Bitterness is a cup we all have to drink sometimes, though some taste it far more often than others and some mixes are far more noxious than others. The bitterest afflictions are those that are continuous—an irreversible decision with seemingly unending consequences, an irreparable but inescapable relationship, the loss of someone so close to us we can’t figure out who we are without them, a gradual ebbing of health and with it both the grief of lost vitality and the resentment of feeling that it happened too soon and wasn’t fair.
In these cases and many more, bouts of bitterness are unavoidable. But with each perfectly normal attack of spiritual and emotional heartburn comes a temptation to indulge and harm ourselves.
I wish I could title this post “I Beat Bitterness and You Can Too,” but my battle with bitterness is ongoing—almost daily. The struggle has led to study, though, and the truths of Scripture have often proved to be powerful medicine. I need to review them, and the exercise may also help you or someone you know.
If, like me, you’re in the “battling bitterness and often not winning” club, you know you need all the help you can get!
The Poison of Bitterness
In both the Old Testament and the New, “bitter “and “bitterness” are associated with foul tasting substances that make us sick. The most common Hebrew and Greek terms are used two ways: literally, of bad tasting or contaminated substances and metaphorically, of a kind of sickening and contaminating affliction of the inner man. A few samples illustrate the pattern and also help us think biblically about the problem.
When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter [Heb., mara]; therefore it was named Marah. (ESV, Exodus 15:23)
[T]hey shall be wasted with hunger, and devoured by plague and poisonous [meriri, bitter] pestilence (Deuteronomy 32:24)
She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly [verb, marar] with me.” (Ruth 1:20)
“I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness [mar] of my soul.” (Job 10:1)
And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly [Greek adverb, pikrōs]. (Matthew 26:75)
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” [noun, pikria] springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; (Hebrews 12:15; see Deut. 29:18)
The name of the star is Wormwood [a bitter plant]. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter [verb, pikrainō]. (Revelation 8:11)
Affliction vs. Infection
Bitterness happens. That is, it often comes upon us without our choosing and can’t (even shouldn’t) be avoided. Much like a physical pathogen, brief exposures in smallish quantities may strengthen us, but highly potent or profuse exposures tend to overwhelm.
If we also make poor choices in response, we’re likely to move beyond affliction and deep into infection. We begin to suffer lasting harm and also to spread our bitterness problem to those around us. A look at some of the ways bitterness commonly afflicts may help us avoid crossing over from affliction to infection.
Esau’s regret is painful to even read.
As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter [mara] cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” (Ge 27:34)
No doubt, Peter’s post-denial, bitter cry burned not only with regret but also horror and shame (Matt. 26:75).
When we’re afflicted with the bitterness of regret, our focus is on what we should have done. As a close cousin to repentance, this sort of bitterness has an important role in God’s work of remaking us in Christ’s image. Linger there too long, though, and the affliction becomes infection. Soon we’re ready to hang it all and go fishing (John 21:3—apparently not what God in mind for Peter, John 21:17).
As the bitterness of regret focuses on what we should have done (“If only I had …!”), the bitterness of grief focuses on what or whom we have lost. It often accompanies the bitterness of regret, as in Esau’s case, or the bitterness of resentment and anger, as in Job’s case.
Naomi’s example is so insightful. She has lost those closest to her, whom she not only loved but depended on for the basic necessities of life. But she clearly crossed over from the affliction of grief into the infection of bitterness—not only failing to rejoice at her warm welcome back home to Bethlehem, but throwing a wet blanket on everyone else’s enjoyment of the occasion.
See seems to eventually recover, but in Ruth 1:20-21, Naomi is pretty toxic. Those of us who struggle with bitterness of our own have to find a quick exit when these bitterness emitters come around.
The bitterness of disappointment is close cousin to grief. The difference is that grief flows from what we had and lost, while disappointment is focused on what we hoped for (quite possibly still wish for) but have never had.
So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. (1 Sa 1:9–10)
Hannah’s story has a happy ending. Her commitment to pour her pain out to the Lord eventually meets with His mercy—but not before bitterness robbed her of much of the pleasure of what should have been a joyous occasion, and not before her bitterness spilled over at least a little on those who loved her.
Who can blame Job for feeling the anguish of his losses? But his bitterness goes beyond the affliction of grief. With the aid of his perhaps well-meaning friends, the pain of his losses festers into the bitterness of resentment. As regret and grief focus on what we should have done and what we have lost, resentment focuses on what we feel we deserve—that we aren’t getting. Resent insists that our affliction isn’t fair.
“Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. Am I the sea, or a sea monster, that you set a guard over me? When I say, ‘My bed will comfort me, my couch will ease my complaint,’ then you scare me with dreams and terrify me with visions, so that I would choose strangling and death rather than my bones. I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Leave me alone, for my days are a breath. (Job 7:11–16)
Job has not only lost everyone he loved and everything he worked to build, but has lost even the ability to rest. He handles it better than most of us would. Still, his resentment is a bitterness infection, as he—though not in so many words—acknowledges eventually (Job 42:1-6).
A Word of Caution
I feel more sympathy than disapproval toward these bitter souls. On occasion, I’ve been Esau, Peter, Naomi, Hannah and even a bit of Job—some days, I try to be all of them at once!
But if we let them, the afflictions of bitterness will infect and destroy us and often badly injure innocent bystanders in the process.
Many of us find that even briefly revisiting the bitterness of Esau, Job, Naomi, Hannah and Peter puts our own pains in a better perspective. But the Bible also calls us to antithetical attitudes that, as they flourish, leave bitterness without much space. Lord willing, we’ll ponder some of these attitudes in a follow-up post.