Read Part 1.
Bitterness can be a good thing. Hannah’s bitter disappointment led her to earnest prayer. Peter’s bitter weeping moved him toward repentance. Job’s bitter ordeal has been a source of comfort for untold millions. And God commanded Ezekiel to weep bitterly as a means of warning his people of coming judgment (Ezek. 21:11-12).
But for us sinners bitterness is perilous.
At best, continuing bitterness becomes part of a toxic spiritual stew that includes “wrath, anger, clamor and slander” as well as “malice” (ESV, Eph. 4:31). At worst, unchecked bitterness breeds unbelief to the point of life-altering, faithless choices (Deut. 29:18, Heb. 12:15).
Here we’ll consider six ways self-indulgent bitterness poisons us.
1. More Bitterness
Like mildew in the shower, bitterness seems to multiply itself. We reap what we sow (Gal. 6:8). Similarly, in Romans 1:21-31, sinful attitudes lead to more sinful attitudes and actions, spiraling downward toward an ever-uglier condition. And near the beginning of that decline is a simple failure to “honor Him as God” and “give thanks.”
The sinners in Romans 1 are not believers, but sin works the way sin works—even in the reborn. In the case of bitterness, we brood about some offense committed against us, some disappointment, some failure, some loss. We tell ourselves how unfortunate we are, how mistreated we are, how alone we are, how tragically unrealized our potential is. Emotions escalate and bring more intensely and expansively negative and bitter thinking—more unthankful thinking.
Soon bitterness taints, then corrupts, our entire inner (and eventually outer) life. Best to lay it aside (Eph. 4:31) early!
2. Poorer Health
The Proverbs reveal that attitudes and emotional states impact our physical health.
Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. (Prov. 3:7–8)
A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot. (Prov. 14:30)
A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. (Prov. 17:22)
We’re physically harmed by a state of heart that dwells continually on the negative—what ought to be but isn’t, what I should have done but didn’t, what somebody ought to do but isn’t, what I wish I had but don’t.
These ruminations “make the bones rot.”
3. Corrupted Affections
Ephesians 4:31 doesn’t specify that bitterness is the cause of the other sinful attitudes in the context. It does reveal desires (“affections”) that feed each other. Bitterness breeds bitterness but also encourages more comprehensive corruption of our attitudes and conduct. In Ephesians, it tops the ugly attitudes list.
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.
In James bitterness is linked closely with jealousy, envy, pride and a pseudo-wisdom associated with demons (James 3:14-15).
The mysterious case of “Simon the Sorcerer” is insightful as well. Soon after Philip brings the gospel to Samaria (Acts 8.5-8), the amazing Simon (Acts 8:11) hears the message and “believe[s]”—and it’s his turn to be amazed (Acts 8:13).
But when he sees the apostles facilitate the Spirit’s coming to the Samaritans, he offers to buy the secret of this power from Peter. As expected, Peter rebukes him. But the apostle’s analysis of what ails Simon is surprising (8:20-23). Peter accuses Simon of:
- thinking God’s gift could be bought
- having a heart that is “not right before God”
- wickedness in the “intent” (epinoia) of his heart”
- being full of the bile (kole, “gall”) of bitterness (pikria)
- being tied up (sundesmos) by iniquity (adikia)
There is more than ordinary greed for power going on here. Whatever the precise role of bitterness was in Simon’s life, his bitterness was a major factor in the corruption of his values.
4. Damaged Relationships
The progressive decay of bitterness taints our relationships in so many ways—a critical spirit, a judgmental attitude, a “persecution complex,” just general unpleasantness. Naomi throws a wet blanket on the homecoming celebration in Bethlehem (Ruth 1:19-20). Before that, she tries to send everyone she loves away (Ruth 1:12-13). Peter leads others back into fishing (John 21:3) rather than feeding Jesus’ lambs (John 21:15). Esau’s bitterness contributes to a widening rift between himself and Jacob, lasting for years (Gen. 27:34, 41-42).
Though the word “bitterness” does not appear in the context, a similar dynamic is evident in Cain’s disappointment and resentment toward Abel (Gen. 4:5-6, 8). We know how that relationship turned out.
And bitterness can be contagious as well (Heb. 12:15. See Deut. 29:18).
5. Hollowed-out Worship
The Bible reveals that Christian joy is not a mere emotion. In Philippians, for example, an abundance of joy and rejoicing coexists with tears (Phil. 3:18). However, though joy can coexist with sorrow, it cannot coexist with the bitterness of resentment, anger, and malice.
Just as bitterness toward others drives wedges into our relationships, bitterness about life in general chills our relationship with God.
It’s no coincidence that joy and thankfulness are so dominant and so often paired in the most worship-focused book of the Bible, the Psalms. Worship is fundamentally humble, thankful, and joyous. Bitterness is fundamentally joyless, unthankful, and ultimately proud.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy! (Ps 107:21–22)
In Hebrews 12:15 we find a solemn warning much like Moses’ warning in Deuteronomy 29:18.
Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit (Deut. 29:18)
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled (Heb. 12:15)
It’s somewhat unclear here whether the unbelief produces the bitterness or the bitterness produces the unbelief. The relationship probably goes both ways.
The attitude of the Israelites at the place ironically named “bitter” (Marah) is a classic example (Exodus 15:23-24), as is their later response to the challenges of the conquest—and many events between.
Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And … grumbled … “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt? … Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Nu 14:1–4)
Again, Hebrews is eye-opening:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin… . As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? (Heb. 3:12–16)
When I indulge in prolonged, self-pitying or resentful bitterness, I’m either turning my focus away from revealed truth or rejecting it—or some of both. At best, bitterness is unbelief by neglect. It effectively denies that God is both wise and good—wise enough to know best how the events of my life ought to unfold and good enough to have the best purposes for whatever He has allowed me to experience, or lose, or fail to gain.
Happily, God has graciously provided more than enough resources for battling bitterness. We’ll consider some of those in a future post.
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 content manager for a law-enforcement digital library service.