The topic of bitterness is one that often comes up in the discussion of spiritual growth. With this topic, as with any topic from the Scriptures, it is important to understand what the Bible means when it speaks of bitterness. The only way to do that is to examine instances where the word "bitter" (and its cognates) occur, and instances where bitterness is under discussion.
The place to start is a definition of the term, then a survey of biblical instances of the term. Finally, some instances may merit further examination to more fully illuminate the topic.
A good place to start a discussion of a topic like this is a definition, courtesy of my Webster's dictionary:
Bitter: 1 a: having or being a peculiarly acrid, astringent or disagreeable taste suggestive of an infusion of hops that is one of the four basic taste sensations- compare salt, sour, sweet. b: distasteful or distressing to the mind: GALLING. 2: marked by intensity or severity a: accompanied by severe pain or suffering b: being relentlessly determined: VEHEMENT c: exhibiting intense animosity, d 1: harshly reproachful 2: marked by cynicism and rancor e: intensely unpleasant esp. in coldness or rawness 3: expressive of severe pain, grief or regret.
Our usage of "bitterness" as a trait of people consumed with anger or stewing over things is most closely related to the highlighted definitions 2c, 2d1, 2d2. However, it should be observed that there are different legitimate uses of the term as well.
A simple word search on "bitter" and its cognates will yield the following list of Old Testament references (NASB):
Ex 12:8, Nu 9:11- bitter herbs part of Passover
Ex 15:23- bitter waters at Marah
Num 5:18-27- Waters of bitterness in the test for an unfaithful wife
Dt 32:32- bitter grapes
Pr 27:7- to the famished, bitter is sweet
Isa 5:20 –bitter for sweet
Isa 24:9- strong drink is bitter
Bitter Hardships; Bitter Tears; Sorrow, Grief or Bitterness of Soul
Gen 27:34- Esau's bitter tears at the theft of is blessing
Ex 1:14- Israelites lives made bitter by hard labor for the Egyptians
Dt 32:24- bitter destruction
Jud 21:2- Israel weeping over destroyed tribe of Benjamin
Ruth 1:20- The Almighty has dealt bitterly with me
1 Sa 1:6- bitter provocation to Hannah
1 Sam 1:10- Hannah's bitter tears
1 Sa 15:32- Agag's concern over the bitterness of his death
1 Sam 30:6- people embittered over the attack of the Amalekites
2 Sam 2:26- Internal conflict would lead to bitterness
2 Sam 13:36- Absolom's servants wept bitterly at his death
2 King 14:26- bitter affliction of Israel
2 Kings 20:3/Isa 38:3- Hezekiah's bitter tears after prayer (his prayer was answered- 2 Kings 20:5)
Ezr 10:1 Israelites wept bitterly
Esth 4:1- Mordecai wept bitterly (righteous man)
Pr 5:4- The adultress brings bitterness in the end
Pr 14:10 each heart knows it own bitterness
Pr 17:25 foolish son brings bitter to his mother
Pr 31:6- give wine to him whose life is bitter
Ecc 7:26- more bitter than death is a woman whose heart is a snare
Job 3:20, 7:11, 9:18, 10:1, 13:26, 21:25, 27:2- Job's bitterness of soul
Isa 33:7- ambassadors of peace weep bitterly
Isa 38:15,17- Isaiah's bitterness of soul
Jer 2:19- evil and bitter to forsake the Lord
Jer 4:18- sorrow over destruction
Jer 6:26- bitter lamentation
Jer 13:17- Jeremiah's bitter tears for his people
Jer 31:15- bitter weeping in Ramah
La 1:2,1:4- Israel bitter over its destruction
La 3:5, 3:15, 3:19- Jeremiah's bitterness
Eze 21:6- Ezekiel with bitter grief
Eze 27:30,31- bitter tears in prophecy against Tyre
Am 8:10- punishment like a bitter day
Mic 2:4- bitter lamentation
Zep 1:14- warrior cries out bitterly on the day of the Lord
Zec 12:10- bitter tears over the Pierced One
Isa 16:9, 22:4- God weeps bitterly over the destruction of his people
Hos 12:14- Ephraim provoked God to bitter anger
Bitter Anger, Sinful Bitterness
Gen 49:23- archers bitterly attacked Joseph
Ps 64:3- bitter speech as an arrow
Ps 73:21- embittered heart led to senselessness and ignorance
Eze 3:14- Ezekiel embittered through frustration, with raging and consternation
From this list, it is clear that the most predominant usage of the term is in the context of bitter tears of men and women over affliction, sorrow and grief. Interestingly, these are not in sinful or spoken against in their contexts. Thus, bittereness in and of itself is not considered sinful-- after all, if God himself is sometimes bitter (Isaiah 16:9, 22:4, Hos 12:14) and fills others with bitterness (e.g. Ruth, Jeremiah) then it follows that such bitterness cannot be a sin!
It seems that what makes bitterness sinful is if it is accompanied by sinful actions. From the few instances where bitterness is spoken against, it is accompanied by sinful traits. This is seen in the mention of "bitter speech" (Psalm 64:3) and those who attacked Joseph in bitterness (Gen 49:23).
