Bitterness: More Than a Hard Pill to Swallow

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The dictionary defines bitterness:

  1. Having or being a taste that is sharp, acrid, and unpleasant.
  2. Causing a sharply unpleasant, painful, or stinging sensation; harsh: enveloped in bitter cold; a bitter wind.
  3. Difficult or distasteful to accept, admit, or bear: the bitter truth; bitter sorrow.
  4. Proceeding from or exhibiting strong animosity: a bitter struggle; bitter foes.
  5. Resulting from or expressive of severe grief, anguish, or disappointment: cried bitter tears.
  6. Marked by resentment or cynicism: “He was already a bitter elderly man with a gray face”(John Dos Passos). (Yahoo Online Dictionary)

The Bible uses words such as gall and poison when describing bitterness.

These all provide an emotion that “sours, pollutes, blinds, and destroys from the inside out. “The beleaguered Job of the Old Testament repeatedly refers to his “bitterness of soul.” And that is precisely where bitterness finds its root and its festering place: deep in the soul” states Roberta Rand Caponey.

Bitterness has also been described as a root. In order for a root to grow, it has to take hold. Bitterness takes root in your soul and if allowed, it will grow, fester, and take hold of a person’s entire life. Bitterness is “so common and so deeply destructive,” writes Shari Roan at the Los Angeles Times, “that some psychiatrists are urging it be identified as a mental illness”.

Bitterness robs joy, hope, and love from lives. It causes a person to constantly live in the past, to never move on, and never get over past actions. It destroys a person’s very essence.

What causes bitterness? Dean is a middle-aged man. He and his sister Sarah were raised by a physically and emotionally abusive home by their mother until she left when they were pre-teens. Dean has never forgiven what his mother did to him as a child. He cannot have a healthy relationship with women. He himself is mentally abusive. He has been through numerous relationships. He cannot hold a job and it always blaming someone else for his plot in life. Dean is overweight, jobless, lacks direction in his life, has a myriad of health problems, and strives to make others just as miserable as he is in life. Daily he blames his mother for his lot in life. Ironically, his mother has been dead and gone since he was a teenager.

Sarah, on the other hand, is a successful wife and mother with a career. She is a happy, productive member of society. She has found a loving husband, a loving church, and decided years ago to forgive her mother and move on.

Both Dean and Sarah were products of the same abusive situation, and both have some self-justification at anger towards their mother. However, Sarah chose to not let those events define her life and she moved on. Dean, on the other hand, decided to hold on to what happened. There came a point when Sarah said she was not going to let those events dominate her life … Dean chose a different path. By blaming his mother for everything bad in his life, he’s never had to take responsibility for his choices or his selfish behavior. The problem now for Dean is the high price he’s had to pay. The poison of the bitterness has eaten him alive. Bitterness toward another person has been described as swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die. It doesn’t happen. What happens instead, you die a slow death while the person you hold bitterness against lives their life totally unaffected by the grudge being carried. 

The Bible tells us: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 4:31-5:2).

Bitterness is always directed to what someone else has done—whether what happened was real or imagined. It is very easy to hold something against someone. In fact, some people enjoy being bitter and having their sense of self-righteousness. But, can bitterness exist in someone’s heart as well as love, joy, peace, patience, etc.? The above scripture says, “no.” It is not possible to have two attitudes that contradict each other.

Like Dean, someone may feel the right to bitterness, but the Bible says nobody has the right to be bitter. “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” (Heb. 12:15).

As stated earlier, bitterness is a root. When a root takes hold, is given nourishment, it produces a fruit. Just as an orange tree produces oranges, bitterness also produces a fruit. If bitterness takes hold and is nourished it produces fruit that is harmful, destructive, and unhealthy. Keep the bitterness in, and make yourself sick, or let it out and spread the sickness around.
The Bible says to get rid of all bitterness. You must not keep it in and you must not share it. Surrender it to the Father, through the Son. “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” (James 3:14,15).

If keeping bitterness inside doesn’t work, and if letting out and destroying others doesn’t work, what does work? According to the book “Get the Junk out of your Trunk: Let go of the past to live your best life” by Duane Vander Klok (2005) this works:
A.  Ask God to forgive you for allowing bitterness to take root. First, a person needs to realize that they have let the root of bitterness to take root. Nobody else has put the bitterness in your heart. You have allowed it. You have to take responsibility for your actions. It is nobody else’s fault. It’s time to ask for forgiveness of your sin.

B.  Forgive “by faith” from the heart. You have to forgive what has happened to you—whether it be real or imagined. It’s not always easy, and it is only by the grace of God can true acceptance and forgiveness come. Only by confessing our sins and being open and real before the throne of God, can he work to help you forgive what has caused that bitterness. Once we experience genuine forgiveness from God, can we begin to actually forgive someone. If you are finding it impossible to forgive, maybe you have not actually experienced God in your life. Maybe you have not come to the place where Jesus is the center of your life where He has met your need and forgiven you for your sins. Until you experience his forgiveness and love, you cannot extend it.

C.  Put works to your faith in sincere prayer for others and acts of love. Start looking outward in your life. Start praying for others, start helping those less fortunate than you. When focussing on the needs of others, we forget ourselves and our imagined problems and those we feel have wronged us. The bitterness no longer can take root because we have quit dwelling on it.

D.  Close the door. “Admit it. Quit it.” This is the final step. Let it go. Don’t pick it up again. Quit the behavior and thoughts that brought the bitterness in your heart. Quit doing the things you have been doing. Don’t give into the temptation. For instance, you’re bitter because of a bad break up with a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse, etc. Your bitterness has taken root because you have watched him/her exceed, excel and move on with their life successfully. You can’t stand it because in your bitterness your choices have caused you to have an unhappy life, and you hate that the other person has moved on and is happy without you. You want to cause strife and discontent to them. You’ve tried at every turn to engage in unhealthy conflict. You need to admit what you have done, and quit doing what you are doing. No more calling neighbors and relatives and asking about that person. No more checking out their online activities. Just stop. If someone wants to talk about that person, you tell them you would rather not. Protect your inner self. Don’t let that bitterness root take hold once again. Become healthy once and for all – God’s way. Out of sight out of mind.

Remember, forgiveness is a choice to treat others the way God has treated you. Look to see how you are treating those that you hold bitterness against. Is it the way God has treated you?

It’s not easy to get rid of bitterness. Only with the God’s help and totally dying to self and letting it all go can you be free from bitterness and its strong roots.  


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