February 1, 2021
Bitterness is an acid that destroys its own container. If you allow bitterness to take up residence in your heart and life, the repercussions will be personal, spiritual, and even physical. Left to fester, bitterness will eventually destroy you.
“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness without which no one will see the Lord, looking carefully lest anyone falls short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:14-15).
Bitterness is a terrible problem that can blow out the candle of joy in your life and leave your soul in darkness. It can hold back revival in the church. It can cause brokenness, arguments, and divorce in your home. It can keep you from understanding the Bible. It can block you from being a victorious soul-winner. You cannot be a vibrant Christian with bitterness in your heart.
Most of us understand what bitterness is because, if we don’t have it in our own hearts, we’ve witnessed what bitterness does in the lives of those who do. They’re hostile, caustic, critical, angry, fault-finders, and overloaded with resentment.
Sometimes bitterness doesn't manifest itself that way, but by being melancholy, sad, full of self-pity. When you pull the veil back, often these are actually just bitter people.
Or bitterness can show itself in people who are cool, aloof, disinterested—not participants. But inside they are seething volcanoes of bitterness.
The blight of bitterness is a hurtful, hellish problem, even for believers. Our passage from Hebrews 12 warns us about it, and Hebrews was written to Christians. Don't think for a moment we're immune. There are many bitter brothers, caustic Christians, and sour saints.
“…looking carefully lest anyone falls short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:15).
How does this root find lodging in our lives? Bitter people generally have been hurt. Something happened; life hasn’t worked out as it should. Someone hurt them and they may perceive that someone to be God; thus, they’re bitter at Him. Or society. Or a specific individual such as a spouse. Colossians 3:19 says, "Husbands, love your wives and be not bitter toward them." Sometimes the better half becomes the bitter half.
We've all been hurt. Not one of us has gone through life without suffering some kind of hurt. And when we’re hurt, our natural instinct is to react with anger. The hurt may have been intentional or unintentional. The person who hurt us may be unaware. But in people who’ve been hurt, that hurt often turns to anger and hostility. We react with resentment, a desire to get even and hurt the one who hurt us. If we’re Christians, we recognize that’s wrong. To respond like that comes from the old nature. We confess it, deal with it, get beyond it, and prevent it from becoming a root of bitterness.
The bitter person is different. He takes it into his heart, dwells on it, and mulls it over again and again. He seeks other proof in his enemy to justify his bitterness. He feels absolutely vindicated. He’s a negative person, hoping to confirm his hostility and self-pity by finding all the faults and flaws in that person who wounded him. And he’ll certainly find those because we all have faults and flaws. You’ll always find what you’re looking for.
The more you try to uncover in others, the more you’ll feel confirmed in your bitterness, and the more bitter you’ll grow. Sadly, you will have a way of bringing bitterness out in others. Many bitter people are quite clever. They become students of this sort of thing; they know where your emotional hot buttons are and how to push them to get the response they want. If they get under your skin and elicit a hostile reaction, it only validates their bitterness
This is an underground sin. That’s why the Bible calls it “a root of bitterness.” Roots are always beneath the surface, unseen. People will deny this sin, or they’ll disguise it or disregard it. Few bitter people will admit it. That takes a lot of honesty. Without it, the root of bitterness grows in the soil of a hurt that’s not been properly dealt with. Are you in denial?
Looking again in Hebrews 12:15, we’re told to always be on the lookout for a root of bitterness “springing up,” because every root will produce fruit that causes trouble. First, it will hurt you, but it’s contagious—it hurts other people. “Many become defiled.”
This root of bitterness will bring you physical trouble. I recommend you read a book originally published in the 1960s by Dr. S. I. McMillen and updated by him and his grandson, also a medical doctor, through the years. None of These Diseases has sold more than a million copies. Dr. McMillen lists over 50 diseases that are emotionally caused. Some people are physically sick because of mental, psychological, and spiritual stress.
I'm not saying every sick person is bitter. But every bitter person will eventually be sicker than he ought to be if he doesn't deal with that bitterness. Dr. McMillen said,
The moment I start hating a man, I become his slave. I can’t enjoy my work anymore because he controls my thoughts…. The man I hate may be many miles from my bedroom but more cruel than any slave-driver. He whips my thoughts into such a frenzy that my mattress becomes a torture. The lowliest of serfs can sleep, but not I. I must acknowledge that I am a slave to every man upon whom I pour the vial of my wrath.
To the degree you hold resentment toward anyone, to the same degree you are his slave.
Verse 14 says, “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness without which no one will see the Lord." You can't have hellishness and holiness in your heart at the same time. Peace with others and holiness are mentioned in the same sentence, then the warning against bitterness immediately follows. It’s not only going to trouble you, but “many become defiled.”
Bitterness sets off a chain reaction. Ephesians 4:26-27 is a significant passage of Scripture: “Be angry and do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil.”
It’s not always a sin to be angry. Jesus was moved with anger at the moneychangers and the hardheartedness of the Pharisees. But His was righteous anger, properly directed, channeled, and used, not springing from bitterness. He never got angry at what someone did to Him personally.
When does anger become sin? When it becomes bitterness. When you begin to live with that anger; when you nurse, feed, and cherish it, go to bed with it and get up with it, you’re giving place to the devil. When you refuse to deal with that sin, it becomes bitterness, the devil’s campground, a stronghold in your life. In that foul nest, Satan takes up lodging to war on the rest of your life, to trouble you, and then it begins to spread.
