Overcoming Lingering Bitterness
December 15, 2002
Listen to this Sermon
On Thursday morning, November 21, as the sun was peeking over the horizon in the port city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, Bonnie Penner Witherall was up early. On this day she was going to work at the prenatal clinic that offered medical services to the Muslim women from a nearby refugee camp. Tensions were running high because of events elsewhere in the Middle East, and Americans in general and missionaries in particular had been warned of potential danger. Bonnie and her husband Gary, both graduates of Moody Bible Institute, had come to Lebanon with a burden to share Christ in the Muslim world. For several years they had been studying Arabic so they could communicate with the people they hoped to reach with the gospel.
At approximately 8:00 a.m. Bonnie answered a knock at the clinic door. Authorities can only surmise what happened next. Evidently a man hit her in the face and chest, and then shot her three times in the head, killing her instantly. When Gary heard the news, he ran to the clinic. By this time the police had come and the gunman was nowhere to be found. He tried to fight his way into the room where his wife lay in a pool of blood but the police wouldn’t let him enter. In one of the cruel ironies of our modern world, someone took a picture of Bonnie after she died, and that gruesome picture has been seen across the Internet.
“I have to forgive.”
The next day the London Times carried a report on the murder of Bonnie Penner Witherall. It quoted Gary Witherall as saying that he had forgiven his wife’s killers: “God led us to Lebanon and we knew that we might die. … It’s a costly forgiveness. … It cost my wife.” On the long flight home while accompanying his wife’s body to America, he came to a simple conclusion: “God said there’s a seed that’s been planted in your heart. You either hate and be angry or you forgive. I said I have to forgive.” (Atlanta Constitution online, December 9, 2002).
Whenever tragedy strikes, two enormous questions loom before us: “Why did this happen?” and “Where is God in all of this?” Many times the second question is harder than the first. Most of us instinctively know that we’ll never have a final answer to the “Why?” question this side of heaven. We don’t ever fully know why things happen the way they do. The answer to that question remains in the heart and mind of God. But we can know something important about the second question: Where is God in all of this? I am convinced that many of us go wrong at this point precisely because of bad theology. Let me say that another way. I am convinced that good theology is the answer to the deepest questions of life. Not that good theology can tell us all we would like to know. It can’t. But understanding who God is, who we are, and how God works in the world (which is what good theology is all about) gives us a framework for responding to life’s darkest moments.
New Help from an Old Sermon
In order to provide some help in this area, I want to share some insights that are at least 170 years old. In the early 1830s a man named Charles Simeon of Cambridge, England, published a sermon on Genesis 45 that provides some unique insights into how God works through evildoers to accomplish his purposes. He gave his sermon the unwieldy title, “God Viewed in Joseph’s Advancement.” Though the title sounds odd to our ears, the truth it contains speaks to our 21st-century questions. Much of what I’m going to share in this sermon came from Charles Simeon.
He begins by speaking of the “hidden secrets of divine providence,” which sounds a bit like one of those specials we occasionally see on the Fox Network. In this case he means that there is far more going on in the universe than we ever dreamed possible. If the total knowledge of reality equals a line that stretches for 100 yards, then we perhaps see an inch or two or three. No matter how much we think we understand, there is much more we don’t understand because our vision is so limited. With that in mind, how does God accomplish his own designs for us? The answer is, sometimes he uses adversity and mistreatment. When we are going through the ordeal of being unfairly attacked, when we are being lied about, when our reputation is being publicly smeared, when our friends betray us, when a husband or wife abandons us, it may appear impossible that such things could accomplish anything good, but they do. The key is the word “appear.” What we see is far less than what God sees. And the good that may come from the treachery of others is not planned by the hand of man, is not seen in advance, and is not seen at all except by faith.
Simeon used a fascinating word to describe how God brings good out of the evil of others. He says that God “interposes” himself in the midst of the circumstances of life. That is, God gets involved even when we think nothing is happening. The end result (sometimes seen many years later) is easily and naturally seen to promote our good and God’s glory. And we look back and say, “It had to happen that way.”
