I recently saw a post on social media that halted my scrolling.
Someone had asked another person the question, “How do I keep from being bitter at the church?”
Her response was this: “What if bitterness is appropriate for a season?“
I briefly glanced at the comments to see what others were saying to see if there was any pushback. The first comment was a gentle challenge, and in reply she used the example of Hannah in the Old Testament, saying she was bitter over not having a child, and that God can handle that.
Her premise was ultimately that bitterness is appropriate at times, and can be part of the healing process (stated in a follow-up comment).
This post literally kept me up for hours the next night, mulling and mulling over it again. I wrestled with these questions: Is any of it true? Does bitterness have a place in the life of a believer on any level? Does bitterness lead to healing? So finally, in the wee hours of the morning, I got up to do some studying on it.
I am no Bible scholar, but I am extremely passionate about knowing God’s Word and believing and obeying what it says. I’m also passionate about growing in my understanding according to how God intends it to be understood, not based on my own feelings or subjective opinions. And, I’m passionate about this for others, too.
This particular topic of bitterness hits home for me, because like many (if not all) Christians, I have experienced hurt from other believers, and at times this has led to roots of bitterness that have been harmful to me and others. I have also witnessed other people being eaten up by bitterness with devastating effects as they have continued to cling to it. It has been God’s Word that has freed me from bitterness and brought me into HIs forgiveness and love toward those who I have felt wronged by. So, yes, this hits home.
I am not normally one to respond publicly to something I read that I don’t agree with, but I believe this topic is important to address.
All that to say, I want to take a look at what the Bible has to say about bitterness and how we as Christians should think about it.
1. There are different kinds of bitterness
As I was looking through Scripture at the word “bitter” or “bitterness” I was struck by how many uses of this word there are, and how it is used differently depending on its context. Sometimes it was used to describe deep grief (Ruth 1:13; 2 Kings 4:27). Other times it was used to describe a really bad experience (Gen 26:35; Ex 1:14; 2 Kings 14:26; Jer 4:18). It is used for literal bitterness of taste (Ex 12:18; Ex 15:23; Prov 27:7). Some uses mean agony of soul (Gen 27:34; Prov. 31:6). Then, there is the most common way we would think of bitterness, which is the feelings we have toward someone else because of something they have done that has caused us hurt (Ps 106:33; 1 Sam 30:6; Job 27:2). This is not an exhaustive list of the uses of bitterness, but it gives a pretty good idea of the fact that it’s used in different ways based on the context of the passage it is used in.
This is immensely important for our understanding of Scripture in general, as well as for our understanding of what kind of bitterness is acceptable and which is not. We cannot lump together the uses of this word and call them all the same, just like we can’t take the word “orange” and say every use of it is the same in every context. We have to look at the way it is used and why it is used, and this needs to be the basis of our interpretation of that word.
If the bitterness you’re feeling is the bitterness of grief, or the bitterness of a super tough circumstance (or you’ve just tasted some bitter herbs)–like we see throughout Scripture–it’s pretty safe to say the context of those bitternesses is not sinful. However, in this day and age, we almost exclusively use the word “bitterness” (when not referring to taste) in the context of hard feelings toward another person, and this is what the original question about bitterness toward the body of Christ implied.
It’s clear in Scripture that this kind of bitterness is not ok. And this is what I’ll get into in my next point.
2. Descriptive vs. Prescriptive
There are places in Scripture that are telling stories (descriptive), but they are not giving us direct instruction to do the events they are describing. Then, there are other places in Scripture that are commands we are to follow as believers (prescriptive). We cannot use a story to justify something like bitterness especially when there are clear commands against it in other places in the Bible.
I believe this is where the main issue lies with the post I mentioned. She was justifying bitterness in the church based off of a story in the Old Testament. But that story was not an instruction to us that we can be bitter (also, I looked up that specific story, and the word she used was “troubled”, which is a different word in the original Hebrew than where “bitter” is used). This was only telling about something that happened. You do not see anywhere in this context that God was saying bitterness toward someone else was actually ok.
But! We most certainly do have instructions in the New Testament specifically for believers not to allow bitterness to come in toward one another.
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:31:32
“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.” Hebrews 12:25
It’s quite clear from these commands that bitterness will never be a pathway to healing. In fact, it is exactly the opposite.
