What is bitterness? As an adjective, the word bitter means “sharp like an arrow, or pungent to the taste; disagreeable; venomous.” In Numbers 5:18, the word is used to describe the poisonous water given to the women who were suspected of committing adultery: “the bitter water that brings a curse.”In the figurative sense, bitterness refers to a mental or emotional state that corrodes or “eats away at.” It is a state of mind that willfully holds on to feelings of resentment in relationships, ready to take offense and unleash anger. When we succumb to bitterness, we allow it to rule our hearts and engage in a spirit which refuses reconciliation.
This places us in grave danger of committing the sin of wrath, where our feelings explode outwards. Unbridled wrath often leads to “brawling” which is the rash self-absorption of an angry person who needs to vent their grievances to anyone who will give ear.
It will no doubt give rise to another evil, namely, slander, which Ephesians 4 defines as the speech that springs from anger, designed to injure others. And from there, a short jump to malice – the deliberate attempt to harm another person because of feelings of such intense hatred.
We are all probably familiar with someone who holds onto bitterness, perhaps over something specific that happened to them or someone who acted against them; or who allows this spirit to spill over into every area of their life. This person is often resentful, cynical, relentless, and unpleasant to be around.
These characteristics do not reflect the fruit of the Spirit but are of the flesh and sinful. God wills that His people live in love, joy, peace, and holiness; and for this reason, Christians need to always be wary of allowing “bitter roots” to grow in our hearts. Hebrews 12:15 warns us to “see to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”
Bitterness in the Bible
It does not take long for bitterness to rise in humankind. The well-known story of Cain and Abel demonstrates how Cain’s consuming bitterness for his brother and God (when he feels unfairly treated compared to prosperous Abel) leads to him killing his brother and damning God.
This account warns us of the destructive nature of unchecked feelings of pride and resentment in relationships. The reality is that no one wants to be trapped in this sinful cycle, but bitterness can assume such a stranglehold that it seems impossible to escape.
In a secular psychology article entitled 12 Steps to Overcoming Bitterness, the author makes the point that bitterness can feel worse than anger because it involves feeling helpless. You feel there is no action left to take because everything is out of your control. It reassures the reader that while you cannot undo something that has happened in the past, you can take action to move forward in your life and away from bitterness.
These steps will be worth it, argues the author because bitterness not only causes trauma symptoms like sleeplessness, fatigue, and lack of libido, but in the long term can lead to low self-confidence, negative personality shifts, and an inability to have a healthy relationship. While these thoughts ignore the root cause of the physical and emotional effects of sin, they highlight the unhealthiness of remaining caught up in feelings of bitterness.
As Christians, we can turn to God’s word, knowing that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16) and that, as we humble ourselves, He will not fail to give us the freedom we seek. All anger management theory is essentially underpinned by Biblical principles.
Here are some useful verses for meditation:
This verse convicts us that there is no place for bitterness and its associated emotions in the Christian life; but rather that we need to strive to be kind and tender-hearted towards each other. A first step would be to repent of all the complaints we’ve harbored and then to move towards what is perhaps the key towards freedom from bitterness: forgiving each other.
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. – Ephesians 4: 31-32
How do we truly forgive another? When people hurt us, we can get so caught up in our own feelings that we forget that they are human, just like us. But when we sinned against Christ, He loved us enough to die for us. This is the crux of how and why we forgive others; which is not to say that the process of forgiveness is not extremely painful and difficult, especially if the event happened many years ago and those bitter roots run deep.
Working through bitterness and forgiveness with the help of a Christian counselor can be immensely helpful. The first step is acknowledging the pain; a point which many people never get to as working through pain can only happen once you admit you have been hurt.
Making every effort towards peace and holiness means that there is little room for resentment in relationships to build up. It doesn’t mean you should never feel irked or frustrated – because we are sinners, we will rub each other up the wrong way. It does, however, mean that when these feelings bubble up, we need to quash them by quickly moving to confession.
Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness, no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. – Hebrews 12:14-15
We need to be so strongly rooted in our identity in Christ that His Glory is more important than our reputation or ego; and we need to be aware that “without holiness, no one will see the Lord” Our witness is lost if we give in to temptation and indulge in ungodly behavior. If it gets to the point where bitter roots grow up, they will undoubtedly “cause trouble and defile many,” stirring up controversy and leading others into sin.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’ – Matthew 18: 21-22
This verse reminds us that, while you may have gone through a process of Biblical change, it may be necessary to forgive more than once – perhaps for a variety of areas of your life that have been affected by the original hurt. It tells us that God has forgiven us more times than we will ever have the opportunity to forgive someone else, and so we cannot hold onto these transgressions as trump cards.
It is worth remembering that the devil is an expert at getting a foothold when we have chosen to to not forgive. Praying for strength to move forward will fortify us when we are tempted to wander back to unforgiveness and the festering discomfort of holding onto bitterness.
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. – Matthew 5:44
No personal change can happen without the power of prayer. When rooting out deep-seated bitterness, and embarking on active forgiveness, prayer for self is essential. And can you believe the words here about praying for those who have delivered the offense? How can that ever be possible in this world?
It simply cannot, short of the unstoppable power that raised Christ from the dead. Knowing this, and having been reborn, we can move forward fearlessly and pray for God’s mercy on our perpetrators, and for ways that we can show love towards them. This is amazing grace indeed!
“Mallet and Egg”, Courtesy of Steve Buissinne, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Lioness”, Courtesy of 263582, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Lionesses”, Courtesy of mlproject, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Hothead”, Courtesy of Tumisu, Pixabay.com, CC0 License