Bitterness, the say, is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. Bitterness is never really satisfying, and yet it seems slightly more satisfying than forgiveness. In truth, bitterness is like drinking poison; eventually it permeates throughout our whole life. Unresolved bitterness will pollute all our efforts at spiritual growth.
Bitterness arises from a hurt, real or perceived. Lou Priolo helpfully writes:
When someone hurts you, it is as if that person dropped a seed of bitterness onto the soil of your heart. At that point, you can choose to respond in two ways. Either you can reach down and pluck up the seed by forgiving your offender, or you can begin to cultivate that seed by reviewing the hurt over and over again in your mind. Bitterness is the result of dwelling too long on a hurt. (Bitterness, 7)
We often think that our refusal to forgive another is sticking it to them. We use our bitterness like a little dagger to poke, prick, and cut at those who have wronged us. In reality, however, bitterness is an internal wound. We are only harming ourselves. Even if the other person should sense and gather that we are angry towards them, they do not sense the intensity of the emotional pain that we do. We are the primary victims of our own bitterness.
Bitterness will not only harm you, but it will keep you spiritually stuck. It will serve as that umbrella that blocks the transforming grace of God in your sanctification. You may be doing all the other necessary things to expose yourself to this grace, to get under the flowing water – Bible reading, prayer, corporate worship, etc. – but bitterness will be an inhibitor to your getting wet. The author of Hebrews speaks of bitterness as that which defiles. He gives a warning against it, saying:
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled (Heb. 12:15)
Note that this author foresees the possibility of failing to “obtain the grace of God,” and what is the cause of this failure? One cause is that “root of bitterness” which “springs up and causes trouble” and defiles many. It’s not that the flow of God’s grace is contingent upon what we do; God’s grace is freely given, that is the essence of it. Yet, our experience of that grace may be inhibited by our experience of bitterness and lack of forgiveness.
“Lack of forgiveness” is a key expression to this equation. Jesus speaks very pointedly to the results of bitterness when he addresses the issue of forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount. He states that our experience of forgiveness is related to our willingness to forgive others. We read (and perhaps tremble):
but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matt. 6:15)
This is a hard passage to swallow and yet we recognize the straightforward nature of Jesus’ teaching. If you refuse to forgive others you will discover that you have not truly experienced forgiveness. Bitterness has massive spiritual implications.
I have used many metaphors in this post to describe bitterness. It is a poison, an umbrella, and a root. Ultimately, however, we see that bitterness is a sin. A refusal to address sin will always impede our spiritual growth. It’s important, then, to consider whether bitterness may be the inhibitor in your maturation. Are you bitter? Consider the following evaluative questions to help you identify any potential bitterness; answer them in relation to your closes relationships:
- Do you have difficulty resolving simple conflicts?
- Are you prone to vengeance (verbal, physical, or psychological)?
- Do you withdrawal from them or give them the “cold shoulder”?
- Are you prone to respond with biting sarcasm?
- Are you extremely critical of them or of the things they do?
- Are you condescending in your tone towards them?
- Are you suspicious of them and their intent, distrusting?
- Are you hypersensitive towards them – treating small offenses as massive wrongs?
- Are you impatient towards them?
- Do you remember with great specificity the details of past offenses?
If you said yes to four or more of these questions then you may be bitter. Ask God to reveal your heart to you and to help you put to death this root of bitterness. If you know you are bitter repent. Take great joy and comfort in the knowledge that God forgives us, and his forgiveness can motivate you to forgive others.
Love this! To the point and honestly thought provoking. Would love a follow up with practical steps on how to work through bitterness, especially when a close relationship is bent toward constant offenses and bitterness sneaks up easily because of those constant offenses (other person in the relationship is blind to their offenses). Looking forward to the next post in this series.