Performing the preceding search yields the following list of New Testament references:
Mt 26:75, Lk 22:62- Peter's tears after the denial
Bitterness and Jealousy
Ac 8:23- Simon the sorcerer jealous of the apostles' ability to pass on spiritual gifts
Ac 14:2- Jews embittered Gentiles against apostles
Jas 3:11, 14- Bitter water, bitter jealousy towards others
Bitterness and Anger
Rom 3:14- The wicked have bitterness and cursing (citation of Ps 10:7)
Eph 4:31- Let it be put away with wrath, anger, clamor and slander
Col 3:19 Don't embitter your wives
Bitterness from Hardships or Circumstances
Heb 12:15- The bitter root possibly growing up and causing trouble
Figurative Usage in the Apocalyptic
Rev 8:11, 10:9-10- bitterness in the apocalyptic
It is interesting that the concept of "bitterness" almost vanishes from use in the New Testament, compared to the Old Testament. Where bitterness is discussed, it takes on a different sense than in the Old Testament. With the exception of Peter's bitter tears, it is no longer a response to hardships or sad circumstances but is now accompanied by resentment, jealousy and anger towards individuals.
What happened to the Old Testament concept of bitterness? Certainly the response of bitterness to negative circumstances is universal. This aspect is likely to be present in the church but it is probably mitigated against by joy and faith in the Lord, as enduring suffering and hardships is part of Christian perseverance and faithfulness (e.g. Mt 10:22) even as it was part of the faithfulness of men from the Old Testament era and Jesus himself (e.g. Heb 11:32-12:3).
Most often, bitterness isn't a sin. It is a normal response to hardships or sorrowful situations, exhibited by righteous men and even God himself.
As we have observed, bitterness becomes sinful when accompanied by other sinful actions. Let's take a closer look at some New Testament passages that illustrate this concept.
Three of these passages offers something specific and useful an addressing bitterness. We might consider these a "Scriptural prescription" for dealing with bitterness.
"Putting away" bitterness is directed at restoring a peaceful and contented Christian walk. This has nothing to do with excusing or ignoring any embittering sinful actions of others, but it has everything to do with forgiving and not letting one's soul be controlled and tormented by the actions of another.
The most obvious ways to alleviate the torment of embittering sinful actions by others is through forgiveness. The example of Jesus upon the cross (Lk 23:34) is a most powerful inspiration for this approach. Imagine if Jesus had died cursing those who crucified him. If Jesus can forgive those crucifying him, certainly any human can forgive any other human (cf. Eph 4:32, Col 3:13-14, Mt 6:14-15). Is this a hard teaching? In some instances, yes. But, it is the way of the Master and the path to an inner peace that no man can steal.
Bitterness may be accompanied by jealousy and selfish ambition. In context, James may be a referring to some desiring to be teachers but being rejected for that role for a time (James 3:1). His command recognizes that the individual knows in his heart if selfish ambition is present in these situations, hence the charge to not be arrogant or lie about this. Yet, James also mentions that such selfish ambition will be accompanied by "disorder and every evil thing" that may be observed by others.
In cases of bitterness with jealousy and selfish ambition, the Scriptures urge that boasting be replaced with traits of true wisdom-- good deeds done in the gentleness of wisdom. The rest of the passage provides an excellent direction for those tempted towards bitterness rooted in jealousy:
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:17-18)
The author recognizes that the seeds for bitterness are sown long before the bitterness may actually appear. As has been observed, potential sources or instances of bitterness are natural enough and are not necessarily a cause for alarm. His concern is that the "bitter root" grows up to cause trouble and defile many. We don't know exactly what actions he is trying to prevent, but some sort of damaging and wide-reaching sinful actions are in view.
Interestingly, this command to not "allow the bitter root to grow up to cause trouble and defile many" is directed not to the individual but to the church. Because of the potential for "many" to be defiled, the "many" are charged to protect the church against the risk.
Now the author doesn't simply say to "remove the bitter root." There is a certain amount of folly to such an approach, as illustrated. Complex issues rarely have simple solutions!
When I have a long-rooted weed in my back yard, I just can't pull the visible part and hope to get the whole root. I may get the visible part of the weed, but if I miss the root I have not gotten rid of the weed permanently; it will be back with a mature root. I have to "go digging" to see and remove the hidden root. Likewise, superficial approaches to complex "roots" are not likely to be successful.
The spiritual analogy that the author seems to have in mind is a careful examination and dismantling of the bitter root. Experience has shown that this process requires careful and personalized "digging," discernment and counsel (cf. Pro 20:5). In the end, the results of the "digging" may include the following items:
In any case, a careful effort to prevent bitter roots from causing trouble in the church is to be a part of the ongoing ministry of the church.
The "flip side" of this dealing with bitterness is working to prevent instances where bitterness may arise. This means that Christians must treat each other in a way that minimizes the potential for a bitter root to develop. The most common way to do this is to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated (Mt 7:12).
Yet, there are instances where complaints and grievances arise. While the offended party needs to address his bitterness, the one causing bitterness also has Scriptural responsibilities towards prompt reconciliation.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his followers not to ignore legitimate complaints against them:
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24).
Perhaps the best example of reconciliation and resolution of a grievance is the situation discussed in Acts 6:
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1).
Rather than assail the widows for their complaining (notice that "complaining" is spoken against in Phil 2:14), the apostles heard the complaint and realized that this was a legitimate grievance which needed to be remedied. The apostles accepted responsibility for the situation and worked with the offended parties to bring about an immediate and satisfactory resolution to the issue. This example shows how leaders can and should work to prevent bitterness by being responsive to a legitimate complaint from those they lead.
We have discussed the various meanings of the term "bitterness" and seen that many of them are not sinful, though some are sinful. We have seen that bitterness becomes sinful when it is accompanied by sinful actions.
We have discussed various Scriptural remedies to the problem of bitterness, both the prevention of embittering circumstances and how to handle a bitter root before it "grows up to cause trouble and defile many." It is my hope that this study will be helpful in bringing healing and resolution to past embittering situations, as well as helping to prevent embittering events in the future.