Sermon Resource: Dealing With The Rot of Bitterness
A Biblical Definition of Bitterness
Greek, pikria, “sharp,” “piercing hurt,” or “bitterness.” Bitterness is a deep, harbored hurt that poisons the soul. It eats away the vitality of your spiritual life like a cancer of the soul. It is the opposite of forgiveness.1
What the Bible Says About Bitterness
- Deuteronomy 32:32 For their vine is of the vine of Sodom And of the fields of Gomorrah; Their grapes are grapes of gall, Their clusters are bitter.
- Job 3:20 “Why is light given to him who is in misery, And life to the bitter of soul,
- Proverbs 14:10 The heart knows its own bitterness, And a stranger does not share its joy.
- Jeremiah 2:19 Your own wickedness will correct you, And your backslidings will rebuke you. Know therefore and see that it is an evil and bitter thing That you have forsaken the Lord your God, And the fear of Me is not in you,” Says the Lord God of hosts.
- Jeremiah 4:18 “Your ways and your doings Have procured these things for you. This is your wickedness, Because it is bitter, Because it reaches to your heart.”
- Lamentations 3:15 He has filled me with bitterness, He has made me drink wormwood.
- Acts 8:23 For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity.”
- Romans 3:14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”
- Ephesians 4:31 Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.
- Hebrews 12:15 looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled;
- James 3:14 But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth.
Causes of Bitterness
The book How To Beat Burnout isolates five reasons why people tend to grow bitter:
- Wrong motives or jealousy. In counseling Christians, we frequently see bitterness associated with jealousy. The examples include successful attorneys who envy the abilities of their colleagues, Bible college and seminary students consumed with jealousy toward fellow students … pastors or missionaries envious of others who have seen more outward evidences of success.
- Wrong response to irritations; conditional love. In Colossians 3:19 Paul instructs husbands to “love your wives and do not be bitter toward them.” The Greek word pikroi used here (for the word bitter) demonstrates “resentment or an incensed and angry attitude of mind.” Conditional love produces harshness and bitterness both in husbands and wives frequently, that can lead to marital burnout.
- Wrong response to adversity. In Hebrews 12:15, we discover a warning against “any root of bitterness springing up,” instead of enduring hardship as a discipline.
- Misplaced strife. We have seen churches that have been crippled in their effectiveness for years because of bitter envying and strife on the part of church leaders.
- An unforgiving spirit. Ephesians 4:31–32 draws a clear connection between bitterness and what is perhaps its most basic underlying cause, a refusal to forgive. “Let all bitterness be put away from you … Be kind to one another … forgiving one another.…”2
Simple Facts about Bitterness
- Bitterness is akin to anger and is an expression of the intensity of the pain inside. It can cause physical illness as well as strained relationships.
- To be bitter and to remain bitter only causes harm, and will rob the person of health and well-being in the long run.
- Like anger, bitterness is best to be temporary, or it will damage the bitter person.
- Sharing bitterness with a stronger person, perhaps a counsellor, pastor or trusted friend, helps to defuse it, and the other person may offer ideas as to how to resolve the roots of bitterness. 3
Bitterness Versus Forgiveness
Reconciliation without forgiveness is impossible. Conflicts leave emotional scars, and many people bear the pain of wounds inflicted upon them by others. Most do not know how to let go of the past and forgive from the heart. Some have chosen not to. They hang on to their anger as a means of protecting themselves from being hurt again, but they are only hurting themselves. When we forgive, we set a captive free only to discover that we were the captive!
We can’t be right with God and remain in bitterness. In fact, if we don’t forgive from our hearts, God will turn us over to the torturers (see Matt. 18:34). God is not punishing us; He is disciplining us. He knows that if we hang on to our bitterness, we will only hurt ourselves and others (see Heb. 12:15). “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:31–32). We forgive others for the sake of our relationship with God. What is to be gained in forgiving others is freedom from our past and the restoration of communion with God. We are also warned by Paul that we need to forgive others so that Satan doesn’t take advantage of us (see 2 Cor. 2:10–11). 4
Bitterness Towards God
Bitterness toward God is far more common than most people would care to admit. When they become honest about their anger toward God, another stronghold begins to crumble. They believe God has been unfair and let them down by failing to answer an important prayer, by allowing them to suffer by not rescuing them, or by not endowing them with certain blessings, looks, gifts, abilities, success or financial security.
Obviously, God does not need to be forgiven because He cannot commit any sin of commission or omission. But we need to destroy “speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God” and take “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Satan’s scheme is to turn us against God by raising up thoughts against Him. These deceptive thoughts often come in first-person singular form: God doesn’t love me. He isn’t going to do anything to help me. They cause us to rebel against His Lordship. Satan is defeated when we release God from our own false expectations and stop blaming Him for our own failures and the failure of the Church to adequately equip the saints so that they can stand.
Understand that people do not always forgive others because of what was done to them; they forgive others for what they think others have done to them. Bitterness is not always rooted in reality. It is rooted in people’s perceptions. I have had people put my name on their lists for silly things like not answering the phone when they called. (I was not at home or I would have answered the phone!) I did not do anything wrong; but they thought I did, so they needed to forgive me. Roots of bitterness can spring up whereby many are defiled (see Heb. 12:15), all because of a misunderstanding.5
Bitterness: The Hidden Cause of Burnout
According to the Minirth and Meier book How To Beat Burnout, resentment is far more responsible for burnout than overwork. “In our counseling ministries, we have seen literally hundreds of examples that verify a close connection between bitterness and resentment and the experience of symptoms that we call burnout.… Bitterness leads to burnout … and freedom from bitterness is necessary for effective recovery from burnout."
