Once a man was attacked by a wild dog. The dog ripped his pants and bit him on the shin. He limped to his car and drove to the Emergency Room. There a doctor ran through the several tests that are necessary to diagnosis rabies. It took several hours, giving the man plenty of time to think about his life.
Finally, the doctor reported that he did indeed have rabies. Without waiting for the doctor to continue, the man asked for a pen and paper. The doctor, assuming the man wanted to make out his will, explained that he had nothing to worry about, a few shots would take care of the rabies. “I’m not making out my will,” replied the man, “I’m making a list of people I want to bite before you cure me!” (adapted from http://www.itslikethis.org/beware-of-dog-and-man/)
Bitterness is a resentment that we feel towards another person that poisons our relationship so much that, we could do much worse than bite that person!
In this lesson, we want to deal with what bitterness is, what it does, why we should flee from it and how to do so. First, we start with…
1) A DEFINITION OF BITTERNESS
Ephesians 4:31 Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice:
“bitterness” (pikria) — The Greek word here originally meant sharp or pointed. Over time, it came to be used to describe tastes or feelings that were sharp or painful (Littel Kittel).
Bitterness is like that. If the person you are bitter at shows up, or the situation that you are bitter with presents itself, the sharp pangs of bitterness stab at your heart. You instantly feel anger swell up inside.
We see in this verse, as in our experience, that bitterness is related to “wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking…[as well as] all malice.” A bitter person will speak evil of those that they are bitter with. They will have a hard time keeping themselves from outbursts of anger and wrath. In fact, those things will be evidence of the person’s bitterness.
Christians, unfortunately, can struggle with bitterness as much as unbelievers. What are things that Christians get bitter about? Maybe it’s the state of our nation. Or a perceived unfairness with God. Or something mundane that is happening at church.
Christians can even be bitter when God blesses or saves someone else. Turn to Luke 15. In the story of the Prodigal Son, we typically focus on the younger brother and how he left his father, fell into hard times (namely, pig slop), then repented and returned to his forgiving father. But it’s probably more worth our time to meditate on the older brother in the story, the one who was bitter at the Prodigal’s return.
28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. 29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: 30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. (Luke 15:28–30)
Bitterness is an anger that we refuse to let go. It settles into our hearts and poisons our lives. We see this demonstrated in the life of Jonah. When God told him to go to Nineveh and preach there, Jonah immediately went the other direction. He was already bitter with this enemy of Israel. Throughout the story of Jonah, he doesn’t get better. God turns him around (physically, not spiritually) and gets him to Nineveh. There he does the least he can do, literally, and is angry when the people of Nineveh actually repent (Jonah 4:1).
Do you recall the final scenes in Jonah’s story? He is so angry and bitter that his enemy has turned to the Lord, that he would rather die than rejoice over the salvation of others.
Bitterness had so poisoned Jonah’s soul, that he wanted to die. Are you bitter like Jonah today? Perhaps you are not to the point where you rather die than forgive, but maybe you are close. Maybe you want the other person to die! Or at least move away.
Anyone can be bitter, but Christians, unlike unbelievers, are responsible to submit our our actions and our attitudes to the Lord. We cannot just let ourselves stay bitter.
What does God tell us to do with our bitterness? We read in Ephesians 4:31 that we are to put away all bitterness, along with other unhealthy attitudes and emotions. But why should we?
2) TWO REASONS TO PUT AWAY BITTERNESS
2.1) Bitterness Is A Sin
We might think that it’s okay that we are bitter. We’ve justified our bitterness, and so it’s okay. Or we think it’s a feeling that we can’It’s a personal issue with us, so leave us alone. But being bitter is a sin. It is included in this list of sins in Ephesians 4:31 and comes out in other lists of sins. For example, Galatians 5:19-20 lists the works of the flesh, and while bitterness isn’t directly mentioned, you can see it hiding:
19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication…hatred, variance…wrath, strife…Envyings, murders…(Galatians 5:19–21)
Let’s be honest…if we are bitter, we are sinning. Plain and simple. Don’t try to justify it. Repent of it.
2.2) Bitterness Causes Trouble In Our Relationships
Turn to Hebrews 12—
15 Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; (Hebrews 12:15)
One bitter person in a family or a group does great damage to that group. It spreads like poison. The verse says that “many be defiled.” The others in the group become bitter (that’s what it means by defiled). Have you seen this happen in your life? Maybe it happened in a church, or your family, or perhaps it happened at your work.
When this happens among Christians, it’s a terrible thing because we’re supposed to love one another. What does the Bible say?
35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. (John 13:35)
One bitter Christian can destroy the love between Christians and—don’t miss this—destroy that church’s witness to their community. Don’t let bitterness get a grip on your life!
3) THE REMEDY FOR BITTERNESS
How do we defeat bitterness?
Ephesians 4:31 Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice:
3.1) Put Away Bitterness
“Let all bitterness…be put away from you.”—In John 11:48 the phrase, “be put away from you,” is used this way, “…. the Romans will come and take away both our place [the Temple] and our nation.” It’s a military action!
That gives you the attitude that we are to have against bitterness (“and wrath, and anger, and clamour and evil speaking”) in our lives. Be like a Roman army and violently take it away from yourself. God has given us a command here. Do we ignore our Lord? Or do we get serious about His instructions to us?
Here’s one way it could work out: Refuse to do take offense with another when you haven’t talked to them personally. So much bitterness could be avoided if we would go to the person who offended us instead of gossiping.
What if that person is sinning? First make sure it really is a sin that they are doing. Most of the stuff people get upset over in a church are not sins. It is differences of opinions or preferences. It’s your own pride being hurt because you think that you were overlooked or under-appreciated.
