Once I planted a perennial in my back garden. When I had initially put it in it was small and colourful and it did really well in the moist soil. After a couple of growing seasons, however, I noticed that it was popping up throughout my garden, encroaching on my ferns, overwhelming my roses, and forcing its way into any area it could. When I researched the plant further I realized, or rather confirmed, that despite the lack of information on the plant’s package label, it was exceptionally invasive.
I was to spend the entire next growing season completely ripping out my back corner garden; endlessly searching through the soil for even the tiniest piece of root. I was surprised when week after week, month after month, I would still find new plants growing from just the smallest pieces. I was relentless, and even though my back garden had a major bald spot for that entire year, eventually I took out all the roots and was able to replant again.
Bitterness is like that plant. From just the smallest piece it can grow and resurface, smothering out the good and overwhelming our entire lives. Hebrews warns us about bitterness rather forcefully. “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” (12:15).
Bitterness in a physical sense is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ”sharpness of taste; lack of sweetness”, but in a personal way it is defined as “anger and disappointment at being treated unfairly; resentment”. The interesting thing is, for those harbouring bitterness within, their outside disposition can often be described as “sharp”, and they certainly would not be described as “sweet”.
Bitterness has many sources, but those who carry it will eventually manifest its fruit in their lives. Prideful arrogance, self-pity, hatred, vindictiveness, antagonism, cruelty, and the refusal to forgive are just a few of the blooms this evil plant will produce. If left unchecked, like my plant, just the smallest piece left in the soil of our heart will grow uncontrollably until whatever life was there before, will be choked out and impossible to see.
We read in 1 John that “whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (2:9-11). There simply is no mistaking the dangers of bitterness, and there is no excusing it either.
Like I said before, there are many causes of bitterness. Some, if not most, come from a sin-skewed sense of unfairness inflicted on us by a person(s), or a situation. But even if there is a purely legitimate cry of unfairness, this root is still not ever intended to enter the soil of the heart of a Christ-follower.
We are called to something higher, something grander, something unexpected. As Paul so aptly urged us,” walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3). That’s right–no matter what situation we find ourselves in, “we must forgive, and we will be forgiven” (John 6:37b).
We have no right to hold a grudge or be consumed by the unfairness or cruelty of a situation or person. As the Psalmist wrote, “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land” (Psalm 37:8-9). Instead we are called to love one another, just as Christ loves us, for by this all people will know that we belong to Christ (John 13:34 -35).
“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke. 6: 32-42).
Our pride and self-righteousness will often try to hinder us from digging out the root of bitterness in our lives, but Romans 2:1-4 states, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”
Friends–Romans tell us that “we who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves, but are to please our neighbor for his good, to build him up” ( 15:1-2), so we cannot allow ourselves even one moment to indulge bitterness. We must kill this deadly invader by the constant injection of the love of Christ into the soil of our hearts. We must turn up this soil by regularly extending forgiveness, and we must relentlessly bring our burdens to Christ. We must pray for our enemies, and lean on Christ to give us the strength to love them. For it is through the love of Christ, and His forgiveness that His light will shine into a darkened world and He will be glorified.
There is one last thing; a secret weapon against bitterness taking root in our heart. That weapon is humility. As we seek to know Christ, as the Spirit of God is allowed to rule over our submitted lives, we will very soon discover that bitterness has no defence before a Holy God. We simply have no right to hold anything against anyone, and especially against God.
Jesus said it best in this parable from Matthew 18:21-35. “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart”.
So today, let us ask the Lord to forgive us for any bitterness that we have buried in our hearts and allowed to grow. Let us ask Him to help us uncover it, and remove it with a renewed sense of who we are in Him. Let us, with humble hearts, recognized the brokenness of our neighbours, the same brokenness that we too carry. Let us exult a God who had every right to hold bitterness against us for our rebellion and sin, but instead chose to die in our place, forgiving us, and loving us immeasurably for now and forevermore.