Bitterness Happens


(Read the series.)

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.

  • Regret
  • Grief
  • Disappointment
  • Resentment


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.


Aaron, this is such a relevant article. Few, it seems, address bitterness in detail. We don’t really understand this very well, so many of us are eager for the next installment. But I appreciate the recognition that the right type of bitterness is appropriate. We usually define all bitterness as equivalent ot a “root of bitterness.”

The affliction vs. infection contrast is very helpful. I also appreciate the attempt at being honest and realistic.

We all struggle with bitterness, and I am glad you pointed that out.

"The Midrash Detective"

Thanks, Ed. This study is intended mostly as a kind of self-administered therapy, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who needs it. I was going to go right to “solutions” next, but the more I ponder it, the more I’m leaning toward one other installment first—on what bitterness as “infection” does to us and those around us…. and why bitterness is linked in NT with malice and anger etc. as things to put away.

Then solutions.

But I have to say that though I can’t explain why, just revisiting the experiences of Job, Naomi, Peter, Esau, and others seems to be a strong corrective for me. Maybe it’s the “You think you’ve got afflictions? Just be glad you’re not Job, et al.” factor!

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Since reading this, I’ve struggled with defining bitterness. In the sense you use it here, I think you’re talking about hardship, trials, pain, misery. Not bitterness in the sense of unforgiveness. James 1 will be important also.

Cooking With Bitters: Not Just for Cocktails Anymore:

Just as they do in drinks, bitters add nuance and depth to dishes of all kinds, sweet or savory, salad or stew or pie. If this sounds odd, remember that bitters aren’t so different from pantry standbys like vanilla or almond extract: All are distillations of aromatics steeped in a neutral spirit. The only difference is that bitters are blends of a variety of herbs, spices, roots and barks rather than singular extracts and therefore a little more complex.

Sure, doctoring your food with something that has “bitter” in its name can be daunting. But don’t set too much store by names. Bitters often contain bittering agents like gentian and cinchona, but that doesn’t mean they’ll make all food taste like radicchio. A few dashes of bitters can simply make food taste better, balancing sugar, cutting through richness or underscoring the flavors of meat and salt. Similar to anchovy paste, fish sauce or Worcestershire, bitters can have a sort of subliminal effect, unlocking and amping up the flavors of everything else around them.

Over the years, recipes for cooking with bitters have popped up rarely and quietly. Food writer Laurie Colwin added Angostura to her marinated Brussels sprouts; former Gourmet editor in chief Ruth Reichl to her baked sweet potatoes with marmalade. But now, on the heels of the recent cocktail revival and proliferation of artisanal bitters brands, chefs and bakers are using bitters to bring a new edge to their cooking.

Recipe: A Recipe for Bitter Frozen Berries With White Chocolate Cream

I might have skipped right over the Bitter Frozen Berries With White Chocolate Cream, but the addition of Angostura bitters to its ganache of white chocolate piqued my interest. I suspected the bitters would counter the blunt sweetness of this pallid confection in a rather grown-up manner, lending it the layered effect of a well-conceived cocktail. And surely the frozen, bittersweet black and red currants would be a wake-up call.

Perhaps there is a lesson in this?

[Dan Miller]

Since reading this, I’ve struggled with defining bitterness. In the sense you use it here, I think you’re talking about hardship, trials, pain, misery. Not bitterness in the sense of unforgiveness. James 1 will be important also.

I see bitterness as the sorrow, grief, etc. that life’s failures, losses, disappointments, and mistreatments (by others) evokes. Using the affliction vs. infection metaphor, I would say unforgiveness is one of several ways a bitterness “infection” wreaks havoc on ourselves & others. Also, yes, the “joy” in James 1 is surely relevant. Jim,… that recipe of sorts. There is a lesson—more than one, probably. For one, the bitter experiences of life are not without purpose, and in the right measure work with other stuff to make a whole that ultimately makes sense. Very hard to believe that some days. Still true.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Brief thoughts on bitterness:

  • Yup! Been there more than once and probably will go there again.
  • B/c at this moment, I am not bitter about anything, my mind seems clear enough to make these comments:
  • Bitterness, it strikes me, is a heart rejection to God’s absolute sovereignty AND/OR
  • An envy at the successes of another (the “why not me?! syndrome) as expressed in John 21:21, “what shall this man do?”
  • Observation from my children: while all are alike intellectually, one for whatever reasons is super “successful”. Other two at times express amazement and dissatisfaction in own lives’ situations

….except that at times I also struggle with bitterness, and would like to see the rest of comments in my email box.

Or maybe I do have a little to say. I believe that the bitter flavors (higher concentration of OH ions) work with the native acids (higher concentration of H ions) to balance things—sometimes it can form a “buffer solution” that tends to a central point which is optimized and resists movement. Our bodies are full of these. Maybe the hurts of the world do the same with our rejoicings?

Bit of history; bitters began to be added to cocktails to cover up the “off” tastes of spirits like inexpensive gin that flooded the markets in England after the king lowered barriers to distilling. Remember Jim’s post of “Gin Street” a bit back?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.


What I’m wondering is why on earth somebody clicked “dislike” for your comment!

