Bitterness….We all wrestle with it, but it is toxic for our souls. Acts 8:23 says: “For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness.” AHHH!!! How can we avoid bitterness?
Not only does the Bible tell us that bitterness is toxic, it also tells you and I to “get rid of it” (Ephesians 4:31)!!! But, how can the Bible tell me to get rid of bitterness? It’s not like I wake up in the morning hoping to start my day with a cup of coffee and a big plate of bitterness. Okay maybe the coffee, but definitely not the bitterness. Is bitterness something I control? Let’s explore.
What is bitterness?
#1 Bitterness is something we experience when others sin against us because bitterness is based upon someone else’s sin—whether it is real or imagined.
#2 Bitterness is not about the size of the sin but rather its proximity. When someone’s sin affects you, you are susceptible to bitterness. For example, on any given night you can turn on your television and listen to a plethora of news stories describing how someone’s actions negatively impacted others. You and I can even have sympathy for the situation, but most of the time news stories rarely lead us to bitterness. Why? Proximity. Bitterness occurs when someone close to us negatively affects us. It may be minor. It does not have to be egregious. It just has to be close. Let me explain, if your spouse decides to squeeze the toothpaste from the middle rather than the bottom, or if your children never replace the toilet paper roll when it runs out, you can become bitter. The first time they do it, it is not a big deal. But the tenth time you must duck walk for a new toilet paper roll… it’s a big deal!
When these moments arise, we can feel like we have the right to get bitter. But the Bible does not grant you that right, remember? “Get rid of all bitterness” (Ephesians 4:31). Yet, when someone impacts me in a negative way, does it not feel satisfying to be a little ticked?
Hebrews 12:15 says… “Make sure that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no root of bitterness springs up, causing trouble and by it, defiling many.”
I find it interesting that Hebrews 12:15 compares bitterness to a root. A root is underground. Though you may not see it, it does not mean it does not exist. There is evidence of its presence. Any tree that bears fruit (good or bad) is evidence of root system that feeds it. The root of a banana tree supplies nutrients to produce bananas. The root of a bitter tree supplies nutrients for bitter fruit. Unfortunately, the bitter fruit can poison anyone who eats it. Unless you chop off the root, it will continue to produce.
How do you know if you have a root of bitterness?
One way to determine if you are bitter is to remember that bitterness holds on to details. You experience a thousand conversations in a week. Most of them you barely remember. You might even forget things you are supposed to remember. However, there are conversations we easily remember like they happened five minutes ago. We remember every single word shared. We even remember the attitudes and voice inflection expressed. Why? It could be an indicator that you are struggling with bitterness. Memory is the type of thing that needs reviewed and bitterness feeds off of replay. True bitterness isn’t the only reason we remember. We recall memories for a variety of reasons, and sometimes traumatic events come into play. However, when it comes to bitterness, our tendency is to replay the moment over and over like a broken record while drawing all of the same emotional frustrations that come along with it. When we are bitter toward someone, chances are we have spent a significant amount of time recalling the memory.
Other indicators you may be struggling with bitterness:
- You wrestle with jealousy and hold grudges.
- You rarely congratulate others and are happy when someone fails.
- You complain often and feel the need to slander people.
- You get angry when you hear a particular person’s name.
- You even hold imaginary conversations with someone in your mind.
All these can serve as indicators that you might struggle with bitterness. Bitter people are gifted at justifying their bitterness as if their circumstances provide a pass from Ephesians 4:31.
How do you get rid of bitterness?
When we become bitter, we typically see two solutions: #1 Try to keep it in and make ourselves sick, or #2 let it out and spread it to others. Neither is healthy. But what if there is a third option? What if it’s possible to “rid ourselves of all bitterness” (Eph 4:31)? Rather than hold on to it or spread it, what if we can surrender our bitterness to the Lord? But how? Is it that simple?
The temptation of bitterness is to look at an offender and blame them. Look at what they did!!!
It is true. They may have wronged you, but you don’t want to let bitterness take over. You don’t want to give that person that kind of power over you. It will trap you in the past and make you prisoner from the future God desires for you to enjoy. Therefore, to get rid of bitterness, we have to cut it off at its root. Its root is our heart.
Bitterness is resentment that has been held on to. Unfortunately, resentment leads to hatred and hatred leads to murder. I know, it’s highly unlikely you have murdered someone, but Jesus said he who has held hatred in his heart is already guilty of murder.
To remedy bitterness, a bitter person must first recognize they are bitter and that bitterness is wrong. The reason we may not deal with bitterness is because we do not think it’s a wrong behavior. We prefer to see it as “the other persons fault”. Yes, what happened to you is wrong! But you can also be wrong in the way you react.
I know we can easily justify our bitterness. We can say things like “Well when they quit behaving this way or when they say they are sorry, then I will not be bitter but better”. However, what if they never quit? Will you go on being bitter for the rest of your life because of someone else’s sin? Does that make sense? Reluctantly you may agree and say, “Fine! I will forgive and no longer be bitter if he apologizes.” But is that true? If someone magically apologizes to you, will that be the trick to getting rid of your bitterness? Have you ever witnessed someone apologize for a wrong they committed but the offended person remains bitter? I bet you have. You and I know it happens.
Here is the truth. Bitterness is not the result of what happens to us. Bitterness is the result of something that happens within us. Things that happen to us are simply the stimulus that reveal things that live within us. Here is an example. Suppose you are a cup of nothing but sugar, and someone bumps into you? What spills out? Sugar! Why? It’s what the cup possesses. It’s all that can come out. Jolts and bumps do not turn sugar cups into bitter cups. They only bring out of the container what is already in the container. If you are filled with sweetness and someone runs into you, they experience sweetness.
The point is that bitterness is the fruit of what already resides within you. Yes, someone may have done something to you, but they do not have the power to force things out of you. What comes out of you is what is already resting in you. You are responsible for you. You may be bitter toward someone, but they did not force you to act bitterly. All they did was jolt your cup. So, what are you going to do about it? Make them responsible for your behavior? Or do you want to take responsibility? If you act like someone else is responsible for your actions, then you will never be in control of the way you spend your life. Your emotions and actions will always be dictated by your circumstances and you will never be happy.
To get rid of bitterness you must see that it is wrong. You will not get rid of it when someone apologizes to you for that wrong. You will not get rid of it by hating the person or wishing they were dead. The only reason you get rid of it is by seeing bitterness the way God sees it. It is wrong, confess it, ask the Lord to forgive you and free you from it.
It is a battle when we have to take our eyes off the other person’s sin, but the fact that I think my bitterness is his problem shows that it is not. If it were his problem, and I was truly filled with the sweetness of Christ (not bitterness), then I would be concerned for the offender. I would say things like “That poor guy. He must feel awful. I should help him.” However, this is not our response. I am bitter and bitterness is my sin. Don’t let someone else dictate how you know the Lord has called you to live. Let God take care of them and you let the Lord take care of you.
Can I encourage you if you are wrestling with bitterness? It’s ugly what bitterness can do to people. You waste so much time and energy reliving the past, but know God has a wonderful plan for your future. Can you trust God to handle what happened? I am not saying you need to step in the path of harm or abuse. If someone is unhealthy, you can create distance and space in that relationship. At the same time, can you give it over to God? Whatever God wants to do is far better than what you can do. Do you believe that? He loves you. Let go of the past. Let go of bitterness and live to honor the Lord right now. He knows right where you are. He knows your struggles. He knows your needs and the future is bright in him. Don’t let the past hold you as prisoner any longer, let go and walk with Jesus. Life is too short not to enjoy, and you are too important to let the past dictate your present.