Untangling the Strands of Bitterness

Untangling the Strands of Bitterness

We are on week three of studying the life of Samson. Samson, remembered for having enormous strength from God, all too often used it unwisely for his own selfish desires. And because of his unused tremendous potential, he’s remembered for what he could have been.

Samson’s story does have a redeeming end, but much of Samson’s story recorded is not one we would think to follow. Instead, Samson’s story is one for us to learn what not to do. However, in many ways our story does runs parallel with Samson’s.

On week one, we discovered that Samson, as a Nazirite, was chosen by God to do great works. He was born with a purpose and given gifts and abilities to accomplish the divine work. And we learned that wee too, are chosen, born with a purpose and given great gifts and abilities to accomplish God’s work here on earth.

Last week, we saw how unguarded strength becomes a weakness. Samson allowed the gifts that God gave him to go to his head and became extremely prideful. Mixed with his uncontrolled temper and unresolved anger, Samson had too much of his own self ruling over every aspect of his soul and strength. Samson was ruled by pride and anger, disregarded his vow with God, disrespected his parents, disregarded any kind of self-discipline in the face of temptation, and choose reckless actions.

Pride has a way of making us believe we’re strong in our own strength. Yet pride is truly a weakness. To overcome that weakness, we need to let God’s Holy Spirit actually be our strength and not rely on our own.

Now because our bad decisions are often followed with one after another, the reckless actions of Samson continue this week. In fact, in this week’s addition, his pride and anger take the next step and turn to bitterness.

Last week, we ended after Samson gave the riddle to the 30 Philistine guests at his bachelor party. They manipulated his wife to give them the answer, and the wager for the answer was 30 tunics, which Samson didn’t have. So he killed 30 men, took their tunics and gave them to the men who solved his riddle. Furious, not at himself, but at the men and his wife, he went back home to live with his father and mother. So his wife was given in marriage to the best man at this wedding. Which is in all reality was betrayal.

Now betrayal is one of the most challenging experiences to deal with because, by its very definition, it comes from someone we trust. Samson trusted that this marriage was a sure thing even though it was with a woman from the enemy people, the Philistines who were oppressing his people. The marriage was real and meant a great deal to him.

In a sermon titled “When Your World Turns Against You,” pastor and author Max Lucado explains betrayal like this: “It’s more than rejection. Rejection opens a wound; betrayal pours the salt. It’s more than loneliness. Loneliness leaves you in the cold; betrayal closes the door. It’s more than mockery. Mockery plunges the knife; betrayal twists it. It’s more than an insult. An insult attacks your pride; betrayal breaks your heart.”

Samson’s heart was broken. Consumed with pride and lashing out at the sting of betrayal, Samson sets out on a quest for vengeance. And he quickly plunges into a downward spiral of bitterness, anger, and rage.

It’s far too easy to go from a broken heart to a bitter soul, allowing unresolved anger to fuel the consuming fire of vengeance. Vengeance for some, is withdrawing from the situation, taking the time to plot their cold-hearted revenge. For others, revenge is like an explosion of anger and rage. Self-control is out the door. Their thirst for vengeance is all-consuming. This is where we find Samson.

Judges 15: 1-11

Later on, during the wheat harvest, Samson took a young goat as a present to his wife. He said, “I’m going into my wife’s room to sleep with her,” but her father wouldn’t let him in.
2 “I truly thought you must hate her,” her father explained, “so I gave her in marriage to your best man. But look, her younger sister is even more beautiful than she is. Marry her instead.”
3 Samson said, “This time I cannot be blamed for everything I am going to do to you Philistines.” 4 Then he went out and caught 300 foxes. He tied their tails together in pairs, and he fastened a torch to each pair of tails. 5 Then he lit the torches and let the foxes run through the grain fields of the Philistines. He burned all their grain to the ground, including the sheaves and the uncut grain. He also destroyed their vineyards and olive groves.
6 “Who did this?” the Philistines demanded.
“Samson,” was the reply, “because his father-in-law from Timnah gave Samson’s wife to be married to his best man.” So the Philistines went and got the woman and her father and burned them to death.

Now they too know that this was betrayal, that there was a trust broken. But I’m not so sure this was just for punishment for the father’s actions. These are evil people. It’s much more likely that they know this will hurt and really get to Samson. Word gets back to Samson what they did to his wife, and they were right, Samson burned with even more anger!

7 “Because you did this,” Samson vowed, “I won’t rest until I take my revenge on you!”

At this point, you may want to go, “Samson come on. You already upset the beast. Let it go!” But pride, anger, and bitterness have a way of completely taking over any kind of reasonable thinking.

8 So he attacked the Philistines with great fury and killed many of them. Then he went to live in a cave in the rock of Etam.
9 The Philistines retaliated by setting up camp in Judah and spreading out near the town of Lehi. 10 The men of Judah asked the Philistines, “Why are you attacking us?”

The Philistines replied, “We’ve come to capture Samson. We’ve come to pay him back for what he did to us.”