Exhibit A: Joseph
In the entire Bible there is no better example of this principle than the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. It all begins when Joseph has a dream that someday he will be exalted above his brothers and even above his parents. Naturally his brothers aren’t thrilled to hear this news, and soon their hearts burn with envy, jealousy, and malice against Joseph. When opportunity presents itself, they throw Joseph into a pit, intending to leave him for dead. They end up selling him into slavery to a caravan of Midianite traders. Then they go back home, tell their father Jacob that Joseph is dead, and forget all about him. Meanwhile, Joseph is purchased by Potiphar (who was the Pharaoh’s head of security) who makes him head over his household where he rises to prominence and is the victim of an attempted seduction by Potiphar’s wife who later falsely accuses him of rape. After being thrown in jail, he meets the baker and the cupbearer and correctly predicts that the former will die but the latter will be released. He asks the cupbearer to remember him upon his release, but the cupbearer forgets until Pharaoh has a dream he can’t interpret. The cupbearer remembers Joseph who is released, correctly interprets the dream, and is elevated by Pharaoh to the number-two position in Egypt. When a terrible famine strikes the Middle East, Jacob sends his sons to Egypt looking for food. They meet Joseph but don’t know it’s Joseph. There follows a series of tests so Joseph can determine their sincerity. Eventually the moment comes when Joseph will reveal his true identity. That brings us to Genesis 45.
Joseph sends the Egyptians away and reveals himself to his brothers who are understandably terrified to meet the brother they sold into slavery 22 years earlier. Now he has them firmly in his grasp. He can order them killed and it will be done. Or tortured. Or thrown into jail. Or fined. Or anything else he desires to have done to them.
“God sent me to Egypt.”
I pause to comment that if anyone had a “right” to be bitter, it was Joseph. He has “lost” 22 years of his life. The temptation to get even must have been great. But this is how he summarizes the whole affair:
“I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt’” (Genesis 45:4-9 ESV).
There is enormous irony in his words. The very thing used against him (their betrayal) results in his exaltation so that he can now save the brothers who betrayed him. The central truth is in verse 8: “It was not you who sent me here, but God.”
Those are either the words of a madman or a man of faith. He mentions God five times in these verses so his brothers won’t miss the point. “I know what you did. I haven’t forgotten your treachery, but that’s not the issue. You did what you did because you wanted to hurt me, but God allowed it to happen so that I would end up a ruler in Egypt so that at the exact moment when you needed me, I would be here to save you and your descendants.” His vision of God was so great that it dwarfed the sin of his brothers.
I. How God Involves Himself with Evildoers
With Joseph’s amazing words as the background, I want to do a bit of theological investigation into this question: How does God involve himself with evildoers? What did Joseph mean when he said to his brothers, “It wasn’t you who sent me here but God?” After all, if not for their betrayal, he never would have come to Egypt in the first place. How does a holy God accomplish his plan for us through the deeds of evil people? It’s easier to answer that question in the negative. God is not the author of evil nor does he tempt us to do evil (James 1:13-15). What the brothers did to Joseph was unquestionably evil but he does not dwell on that. There is a sense in which we must say that God is not the cause of evil or a partner in evil, but in some way that is hard to put into words, he is involved in the evil deeds of evildoers. He does not cause sinners to sin but what they do fits into his ultimate plan.
A. He allows them to reveal what is in their hearts.
Joseph’s brothers were motivated entirely by envy and malice. They couldn’t stand the thought that their little brother would one day rule over them. God simply gave them a chance to reveal the envy that was already there. As long as they were under Jacob’s direct control, Joseph was safe. But when they were out gathering the flocks, and Joseph came to find them, their latent envy boiled to the surface. At first they planned to leave him to die in the pit, but God interposed and the Midianite traders came along. As the story unfolds, others enter the picture. First, Potiphar, then his wife, later the baker and the cupbearer, and still later the Pharaoh. They all acted according to their own inclinations, but all in accordance with God’s plan. God didn’t cause the brothers to envy nor Potiphar’s wife to lust. The brothers and the wife did that on their own. He simply gave them a chance to act on their evil intentions. In so doing, he allowed them to reveal the evil that was already in their hearts. This is what Jesus meant when he said to Pilate: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11 ESV).