Seriously, to ask it to answer it, eh? I “disliked” your comment just so you wouldn’t feel left out—can you do the same for me, brother? :^) (or maybe someone else will take care of that soon)

Back to the topic, it’s worth noting that science is starting to suspect that a lot of those acidic and bitter flavors that our white bread society had mostly banished from food are in fact really good for us, flavenoids and all that. Hops are supposed to inhibit certain cancers, for example. Moreover, the Hebrew word “mar” does appear to refer to both personal and food bitterness, e.g. the “bitter herbs” of Passover. Some links courtesy Biblehub. Not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but rather what we do with it. What does it motivate us to do?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

You can both “like” and “dislike” a comment. So if someone were a bit ornery, or perhaps even “bitter”, he could have a lot of fun with this. Not that I know this from experience or anything.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Christianity is full of contradictions.
- God is sovereign over all that happens. Man chooses life or death.
- I am a sinner, the rightful object of God’s wrath. I am a child of God, the rightful object of His loving-kindness.
- I am (and ought to be) under God’s curse. I am (and ought to be) under God’s blessing.

Most of the mistakes made within Christianity are in how we deal with these. Instead of embracing both completely, we seem to think that there must be a happy medium where we accept each half-way.

In the case of bitterness, it’s hard to believe that I deserve the curse, with all its bitterness. And it’s hard to believe that I deserve heaven now. So it must be something in between. There must be some quality of life that is normal and expect-able for me. Of course my idea of this is vastly different from a believer along the Amazon river or the last few years of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And it’s quite different from other members of my church. What we define as a trial depends on our “standard of life.”
I believe that this is a necessary idea when we interpret James 1:

2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

“Doubt” is a legitimate meaning, but I think it’s better understood by the way we use “doubt” when we hear something, shake our head, and say, “I doubt that.” What we mean, is, “You’re asking me to accept something, and I think that it’s wrong.” Which means that we are making a judgment, thus the meanings of diakrino (“doubt” and “judge”) converge.
That is how “doubting” and being tossed like a wave on the sea coincide in the internal aspects of trials. Our trials are trials only because of our wrong prideful judgments (also can be expressed as doubts of God). So here’s how this works inside us:

Trial 1: people not using their blinker, cutting me off, or other bad driving.
Our diakrino: “I deserve to be treated with respect on the road.” Or “I don’t believe God is in control of how I’m being treated on the road.”
This is a trial because we think we deserve a certain level of treatment.
If we ask for wisdom without injecting our judgment into the situation, God’s Word tells us that we don’t deserve good treatment. We are sinful. We deserve the curse.
The solution is God’s wisdom, which says that we should humble ourselves. We should recognize what we deserve.

Trial 2: My husband doesn’t make enough money. He’s lazy.
OR my wife is not skinny enough. Other people’s wives work out. My secretary works out.
OR my spouse isn’t clean enough around the house
etc., etc., a million other complaints spouses have about one another.
Diakrino: “I deserve a better life. I deserve a more loving spouse.” or “I’m having trouble believing that God married me to the right person.”
This is a trial because we feel that we are going through what we shouldn’t be going through.
SOLUTION: God’s wisdom. It says that my spouse is exactly who God wanted me to have. And that forgiving and forbearing shows me how real and powerfully difficult it is to forgive. God’s feeling towards our sinfulness and His forgiveness should teach me that I (who so much less deserve good treatment than God deserves it) should joyfully turn and forgive and forbear my spouse.

Trial 3: We’re infertile.
Diakrino: “Other people are having kids - It’s not right that we can’t - We deserve kids as much as anyone.” or “I’m having trouble believing that God is in control of my health and fertility.”
SOLUTION: God’s wisdom that our frail bodies and health problems are part of the curse, which mankind deserves from a just God. It is by His grace that He holds back from full expression of the curse. And God’s wisdom says again that He is in control and perhaps there is blessing in childlessness that we can’t know. Perhaps He is freeing us for service. I will lay aside my judgment that life is unfair, and accept that God is sovereign to give curse and blessing and I will bless His name.

In all these, we have powerful judgments - opinions - that are lies from our sinful nature.
Graffiti from 1968: “I take my desires for reality, because I believe in the reality of desires.”
If we don’t by the sprit kill the old man, we will be blown by our own doubts-judgments-desires like a wave on the sea.

Wow, that’s a whole article there, Dan.

A lot of good thoughts.

I don’t want to write too much now of what I’m brewing (no, Jim, that’s not a booze reference) for later, but in case I don’t get to it right away, it might be edifying to point out that while the attitudes below may not be a “cure” for bitterness, it’s not a coincidence that we never feel them at the same time as bitterness—at least I never do.

So they seem to be healing places to go. Pretty consistently.

  • Thankfulness
  • Trust (specifically, as Jim alluded… and Dan as well… that God is doing what is good, right, best… even ultimately kindest)
  • Resolve? (Still word hunting for this one. What I mean is that bitterness tends to be a passive, inward-focused, brooding sort of thing, not an acting sort of thing. Resolving to do something seems to be incompatible.)
  • Fellowship/kinship (Bitterness is very solitary. Even when it’s spilling over onto others, we’re not really thinking of others or connecting with them when that’s happening. We’re being alone… they just happen to be there. e.g., Naomi does not seem to be connecting in Ruth 1.20)

Also, it’s not an attitude, but somewhere in there I’d have to say that the Reset is a powerful thing. “Reset” is just taking your mind somewhere else, anywhere else, preferably somewhere analytical or amusing for a while.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

The people who have experienced some of the most tragic losses … LIKE:

  • Loss of a child (cancer in childhood, accidents, combat)
  • Seemingly massive setbacks: (Loss of ministry, loss of home to say fire or flood, loss of status or other loss of possessions)

They go two ways:

  • Bitterness & anger towards God OR
  • Greater dependence upon Him and amazing tenderness of heart

What I’ve observed in 47 years of the Christian life and 20 years in the vocational ministry!