At a winter retreat in northern New England, one of the men asked the question, “What was your favorite Christmas gift ever?”
One athletic man seemed eager to answer. “That’s easy,” he said, glancing at his friend next to him. “A few years back, I finished college thinking I was a sure bet to play professional football. When it didn’t happen, I was angry. Bitterness ate at me, and I shared that bitterness with anyone who tried to help me.”
“On the second Christmas—and second season without football—I went to a Christmas play at this guy’s church,” he said, gesturing toward his friend. “Not because I wanted Jesus, but just to see my niece in her Christmas pageant. It’s hard to describe what happened because it sounds silly, but right in the middle of that kids’ play, I felt like I needed to be with those shepherds and angels meeting Jesus. When that crowd finished singing ‘Silent Night,’ I just sat there weeping.
“I got my best Christmas present ever that very night,” he said, again pointing to his friend, “when this guy sent his family home without him so he could tell me how to meet Jesus.”
It was then that his friend piped up: “And that, guys, was my best Christmas present ever.”
This Christmas, may the joyful simplicity of the story of Jesus’ birth be the story we tell to others.
On the last day of the US Civil War, officer Joshua Chamberlain was in command of the Union army. His soldiers lined up on both sides of the road that the Confederate army had to march down in surrender. One wrong word or one belligerent act and the longed-for peace could be turned to slaughter. In an act as brilliant as it was moving, Chamberlain ordered his troops to salute their foe! No taunting here, no vicious words—only guns in salute and swords raised to honor.
When Jesus offered His words about forgiveness in Luke 6, He was helping us understand the difference between people of grace and people without grace. Those who know His forgiveness are to be strikingly unlike everyone else. We must do what others think impossible: Forgive and love our enemies. Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father in heaven is merciful” (v. 36).
Imagine the impact in our workplaces and on our families if we embrace this principle. If a salute can make armies whole again, what power there must be in Christ's grace reflected through us! Scripture gives evidence of this: in Esau's embrace of his deceitful brother (Gen. 33:4), in Zacchaeus's joyful penance (Luke 19:1-10), and in the picture of a father racing to greet his prodigal son (Luke 15).
With the grace of Christ, may we let this be the final day of bitterness and dispute between our enemies and us.
Careless driving, rising tempers, and use of foul language among some taxi and minibus drivers are a constant source of traffic fights in our city of Accra, Ghana. But one traffic incident I witnessed took a different turn. A bus was almost hit by a careless taxi driver. I expected the bus driver to get angry and yell at the taxi driver, but he didn't. Instead, the bus driver relaxed his stern face and smiled broadly at the guilty-looking taxi driver. And the smile worked wonders. With a raised hand, the taxi driver apologized, smiled back, and moved away, the tension diffused.
A smile has a fascinating effect on our brain chemistry. Researchers have found that "when we smile it releases brain chemicals called endorphins which have an actual physiological relaxing effect.” Not only can a smile diffuse a tense situation, but it can also diffuse tension within us. Our emotions affect us as well as others. The Bible teaches us to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another” (Eph. 4:31-32).
When anger or tension or bitterness threatens our relationship with the Lord and with others, it helps to remember that "a cheerful heart is good medicine" for our own joy and well-being.
The neighbors probably didn’t know what to think as they looked out their windows at me one wintry day. I was standing in the driveway with a garden shovel clutched in my hands, whacking wildly and angrily at a clump of ice that had formed beneath a corner gutter. With each smack, I was uttering prayers that were variations on one theme: “I can’t do this.” “You can’t expect me to do this.” “I don’t have the strength to do this.” As a caregiver, with a long list of responsibilities to handle, I now had this ice to deal with, and I had had enough!
My anger was wrapped around a bundle of lies: “I deserve better than this.” “God isn’t enough after all.” “Nobody cares anyway.” But when we choose to cling to our anger, we become mired in the trap of bitterness, never moving forward. And the only cure for anger is truth.
The truth is that God does not give us what we deserve; He gives us mercy instead. “You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call to you” (Ps. 86:5). The truth is that God is more than enough, despite what we see. The truth is that His strength is sufficient (2 Cor. 12:9). Yet before we can find such reassurance, we may need to step back, lay down the shovel of our own efforts, and take Jesus’ hand that’s extended to us in mercy and grace.
God is big enough to listen to our anger and loving enough to show us, in His time, the path forward.
When Jenny’s husband left her for another woman, she vowed that she would never meet his new wife. But when she realized that her bitterness was damaging her children’s relationship with their father, she asked for God’s help to take the first steps toward overcoming bitterness in a situation she couldn’t change.
I once asked a counselor what the major issues were that brought people to him. Without hesitation he said, “The root of many problems is broken expectations; if not dealt with, they mature into anger and bitterness.”
Traveling by bus from Memphis, Tennessee, to St. Louis, Missouri, typically takes about 6 hours—unless the bus driver leaves you stranded at a gas station. This happened to 45 passengers aboard a bus who waited 8 hours overnight for a replacement driver after the original driver abandoned them. They must have felt frustrated by the delay, anxious about the outcome, and impatient for rescue.
One summer I was at a gathering of old high school acquaintances when someone behind me tapped me on my shoulder. As my eyes drifted over the woman’s name tag, my mind drifted back in time. I remembered a tightly folded note that had been shoved through the slot on my locker. It had contained cruel words of rejection that had shamed me and crushed my spirit. I remember thinking, Somebody needs to teach you a lesson on how to treat people! Although I felt as if I were reliving my adolescent pain, I mustered up my best fake smile; and insincere words began coming out of my mouth.