3. Bitterness does not lead to biblical healing
Now, where there has been hurt in the body of Christ, it should not be brushed under the rug. Because, just like there are commands not to be bitter, there are just as many (and way more) not to sin against one another. But this wrong needs to be addressed in the way the Bible tells us to address it, not what our feelings are telling us (Matthew 18:15-17). There should be humility and a quickness to repent of wrongdoing against another. However, even if there is no recognition of wrongdoing and reconciliation is never reached, bitterness is never the appropriate response for a believer. We are called to forgive by God’s grace because of the example Jesus set for us (Col. 3:13). We are only responsible for our own obedience, and God will take care of that other person; we can leave them in His hands.
Lee Strobel says,
”Acrid bitterness inevitably seeps into the lives of people who harbor grudges and suppress anger, and bitterness is always a poison. It keeps your pain alive instead of letting you deal with it and get beyond it. Bitterness sentences you to relive the hurt over and over.”
We are called to forgive for our own good. Bitterness becomes like a poison that slowly eats away at us. It clouds our ability to think correctly. It gives us the feeling that we are giving that person what they deserve, but in reality it is mostly hurting us and those closest to us. Bitterness keeps our hearts from being thankful, which hugely contributes to healing (I could do an entire post just on that topic, because Scripture has so much to say on it). Bitterness causes us to project things onto others that they aren’t really doing. It keeps us from having close relationships, and will ultimately keep us from the life-giving fellowship we have been saved into as brothers and sisters in Christ.
There most certainly is a place for grief when hurt has been caused. We shouldn’t pretend like nothing has happened when we have been wronged by another. But we have to handle that hurt the Lord’s way, not in the way our feelings are leading us. We have to trust that God’s way is the best way.
Does forgiveness necessarily mean that you continue to have a close relationship with those people? No, not always. Sometimes when deep hurt has been caused, it keeps closeness from being possible, especially when that person is unrepentant. This is something that should be prayed about and walked through with other godly people who you trust.
Believe me, I don’t say these words tritely. This comes from conviction etched in the depth of my being. I have cried in agony over the hurt I have been caused by other believers. I have wondered if I would ever be able to trust others. I have been tempted to throw in the towel and let bitterness take over. But God has been too gracious to let me go down that path. I will forever be grateful for those He has placed in my life to challenge me to think correctly, and who know that true healing for the hurt I’ve experienced comes from Jesus and from forgiving as He forgives. And it has been so very, very true.
If you are struggling with bitterness, here is what I would encourage you to do.
1. Take it to the Lord.
God understands better than anyone the hurts we experience.
Psalm 56:8 says,
You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?
He is not oblivious or uncaring toward us. He mourns over the hurt that people cause each other, and He desires us to live in the freedom that forgiveness brings. He will both comfort us and walk us through how to forgive.
So, pour out your heart to Him. Allow Him to comfort you and minister to you. Don’t let bitterness fester, because you have a God who is ready and able to heal you.
2. Seek Godly Counsel
Do you know someone who has experienced deep hurt in their life, yet is living a joyful and loving life toward others? You can be sure they are walking in forgiveness toward those who have wronged them. And these are exactly the kinds of people you want to be taking counsel from. Start with one or two people who you trust, and who you know will point you back to the Lord – don’t share your grievances widely. Listen to their advice and be willing to accept anything that aligns with Scripture.
Proverbs 20:18 says, Plans are established by counsel; by wise guidance wage war.
The counsel and wisdom of godly, mature, experienced people will help us see a way to overcome bitterness and truly forgive, and then to wage war against our flesh that will want to keep us in bondage to that bitterness.
3. Remember That You Have Been Forgiven
When we are living in bitterness it can be easy to forget that we are also sinful and have sinned against others, and ultimately sinned against God. It is absolutely critical that we remember how much we have been forgiven of by God (and secondly by others), and this will form the foundation for our own forgiveness toward those who have sinned against us (Read Matthew 18:21-35).
Remembering that we have been forgiven keeps us humble and thankful. It keeps us from withholding what is not our right to withhold. Does this mean you need to act like everything is all fine and dandy? No. There may need to be some significant changes in the way you relate to someone due to the consequences of that sin. But when you have forgiven them in your heart, you can leave them in the Lord’s hands and not continue to carry the burden of bitterness.
Corrie Ten Boom is one of my spiritual heros, and has an incredible story of forgiveness (You can read her story or watch it in The Hiding Place). She said, in Clippings From My Notebook:
“Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.”
If you have bitterness in your life, don’t wait another day before allowing the Lord to begin releasing you from its hold. Ask Him to lead you in the path toward forgiveness and freedom. I promise you, you will not regret it.
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