What Will Protect Your Heart from Bitterness?
Following conflict, what keeps your heart from a negative focus? Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” Impossible! Unrealistic! No way! People can’t love their enemies … at least that’s the assumption. Yet, the Greek word agape, translated “love” in this passage, by definition means “a commitment to seek the highest good of another person.” The “highest good” for those who are genuinely wrong is that their hearts become genuinely right. What can be one major catalyst for this change? Jesus provides the answer …
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)
If you are saying, “but they really aren’t enemies,” realize that if someone evokes resentment, bitterness, or hatred, that person is an enemy to your spirit. Because praying for your enemy is commanded by Christ, believers should obey this directive and not regard this as optional. And because praying for your enemy protects your heart from bitterness, you should want to obey this directive in heart and in deed. One approach is to pray “the fruit of the Spirit” for your offender. And because you are willing to “bless” your enemy, the Bible says that you will inherit a blessing.
“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:9)
How to Pray for Those Who Hurt You
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”(Galatians 5:22–23)
- “Lord, I pray that ________ will be filled with the fruit of love by becoming fully aware of Your unconditional love—and in turn will be able to love others.
- “Lord, I pray that________ will be filled with the fruit of joy because of experiencing Your steady joy—and in turn will radiate that inner joy to others.
- “Lord, I pray that________will be filled with the fruit of peace—Your inner peace—and in turn will have a peace that passes all understanding toward others.
- “Lord, I pray that________ will be filled with the fruit of patience because of experiencing Your patience—and in turn will extend that same extraordinary patience to others.
- “Lord, I pray that ________ will be filled with the fruit of kindness because of experiencing Your kindness—and in turn will extend that same undeserved kindness to others.
- “Lord, I pray that ________ will be filled with the fruit of goodness because of experiencing the genuine goodness of Jesus—and in turn will reflect the moral goodness of Jesus before others.
- “Lord, I pray that ________ will be filled with the fruit of faithfulness because of realizing Your amazing faithfulness—and in turn will desire to be faithful to You, to Your Word, and to others.
- “Lord, I pray that ________ will be filled with the fruit of gentleness because of experiencing Your gentleness—and in turn will be able to be gentle with others.
- “Lord, I pray that ________ will be filled with the fruit of self-control—the control of self by Christ—and in turn will rely on His control for enablement to break out of bondage and to be an example before others.
In the name of Jesus I pray. Amen.
“The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” -- (James 3:17)6
Article: When You Believe in God but Won't Forgive - Craig Groeschel
After the raw shock of discovering Max’s abuse of my sister, one feeling festered inside me: bitterness. Truthfully, feeling bitter felt right. What else should I feel? After what he did to so many innocent little girls, he should suffer like they suffered, right? One day Max will get what’s coming to him. As a Christian Atheist, I felt justified in my bitter hatred, but the Bible clearly illustrates the danger of this natural response. One verse in Hebrews is easy to miss. It’s tucked between one verse about holiness and another about sexual purity. Hebrews 12:15 says, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”
The root of bitterness grows in the soil of hurt that has not been dealt with properly. Unknown to me, a root of bitterness started to grow in my heart. Roots absorb and store, and my heart absorbed and stored hurt, anger, hatred, and thoughts of revenge. Love keeps no record of wrongs, but bitterness keeps detailed accounts. And that’s what I did. Over and over I played the story in my mind. Each time I pictured Max, my hatred grew.Soon the root of bitterness started to push shoots out into my life. The verse in Hebrews warns that this bitter root can “cause trouble and defile many.” My sister was permanently scarred by this cruel offense. As her brother, I took her offense as my own and allowed her wound to stain, pollute, and contaminate my heart. Bitterness is frighteningly easy to justify. Since I’ve been wronged, I have a right to feel this way.
When the target of our bitterness suffers, we celebrate their misfortunes. After all, they are getting what they deserve. When we found out that Max had been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, I naturally concluded God was giving him his due. But when anyone celebrates another person’s being diagnosed with a crippling disease, it’s time for a heart check.
The longer I allowed the root of bitterness to live, the harder it was to kill. The root bored deeper, and the poison spread.
Overcoming Bitterness: Seeking Forgiveness and Forgiving - Patrick Morely
Four brothers strongly disagreed about the type of health care needed for their aging mother. Two brothers ganged up against a third. The acrimony devastated the fourth.
After their mother died, the four brothers divided into two camps that don’t speak to each other. That was eight years ago. Recently one brother’s wife died from cancer. One of the other brothers not speaking to him finally picked up the phone many months after the funeral to express his sorrow and sympathy.
A mutual friend, upon hearing this, asked the brother who placed the call, “Does this mean that all is forgiven and you have reconciled?”
“No, not at all,” came the response.
1 Edward E. Hindson, God Is There in the Tough Times (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1999), 160.
2 Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, and Quotes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 69.
3 Gwen Purdie, No More Hurting: Life Beyond Sexual Abuse (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2004), 59.
4 Neil T. Anderson, The Path to Reconciliation: Connecting People to God and to Each Other (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2008), 97.
5 Neil T. Anderson, Discipleship Counseling, ed. Benjamin Unseth (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2003), 260.
6 June Hunt, Biblical Counseling Keys on Conflict Resolution: Solving Your People Problems (Dallas, TX: Hope For The Heart, 2008), 33–34.