The Bible and Bitterness
Scriptures: Psalm 137; Romans 12:14-21
I want to begin with a two-minute clip from the movie
Forrest Gump. In this scene Forrest's childhood friend Jenny has returned to visit Forrest in the town where they grew up, and as they walk along they come to the abandoned ramshackle house where Jenny was physically and sexually abused by her alcoholic father. [Play scene 1:45:40 to 1:47:06] As she stares at the house, all the memories of that abuse well up inside her, and she throws her shoes at the house. Then she picks up rocks and hurls them against the side of the house, one after the other, breaking windows and bouncing off the siding until finally she collapses in the yard sobbing. Forrest comes over sits down beside her and says, "Sometimes I guess there just aren't enough rocks."
Sometimes there just aren't enough rocks. That's how the
writer of Psalm 137 feels. Verse 1: "By the rivers of Babylon-there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion." In 587 B.C.E. the people of Israel were conquered by the Babylonians. The city of Jerusalem was almost completely destroyed, including the walls, the temple, and the palace of the king. Zion was obliterated, and of those not killed many were taken into exile where they became virtual slaves of their Babylonian captors. And there by the rivers of Babylon they sat down and wept.
As if that were not bad enough, the Babylonians taunted
them. Verse 3: "For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.'"
Three weeks ago in our church service we read Psalm 84: "How
lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord." That is a song of Zion, a song of joy about going to Jerusalem to worship God in the temple. There many psalms like that. Psalm 87: "On the holy mount stands the city God founded; the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God." That's a song of Zion, a song of joy about the temple in Jerusalem where people worshiped God and were assured of God's presence.
But now Zion is in ruins, and the people who destroyed it,
the Babylonians, tell the Israelite captives, "Hey, sing us one of those songs of Zion. Sing us one of those songs about your glorious temple that we have now reduced to rubble."
Sometimes there aren't enough rocks. That's how the
Israelites felt about the Babylonians. Verses 8-9: "O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock." There are no adequate words to describe their anger and bitterness.
There are other psalms with a similar tone. Psalm 58 was
apparently written by a victim of some terrible crime. Verses 6-8: "O God, break the teeth in their mouths .. Let them vanish like water that runs away; like grass let them be trodden down and wither. Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime; like the untimely birth that never sees the sun."
Wow, that's cursing. It is tempting to say, "That should not be in
the Bible. God's people should not feel that way." But sometimes they do, and the psalms are not afraid to give voice to their anger and bitterness. Anger can be an appropriate response to injustice, and bitterness a natural reaction to cruelty. The psalms do not teach us to suppress those feelings; the psalms teach us how to deal with them in the right way.
There is a book written by Debbie Morris called Forgiving
the Dead Man Walking. At the age of 16 Debbie was kidnapped and raped by two drifters named Robert Willie and Joseph Vaccaro. During her captivity they told her of murdering another teenage girl and threatened to do the same to her if she did not cooperate. Miraculously, however, after 48 hours Debbie's captors let her go. Later, when they were captured, her testimony helped convict them not only of her own kidnapping but also of the murder of the teenage girl they had told her about.
Debbie felt deep anger and bitterness toward her captors,
but that was nothing compared to the rage expressed by the parents of the murdered girl. During the trial the girl's stepfather, a man named Vernon Harvey, would stalk Robert Willie when he was brought into court. Debbie writes, "Vernon Harvey took every opportunity he could find to get right in Robert Willie's face (or as close as he could come) and scream horrible, damning things at the man who had so brutally butchered his stepdaughter" (p. 166). I suspect even Psalm 58 would have been too mild for him.
There are times when evil is so vicious, so cruel, so destructive that
the only sane reaction is rage. But here's the catch. Rage acted out as vengeance never brings peace, only more pain.
After Robert Willie was convicted and sentenced to death,
Vernon Harvey was interviewed by a local television station. He said that Robert Willie's execution would be the happiest day of his life. He said he would celebrate by dancing outside the gates of the prison where the execution took place.
Eventually Robert Willie was executed and presumably Vernon
Harvey danced. But that did not give him peace. Debbie said she realized this months later when the Harveys invited her to join them in celebrating the next execution at that prison, the execution of someone totally unrelated to the death of their daughter. Debbie Morris writes, "Obviously, they had found no closure, no sense of peace in Robert Willie's death. Every bit of the grief and pain they'd felt for years was still eating at them. . I realized that seeing the effects of their abiding anger and hatred had helped convince me I needed to let go of those feelings myself" (179-180). So instead of seeking further vengeance against Robert Willie, who was already dead, she began to pour out her anger and hurt to God in prayer. And that, she writes, was the beginning of her healing.
Those angry, vengeful psalms I quoted this morning-they are
all prayers. They are not detailed plans for revenge, they are not schemes to get even; they are cries to God. They do not seek justice in their own violent act of retaliation. They place themselves and their anguish in the hands of a steadfast God.
In our first scripture reading the Apostle Paul says, "Beloved, never
avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'"
This does not mean we should never confront people. Debbie
Morris confronted her kidnappers when she testified against them. Letting go of your anger does not mean letting go of justice. Debbie Morris sought justice against her kidnappers through the judicial system, which is entirely appropriate. The key is that she did not take her anger into her own hands, as Vernon Harvey did. She put her anger in the hands of God, which in the end finally helped her to heal.
On occasions I have seen a bumper sticker which says, "I
don't get mad, I get even." That is a common way of dealing with anger. When someone hurts you, you retaliate. We have seen this for half a century between Israelis and Palestinians. I have sometimes seen it between spouses. Husbands or wives feel hurt. They respond by attacking the spouse with words or by acting out their anger in other ways. Then the spouse responds with verbal attacks of his or her own or some form of silent treatment. And the anger and defensiveness escalates.
The bumper sticker says, "Don't get mad, get even." But the
Bible would prefer you to get mad. The Bible affirms that there is a time for wrath. Some actions and situations are so unjust, so cruel, so destructive that the only proper response by a caring person is rage. The psalms acknowledge that.
But when you are angry is not the time to play God. It is
the time to let God be God. It is the time to bring your anger to God in prayer the way the psalms do. Then it becomes God's problem, not yours.