Bitterness. (Hebrews 12:15)
I have been wounded. Some of you have been wounded. If you live any length of time you will get bruised, burned, beaten, scraped, cheated, taken, violated, crushed, stomped, trampled, shafted, dogged, or outright abused.
For many people, wounds begin in childhood. For others, they come in adult life. They can be caused by:
- An absent, angry, overbearing or drunken parent, or by thankless and disrespectful adult children;
- A broken or falsely-promised engagement, or by a broken or loveless marriage or marriages;
- Abuse in a home, or discrimination or wrongful-dismissal in a workplace;
- Sibling rivalry brings it about for some; sibling foolishness or irresponsibility toward aged parents can cause it for another;
- For one they come as the residual affects of poverty; for another it comes from having his riches stolen or philanthropy unappreciated.
There are many causes.
One of the problems with wounds is that they are painful. But a more significant problem with wounds occurs when we do not properly care for a wound. For when you do not properly care for a flesh wound, you get an infection, maybe amputation, or even death. When you do not deal properly with a heart wound, you get bitterness.
Bitterness: It starts with pain, grows with a lack of resolution for the pain and/or a repetition of the initial pain or other like pains. Few people admit to bitterness; many dismiss the suggestion that they are bitter about anything. Once the idea is dismissed we must invent coping mechanisms to deal with the pain, alike people who learn to live with a stiffened joint or chronic back and neck pain rather than getting appropriate physical therapy:
- You have to control life so that no one could put you in a position to be wounded again. This often means you will control the lives of others, especially of spouses and children so that they cannot take any risks.
- You have to learn how to smile when hurting, because if you let someone behind the smile, you have to talk about what is hurting.
- Some people learn how to navigate life so that they never have to ask for help to get all of the infected emotional puss out of the your wounds. “No, that’s OK,” you always say to people. “I don’t need anything.” When really the problem is you do not want to owe anyone anything because then you would be vulnerable.
But what happens when you employ these mechanisms?
- You push people away.
- You blame your spouse or parent for everything wrong in life, or blame the child that reminds you the most of the adult who caused your pain.
- You become haters of a class of people or institutions: (i.e., rejected by men, you hate men; or rejected by light-skinned people because you are darker, you hate them or vice-versa.
Other signs of bitterness include:
- A growing ability to see oneself as a perpetual victim; people are always out to get you, always pointing out your faults.
- Pride about how well you have managed life in spite of people’s attempts to put you down; you have the “how you like me now” CD playing on full blast at all times as if the loudness is hurting those who harmed you and repelling others who would harm you.
- Shortening of patience and a quicker fuse to anger; if everything makes you mad, there is probably one big thing making you mad.
- A growing inability to forgive, be kind, offer grace, or show people and undeserved kindness or even care about what happens to people
It would be easy to think that bitterness is just your problem, between you and God. But it is not so simple. For when we get to Hebrews 12:15, the writer to the Hebrews says:
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; (Heb. 12:15 ESV).
He borrows his ideas straight out of the Law of Moses, for in Dt. 29 Moses wrote:
Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. (Deuteronomy 29:18-19 ESV)
In both of these passages, the bitterness of one is a danger to an entire community. Twice Deuteronomy says, “beware lest there be among you a….” Moses gave a warning to Israel to keep on the lookout for someone whose heart turned from the Lord. In contrast to a warning, the writer to the Hebrews makes it a shepherding issue for the church community. He says, “see to it,” and the term is episkopountes, which conveys the idea of oversight, like in the term episkopos (from which we translate “bishop” or “overseer”), the root in Episcopalian. All of us have a Biblical responsibility to look out for living that will cause a member of the community to “miss the grace of God” in inheritance, in keeping with the message of Hebrews, and not justification. The entire church is called to give oversight to each other in such a manner that we provide
- Accountability for our Inheritance. We have a joint job to address this among one another. The “grace of God” is given freely, and is obtained by inheritance. It is not earned, but offered to faithful stewards.
- Accountability for our Sanctification. Under the Old Covenant, as Israel moved toward the Promised Land, there was concern about them not getting the promises of the land due to idolatry. The poisonous root and bitter wormwood that sprang up was the rebellion due to turning from the Lord to idols. One person’s idolatry uncheck always poisoned the entire community. Thusly, God would sweep away crops and goods, stopping the rains, making Israel’s enemies conquer and enslave her. They never received all of that which was promised, although they remained the people of God by covenant—by God’s sworn oath and not their work.
The writer to the Hebrews’ concern is similar: One bitter person’s bitterness acts as a seed that bears fruit for others to eat and become defiled. Then you have a church full of bitterness, gossip, rumor, innuendo, suspicion, discord, hypocrisy and now sign of the power of the Spirit or evidences of his true joy.
We must keep each other from becoming defiled by someone else’s bitterness. When someone is bitter, you can quickly identify with the issue whether it make you agree, or think in terms of your bitterness, or give fuel to the fires of the other’s bitterness. Bitterness cannot be allowed to fester and run freely. Here’s why:
- If you were wounded by adultery, it is easy to gather the wounded souls club together for dog or whore bashing; “causing trouble.”
- If you did not receive the care you thought you should have received when you were down and out and are festering from it, you can quickly find supporters who think the church is uncaring and who will spread that word; “many become defiled.”
- If you think your mom or dad is unreasonable, you can gather a whole school bus of classmates who will agree with you and give you hundreds of reason to stay angry with your parents rather than be thankful you can sit at their table and eat their food for which they paid.
What is so odd about the fruit and poisonous ways of bitterness is that when offered an opportunity to get help directed at resolving the pain, it will be rejected. But when there is an opportunity to spread infection, we gladly accept those opportunities and find willing specimens to eat the infection. This is because we are sinners who want to avoid looking at how sinful we each are by pointing out the sins of others rather than our own sin of bitterness.
Why is Christ the only solution for bitterness? Looking to the Cross requires us to:
- Put away bitterness as a new man (by Christ’s power) – Eph. 4:31-32. You do not have to continue in the ways you had before Christ. Bitterness is the way perishing people act where a heart has not become overwhelmed by the love of God and his great mercy toward one whose bitterness should cast him into hell as much as those with whom he is bitter. You have the power of Christ – just like you do not have to steal or use corrupt talk, you do not have to be bitter; it is a choice to follow Christ.
- Take responsibility for your own foolishness (in fear of judgment before Christ) – Prov. 19:3: “When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the LORD.”
- Speak with wise loving friends about the things that have made you bitter rather than wearing bitterness as a badge of honor (because Christ has granted us resources in His body to do so) (ill of Tiger Wood’s ex-wife going into seclusion) – Prov. 14:12.
- Remember that our boasting is in him, cf. 2 Corinthians 11 (because the things that people have taken from us will be restored in him). If anyone could have been bitter, it is the Apostle Paul – shipwrecked and night at sea, naked, wild beasts, perils, stripes, hungry, betrayed. But he is not thinking about himself! He is thinking about the one in whom he can boast anything: Salvation is him! Provision is him! Health is because of him! Children are him! Job is him! School is him! Good marriage is him! Singleness is him! Survived poverty and racism and prejudice, and harassment and disadvantage and loss of a parent in childhood and evil relatives and neighbors and still have breath to give him praise is because of him! I am not someone great! The Lord is great! So without something I cannot be bitter!
© Eric C. Redmond, 2010. (Full text of sermon is unavailable. Please go to www.baptistsites.net/rabc for other audio samplings of sermons.)