The Danger of Being Bitter

Hebrews 12:5-17 – See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many are defiled; that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal.  For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.

Have you ever been bitter?

Bitterness is something that we are told to put away, for a number of reasons.  It affects our relationships, both with other people, and with God; it affects our physical bodies (we can get physically sick from stressful emotions); and here, as we see in Hebrews, it can cause us to miss out on the blessings of God.

This seems to be a difficult phrase to understand:  Esau found no place for repentance, though he sought it with tears. At first read we might be led to believe that God rejected a repentant heart, but that conflicts with several other scriptures.  1 John 1:9 tells us clearly: If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Jesus told us Himself, All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out (John 6:37).  God has promised to forgive the repentant sinner.

The word repentance [Greek metanoia] literally means “a change of mind, afterthought.”  We describe repentance of sin as a U-turn, a change of heart and mind whereby we turn away from ourselves and our sins and turn toward God.  We go back to our Creator.  Salvation is a return to our original condition as God intended it to be: holy and acceptable to Him, because we receive the righteousness of Christ.

The repentance Esau sought was a literal return to his previous condition before he sold his birthright.  He wanted to inherit the blessing that he had given away.  Unfortunately, once the blessing had been bestowed on Jacob, it could not be retrieved.  He could not “un-do” what had been done, and now he had to suffer the consequences.  There was no place to go back to.  (You can read the whole story in Genesis 27.)

This is the danger of bitterness.  We miss out on the blessings that God intends for us.

Hebrews 12 begins by calling us to lay aside any sin that would entangle us and keep us from finishing the race that is set before us.  The writer encourages us to look at Jesus for our example, who suffered incredible hostility which led to the cross, all to accomplish His purpose.  The rest of the chapter then moves to what would seem to be a different topic: the discipline of God, but I believe the author is simply expounding on what it really means to endure.

There is going to be hardship in our lives, and sometimes this comes from God, as a form of discipline.  Discipline is not only correction of something that is wrong, but it is a strengthening of what is good.  Hebrews 12:11 describes discipline as sorrowful for the moment, but for those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

In other words, discipline is what we must endure as we faithfully run.  But if we are not careful, the discipline of God can cause us to become bitter.

How does bitterness keep us from enduring?  It sidelines us.  We experience hurt, and instead of taking it to God, we hold onto it.  We get angry, and our hearts grow hard.  We face trials, and we refuse to see what God is doing, and blame Him for the pain.  The seeds of hurt and anger take root, and suddenly we find ourselves bitter.

Bitter towards God, for the hard things He has allowed to happen to us. 

Bitter towards others for the things they have done to us (or have not done for us).

The result is we “come short of the grace of God” (that wonderful, supernatural power of the indwelling Spirit of God who enables us to forgive and move forward), and we find ourselves down a path from which there is no return, no repentance.  We can’t get back to what we have lost, and we miss what God intended for us to have.

An example might be a husband and wife who allow harsh words and unmet expectations to take them down the bitter road of divorce.  Or, perhaps a young man’s father dies at an early age, and he cannot move past the resentment towards God for taking him to heaven, and the bitterness causes him to lose the other relationships in his life.  Or two friends have a disagreement, and life takes them far apart, where one dies before reconciliation can be made.  Or a woman becomes pregnant, and her boyfriend abandons her; in her bitterness she chooses to have an abortion.

Bitterness steals our joy.

Bitterness destroys our relationships.

Bitterness can cause us to make choices that can’t be unmade.

How do we guard against bitterness?

First, understand the concept of a “root of bitterness.”  Sometimes we can’t see it; it’s hidden underneath our facade of a happy life, and we don’t even know it’s there until bitter words or actions come sprouting out of our mouth!  In that case, we need to ask God to reveal the source, to expose the roots of hurt and anger that we have in the hidden rooms of our heart.

Second, we follow the instructions given in context of the warning.

Hebrews 12:12-14 – Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.  Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.

Let’s unpack this.

Strengthen your weak hands and knees.

Where are you vulnerable?  Think about what causes you to become hurt or angry, for bitterness is simply anger that is bottled up and allowed to “simmer” in our inner spirit.  Are you insecure in some area?  Are you struggling with a particular sin?  Are you weak in your faith?  Are you believing something that is not true?  Are you not believing what is true?

Ask God to show you the places where you need to grow.  This is the work of His discipline.  He may need to correct you.  He may need to put you in a situation where you develop the spiritual strength He has in mind for you.  He may need to change your beliefs.

Hebrews 12:10 – For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share in His holiness.

Make straight paths for your feet.

Make right choices.  Value what is good and right.  Take the next right step.  If Esau had simply valued his birthright, he would have inherited the blessing.  Very often, we give up what God intends for us because we are too busy playing in the world, satisfied with far lesser things.  We make decisions based on what feels good to us, and what we feel is our right.  Bitterness doesn’t happen instantly.  We choose to remain angry or hurt because we feel vindicated in our self-righteousness.  Instead, we must do the hard thing, what God commands, not what others expect.  This is the straight path, to obey God instead of our flesh.  We value His approval more than man’s.  We treasure our relationship with God more than our own feelings.  We trust Him for justice.  We believe Him for good to come out of evil and we leave vengeance in His hands.

An example might be that you are unfairly accused of something at your job.  You can get angry about it, and try to get even.  Or, you can trust God to defend you, and continue to work honestly and diligently, letting go of any resentment towards those who mistreated you.

Proverbs 3:5-6 – Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.

Pursue peace with all men.

This is where forgiveness really comes in.  Forgiveness and love are the antidote for bitterness.  To pursue peace does not mean we agree all the time, but it does mean we set aside our own selves to preserve the relationship.  Forgiveness is a “letting go” of the hurt and anger, because we know it is for our own good.  Also, to pursue is to be proactive.  Forgiveness lets go of the hurt; love acts to rebuild the relationship.

Romans 14:19 – So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.

Colossians 3:12-13 – So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

Pursue sanctification.

Sanctification is that process whereby God transforms us into the image of Christ.  It is His work of changing our words, thoughts and behavior so that what we are on the outside matches the incredible work of regeneration He has already accomplished on the inside, through salvation.  We are a work in progress, and we need to keep this in mind.  When I recognize my own faults and shortcomings, yours don’t seem to bother me as much!  When you don’t meet my expectations and I get my feelings hurt, I remember that I have issues to work on as well.  As God sanctifies us, we begin to see one another as He sees us, with compassion and love.  This guards our heart against the bitterness that could damage our relationships, our influence for Christ, and our own spiritual growth.

Matthew 7:3-5 – Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or, how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” and behold, the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Have you been hurt?

Are you angry?

Has bitterness taken root in your life?

Oh, dear friend, don’t let the enemy steal the good and blessed life that God intends for you.  Deal with your hurt and anger quickly, and by the grace of God, dig up those roots of bitterness so God can replace them with the beauty and joy He longs to give you.

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