11 So 3,000 men of Judah went down to get Samson at the cave in the rock of Etam. They said to Samson, “Don’t you realize the Philistines rule over us? What are you doing to us?”
But Samson replied, “I only did to them what they did to me.”

What began as a personal matter between Samson and his father-in-law soon escalates into something so much more. Many Philistines (including Samson’s wife and father-in-law) are dead and their wheat fields, vineyards, and orchards are gone. In retaliation, the Philistines tighten their hold on the Israelites. Imagine what suffering prompted 3,000 men of Judah to pursue Samson to the cave where he hid.

When pressed for a reason, Samson’s response is like that of a child, yet is a familiar one to even us. Samson replied, “I only did to them what they did to me” (Judges 15:11b).

How often have we responded the same way?

We feel disrespected or betrayed, so we strike out to hurt our offenders. Unrestrained, they, in turn, seek to wound us even more deeply, and the “battle” escalates seemingly out of control. Then our anger passes, and we find ourselves in the equivalent of a cave left to lick our wounds and survey the devastation.

From our vantage point, it’s clear that there were a number of “turning points” where Samson could have chosen to end the destructive, but didn’t.

What can we learn from Samson today? God’s Word offers us an antidote. With strong knowledge, experience and insight of the downward spiral of bitterness, the apostle Paul wrote,

Hebrews 12:1

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up.”

Take a moment to reflect on what those weights might be in your own life. The approval of man, or of a particular person, the wounds of the past, your hunger for revenge, your hunger for lust, or greed, or envy…The list for each of us is unique, yet it’s common.

Like Samson, we have been supernaturally gifted by God to fulfill His unique purposes. From the womb, God’s hand has been on us to accomplish extraordinary things for His glory and to advance His kingdom.

But if we are honest, there may be another parallel we have with Samson’s life. As with Samson, have there been times when our anger, bitterness, and thirst for revenge have brought darkness instead of light and death in place of life?

In the Old Testament, the culture was “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.”

Leviticus 24:19-21

19 Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury. 21 Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death.

First off, this was a code for judges, not an endorsement of personal vengeance. In effect, it was saying that the punishment should fit the crime, and it helped the court to administer punishment that was neither too strict nor too lenient.

However, many including us today, still take that to mean that we can get even with people who hurt us. So Jesus came along, and clarified, in fact changed the code when he taught about revenge.

Matthew 5:38-48

38 “You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say, do not resist (fight) an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. 40 If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. 41 If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles.
44 I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! 45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. 47 If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. 48 But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.

How can we be perfect? Well, we can’t in this life, but we can aspire to be as much like Christ as possible. We are to separate ourselves from the world’s sinful values, devote to God’s desires rather than our own and carry his love and mercy into the world. Christ calls all of his disciples to excel, to rise above mediocre, and to mature in every area becoming like Him. Those who strive to become perfect will one day be perfect, as Christ is perfect.

Our desire should not be to keep score, but to love and forgive. But to do that, we need to separate ourselves from the past, we need to separate ourselves from the hurt.

We hurt because we have been hurt. It is only by making a clean break with the ‘eye for and eye’ way of thinking that we will be free from the bondage of pain. Yet, that’s not natural to us. So if we are to find the strength to counter the hurt with compassion, counter the anger with empathy, and the wounds with forgiveness, it will only be through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can accomplish that.

Paul reminded us to…

Ephesians 4:22-24

“Throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.”

First, recognize that being transformed into the image of Christ is a process. Your automatic response to betrayal might well be anger or rage. But please recognize the trap it reflects and decide to instead, cry out to God for His strength to respond in a way that reflects Him.

Ephesians 4:26-27

“And ‘don’t sin by letting anger control you.’ Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the devil.”

Take a breath, hold your tongue, leave the confrontation, seek wise counsel. Before the heat of the moment, decide how you will respond to avoid being swept away by your emotions.

And every day, you will encounter those who are operating under the philosophy that entangled Samson and inspired destruction and loss.

They hurt me so I will hurt them.

Just as it is not sufficient to just cut the tops off of the weeds in your garden, we must be willing to go down deep and explore the source of bitterness, rage, and other evil in our lives. Piece by piece, wound by wound, examine what lies at the root of your behavior and choose to give it to God and allow Him to transform it.

Ephesians 4:31-32

Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.

It’s in light of God’s forgiveness of us, that we not only find the strength to return good for evil, but we also declare to a world, trapped in the endless cycle of revenge, that there is a better path, a path of light and life.

In the next part of Samson’s story, the men of Judah turn Samson over to the Philistines. All the while, Samson had a plan. He broke free and killed 1,000 Philistine soldiers with just a jaw bone of a donkey that had been laying around. 1/1,000 goes to show what God had entrusted him with. The power, the strength that can only come from God. Yet, Samson abused it. He then boast about it as if it was his own.

Each act of retaliation just brings another and another, until we make a decision to forgive. Forgive as we have been forgiven, and cry out to God for His strength to respond in a way that reflects Him.