Bitterness often begins as a normal—maybe even healthy—response to the losses, disappointments, failures, and unfairnesses of life. In that sense, the term “bitterness” is pretty much synonymous with mental, spiritual, emotional (and often also physical) pain.
But the Bible reveals that when indulged and nurtured, bitterness becomes an infection of the inner man that taints—and has the potential to corrupt—all our activities and relationships. I’ve written about the forms and harms of bitterness previously (see Bitterness Happens, and Six Ways Bitterness Can Poison Our Lives).
The good news is that both Scripture and experience (as application of biblical principles) point us toward some practical strategies for overcoming bitterness in our lives before, or even after, it becomes a chronic problem.
Feed the Attitudes of Worship
Worship is not an “experience.” In Scripture, worship is a set of attitudes and beliefs finding some form of expression. Acceptable worship is the right attitudes and beliefs finding a right expression, in the context of a right relationship. That’s a lot of things to get right. But it all begins with the attitudes.
Much has been written about the attitudes of worship, but for now we can simplify: at their core, these attitudes are humble, submissive, repentant, thankful, and joyful.
Psalm 73 is one of Asaph’s bitter-sweet songs. Though the word marah (bitter) does not appear in the Psalm, Asaph was clearly seething with envy, resentment, and repeated disappointment.
In Psalm 73:2, Asaph confesses that his attitude nearly destroyed him. Then he elaborates (ESV).
- Psalm 73:3 — “I was envious of the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked”
- Psalm 73:5 — “They are not in trouble as others are”
- Psalm 73:6 — “violence covers them as a garment”
- Psalm 73:8 — “They scoff and speak with malice”
- Psalm 73:10 — “his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them”
I suspect the gist of Asaph’s cry is familiar to all of us: “It’s not fair! It’s not right!” And as he watched all of this go on, and on, it began to seriously eat at him. I’ll paraphrase:
- Psalm 73:13 — My godly living all these years has been a complete waste!
- Psalm 73:14 — All I get for it is more false accusation and harassment—all day long!
- Psalm 73:16 — Trying to understand it all just makes me tired.
- Psalm 73:21 — My soul is soured (lit. leavened; ESV, “embittered”). I’m devastated (literally pierced in the kidneys, the Hebrew idea for heart/mind).
But then Asaph turns toward the attitudes of worship. For him, this turning of attitudes begins with something easier: going to a physical place of worship. He goes “into the sanctuary.” As he humbles himself before God, internal lights begin to come on. He recovers perspective. He realizes his bitter attitudes stemmed from an un-worshipful orientation toward God: “I was like a beast toward you” (73:22).
For the rest of the song, from 73:23-28, Asaph overflows with a spirit of humble dependence and thankfulness.
Nevertheless I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand. 24 You will guide me with Your counsel, And afterward receive me to glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You. 26 My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever… . for me it is good to be near God.
How Worship Beats Bitterness
The attitudes of worship see God’s perfections vividly—not just in the abstract, but relative to ourselves. And that has a way of compressing bitter thinking into a smaller and smaller space. For a while, at least, it can’t dominate.
Pondering God’s supremacy relative to ourselves evokes humility. Pondering what He has done in that context prompts thankfulness. Thankfulness propels joy.
- Unlike me, God knows when and how to deal out justice (Psalm 73: 18-20).
- Unlike me, God always holds on. He doesn’t let down those He loves (Psalm 73:23).
- God always knows the right choices to make; I sure don’t (Psalm 73:24).
- God graciously receives His own into glory. I don’t have anything remotely like that to receive anybody into! (Psalm 73:24).
- Unlike me, God actually deserves to be respected and treasured by everybody—and valued above all else (Psalm 73:25).
- God’s strength is never inadequate; mine often is (Psalm 73:26-27).
- I need God (“refuge!”). He doesn’t need me (Psalm 73:28).
- Unlike mine, God’s works are always worth talking about! (Psalm 73:28).
Though Humble Street is a low road, it’s often where the air is freshest and bitterness evaporates fastest. In Asaph’s words, “the sanctuary” is where the light is right and we truly “discern” (Psalm 73:17). There, we see our bitter thinking as “brutish and ignorant” (73:22).
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is Information Coordinator for a law-enforcement electronic library service.