Calvary Road Baptist Church

“BITTERNESS”

 

This evening I preach on that part of the Christian life that many of my good pastor friends have difficulty dealing with. It is called bitterness. It is also the single most difficult area of my life, and perhaps my wife’s life, and I think my daughter’s life. Consider that bitterness may be your single greatest personal issue. This is not to say that I am bitter, or that Pam is bitter, or that Sarah is bitter. It is just to say that folks who are in the ministry find this to be one of the most difficult areas of life to deal with, making sure that we do not become bitter. Do you have difficulty with this, too?

What is bitterness? It is easier to understand than to describe, for many of us. A dictionary definition would be that bitterness has to do with that which is repulsive to the mind, that which is mournful, that which is caustic, that which is stinging.[1] However, somehow the dictionary definition of the word does not really cover the anguish of the soul, the agony of the heart, the knot in the stomach, that is an integral part of being bitter. Keep in mind that this is not all of it, because bitterness does not always manifest itself by easily detectable feelings.

You will find out tonight that bitterness is a subtle and deceitful condition that can exist in a man’s bosom for a long time without him knowing it. Because bitterness is, by nature, corrosive and caustic to the soul and spirit of a man, it needs to be dealt with whenever it is found.

 

First, Consider THE CAUSES OF BITTERNESS

 

I will give you a list of eight categories. As best as I can determine from my personal study of the Bible, following are the basic causes of bitterness in someone’s heart and soul. You will note, as we proceed, that no one is immune to bitterness.

First, bitterness is simply the result of having a wicked heart. In Acts chapter 8, we read of a man referred to as Simon, the sorcerer. Apparently impressed by the signs and wonders associated with Philip’s ministry, Simon claimed to be saved and was baptized. However, this charlatan magician’s real motives were revealed when he offered Peter and John money in return for miracle working power. Notice Peter’s response in Acts 8.18-23:

 

18     And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles' hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money,

19     Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost.

20     But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.

21     Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God.

22     Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee.

23     For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.

 

The “gall of bitterness” refers to that which is produced by bitterness. In other words, Peter told Simon that his life was distasteful as a result of being bitter. Romans 3.14 illustrates this, as well: “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” Unsaved people have wicked hearts. Their wicked hearts naturally produce hateful patterns of speech. Therefore, bitterness, whether it is a bitter heart, or bitter speech, which comes from a bitter heart, is something which is naturally typical of an unsaved person.

Bitterness can also result from being wronged by someone. Let me give you some examples of how someone doing you wrong can cause bitterness:

·         Example #1: When his father told Esau that he had been tricked and that his brother Jacob had received the blessing from his father that rightly belonged to him, Genesis 27.34 records that “he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry.” Why was his cry bitter? Because he was bitter over his sneaky brother’s sin against him.

·         Example #2: Exodus 1.14 tells us that the Egyptians made the Jews’ lives bitter with hard bondage.

·         Example #3: Years later, when the Israelites fought in a war against the Canaanites, all of the tribes of Israel came and did their part to bring about victory, except for the tribe of Reuben. For their failure to help their brothers during that critical time, Judges 5.23 records this phrase: “Curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof.”

·         Example #4: First Samuel 15.32: “Then said Samuel, Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amalekites. And Agag came unto him delicately. And Agag said, Surely the bitterness of death is past.” Agag, the Amalekite king, recognized that the Jews had been bitter because of his people’s attacks against them during their wilderness wanderings, and that their bitterness had been passed down from generation to generation. Of course, we see much the same thing today in the Middle East. In our text, Agag was hoping that they were no longer bitter, thinking that his own life was dependent upon their bitterness passing. He did not realize that the death sentence that hung over him was pronounced, not by vengeful Israelites, but by the vengeful God of Israel.

·         Example #5: In Esther 4.1, we read of Mordecai’s reaction upon learning of a plot to annihilate all Jews: “When Mordecai perceived all that was done, Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry.”

·         Example #6: Job 13.26 records Job’s reactions to his so-called friends accusing him of wrongdoing as an explanation for all the calamities that had befallen him: “For thou writest bitter things against me, and makest me to possess the iniquities of my youth.”

·         Example #7: Consider what happens to a woman whose son is a fool, Proverbs 17.25: “A foolish son is a grief to his father, and bitterness to her that bare him.” A fool, of course, is someone without the wisdom to fear God. So, a son who lacks the wisdom to fear God will do things that are so ridiculous that his father is grieved and his mother will become bitter.

