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The Poison Of Bitterness

By Crawford Loritts

    The following is edited from a message given at the Heart-Cry for Revival Conference in April 2011 at The Cove, Asheville, North Carolina, U.S.A. Used by permission.

    There cannot be authentic revival until both our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationships with people are touched by the holiness of God. We can sound very spiritual about our vertical relationship with God, but a right relationship with God includes right relationships with people that we do not like or who have hurt us in some way.

    Since human beings are fallen and have issues, agendas, histories, dysfunction, and so forth, to live in dynamic relationship with others means that you will be offended. So the question is not if you will deal with issues of forgiveness and bitterness, but how you will deal with these issues. As followers of Christ, we should never allow offenses to lead to bitterness, because bitterness is poisonous. But how do we do that?

Three Things to Strive After

    Hebrews 12:14-17 is a powerful passage describing bitterness and how to not be poisoned by it: "Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 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; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears."

    The word translated "strive" is a strong Greek word that means "to run fast in order to catch someone or something." The author is saying to be intentional and to go after this. The striving is not just personal, but the author goes on to use relational terms and has our relationships with others in mind. He says there are three things we are to strive after, and if we do not go after these three things, we will become bitter.

    First of all, we are to strive for peace with everyone. The author is speaking of relational peace and reconciled relationships. We are not to let issues and offenses fester, but address and resolve them. We are not to let the sun go down on our anger. We are not to avoid and hide from issues and offenses, but to go after them, and proactively pursue peace in our relationships with others. We are not to be passive, but to take action for peace. We are to be peacemakers.

    Secondly, we are to strive for holiness. We are to take care of sin in our own heart and life, and also to go to our brother regarding his sin. We need to challenge one another about wrong attitudes and actions, and about the loose things that we say, the gossip and the harsh words. I believe that one of the reasons God is withholding revival from the church is because we do not practice proper church discipline. We do not want the hassles associated with church discipline. We do not want people not putting money in the offering. We do not want people leaving the church. And so we wink at sin and let it go.

    We do this with people we love, but we apparently love the relationship more than we love the individual. Whenever you love the relationship more than you love the person, you will be a coward. But if you really love the person, you will tell them the truth. The Bible does not call us to a passive, pampering love, but to a courageous love, a love that says, "I love you too much not to tell you the truth, even if you do not like me." We are to strive after holiness.

    Thirdly, we are to strive after grace. "See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God" (v. 15). Anyone who is around us should sense the love and mercy of Jesus. We go after holiness not with a condescending self-righteousness, but with grace. We keep in mind that we have failed and others have failed and that Jesus puts us all back together. He wants you to go after peace, to reconcile relationships, to deal with sin, and to be a person who extends grace.

How Bitterness Begins

    Now let us examine bitterness. The path to bitterness begins when something we deserve is taken from us or something we do not deserve is done to us. It is difficult to say exactly when bitterness begins in any individual’s heart and life because each person is different. In my own life, I cannot let unforgiveness linger, because it quickly begins to become entrenched in my heart.

    Bitterness is the effect of wounds that have not been attended to. We all get hurt, but just because you have been hurt does not mean that you are bitter. Just because you feel sorrow, or pain, or anger does not necessarily mean that you are bitter. The issue is what you do about the hurt. Bitterness begins when there are festering, unforgiven offenses. You think over and over about what has happened to you, and do not properly attend to the wounds.

    I met a lady who had lost her leg just below her knee. She told me that it was all so unnecessary. She had a scratch that was not very serious on her shin. But she did not pay attention to it and dealt with it superficially. It became a little infected, and she should have gone to the doctor, but felt she could still deal with it. It became worse because it was much deeper and more pervasive under the skin than she realized. Then one morning when she woke up her leg was all inflamed and swollen. Her husband took her to the hospital, but the doctor could not save her leg.

    Bitterness is like this. At first you may say it is nothing and that you can deal with it. But bitterness is deceptive. It is an infection of the heart that festers and is dangerous because it gets woven into our character. I am so burdened about the poison of bitterness because I have met people with great gifts, abilities and insight, but they have not gone far because they are infected people. They are angry and have not dealt with their hurts. Are there any wounds festering in your heart?

Signs of Bitterness

    There are a number of signs that can indicate that you are bitter. None of these in and of themselves necessarily mean that you are bitter, but they are indications that you are on the path of bitterness.

    One sign is that you begin recruiting others to take up your issues. For example, you may begin sharing your hurts with others "for prayer." Another sign, a major one, is anger. You may become angry just thinking of the other person. A third indication is aggression toward the person (or someone or something else). A fourth indication is that you are obsessed by a hurt or injustice. You are not able to keep it in perspective and you cannot let it go emotionally. It begins to control you.