B. He permits Satan to instigate them to evil.
Satan is a roaring lion who prowls the world, looking for those he can destroy (I Peter 5:8). But though he possesses great power, he can do nothing without God’s express permission. In Job 1 it is God who tells the devil to consider his servant Job. And Satan cannot afflict Job beyond the limits established by God. The devil is powerful, but he is not omnipotent. He has great knowledge but he is not omniscient. A few hours before his betrayal, Jesus told Peter that Satan had requested permission to sift him like wheat, meaning that Satan could not tempt him to evil without God’s permission (Luke 22:31). Satan operates within limits imposed by God. This is both a comfort and a warning. It is a comfort to know that our temptations do not happen by chance but are permitted by our Heavenly Father. The warning is that God still holds us accountable for how we respond. No one will ever be able to escape judgment by saying, “The devil made me do it.” No, he may have tempted you, but you did the sinning all by yourself.
C. He withdraws his restraining grace.
Restraining grace simply means that God doesn’t let things get as bad as they could be. But when God removes his hand of grace, things fall apart quickly. Romans 1 tells us that God exercises judgment on unbelieving humanity by giving men and women over to further sin. Sometimes God’s harshest judgment on sinners is to do nothing at all. He simply says, “If you want to destroy your own life, go ahead. If you want to destroy your own family, go ahead. I won’t stop you. You’ve already rejected me so I will now respect your decision. If you wish to plunge off the cliff, go ahead, but you’ll find out how sharp the rocks are at the bottom of the ravine.”
If men despise God’s mercy, they are left with nothing but his judgment. He blinds the eyes of those who choose not to see, and he hardens the heart of those who prefer to go their own way.
D. He uses them to accomplish his own purposes.
Sometimes he uses the evil deeds of evildoers to further his own plans in the world. When Christ was born, the Father used the paranoia of Herod the Great to guide the Magi to Bethlehem. Later he used Herod’s slaughter of the innocents to lead Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus to Egypt so that the Scripture could be fulfilled that says, “Out of Egypt I called my Son” (Mathew 2:13-15). We see this even clearer in the events surrounding the death of Christ. Who killed Jesus? For 2,000 years men have argued that question. Did the Jews kill Jesus? Yes, in a sense. Did the Jewish leaders kill Jesus? Clearly, they wanted him dead and plotted to make it happen. What about the Romans? They were the only ones with the legal power to put someone to death. How about the centurions? They were the ones who performed the literal act of crucifixion. And in a larger sense, is not the whole sinful world of humanity guilty of his death? Did not our sins put him on the cross? There is plenty of guilt to go around in the death of Jesus Christ. But what about God? Though he cannot be “guilty” of the death of Christ, was not the death of Jesus part of the Father’s plan from the beginning? The answer is yes. Jesus was the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). How do we reconcile the plan of God with human guilt in the death of Christ? Here is Peter’s answer as he preached in Jerusalem to some of the very men who participated in the death of our Lord: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23 ESV). Jesus’ death was not some afterthought with God, as if it happened because events suddenly spun out of control. He died according to the “definite plan and foreknowledge” of God, and he could not have died otherwise. But his death took place at the hands of “lawless men” who stand guilty before the Lord. Even though we may not fully see it, there is perfect harmony between God’s predestination and the free moral choices of sinful men. In the case of Christ, God used the wicked deeds of wicked men in crucifying the Son of God to bring salvation to the world.
II. How Knowing This Helps Our Faith
In one respect this sermon may seem unusual, as if I am trying to impugn God by somehow making him responsible for the evil in the world. But the truth behind Genesis 45 needs to be tattooed on our souls. We desperately need an infusion of good theology so that when trouble comes our way (and it comes to all of us sooner or later), we won’t buckle under the pressure and watch our faith suddenly disappear. Understanding that God is intimately involved in even the worst things that happen relieves us from worry and doubt and fear. Does it justify sin? Not at all. Knowing this truth brings good to our soul and great honor to our God.