·         Example #8: It is not only men who become bitter when wronged. God, too, is embittered when He is sinned against, Jeremiah 2.19 and 4.18:

 

19     Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee: know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and bitter, that thou hast forsaken the LORD thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord GOD of hosts.

 

18     Thy way and thy doings have procured these things unto thee; this is thy wickedness, because it is bitter, because it reacheth unto thine heart.

 

·         Finally, the ninth example is found in James 3.13-18:

 

13     Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.

14     But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth.

15     This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish.

16     For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.

17     But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.

18     And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.

 

When someone is carnal and unspiritual, his behavior oftentimes degenerates into jealousy and strife, translated here “envying” and “strife,” that results in those around him becoming bitter. This may even be a description of an energetic and aggressive Christian who is trying to serve God, being very competitive and tough-minded (read envious and striving here), and making a large number of people around him bitter in the process.

To restate the matter, unsaved people become bitter because of their wicked hearts. As well, people can become bitter when others do them wrong. Third, people become bitter as a natural consequence of doing things that are wrong, committing sins, whether they are lost or saved.

Look to Proverbs 5.1-8:

 

1      My son, attend unto my wisdom, and bow thine ear to my understanding:

2      That thou mayest regard discretion, and that thy lips may keep knowledge.

3      For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil:

4      But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a twoedged sword.

5      Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell.

6      Lest thou shouldest ponder the path of life, her ways are moveable, that thou canst not know them.

7      Hear me now therefore, O ye children, and depart not from the words of my mouth.

8      Remove thy way far from her, and come not nigh the door of her house.

 

It is quite obvious that, though unstated, that the outcome of time spent with a strange woman is sexual sin, fornication. However, what will accompany you as well as that sin will be that consequence of your folly known as bitterness. You see, the end, the conclusion, of an immoral woman is always bitterness. Fathers try to warn their sons of such women, but foolish sons rarely listen.

Now turn to Ecclesiastes 7.26: “And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.” What a strong statement. The woman whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands are like bands, is actually more bitter than death. The God-fearing man will get away from her. This refers to a woman who is conniving and scheming, the woman who is devious and sneaky, and the woman who seeks to manipulate and control a man. That kind of woman is bitter because of her own sinful desire to control a man’s life.

Then there is Matthew 26.75 and Luke 22.62:

 

75     And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.

 

62     And Peter went out, and wept bitterly.

 

The Lord Jesus gave Peter opportunity to pray, so he would not enter into temptation. However, Peter and the others fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane. When the Lord told His apostles that He would be betrayed, remember that Peter had boasted that he would never betray the Lord. However, when he did sin against the Lord in that way, just as the Lord predicted he would, he wept bitterly.

These two examples, with the strange woman and with Peter’s denial of the Lord, serve to illustrate that sin is always destructive to the person who commits the sin. Maybe not immediately. Perhaps not always obviously. However, sin’s consequences are always destructive, sometimes in the form of a bitterness of the heart and soul that eats away like a cancer over a period of time.

Here is an interesting source of bitterness, Colossians 3.19: “Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.” There is no clue here as to why a husband might become bitter against his wife. As well, we do not know from scripture that men are more likely to become embittered toward their wives than are wives toward their husbands. Perhaps the warning is given at this point in Colossians because of the extraordinary hindrance to being a spiritual leader it is to be bitter toward the one who you are charged by God to provide for and to lead. You cannot provide effective spiritual leadership in the lives of those you have bitterness toward. It might be observed that sometimes men who are taking those first struggling steps as Christians to lead their wives can become bitter against them if those ladies do not show a cooperative spirit and willingness to follow their husband’s attempts to learn how to become a leader of the home. That is a private opinion publicly shared. The context of this verse shows that a man simply is not spiritual, cannot be filled with the Spirit of God, if he harbors bitterness toward his wife.

The fifth source, or reason, for becoming bitter has to do with God, Himself. There are three examples found in God’s Word, in the Old Testament, of saints becoming bitter as a result of something happening in their lives from the workings of God’s providence that they simply did not understand.

The first example is in Ruth 1.20, where Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, complained that the “Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me.” Little did she realize that all the things that happened in her life, from the death of her husband, to the deaths of her sons, were part of God’s great plan of preparing the lineage through which the Son of God would come into the world to save sinners. Her daughter in law, Ruth, would marry near kinsman Boaz, and be found in the ancestry of Israel’s King David, and eventually the Lord Jesus Christ.

The second example is Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Remember how she wept in the bitterness of her soul and prayed to the Lord, in First Samuel 1.10? With the heartache that only a barren woman could know, she cried out to the Lord for a child that she vowed she would give back to the Lord. Of course, God heard her cries and prayers and gave to her the child Samuel. How prominent a role he would play in the lives of the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David. Again, how little did Hannah understand God’s providential workings.