    Another sign is cynicism. Instead of dealing directly with a person and the issues, you may develop a subtle criticism. And a sixth indication is that you simply cannot face the offender. You do not want to be around them. You cannot stand to hear their name. You have trouble even dealing with the thought of them.

Manifestations of Bitterness

    Looking again at the text, the writer describes in verse fifteen how bitterness manifests itself in people’s lives. First of all, bitterness is beneath the surface. The author talks about the root of bitterness. A person with bitterness may be able to function, interact with people and act as if nothing is wrong. Nobody holds a placard that says, "I am bitter." But the bitterness is there beneath the surface.

    Secondly, bitterness can be sudden and unpredictable. The text warns against the root of bitterness that "springs up…." Bitterness may be under the surface for some time, and all of a sudden it comes out. Unresolved issues accumulate, anger builds up, and then all of a sudden bitterness manifests itself and people lose their tempers and say and do nasty things.

    Thirdly, bitterness is destructive. The text warns of the root of bitterness that springs up "and causes trouble…." That word "trouble" is a Greek word that means "to excite and create a disturbance." Bitterness is a fight waiting to happen. There is a coddling and nurturing of the offense. It is in the incubator, growing and growing. When given the opportunity, bitterness seeks to display itself. If you are a bitter person, it is not a matter of whether you are going to cause trouble, it is just a matter of when.

    Fourthly, the text says that bitterness infects others: "…and by it many become defiled…." The word "defiled" means "to pollute, stain and contaminate." Bitterness is viral, and if we do not deal with our bitterness, we need to be quarantined. Bitter people should be taken out of leadership and taken off of ministry teams because bitterness gets out of control and people become defiled. Wounded people have tendencies toward gossip, demeaning talk and attitude problems that mess up the work of God.

    There is a painful price to be paid. I believe this is one of the reasons why the author of Hebrews includes the illustration of Jacob and Esau here. Esau sold his birthright for a single meal and had enormous regret. The text says, "For you know that afterward…" (v. 17). There is typically great grief and mourning when we look back and realize what we have done and the price we have paid. Esau desperately wanted to undo what he had done, but he could not get the birthright back. You cannot put toothpaste back in the tube. There are some things that we do and say when we are angry, bitter and upset that cause irreparable damage. You cannot get them back.

The Cost of Bitterness

    Bitterness or revenge may initially feel good, but it is always more costly than forgiveness. Always. Part of the cost is that bitterness gives the other person power over your life. Forgiveness, however, acknowledges God’s power over your life. Do not ever give other people power over your life. Only God is to be in control of your life. When you remind yourself of this, you can put your hurts into perspective.

    Bitterness also leads to the loss of joy. When you are angry and bitter, you become so preoccupied with your pain and issues that you cannot experience joy. You do not want to be happy, you want to get even; you want to set the record straight, you want the other person to feel the way you have felt. You refuse joy and become controlled by what happened to you.

    When you refuse joy, you also deny joy. Just think of what your spouse or children or others close to you go through when you are bitter and angry. Think of the price they pay because you are upset with somebody else. All of these people close to you need your joy and your love, but you are so upset about what was done to you that you cannot give it to them.

Steps to Dealing with Bitterness

    Let me give you four steps for dealing with bitterness. Before I share them, keep in mind that biblical truth is transformative. It is not just meant to satisfy our curiosity, but to change our lives. We have to not only know these things intellectually, but believe them in our heart.

    1. We need to understand and acknowledge that every sin against another believer is a sin against Jesus. In Acts 9:4-6, Saul had been persecuting the church and Jesus said, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" Anyone who has unjustly come after you has come after Jesus. It is not your issue, it is His.

    2. Realize that God wants us to live with a clear conscience before Him and before man. Paul says in Acts 24:16, "I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man." I was challenged by this over thirty years ago and I have really embraced it. I have a goal in my life to never have anybody that I cannot look straight in the eye. Now, they may not like me, but I always want to have a clear conscience before them. Life is too short, the kingdom is too great, and people are too precious.

    3. We need to forgive and choose not to be defined by the offenses. Every time you give in to bitterness, you have allowed that to define who you are. No one is to define you but God. You should stop letting the experiences and offenses that other people have done to you cause you to react. Instead of reacting to them, respond to God. And as you respond to God, He defines who you are.

    4. Deal directly with the offender whenever it is wise and possible. There are too many superficial spiritual people who do not know the difference between denial and deliverance. Faith is not avoidance, faith is courage. Faith is dealing with issues. You may need to go to the person and say something to the effect, "You hurt me. I am not holding this against you, but you hurt me. I am choosing to forgive you, and I want to make this right. And we need to deal with this."

    If these things are heavy on your heart, for your sake, I challenge you to place your issues at the foot of the Cross and leave them there so that you can be free. Let God meet you where you are. Let Him push back the clouds. Let Him heal your heart. You may need to pray and ask Him to forgive you of being obsessed with pain. Even in the pain there is something God wants to say to you.