A. We know that our troubles did not happen by accident.
When we focus on immediate causes, we end up in despair, anger and bitterness. It’s very easy to think only of the people who have hurt us deeply—parents or children or grandparents or friends we thought we could trust or church members who let us down or people at work who stabbed us in the back. The list goes on and on. But as long as we focus exclusively on the people who hurt us, we are doomed to dwell in the swamp of bitterness. Far better it is to understand that our enemies (who often are our closest friends) are actually instruments in God’s hands. They are his rod to correct us and to shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. Having said that, I hasten to add that God’s purposes and theirs are vastly different. Our enemies mean to harm us, to drag us down, to hurt us deeply, and to so discourage us that we give up. Not so the Lord. He allows our enemies to taunt us and to torment us but his purposes are higher and better and nobler. Ultimately he allows their unkindness to humble us, to break us of our pride, and to cause us to cry out to him for mercy and deliverance. What they intend and what God intends are two different things. Never forget that fact.
Charles Simeon adds that when God is through with our enemies he will cast them into the fires of eternal judgment. Those who have hurt us will end up in hell forever. He cites the fact that this is how God dealt with the pagan nations he used to judge Israel in the Old Testament. The Major and Minor Prophets are filled with warnings to those nations that their own day of reckoning would someday come. And come it did—for the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Edomites, the Egyptians, and every other nation that was used to chastise God’s people. How does this principle apply today, especially when those who torment us may themselves be born again Christians? The answer is simple, though the precise application will vary. God knows how to discipline his children, and that includes those believers who take unfair advantage of us or go out of their way to mistreat us. The day will come when they will be brought low before the Lord. Count on it. Those who misuse others will someday be called to account for it—if not in this life, then in the life to come. The scales of justice will be balanced in the end.
And in the end, we will be improved, our faith will be stronger, and our reliance on the things of this world will be lessened. The Lord will be our portion. A man told me last week that after going through a hard time, he finally came to the place where he had to say, “Lord, I am satisfied with you.” Once he said that, he gained a new perspective on his troubles and his life began to change. When hard times come, we should say, “It is the Lord, let him do what seems best to him.” After Job had lost virtually everything, he declared, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21 ESV). This is true for all once we can view the hand of God in our trials.
B. We can see good where others can only see evil.
More than anything else, this was the secret of Joseph’s life: He saw God everywhere. He had such a profound sense of God’s presence that he understood that every event in his life must somehow be ascribed to the hand of God working behind the scenes. Thus he could say to his brothers, “It was not you but God that sent me to Egypt.” The same is true for his seduction by Potiphar’s wife, the false rape accusation, and the years he spent in prison. All of it related back to God’s purposes for his life. To make the point clearer, we should understand that Joseph means to say more than simply “God was there” when all the bad things happened. That is true, of course, but it does not comprehend the full sense of his words. Joseph means to say, “God was in charge of the whole process.” It’s not as if the brothers sold him into slavery and then God intervened to bring about a good result. His words demand something more than that. Joseph means that everything that happened—the good and the bad—was part of God’s ultimate plan for his life. He was sent to Egypt to save the lives of his own family—the very brothers who had betrayed him. This was God’s plan from the beginning, and that fact alone explains all that happened to him. What a profound view this is of the sovereignty of God.
Years ago I spoke to a man whose wife had been in and out of drug rehab several times. Her struggles with drugs and alcohol (and his struggles with anger) had reduced their marriage to a shambles. It may have been the most hopeless marriage I ever saw. But through nothing less than a miracle from God, they somehow pulled through and survived a crisis that lasted for the better part of a decade. One day the man looked me in the eye and said, “I now understand that it had to happen the way it did.” It takes great faith in God to say something like that, and it could only be said at the end of the ordeal, looking back and seeing that even the worst moments were leading to something much better.
C. We have a reason to forgive those who hurt us.
Of course, sometimes those “much better” moments never come. Not every story has a happy ending. Sometimes there is no reconciliation, and sometimes the mistreatment continues unabated. But if we believe in the sovereignty of God, we have a reason to forgive those who hurt us deeply. I don’t say that we should forget what they did to us. We can’t really forget because the memories are with us forever. But we can forgive even when we can’t forget. To forgive means to choose not to remember. To pardon means to clear the record so that we no longer cling to the hurts of the past. This is only possible when we come to see that our enemies are agents of the Lord, sent by him (or allowed by him to come) for reasons that we may never fully understand. If this sounds impossible to do, please recall the words of Jesus as he hung on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 ESV).
