Hebrews 12:15 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
Bitterness in this context is resentful or cynical antagonism or hostility toward someone. I haven’t personally struggled with bitterness as a besetting issue (which is not to say I have never been bitter and had to repent of it). However, my sister has struggled with it deeply. I have mentioned before that my biological sister is also my spiritual sister. She and I have talked a great deal about this issue, and she has shared much hard-earned wisdom with me on the topic. I have asked her to write a series for this blog, but life has not yet given her the time and place to do that. Until then, I want to share some things we have learned walking this together.
We all have hours or days we struggle with bitterness. But Scripture also talks of a root of bitterness that springs up. It’s a bitterness that sits so long in a heart that it starts to take root, sprout, grow, and take over, and when that level of bitterness becomes ingrown in your heart, you get into a whole new level of problem. It may have started in its early years aimed at one person, but ingrown bitterness sprouts and branches out so that it colors our reactions to more and more people until it consumes us and our reactions to others in every aspect of our lives.
After years of struggling with bitterness, my sister’s clarifying moment came when she had 3 different people in a few short days each tell her off – and all 3 people were from completely different places in her life. None knew each other. She couldn’t pretend they were aspiring together against her, because they didn’t have anything in common or even know each other to talk to each other. It was clear that SHE had the problem. It was the last straw, and she fell on her face before God, crying out, “Help me!” Beth Moore’s Breaking Free Bible study was especially helpful to her (which is one reason you won’t hear me criticizing Beth Moore on this blog though I don’t resonate personally with her other studies the way some have). I appreciated Breaking Free, which explores the Christ-less coping mechanisms we have all learned that actually bind us to rather than free us from the very things we are trying to overcome.
Do you have multiple people from different aspects of your life (family, church, work) with whom you are angry? Do you keep one person in your favor to have conversations about these various other people? In my experience, bitter people try to keep one or two people in their good graces. They talk with them about the people with whom they are angry – they need a place to vent the anger that wells up in them continually. Bitter people also don’t respond well to apologies. The apologizer didn’t word it correctly, didn’t seem sorry enough, or maybe actually tried to explain something they felt you misunderstood. Though they tried to apologize, in the bitter person’s mind, it was not enough.
If you have ingrown bitterness, a lot of people don’t like you right now. And you don’t like even more people than don’t like you. And it is MISERABLE for you. If any of this sounds familiar, as someone who has loved bitter people and seen the joy of watching them freed from it, I implore you to face the truth of your bitterness head on.
When my sister finally cried out to God for help, she says she had to open her hands and physically let go of her right to anger and bitterness. At least half the people with whom she was angry actually HAD sinned against her. Yet, even so, her anger and bitterness toward them was defiling HER. It bothered them. But it tainted, polluted, and debased her. When she opened her hands and let go of her right to anger and retribution, it FREED her. She tells me of the weight off her back. She literally felt like she could stand up straight again.
In Christ, you too have the key to unlock the chains that bind your actions and reactions to others.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
You are a prisoner, a puppet on a string constantly controlled by others. Perhaps you didn’t like feeling like they yanked your chain, but your Christ-less coping mechanisms for dealing with that pain have actually bound you even more tightly to what they say. In fact, you likely have arguments with them in the mirror at home when no one else is around. They control you that much because your bitterness and anger hasn’t FREED you from them, it’s only bound you tighter. Christ has come to give sight to the blind, to proclaim freedom to prisoners, and to set the oppressed free. Bitter friend, you are oppressed and imprisoned! But you CAN be free. And it's an incredible, profoundly satisfying freedom. I can’t describe the joy of watching my sister’s transformation, fully by Christ alone, from bitter woman to beautiful adopted daughter of God--FREE to breath deeply, return love for scorn, and minister grace to the next person. She has become my go-to person for spiritual counsel and encouragement, a trophy of God’s awesome grace in every sense of that phrase.
Hebrews 12 sets the root of bitterness in contrast with the grace of God. It’s not the goodness of others that will free you from bitterness. Because they aren’t that good. I acknowledge that many of the things that make you bitter reflect thoughtless or even outright malicious actions against you. No, only the grace of GOD will free you from the coping mechanism you’ve adopted to deal with people’s sins and failures. And hear me when I say the coping mechanisms you are using right now are not working! They are making things worse. They are hurting you. And they are hurting others around you.
If this resonates with you, I hope you will fall down before God, and ask Him to open your eyes to His grace toward you. Pray that you would recognize and press into the power at work in you (the same power that rose Christ from the dead according to Ephesians 1) and that it would equip you to put off your old ways of dealing with annoyances, slights, and even outright maliciousness and put on new ways of letting go of your rights and loving the unlovely as Christ has modeled for you. He has come to bring freedom to the oppressed! If you are oppressed by bitterness, dear sister, Christ’s death on the cross has purchased your freedom. Wrestle with Him now over how this breaks into your very struggles this day.