UNION GROVE CHURCH OF CHRIST, CLEVELAND TN.

A SPIRIT OF BITTERNESS

The Bible speaks about different material things that can be bitter. Among other things, Godís word mentions bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8; Numbers 9:11), bitter water (Exodus 15:23; James 3:11), bitter clusters of grapes (Deuteronomy 32:32), and bitter strong drink (Isaiah 24:9).

The term "bitter" can also be used in a symbolic sense, referring not to a literal bitter taste, but rather to something that is distasteful or distressing to the mind, or even accompanied by severe pain or suffering [Websterís 9th New Collegiate Dictionary]. For instance, in the Bible we read about a bitter life (Exodus 1:14), a bitter cry (Esther 4:1), bitter weeping (Jeremiah 31:15), bitter words (Psalm 64:3), and a woman that is more bitter than death (Ecclesiastes 7:26).

There is also that which we might call a bitter attitude or bitterness of spirit. Again, Websterís refers to it as "exhibiting intense animosity" or "harshly reproachful." Some athletic teams are bitter rivals. They cannot stand to lose to one another, and in addition, when they are playing some other team, they cannot stand to hear that their rivals are having more success than they are. Bitterness of spirit, however, is not limited to sports teams or politicians that are "sore losers." Some young people date one another, but eventually part ways, all the while remaining friends. Other courtships end up with both parties having bitter feelings of animosity toward the other. There are those business partners that have parted company on good terms, while others who have divided from one another maintain a bitter disposition toward each other until the day of their death.

The church of the Lord is not exempt from bitterness of spirit. Some immature brothers show their true colors when they carry bitterness in their heart because they were not appointed as elders of a local church. We can understand a man being disappointed, but in all honesty, is it really helpful to be bitter about it? (And, would not this bitter spirit indicate that such men were not really qualified so serve as shepherds in the first place?). Some brothers remain bitter that they are rarely given the opportunity to lead singing or teach a class. There are those that are bitter due to the fact that the elders did not accept their suggestion for the color the walls of the auditorium should be painted. Some Christians are bitter because their relativeís appeal for financial support was turned down by the leadership of the congregation. Or, maybe someone is bitter because the table that her grandmother donated sixty years ago for the foyer of the church building has been replaced. You know that I am not exaggerating any of these items. What I have said really takes place, and the list could go on and on.

Why does it happen? Why are some members of the church eaten up with a spirit of bitterness? As we already noted, sometimes people allow severe disappointment to turn into bitterness. This, perhaps, can be caused by a failure to see properly "the big picture." Some have a bitter spirit because they think something is not fair, that they have been dealt with in an improper manner, whether it be at work, in the home, in a relationship with another person, or just the thought that life, in general, is not fair. There are also those who are bitter toward others because of envy. "She got the job that I wanted so badly. Therefore, she is evil, and I am going to hold it against her. I am going to have a bitter disposition toward her." Evidently, this is the mental approach of some.

What does God have to say about His children being bitter in spirit? In a context dealing with the reality that all have sinned (Romans 3:9,23), Godís messenger speaks of those that have a mouth "full of cursing and bitterness" (Romans 3:15). Bitter words are thus counted as sinful, as they spew forth from a bitter, evil heart (Luke 6:45). Godís word also declares, "But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth" (James 3:14). The Lord further tells us, "Let all bitterness . . . be put away from you, will all malice" (Ephesians 4:31). In Godís eyes, bitterness of spirit defiles a person, as it is written, "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). The bottom line? Having a bitter spirit toward other humans or the God of heaven is simply not acceptable.

What suggestions might we offer to avoid or overcome bitterness? For those already eaten up with bitterness, whatever it is that is corrupting your thinking, get over it. Grow up. Move on with your life. Was Jesus bitter toward those that despised and abused Him? Of course not. He is our example in suffering innocently, is He not? (1 Peter 2:21-23).

Second, accept the reality that we do not always get what we want in life. Life doesnít always go the way that we want it to. If I am disappointed in some aspect of my health, my job, my family life, or the local congregation, this gives me no right to "take it out" on God or other people by acting like a bitter, spiteful person that more resembles a hateful heathen than a saved saint.

Third, keep in mind how much we all dislike being in the presence of those that are bitter in spirit. Surely none of us relish the thought of having to listen constantly to one that complains, grumbles, and "talks down" everything and everybody. Let us practice "the Golden Rule" and not cause others to suffer through having to observe and listen to our bitterness (Matthew 7:12).

Fourth, when others have done us wrong and sought our forgiveness, we must be willing to forgive them and not hold it against them anymore. While forgiveness certainly helps the one that has injured us, being willing to forgive from the heart really helps the one that does the forgiving!

Fifth, it is always good to keep in mind what the Bible says about those things that are wrong. Since God instructs us to "put away" bitterness (Ephesians 4:31), then such bitterness of spirit cannot be right. Like our Master, we must love righteousness and hate iniquity, including the iniquity of bitterness (Hebrews 1:9).

Finally, we ought to remind ourselves about the example that one sets before others when he/she demonstrates a bitter disposition. Are we really prepared to say that we want our kids, grandkids, and others that observe us to act like we do, that is, be an unpleasant, cranky, bitter person? If not, then we need to get rid of the bitter attitude immediately. Think about it: our light cannot do much shining when we are eaten up with bitterness (Matthew 5:16).

"Why are you so bitter about that?" If someone asks us this question, and they are "right on the money," then we had better take a long, hard look at ourselves and our mental outlook. Whatever unpleasant experience we have had to endure, however we may have been mistreated, whatever disappointment we have had to cope with, there is no justification for being an unkind and bitter person. Other peopleís treatment of me really has nothing to do with my personal attitude. The same goes for the abundance of blessings that others might enjoy but are missing in my life. No, my attitude Ė whether I will be bitter or not be bitter Ė that is a matter of choice. I cannot control every single circumstance that exists in my little part of the world, but I am responsible for controlling my disposition or outlook. I choose the attitude that I will demonstrate.

Be honest with yourself. Are you bitter about something from the past or present? Are you still holding a grudge about something that happened long ago? Are you still bitter against your parents because they refused to let you participate in certain activities when you were growing up? Are you still bitter about your friend "stealing" your girlfriend? Are you still bitter that your sister or brother was always a better athlete or was more popular than you? If you are carrying bitterness in your heart for these or other petty matters, then you need to get over it! Repent of your bitter spirit, and lay it aside forever. Go to the one(s) against whom you have been so bitter, confess your wrong, and try, as much as possible, to make amends and be reconciled with them.

Surely none of us wants to become a "bitter old man/woman." The truth is, there is no place for a Christian of any age to be eaten up with bitterness. Which would you rather do: go through life as a bitter person, or go to heaven? That is a serious choice, is it not? The crown of life awaits those that love the Lord out of a pure heart (James 1:12; 4:8). Such a heart has no room for bitterness in it.

-- Roger D. Campbell

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Last modified: September 27, 2008