Practical ways to overcome the reality of failure, injustice, and adversity in our present lives.
20 min
Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled;
- Hebrews 12:14-15

It's easy to feel bitter with...

  • A marriage partner who cheats, then leaves and ruins your life.
  • A child who rejects all of your well-meaning efforts and messes up leaving you to pick up the pieces.
  • A parent who favors a less deserving brother or sister over you.

It's easy to be bitter when...

  • Your hard work is ignored.
  • Your talent goes unappreciated.
  • Your contribution goes unrewarded.

It's easy to be bitter when...

  • Someone else gets the prize you deserve.
  • Someone else lives and the one you love dies.
  • Someone else is happy and all you have is loneliness and tears.

Do you get my point here? It's easy to be bitter!

In a society that promotes "victim thinking" and provides opportunity for bitterness to remain and actually become profitable, it is difficult to respond to Scripture's admonition to "see to it that no bitter root grows up to come trouble and defile many." The Bible does not deny the fact that there are many legitimate reasons for feelings of bitterness to exist. It is natural to feel bitter if we are cheated, neglected, abused, or ridiculed.

God's Word, however, tells us not to allow that bitterness to grow because if it does, it will rule and then destroy us. In an article in the Discipleship Journal, author H. Lescheid reviews some things to stop, and some to start, in breaking free from the trap of bitterness.

Things to Stop

In order to break free from the grasp of bitterness there are some basic things we simply have to stop doing because they feed the bitter root within us:

1. Stop Denying It Exists

When people experience painful events, one way of dealing with these is to ignore the fact that they have had a negative effect on them. Men, especially, refuse to acknowledge that they are hurt or bitter because doing so may challenge their sense of masculinity. Women, on the other hand, deny their hurt because giving vent to their anger may not be something approved of in a woman. However, Jesus says that it is truth that sets us free, not denial or anger (John 8:32).

The first step to inward healing is the acknowledgement that we feel bitter about certain things. We may not be right or fair or mature in feeling this way, but to admit the truth about our emotions is usually the first step in actually feeling better.

2. Stop Feeding It

The Hebrew writer warns that we must not allow the root of bitterness to spring up and "cause trouble". The only way that bitterness causes trouble is if we feed and allow it to exist. We permit its existence by giving it reason to exist and excuses for its presence. For example, we continue to say or think...

  • "I deserve to feel this way."
  • "That person meant to hurt me."
  • "I always get a raw deal."
  • "It wasn't my fault, I am the victim."

This bitterness can then become an excuse for unkind and sinful behavior:

  • "I have a right to be mean-spirited and unkind to others because I, myself, have been hurt."
  • "I can sin and take advantage of others because I have suffered and God owes me one."

We may have a legitimate reason to be bitter in the first place, but to continue this way requires that we feed our negative emotions. Doing so, however, only fuels our own destruction.

Things to Start

The root of bitterness is like a cancer that grows inwardly and silently. Once we acknowledge that we have it and stop contributing to its growth we can actively work to remove it in the following ways:

1. Start Giving It Up

The trouble with bitterness is that we begin to rely on it.

  • It gives meaning to our behavior.
  • It becomes a form of protection against the pain caused by growth or change.
  • It serves as a cover for our sinfulness. I know a man who uses his bitter experiences from the past as an excuse for his alcoholism - "I drink to forget; God understands."

If we are to be what God calls us to be: holy, pure (the light), filled with the Spirit, we have to remove everything that defiles us and that includes bitterness. We give attention to giving up outward sins like abusive speech, addiction to things like tobacco, pornography, alcohol, etc., but we rarely want to work on unseen sins like greed, gluttony, lust, or bitterness to name a few.

In the Old Testament the people would lay their hands on the animals to be sacrificed in order to signify that they were "giving up" or transferring their sins to the animal who would then be sacrificed in death and thus symbolically remove guilt and sins (this done to preview the actual removal of sin when Christ would be sacrificed once for the sins of all (Hebrews 10:1-18). We need to repeat this same action of giving up or transferring our sin of bitterness. Today, we accomplish this in one of two ways:

A. If we are not Christians, we transfer or give up our sins through baptism so that our sins and guilt are put upon Christ, and through His death they are taken away from us (Romans 6:3-7).

B. If we are Christians and struggle with this sin, we give it up or transfer it to the cross through confession of sin and prayer (I John 1:8-9). Either way the result is the same, our bitterness is removed from us and given over to God. This needs to happen for us to grow and develop spiritually.

2. Start Reconciliation

Giving up bitterness to God takes but a moment, but feelings about what has happened take longer to be resolved. The concrete action that helps one give up ongoing bitter feelings is the sincere effort at reconciliation. Initiating reconciliation, however, is one of the hardest things to do because it challenges every emotion generated by the experience that caused the bitterness in the first place. For those ready to try, however, here are a few steps to follow to get the process going:

A. Live in the "forgiveness" mode. Take the initiative, just as God did. Confess your desire and determination to forgive and act on it. This frees you from the "you owe me" mindset. The attitude of reconciliation says, "You don't owe me anything because I've cancelled your debt."

B. Make things happen. Moving beyond bitterness means not only leaving traumatic experiences with God, but taking charge of the present. Find something positive to do and do it.

C. Initiate reconciliation. Contact with the person or situation that offended you may be painful, but you've decided to forgive so act out of that forgiveness.

Blessed are peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.
- Matthew 5:9

Reconciliation is painful, and goes against our feelings and desires but it is the mark of a true disciple within whom the Kingdom is growing. There is always pain of some kind involved when the Kingdom of God is growing within an individual, but it is always worth it!

3. Start Proclaiming God's Victory

The message that bitter people give off by their attitude and their actions is that:

  • Life is unfair.
  • People, the church, my family are against me.
  • You can't trust anyone or anything.
  • My feelings are the most important feelings.

This certainly is not the way to glorify God or win souls for Christ.

David, the Psalmist and second king of Israel, had much to be bitter about.

  • He risked his life for his king (Saul) yet his king tried repeatedly to kill him.
  • He was eventually anointed king, but spent years marginalized and hiding in caves.
  • He served God with all of his heart, but God did not allow him the one thing he really wanted to do - build a magnificent temple in Jerusalem (this task was eventually given to his son, Solomon).

David watched as evil men continued in their evil ways without punishment while he had to suffer abuse and attack. Through it all, however, he refused to dwell on his bitterness choosing instead to remain focused on how great God was and how His justice would ultimately be served. In Psalm 10:16-18 he declares:

The Lord is King forever and ever; nations have perished from His land. O Lord, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will strengthen their heart, You will incline Your ear to vindicate the orphan and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth will no longer cause terror.

David recognized that there are victims in life, yet he moved from victim to victor by recognizing that God is a help in every circumstance and that in the end, He will render justice for all offenses, and forgiveness for all those who themselves offered forgiveness to others.

Summary

If you have a bitter heart, I want you to ask yourself the following questions.

  • "Are you becoming bitter or better?"
  • "Are you becoming a victim or a victor?"
  • "Are you allowing disappointments and offenses to create a bitter root that is eating away at your faith, your hope, and especially your love?"
  • "Are you willing to cut out that bitter root and be at peace with yourself, your enemies, and your God?"

If you are, then I invite you to offer up that bitter heart to the Lord, Jesus, now. If necessary,

  • Repent and be baptized to remove it and all other sins forever.
  • Lay your hurt before God for healing and pray that He will comfort and forgive you.

Remember that with God as your helper you can eventually find peace, even with a wounded heart, but never with a bitter one.