D. We have a new admiration for God’s wisdom in all things.
Life is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. And we are like children trying to put the puzzle together with only a handful of pieces and someone took the box that has the picture on the cover. So we’re left trying to fit our little handful of pieces together and trying to figure out the big picture at the same time. No wonder we struggle to figure out what life is all about. As the years pass we pick up more pieces to the puzzle and things that once troubled us now seem to fit into place. And we have a new appreciation for the wisdom of God because nothing is ever wasted. Everything “fits” somewhere.
Or we are like ants crawling across a painting by Rembrandt. When we come to the darker colors, it seems as if the entire painting is dark, somber, forbidding. Everything around us is dark brown or dark blue or midnight black. But if we could only stand back from the painting, we would see that the darker hues are offset by lighter colors—red, green, yellow, blue and orange. It is the darkness of the darker hues that makes the brighter colors stand out so vividly. So it is with life itself. We may spend days or weeks or years in the dark tones of life. Sickness, heartache, tragedy, mistreatment and betrayal may cause us to think that there are no lighter tones. But God is painting a masterpiece in your life and before he is finished, he will use every color on his palette. If you do not see the final product on earth, you will see it clearly in heaven.
How can we live like this in a world where tragedy is never far away? The answer is simple though not easy to put into practice. We live this way by faith. We choose to believe that God is at work in everything that happens to us. And we choose to believe that even when we see nothing at all that makes sense to us. Faith like that is made strong when it is based on the Word of God. And that’s why the story of Joseph is so important.
The world says, “Seeing is believing.” If I see it, I will believe it. But that principle is reversed in the spiritual realm. God says, “Believing is seeing.” We will see God’s hand once we believe it is truly there.
Charles Simeon concluded his sermon with two points of application that bear repeating:
1. How happy is the Christian in this world!
The unsaved have no hope in this world. To those who don’t know Christ, bad things happen with no ultimate purpose. Not so for those who know the Lord. As the Christian navigates a tempestuous ocean, he does so knowing that an All-wise, Almighty Pilot is at the helm. Even when the waves rise around him and threaten to cast him into the deep, he has no fear. Though he does not know what will happen in the short run, he is certain that in the long run God’s plan for his life will be worked out perfectly. Therefore, he is satisfied and has perfect peace in his soul.
2. How happy will he be in that future world!
The Christian firmly believes that Romans 8:28 is true in every circumstance. He believes that all things work together for his good and for God’s glory because God has said it is so. Thus he walks by faith, not by sight. He firmly believes that someday he will see all the links in the chain of circumstances that led him from earth to heaven. And in that day he will bless the Lord for his sovereign wisdom displayed in every circumstance of life. With that confidence, he can rest in the Lord now, knowing all will be well later.
The Costly Act of Forgiveness
Charles Simeon ended his sermon with these words: “Let us commit ourselves entirely to God, and be satisfied with his dealings toward us.” And “what we know not now, we shall know hereafter.” I am struck by the phrase, “be satisfied with his dealings toward us.” How many of us could say that we are satisfied with the Lord and how he has dealt with us?
On Sunday, November 24, Gary Witherall spoke at a memorial service for his wife held at the church building that adjoined the clinic where she was murdered three days earlier. Addressing the 400 mourners who packed the chapel (and others who stood outside in the rain), he explained again why they had come to Lebanon and how he felt about what had happened:
“So many people think my wife’s death was a waste … but we believe that coming here with the message of Jesus would never be a waste. It is a message worth laying our lives down for,” he said. Sobbing, he added, “Whoever did this crime, I forgive them. It’s not easy. It took everything that I have but I can forgive these people because God has forgiven me.” (From World magazine, December 7, 2002).
Forgiveness is never easy. In a situation like this, it would appear to be impossible. But Gary Witherall has discovered the truth of the sovereignty of God. Good theology has rescued his soul in a moment when most of us would give in to despair and bitterness. The road of forgiveness will seem like weakness to those who don’t believe in God, but as hard it is, it is far better than giving in to bitterness that corrodes the heart and destroys the soul. Those who believe in God’s sovereignty can overcome bitterness through the costly act of forgiveness. This is the Word of the Lord. Amen.