“Freedom from Bitterness,” Ensign, Aug. 1991, 54
Cheryl* had not been able to escape nagging resentments toward her former husband, Fred. Flashbacks—unpleasant memories of all those things that had precipitated their divorce—kept her in a state of bitterness she had come to feel was inescapable. After all, even friends explained that “some broken hearts never mend.”
Then one day, when Cheryl was expressing the venom she harbored toward Fred, a friend asked, “What is life like for a man who has pushed away the ones he loves?” After a few moments of quiet reflection, Cheryl said, “You know, he’s the loneliest man in the world.” And as she thought about it, she felt different, less anxious. Sorrow began to replace resentment, and in a while she experienced a sense of peace.
It was only the beginning, but what Cheryl experienced is evidence that bitter feelings that stem from any manner of injustice need not be harbored for years. They can be given up, replaced with feelings of compassion, patience, even confidence. Such qualities are fruits of the Spirit and are made possible through keeping the commandments and accepting the atonement of Jesus Christ. While considering her husband’s troubles instead of focusing only on her own, Cheryl began to see the meaning of the Savior’s offer to comfort those who have cause to mourn.
According to the gospel, bitter feelings are not inescapable emotions; we have the power—and the obligation—to abandon bitterness. (See Eph. 4:31–32.) But, not surprisingly, the solutions to bitterness offered in the restored gospel are not always well received by either the world or those who remain bitter. Those who receive peace must receive it through the Spirit; and those who rely on worldly reasoning alone too often reject gospel-centered solutions as unrealistic, idealistic, or just plain impractical.
Four years after his divorce, Ralph remained an emotional wreck, so continually angry or depressed that even weekends with the children were tension-filled and unpleasant. Supportive overtures from friends gradually diminished as Ralph continued to respond to encouragement by saying, “You think I like feeling this way? If I could control these feelings, I would. But am I supposed to deny my feelings and pretend they’ll go away?”
Ralph apparently thinks his only options are to (1) deny his feelings, (2) feign new ones, or (3) live with the old ones. So he holds on to the bitterness generated by his divorce. Current worldly wisdom suggests that bitterness and divorce are logically linked. At least, bitterness seems all too normal for someone who feels he or she has been treated unjustly, dishonestly, or wrongfully. Moreover, for those who didn’t want a divorce, it seems that paradise is lost and that good feelings can never return.
But going on to a new future seems impossible for those wrestling with an unchangeable past. They try to slay two dragons at once, hanging on to old feelings while trying to build a new life. Cheryl felt uncomfortable with the struggle and realized that it wasn’t “normal” to feel so much tension, while Ralph resigned himself to his bitter state—not an attractive option. Cheryl accepted the Savior’s invitation; Ralph resisted it.
The scriptures suggest that bitterness is not something just to be tolerated but something to be given up. Paul counseled, “Let all bitterness … be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” (Eph. 4:31–32.) Alma taught that those in the gall of bitterness must eventually give bitterness up if they are to be happy. Only then can justice, mercy, and all other such comforts made possible by the atonement of Christ be received. (See Alma 41:10–15.)
“But how do I do it? How do I put away feelings that I didn’t ask for in the first place, emotions that I feel so strongly?” many ask. First, we must reconsider our view of where bad feelings come from. Bitterness, and feelings like it, cannot develop into a lasting attitude unless we cultivate these feelings. In clinging to bitterness, we blind ourselves to the fact that we are doing just that.
Jason, for example, felt desperate to get a divorce and leave a situation that was making him miserable. Yet four years later, he was just as miserable divorced as he had been married. “Why don’t you stop accusing your ex-wife of ruining your life?” asked a friend one day. The question prompted Jason to realize that he had been falsely blaming his misery upon external situations. When he finally saw his own responsibility for his life and feelings, Jason became more patient, more at peace. While visiting him one weekend, his daughter commented, “You had to really work at loving me last week, but today it feels like you just love me.”
When we harden our hearts, gospel counsel looks unrealistic or impossible. But when we soften our hearts, amazingly, we begin to ask different questions of ourselves and allow the Lord to comfort us in our search for peace. A scriptural example of this is the account of Enoch’s vision. When Enoch was shown the fate of those in the Flood, “he had bitterness of soul, and wept over his brethren, and said unto the heavens: I will refuse to be comforted.” (Moses 7:44.)
Even Enoch had to learn that to refuse to be comforted is to consciously spurn the comfort of God. “The Lord said unto Enoch: Lift up your heart, and be glad; and look.” (Moses 7:44.) Enoch’s refusal to be comforted and his bitterness of soul went hand in hand. Yet the Lord did not abandon him, but continued the vision, showing Enoch that the descendants of Noah would all be given the possibility of sanctification and eternal life.
If the Atonement is applicable to Enoch, who repented of his “bitterness of soul,” then persons suffering bitterness about a divorce can similarly repent and similarly receive comfort. But we must first accept the idea that we are agents, capable of acting rather than simply being acted upon. We gain greater understanding by asking ourselves the following questions:
Have I refused to be comforted by the Lord?
In prayer have I truly sought meekness and lowliness of heart in order to be comforted by the Lord?
Am I willing to cast my burden on the Savior so that I can get on with life and be at peace?
Have I studied to discover how such peace is possible?
Diane felt paralyzed after her divorce. Her former husband’s actions included abuse, and she felt like a helpless victim of life even after their separation. But how, she wondered, could she win out over bitter feelings that others accepted as inevitable?
When asked to read a scripture for a Primary program, Diane went over the words, but she didn’t realize their meaning until the time arrived to read them aloud. As she did so, her bitterness began to dissolve: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28–30.)
By turning her attention toward the Savior and remembering that he was not paralyzed by the injustices wrought upon him, Diane felt the meekness of the Spirit and was warmed by it.
Coming unto Christ requires becoming meek and lowly in heart as he is. When we are meek and lowly of heart, we experience spiritual peace. Even if we progress toward this peace only gradually, line upon line, day by day, we are slowly succeeding in our search for personal peace.
The world will continue to tell us that bitterness is inescapable, something over which we have little control. The world also may tell us that cycles of despair occur inevitably and that gospel solutions are unrealistic. In addition, the world may tell us that coping skills require great effort and offer only temporary relief.
The gospel, however, teaches us both to accept the Atonement as able to free us from bitterness and to forgive those who trespass against us. As we live charitably, mercifully, and faithfully, our progress will be accompanied by joy and sorrow—not bitterness and despair. Our compassion for others, including those who may have wronged us, will increase as we accept the comfort of the Lord.
When we refuse the Lord’s comfort, we are like the “chickens” in the Savior’s lament: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, … how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matt. 23:37.)
A similar plea in the Doctrine and Covenants highlights our own responsibility: “I will gather them as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if they will not harden their hearts.” (D&C 10:65; italics added.)
We can relinquish our bitterness, but only through the Lord. As we soften our hearts, we accept his offer of comfort and find rest unto our souls.