In this Ephesians passage about not grieving the Holy Spirit, Paul says,
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:30-32)
How surely bitterness spreads, troubling others when you allow it a foothold in your life!
Note the progression Paul lays out in this passage. First bitterness turns to wrath. Then wrath turns to outward anger, which can be explosive when it comes to the surface. Those smoldering rags in the corner have now burst into flame. Someone jostles you and you explode. You say, “What got into me?” Smoldering in the closet for a long time, when you opened the door and fed bitterness oxygen, it burst into flames, an outward hostility far out of proportion to the thing that seemed to cause it.
Anger progresses to clamor. It becomes vocal. The tongue gets loose. You enter a war of words with rancor, harshness, and clamor. Then it moves to the next step, a terrible one: evil speaking. It’s not just an argument, it’s name-calling. You vilify the other person, saying things you wish you’d never said: “You’re a liar.” “I hate you.” “I wish we’d never gotten married.” “I’m sorry I ever met you.” “I wish you were dead.”
We gave the devil a place. We became bitter. Bitterness turned to wrath, wrath to anger, anger to clamor, clamor to evil-speaking, and evil-speaking turned to malice. Malice is the worst of all. It means “I want to do you harm. I want to injure you.”
That’s what our passage in Hebrews is saying. "Watch out for that root of bitterness. If it springs up, it will trouble you physically, emotionally, spiritually—and not just you, but many.” Bitterness is a cancer in a home or church, a society or business.
Now that we have the diagnosis, what is the cure? What steps do we take?
A root is underground. The Holy Spirit wants to do radical surgery and get deep enough to reveal the truth. For your sake, for your emotional, physical, and spiritual health, you must seek it out. There are three reasons for doing so.
So many people either have never known or have never been willing to admit they are bitter. They don’t recognize it—or if they do, they would never admit it. They hide their bitterness behind masks. With some, a root of bitterness may go all the way back to childhood.
You must seek it out, pursue it, and search for it because so many people think other people have a problem with bitterness—but they don’t. If outwardly you seem to be living a good life, but bitterness lies beneath the surface, you’re only strengthening the root. You must recognize it is present, and that there is a root cause.
Only one thing will root out bitterness: forgiving the person who wounded you. You must remove bitterness for the same reason a surgeon removes a cancerous tumor: to save the patient.
You may be thinking, “Are you sure about that? The last thing I want is to forgive that person.” You feel that way because you’ve been deeply wounded. But forgiveness is not a feeling, and thank God it isn’t. Forgiveness is a choice. It is an action. I’ve often said, “Emotions are the shallowest part of our nature. God never does His deepest work in the shallowest part.”
You make the decision to tear up the I O. U. and hand it over to God. Now it is His. Read Ephesians 4:31-32 again for the answer: “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.”
“Be put away from you” means “remove it.” Excise it. Again, forgiveness is a decision—a choice. You decide to do it, then "be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you."
The only way you can remove bitterness is to forgive, fully and freely, the people who hurt you. You say, “That’s not fair. They deserve my wrath.” Wait. Before you were saved, were you deserving of God’s wrath?
First, you don't know enough to punish them. Second, the Lord says in Romans 12:19, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath [open the door for God’s wrath]; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.”
It will hurt for a moment, like taking a stinger out of your arm. But God isn’t asking you to do more than He has already done. Did you deserve to be forgiven when God forgave you? No. And it’s the grace of God that enables us to do this. That's why Hebrews 12:14 says “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up."
Think of God's grace. Think of what Jesus Christ did for you on the cross. Then on the basis of that grace, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” When you do, God the Holy Spirit will root that bitterness out.
You say, "That's going to be hard." Calvary was hard. When you deal with bitterness, you will taste Calvary. But it's worth it. It was worth it to Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). He suffered for the joy of forgiving us. We can suffer for the joy of forgiving others.
Mark Twain wrote, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” That's what it is.
When you forgive them, will that erase the memories? No, the memory will be there. But it will be different. Someone described it this way: "The hornet of remembering may fly again, but the sting of bitterness has been removed." You will remember it psychologically, but the sting is gone because you've put it beneath Calvary's blood. You have forgiven, “even as God in Christ forgave you.”
It’s significant that verse 14 of our Hebrews passage says, “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness.” It’s not enough just to get the bitterness out. We want to be right with our brothers and sisters, to be reconciled, to have the love of God in our hearts.
Toward the end of his life, the great poet Edwin Marcum suffered a terrible loss. It changed the future Marcum had worked for all his life. The candle of joy had been blown out in his life. All he could think about was the man who had wronged him. He became more and more bitter.
Marcum said, "I was sitting at my desk, just drawing circles on a piece of paper and thinking about this man. God the Holy Spirit spoke to me and said, 'Marcum, if you don't deal with this, it is going to ruin you. You cannot afford the price that you are paying. You must forgive him.’”
Marcum said, “Oh my God, I will and I do freely forgive.” The root was pulled out. The joy started to flow again. Then he wrote these words,
He drew a circle that shut me out.
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took him in.
There may be someone, dear friend, who has shut you out, but I want you to take God's love and bring him in. Forgive him, just as God in Christ has forgiven you.
This Bible Study was taken from the message, "The Blight of Bitterness" (#1136).
Learn more about how to study the Bible with the LWF Bible Study Guide.
Learn more about this subject by reading Mastering Your Emotions by Adrian Rogers.