Overcoming Bitterness

By Randall McPherson

We left the house around 3:30 p.m. on that Friday afternoon, July 18, 1975. Bea and I were on our way to Nashville with a group to enjoy the “Friday Night Opry.” Ricky and Mark were on their way to Glasgow to check out a possible buyer for Ricky’s motorcycle. We all planned to be home later that night. Those plans went awry. We would never be together again – at least not in this life.

According to plans, Ricky and Mark, along with a neighbor friend, were on their way home. It was dusk. Ricky was riding single leading the way and Mark was riding double with their friend. Ricky was coming into a curve near the top of a little rise. Suddenly, from nowhere, there was a car in his path. It was coming toward him on the wrong side of the road. The car hit Ricky head-on and then struck the car trailing him. After emerging from his car, the errant driver said to the woman driving the car he had hit, “I hit something before I hit you.” That something was our son, Ricky!

The ambulance came. Ricky lived until they got him to the hospital. In the meantime, the errant driver was allowed to go home. After learning of Ricky’s death, the State Trooper investigating the accident decided that he should administer a breathalyzer test to the man. When he arrived at the man’s house, the trooper learned that the test was useless; the man had been drinking after the accident and had a beer open then. While my son died, his killer was drinking beer! That hurt!

As our bus pulled into the parking lot of the local PCA Office later that night, I sensed something was wrong. I saw many people gathered – too many for that time of night. I saw Dudley Spear, the local preacher and a longtime friend of the family, making his way toward the bus. I knew he was coming for me. He would not tell us what had happened until after Bea and I were inside the car. His words still ring in my ears. They always will. He said, “Ricky is dead!”

Ricky was the third of our four children. He was an eighteen-year-old senior, well-known in the south central Kentucky region. As a high school basketball star, he was admired and loved by many. He had received statewide recognition as a sophomore when he was named to the All State Honorable Mention Team. But more importantly, Ricky was widely known as a young Christian man. He had served at the Lord’s table the Sunday before his death.

As I learned the details of how this careless, beer-drinking man had “murdered” one of our precious sons, I was at a loss for words to describe the feelings that were generated inside my heart. Among other things, I suppose anger stands out. I was angry with the errant man. (I have never met him to this day.) I was angry with the police; why had they not arrested the man at the scene? (I still do not know why.) Why had they waited to give the breathalyzer test? (I stiff do not know.) I was angry with myself. Why had I allowed Ricky to buy this motorcycle two years before? Why hadn’t we stayed home that night? Maybe Ricky would not have gone to Glasgow. The “if’s” flowed like water. I hurt inside.

For the next several weeks I did little except sit around and think about Ricky. Friends continued to come by and offer their condolences. Other well-meaning friends were unwittingly paving the way over which bitterness sometimes travels. I remember one friend who was not a Christian saying, “Randall, all this seems so unfair. Ricky was such a fine young man, and you have given so much of your life in helping people. Why has this tragedy happened in your family?” Many others, both Christian and otherwise, expressed similar thoughts. It would have been very easy for me to have become bitter at this point. Fate was dealing me a bad hand in the game of life (Eccl. 8:14).

If you are expecting me to tell you that, at this point, I turned to the Bible for the answer, you are wrong. I would be dishonest if I told you that. It never occurred to me. The Bible helped all right, but not by what I could glean from it then. It helped at this point in time by the influence it had on my fife in the past. It is difficult to find answers after a problem arises; it is much easier to have the answer before the problem comes. Surely the explanations a preacher gives of certain Scriptures through the years have to have some positive effect upon him, even though he is not conscious of it.

In teaching the Bible for thirty-five years, I have quoted and explained the following Scripture many times. “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, 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).

I usually organize my thoughts on this text along these lines: (1) Bitterness is a word associated with taste, but here it is used to accent a feeling. (2) Bitterness can be overcome; the Bible never tells us to do the impossible (“put away”). (3) Bitterness keeps bad company; it very well could be an umbrella word for the other negative feelings in the verse (“wrath, anger, clamor”). (4) Antidotes for bitterness are kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness (“Be”). Those in danger of falling victim to bitterness would do well to study these verses in this light.

I read the Bible through in the few weeks following Ricky’s death. I had one thing in mind. I wanted to meditate upon every verse that had anything to do with the whereabouts of the dead. I underlined and made notes on every passage that alluded to this. Indirectly, this helped my prevailing attitude tremendously. (It also caused me to modify some former views about the dead.)

Reading about the glories that await the righteous, one must conclude that the righteous are better off than we. If so, why should we be so upset about a Christian leaving us in death? One can easily see why Paul would have “a desire to depart and to be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23) or why he “earnestly desired to be clothed with our habitation from heaven” (2 Cor. 5:2). It is natural for the living to mourn the passing of a loved one, yet, in reality, the deceased are better off than we (Eccl. 4:2). The doctor who attended Ricky in the emergency room told us that had Ricky lived, he would have had severe brain damage and would have been an invalid the rest of his life. Knowing Ricky, he would have chosen I ‘to be with the Lord.” That, my friend, helped!

Somehow, something else took on new meaning as I read the Bible through. God only knows how many times I have preached on forgiveness. But, now, it seemed to have more meaning. The forgiving spirit that Jesus demonstrated in his life seemed to come alive. How could I call myself a disciple and not feel the same way he felt? How could I read passages that demand forgiveness, even to enemies, and hold malice in my heart toward anyone?

How could Jesus do it? I could say “I forgive” and not feel it inside my heart, but Jesus could. Empathy was a wonderful quality that Jesus possessed. He could put himself “in the shoes of others” and truly understand their feelings in any situation. He could “be touched by the feeling of our infirmities” (Heb. 4:15). He has stood in your shoes whosoever you are. Obviously, it would do us all good to stand in another’s shoes sometimes.

While reflecting upon my own life, these questions came to mind. Had I ever at some point in my life been driving on the highway while drinking beer? I am not proud of it, but, yes, I had. Had I ever made a stupid mistake while driving, such as being on the wrong side of the highway? Yes, I had. I continue to be careless and do this sometime. Would I have felt badly if I had caused the death of a child? Yes, it would have been devastating! That poor man made a careless, human mistake that will haunt him for the rest of his life. It just as easily could have been me.

Having considered all this, I felt differently about the man way down deep inside. It was then that I knew I had forgiven him, Remember, true forgiveness is within and not an utterance of the lips. Is not this the antidote I mentioned?


I suppose I should leave some kind of advice to any who may be trying to keep seeds of bitterness from developing in their own lives. Consider seriously these thoughts.

The first thing one should do is to honestly evaluate the situation. Is the matter over which you are becoming bitter really as bad as it seems? Remember, even the death of the righteous is a blessing unless we selfishly look at it. Try to see as God sees. Remember, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psa. 116:15).

Secondly, if the bitterness is caused by a person, work hard at forgiving him. You can if you will put yourself in his place. Consider his upbringing and circumstances. If you had been him, would you have acted differently? In all likelihood, you have done some of the same things he has done. Do you remember Jesus saying, “He that is without sin, cast the first stone” (Jn. 8:7)?

Thirdly, read the Bible. Read it regularly. Hear these inspired messengers firsthand. This daily exposure to the fine principles set forth in the Scriptures will surely innoculate you from the terrible disease of bitterness. Jesus said, “. . . Learn of me, and you shall find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-30).

Bitterness is a poison that can prove fatal to the Christian. Deal with it early before it can invade every facet of your life.

Guardian of Truth XXXII: 17, pp. 525-526
September 1, 1988