Maybe asking yourself this question will help you sort it out: Is God more upset with your bitterness or with whatever they are doing?
Okay, you’ve determined that they are sinning. You have actual Bible references in your hand—that are correctly interpreted. Now what should you do? Go see pastor? Share this as a prayer request with a few close advisors? What does Jesus say?
15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. (Matthew 18:15)
This isn’t advice from Oprah, this is the command of the Lord! There aren’t exceptions to this. Go to the person. Show them the actual Bible verses when you point out their sin. If you can’t do that, then overlook the perceived offense and don’t let yourself be bitter.
Don’t quit and run away and hide in a bitter funk. Preach to yourself: “I will not be bitter about this because I have no cause to be bitter.” Put away bitterness like you’re the Roman army!
But don’t just put away bitterness—you need to replace it with something else. You need to put on something else.
3.2) Be Kind, Tenderhearted, Forgiving
Ephesians 4:32 And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.
Christ is not only concerned with eradicating the bad traits in our lives. He also wants those negative attitudes like bitterness to be replaced with positive attitudes.
3.2.1) “Kind” (chrēstos) literally means, “…what is suitable or fitting to a need.” So being kind is looking out for other’s needs and attempting to meet them. We see someone struggling with a package and we open the door for them…that’s being kind.
Are you bitter with someone? God’s Word tells you to be kind to them. Find ways to meet needs in their life. Don’t wait until you feel like it. Go do it. “Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not” (Romans 12:14).
3.2.2) “Tenderhearted” (eusplanchnos) has to do with the affections of our heart. You could translate it “compassionate.”
Why is it hard for us to be compassionate towards others? I think one reason is because we do not understand their situation. We look at a bum and immediately say, “He should get a job.” We don’t think about what he’s been through in his life.
Who are those with whom we are the most compassionate? Right, those whom we identify with. Maybe we’ve lost a loved one, so we are more likely to be compassionate with those who have lost loved ones.
The person whom you are bitter with—why are they doing what you are upset with? Don’t assume you know. Ask them. You might find out that the reason helps you be tenderhearted and compassionate with them.
3.2.3) “Forgiving” (charizomai) is not the usual Greek word for forgiving, but is rather a word that has the sense of being gracious. If we expanded the translation it would say, “Forgiving in the sense of being gracious to one another as God graciously forgave you in Christ.”
When we forgive someone, we extend grace to them. Bitter Christians often claim to have forgiven the one that made them bitter, but there is no grace there. It is more of a legal transaction. They’re waiting for the person to slip up again so they can say, “See, I knew it, that’s it…I am not forgiving you again!” Ask yourself: Is that the way I would like God in Christ to forgive me?
How has God forgiven us? He forgives us “for Christ’s sake,” because Christ died for us. Jesus paid the penalty for our sins so that, when we place our faith in Him, God can lovingly forgive us.
We can forgive other Christians when we remember that Christ has died for their sins. They, like we are, are covered with Christ’s blood—nothing else needs to be done for God to forgive them, so we might as well forgive them also!
If it is an unbeliever that we must forgive, then we hope and pray that our example of forgiveness will cause them to pursue the one that motivated our forgiveness—Christ. We pray that they will seek the one that enables us to forgive them.
We are to pattern our lives after what God did for us in saving us. As He has forgiven us in Christ, so we forgive others.
3.3) Live With The Consequences
We might remain bitter because there are ongoing consequences to the wrong that we suffered.
In a novel that I started reading, one man was bitter with his brother. He believed that his brother, a cop, did not do enough to save his fiancé from a burning car three years earlier. He had to learn to live with the consequences of losing his fiancé and forgive his brother.
It might be the loss of a loved one, a serious injury, the damaging of your reputation, the loss of a great deal of money, or any number of consequences that can’t be fixed or repaid.
Forgiveness says, “I am going to live with those consequences so that I can be free of bitterness.” This means, of course, that you must give up any thought of taking revenge and allow the Lord that singular right (Romans 12:19).
3.4) Trust God To Make Things Right
Look at the end of Romans 12—
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. (Romans 12:19)
Do you believe that? Of course, we all say that we do. But the test is when you are hurt and justice seems to be ignored. If you keep a grudge, you doubt the Judge.
Consider the life of Joseph. Here was a young man who received dreams from God that indicated glory and prosperity for Joseph (Genesis 37). Perhaps he was naive or maybe a bit prideful, but he shared those dreams with his family. That began years of heartache for him. His brothers first attempted to murder him. Then they sold him as a slave. He made good as a slave and pleased his master, only to have his master’s wife falsely accuse him. So he landed in a deep, dank prison.
Did Joseph have more reason to be bitter than any of the times that you have been bitter in your life? Probably so.
Did Joseph, as the second-in-command of all Egypt, have the right to take justice on his brothers when they came to him? Most certainly.
But what does Joseph say to his brothers?
20 But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. (Genesis 50:20)
Trust God to make things right!
Look, it’s true, you may not see justice done this side of Heaven, but we can trust the Judge to do right in His time and His way. Did you notice that God didn’t zap Joseph’s brothers? No, they became the tribes of Israel!
No one was wronged more than Jesus. No one had more reason to be bitter than Jesus. But what did He do?
23 Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: (1 Peter 2:23)
Commit yourself, commit your bitterness to the One who will judge righteously, and free yourself to love others.
Guard your hearts from bitterness by focusing more on the gospel. Jesus died for your sins and the sins of all the people you are tempted to be bitter with. Ponder how extraordinary that is. Why would you want to wallow in bitterness when the fresh air of the gospel is available?