust others. It suffocated my relationships with others.

Bitterness also made it hard for me to be vulnerable. I tended to take a defensive stance in conversations even when it wasn’t a debate. I was always wary of being attacked and the pain of getting hurt was so high that it often wasn’t worth the risk of opening up. Sadly, I missed out on a couple of relationships in light of this.

For example, in my mid-20’s there were a couple of men whom I respected a lot and wanted to ask to be my mentor. But I could never bring myself to approach them. Why? Because I was too afraid to put myself in the same situation that I was in the Philippines.

It wasn’t until I saw a therapist that I realized just how much the bitterness had affected my life and that I had even become accustomed to it. That often times I chose the pain and the loneliness because it felt familiar to me. When I didn’t feel these feelings, I felt “off”.

That’s when I realized something was seriously wrong. I needed to change. I needed to move forward and in order to do that I needed to deal with the bitterness.

Bitterness is Pain That I Choose to Hold Onto

One of the things that helped me come to terms with my bitterness was realizing that I created it by choosing to hold onto the pain. The reason why the memory of my leader in the Philippines stuck with me all those years wasn’t because it was so painful. It’s because I refused to let it go.

I needed to learn to forgive. Only then was I able to start healing.

It was a gruelling process and I’ll share about some of the tools I used to pay down this specific Emotional Debt of bitterness next week. But eventually, I noticed that I wasn’t as angry anymore. I stopped being so defensive in conversations. I was more open to trusting people and saw more opportunities for relationships. I began to thrive. And even though I still struggle occasionally with bitterness, it has stopped controlling my life.

Discussion Questions

  1. What bitterness are you currently struggling with?

  2. What are some of the advantages of holding onto it?

  3. What are some of the disadvantages of holding onto it?

  4. How would your life look different if you let it go?

  5. What steps can you take to pay down your bitterness?

Next week, we’ll talk about some of the tools I used to pay down the Emotional Debt of bitterness.

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