Then there is Job. What a godly man. What an example of spirituality. In addition, what an example of suffering he was. Confused and distraught over the loss of everything he valued, Job was understandably bitter. Listen to what he says in Job 3.20, 7.11, and 9.18:

 

20     Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul.

 

11     Therefore I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.

 

18     He will not suffer me to take my breath, but filleth me with bitterness.

 

The final source of bitterness, the all-encompassing cause behind every instance of becoming bitter, is failing of the grace of God, Hebrews 12.15: “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled.”

What is it to “fail of the grace of God”? The word “fail” is an active participle that refers to coming up short of something, to be lacking of something. Because the participle is active, we know that the writer of Hebrews is referring here to something you do, not something that is done to you. That means, if you do not have enough of God’s grace, it is your own fault, no one else’s. It means, you cannot blame anyone else but yourself for any insufficiency of grace that you suffer in your life.

Think about it. Here you are, a Christian. God has saved you by His marvelous grace. So, now He is going to short you the grace you need to live for Him, and serve Him, and glorify Him in your life? Do not be ridiculous. If you and I are short of God’s grace for living it is our own fault.

One of the consequences of not availing yourself of God’s grace, through Bible preaching, through prayer, through Bible study, through meditation on God’s Word, through fellowship with God’s people, through the grace of giving, or by other means of grace is that you may become bitter. Should that root of bitterness spring up in your life it will be your own fault for not obeying God and availing yourself of God’s abundant supply of grace.

Therefore, there are a great many reasons why different folks are bitter about this, or about that, or about the other thing. Sometimes it is for no other reason than because they are just plain lost. Some people are bitter because they have been wronged by others. Others are bitter as a direct result of their own sin, and they are rewarded for their sinfulness by reaping bitterness, among other things. Husbands are warned not to be bitter toward their wives. As well, we see that bitterness can result from God doing things in your life that you do not understand, especially if what He does involves pain, heartache, and suffering. However, the bottom line reason that lies back of someone, particularly the Christian, becoming bitter seems to be some kind of behavior that interferes with God’s supply of enabling grace in your life.

At the root of it all, then, is my own personal responsibility for receiving from God the grace that only He has, but that He will supply in abundance by various means, to those who eagerly pursue it.

 

Now, Consider THE CONSEQUENCES OF BITTERNESS

 

Stay with me while I make two points before we look at the specific consequences of being bitter. First, recognizing that bitterness is what springs up when we fail of the grace of God; let us recognize that bitterness is, itself, a consequence of doing something wrong. It is the result of not receiving the grace of God for living. Therefore, we are about to look at what is actually a secondary consequence of bitterness, which is itself a consequence of not having God’s grace. Second, recognize that bitterness is something that can be extremely subtle. I would venture to say that the vast majority of people who are bitter might have no idea they are bitter. So, how do you recognize that you are bitter about something? You may not. It may be that the three symptoms of bitterness that I will show you from scripture will not be recognized by you at all, but will be recognized by those around you, by those you love. So, be ready to listen to some good friend or loved one who tries to point out to you that you are bitter. If that happens, do not fuss with them and deny it. Deal with it, for your own sake, and for Jesus’ sake.

Recognizing that bitterness is a consequence, how does it manifest or show itself? Apparently, in three different ways:

First, bitterness shows itself by complaint. Do you know someone who gripes and complains all the time? Do you know someone who feels sorry for himself and who is always trolling for sympathy? That person is bitter. Perhaps you know someone who does not necessarily talk about it, but she is just plain miserable. She, too, is bitter. Let me show you why I say this. The classic example of bitterness was Job. Remember, Job was not subjected to great suffering because he was carnal. On the contrary, he was subjected to great suffering because he was the most spiritual of men. Even though, he reacted to his suffering by becoming bitter. Let me read several verses that show how Job’s misery and complaining were the result of his bitterness:

Job 3.20: “Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul.” See? This miserable man became bitter.

Job 7.11: “Therefore I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” See? The bitterness in his soul found expression in the complaints of his mouth.

Job 23.2: “Even to day is my complaint bitter: my stroke is heavier than my groaning.” I am not saying I would not do the same thing Job did under those circumstances. However, let us recognize it for what it is. If you are prone to complaint, it is likely that you are bitter about something, probably about what it is you are complaining about.

I am one who has to really be careful about bitterness because I find complaints passing easily over my lips. As a kid, my dad’s pet comment for my complaining was “You’d complain if you were hung with a new rope.”

