"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" (Heb. 12:15).
It is impossible to pass through this world without being struck by injustice or heartache. Unless we process our struggles in Christ, a single wounding of our soul can create a deep bitterness within us, poisoning our very existence. In my forty-plus years of ministry, I have known far too many Christians who have perfected the art of looking polite, while living inwardly with an angry, cynical or resentful spirit. They have swallowed the poison of bitterness and they are dying spiritually because of it. The problem is that, as Christians, we know it is wrong to react with open anger toward people. However, rather than truly forgiving and surrendering that injustice to God, we suppress our anger. Anger is a result of perceived injustice. Suppressed anger always degrades into bitterness, which is, in reality, unfulfilled revenge.
The Bible not only provides the biographies of heroes of our faith, but it also documents the lives of common people, individuals who experienced the same kind of heartaches as we do. Some overcame wounding or loss and subsequent bitterness, while others became examples to avoid.
Consider Naomi from the book of Ruth. A famine in Israel led Naomi's family to migrate to Moab. Without family or friends to support her, as aliens in a foreign land, Naomi then suffered the loss of her husband; his death was followed by the death of her two grown sons. When Naomi returned to Israel with Ruth, her daughter-in-law, she announced to those who knew her, "Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara [bitter], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me" (Ruth 1:20).
The name Naomi means "pleasant." We can imagine that when Naomi was dedicated to God as an infant, her parents prayed that her name would forecast her future. Now, however, the very opposite had occurred. Naomi was deeply embittered by her loss, to the extreme of blaming "the Almighty" for dealing "very bitterly" with her.
If you have ever listened to a bitter person, there is nothing "pleasant" about them. Yes, we should weep with those who weep, yet a bitter soul is a spirit trapped in a time warp; they live in the memory of their pain. Several years ago I met a woman who had suffered a difficult divorce. I talked with her every six months or so for two years, and each time we talked she said exactly the same negative things about her ex-husband. Although she was divorced from him, she was now married to a bitter spirit that held her captive to her heartache.
An embittered soul is one that continually blames someone else for their situation. For Naomi, her bitterness was actually focused towards God. She was angry that He allowed hardship and loss in her life. "The Lord has brought me back empty" (Ruth 1:21). In effect she was saying, My sorrow is God's fault.
Contrast her life with that of Job's first encounter with loss (Job 1:1-22). Job lost his children and possessions, yet he bowed and worshiped: "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21).
How we handle sorrow reveals the depth of our worship of God. When life cuts us, do we bleed bitterness or worship? Job bowed and drew close to God. Naomi withdrew and talked about the Lord with her back to Him. I have dear friends who lost their only son when he was a teenager. In the midst of their heartache, they have become examples to everyone of true worship. Over the years, their pain actually purified and deepened their worship; their suffering made them more compassionate toward the suffering of others (See 2 Cor. 1:3-4). I also know others who have suffered the sudden loss of a loved one and, within weeks, withdrew from God and became embittered. Adversity does not perfect character; it reveals character. It exposes what is happening inside of us.
In ancient times mankind experimented with vegetation, seeking to learn which plants were edible and which were poisonous. In his search, he discovered that, generally speaking, if a plant or fruit was sweet, it was usually safe to eat; bitter plants, man discovered, would either sicken or kill. Likewise, the bitter experiences of life, if we ingest them into our spirits, can become a spiritual poison that destroys our hopeful expectations and attitudes. Such an experience may enter your soul via a relational wound or injustice; it can begin through a major disappointment or loss. However, once bitterness enters the human soul, like ink spreading in a glass of water, it can darken every aspect of our existence.
Indeed, not only can bitterness ruin our lives, Hebrews warns that a root of bitterness can "defile many" (Heb. 12:15 NIV). A spiritual root of bitterness is a hidden, unresolved anger that is buried beneath the surface of our lives. Outwardly, we look "properly Christian" until we begin to discuss with others the situation where someone hurt us. As we speak, that root "springs up" and it defiles others. If you haven't dealt with your bitterness, beware when you speak to others, lest you defile them with your words. If you are listening to an embittered person, take heed that the spirit of bitterness is not being transferred to your life as well!
In Genesis we find another bitter soul in Esau, the brother of Jacob. Esau had foolishly bargained away his inheritance when he was young and then lost his father's blessing when he was old. When Esau discovered he had lost both to his brother Jacob, the Bible tells us he "cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry" (Gen. 27:34).
To lose something through our laziness or neglect can create bitterness of soul. Additionally, to have someone deceive us and take what was rightfully ours is equally as destructive. I know people who were lazy and did not esteem their education. Today they are bitter employees working for minimum wage. I also know young, unwed mothers who let deceitful boys steal their virginity, which later also embittered them. Even spiritual people can find themselves suffering with bitterness caused by neglect. I know a pastor who was so devoted to his ministry, he consistently neglected his wife. She finally divorced him. Cry and plead with her as he would, he suffered the bitter loss of his wife, the emotional estrangement of his kids, and the respect of his church.
Esau's loss made him very bitter. Yet, have we, like Esau, lost the more valuable elements of life because of our neglect? Have others received blessings that were earmarked for us, and has that loss created bitterness within us? May the Lord reveal to us these roots of bitterness that, like time-released poison, are quietly killing us.
God desires to return to us our ability to love and laugh again. Let us, therefore, sincerely approach the throne of God's grace and ask Him to show us the garden of our hearts. Yes, and let us see if our souls are truly free of the root of bitterness.
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