It was in my early years as a campus minister. There were three students, two men and a woman. The two men were best friends and one of them had been dating the woman since high school. The young man broke off the dating relationship with the woman and, after a time, the other young man developed a romantic attraction to the woman, and they began to date. That’s when everything hit the proverbial fan. The original boyfriend was livid with the new one. I met with him and he felt his friend had betrayed him by dating his ex-girlfriend. There was no consoling him or reasoning with him at that moment. I did believe, however, that he would eventually work through his anger. I was wrong.
Over the ensuing months, his anger turned into bitterness and he held onto it like Gollum did the Ring. It became his “precious,” and, as in the Lord of the Rings, the bitterness began to control him and transform him. He withdrew from our campus ministry and cut off his best friend and ex-girlfriend. That couple eventually married and when I saw them years later, they told me the man was still embittered.
Bitterness is a terrible, corrosive thing. It is focused outward toward someone or some circumstance, but its effects are found inwardly. Joyce Meyer likens bitterness to taking poison in hopes that your enemy will die.
I believe this is why the Hebrew writer warns not to allow a bitter root to grow up within us (Hebrews 12:15) It is deadly to us and to the community of believers. It is a prime tool of our enemy to steal, kill, and destroy. If you have ever been a part of a church split or a witness to a messy divorce, you will recognize the destructive effects of bitterness.
The antidote to bitterness is grace and trust. Paul appealed to the Colossians who were struggling in their relationships with one another to bear with each other and “to forgive as the Lord forgave you.”(Colossians 3:13) We will inevitably become angry with people, but we can prevent that anger from growing into bitterness through forgiveness. It is forgiveness that prevents a bitter root from becoming established in our hearts. It keeps the soil of our hearts from becoming a fertile place for anger to evolve into bitterness.
Trust in the Lord is also essential, particularly when life’s circumstances are difficult and often unjust. It is easy to allow our frustrations and anger with life to grow into bitterness. A broken relationship, a miscarriage, a chronic illness, termination from a job. The list can go on and on of how life’s circumstances can tempt us to be bitter. Yet, if we believe and trust in a sovereign God, then we know he has allowed these circumstances to come into our lives and he is able to bring good to us through each and every one of them. (Romans 8:28). This doesn’t mean that the circumstances won’t cause us emotional pain or lead us into anger. These are understandable and natural responses. But one can recover from those. Bitterness, on the other hand, when it gets rooted in our hearts is so much more difficult to remove. To prevent this, leaning on the Lord, even when we cannot understand the why of a situation, will protect us from the poison of an embittered heart.
I can’t think of a life situation that would induce bitterness more than the story of Joseph, the favored and arrogant son of Jacob. His brothers grew jealous of him and conspired to kill him. When his brother, Reuben, intervened, the older siblings sold him into slavery. If that wasn’t enough trouble, after Joseph had become a trusted servant of a powerful man in Egypt, he was wrongly accused of sexual assault by the man’s wife who had tried to seduce him and was rebuffed. He languished in prison for years before earning his release. Having become powerful himself, he had a face to face encounter with his brothers years later. He recognized them immediately but said nothing. Later (you can find the whole story in Genesis 37-50) he reveals his true identity:
Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. (Genesis 45:3-7 NIV)
Rather than being embittered, Joseph saw clearly the Lord had had a plan all along. Every dreadful experience became a critical piece in his divine design to save his people from disaster. This enabled Joseph to forgive his brothers.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could do the same? Regardless of what happens in our lives, no matter what people do to us, to be able to have an eternal perspective that sees God ultimately in control and using everything for our good? Not that we won’t get angry or see things taking place as unfair or unjust. I think Joseph experienced both, but he did not become embittered. Instead, he truly forgave his brothers and in doing so set himself free.
Jesus spoke a number of times about freedom (Luke 4:18; John 8:36), as did Paul (Galatians 5:1; Galatians 5:13) I think what they were speaking about included bitterness. In fact, Peter, when he confronted a man named Simon, pointed out the bitterness that was evident in his heart (Acts 8:18-23)
If we want to be free in our lives, one certainty is that we cannot allow a bitter root to grow within us. It will capture and imprison us. That is not God’s will for us. He wants us to be free. Free indeed!
© Jim Musser 2019