Complaint is almost always the direct consequence of bitterness. Does this not make sense? If you did not think God had given you a raw deal you, would not complain about your physical condition, or your financial condition, or your job situation, or your marital problems, or your various and sundry disappointments in life. Amen? You complain because you are bitter. Face it and deal with it.

Second, bitterness shows itself by carnality. This hardly needs proof, just some logic. We know that bitterness springs up when grace is lacking in a person’s life. Right? However, when grace is lacking in a person’s life, that person is, what? Spiritual or carnal? Carnal, obviously. The greatest Biblical examples of carnality that results from insufficient grace were the Corinthians. To the most carnal believers in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul wrote, “I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Christ Jesus,” First Corinthians 1.4. Their spiritual problems were not the result of an insufficient supply of grace, but the failure to appropriate God’s marvelous grace for living. Therefore, if bitterness is the direct result of a lack of grace, that same lack of grace will show up by obviously carnal behavior. Understand that this does not mean that everyone who is carnal is bitter. However, it does mean that everyone who is bitter is also carnal. Bitterness, then, is a serious spiritual problem that can lead to a whole host of other complications in a Christian’s life.

So, how about it, Christian? If someone looked into your life, what would he find? Is there envying and strife and divisions? Those things will be present in your life, in one way or another, if you have bitterness in your heart.

Third, bitterness shows itself by contamination. Hebrews 12.15 warns us that when a root of bitterness springs up in someone’s life, many are defiled as a result. Therefore, you see, bitterness contaminates other people. In addition, the people who are most likely to be contaminated by someone who is bitter are those closest to him, those who are loved by him, those who are his close friends and family. Because Christians can be so clever at concealing sin, it is this third trait of bitterness that pastors most frequently take notice of in our ministries. It is when someone’s child, who used to love me and who used to like me, begins to steer clear of me, begins to avoid me, begins to act disrespectfully toward me, or begins to badmouth me. When that happens, someone, usually one or both parents, has defiled a child. Being forced by the parent’s bitterness into taking sides in a conflict the child should never even be aware of, a conflict which should be solved in a manner pleasing to God, the child will very naturally side with the parents against the man of God. Here is the danger in that kind of unresolved bitterness and its defilement. Such children who have been so defiled will almost never trust or take into their confidence another man of God. Not during the teen years, when questions of morality and personal consecration need to be dealt with, and not during the early years of marriage when counseling for the home or the career are needed. We have adults in our church who I think are still affected by the defilement they received from bitter people who were in the church when they were children. To this very day, it affects their relationship with their pastor.

That is just one illustration of how one person’s bitterness can defile others. However, it happens. Moreover, it happens frequently. And the damage caused can be most severe. Of course, a preacher’s kids can be defiled in exactly the same way. And the damage is just as severe. Never thinking much of Christians. Never thinking much of church. That is why we must be so careful to deal with bitterness, so our children are not defiled by our bitterness.

So, are you bitter? Three questions to ask yourself: First, do you complain? Second, are you carnal? Third, do you contaminate others? Certainly, if the answers to these three questions are “Yes,” then you most certainly have a problem with bitterness that simply must, for your own sake, and for the sake of others, be dealt with.

So, how do you deal with bitterness? That is my final point.

 

THE CORRECTION OF BITTERNESS

 

Friend, it is obvious that someone who is bitter has a very serious spiritual problem. There are three things you must look into to correctly address the problem of bitterness.

First, you must look into your conversion experience. Think about it. Since bitterness is such a common problem among unsaved people, it may very well be that your bitterness is simply the fruit of a lost soul. What about your conversion? When were you saved? Do you remember that event? In addition, how were you saved? Are you straight on that, as well? Tragically, so many people who are eaten up with bitterness do not want to even think about the possibility that they are not saved. So, why will you not consider the possibility that you are lost and that is why you are so bitter? Is your Christian life so dynamic that there is no credible doubt that you might not be saved after all? Would it not be better to be saved and let God deal with the root cause of bitterness, than to fool yourself all the way to Hell? Therefore, your conversion experience is the first place you look in order to deal with bitterness.

Second, you must look at your personal consecration. Hebrews 12.15 challenges us to look diligently for the possibility of failing of the grace of God that would lead to bitterness. That is, you need to carefully scrutinize your own life to make sure that you are not interfering with God’s supply of grace for living your life. Do you regularly attend the Bible preaching times? Do you regularly read your Bible? Do you pray? Do you participate in the grace of giving? Do you choose to spend time with Christians instead of lost folks? Are you involved in our church’s evangelistic outreach?

Friend, God’s supply of grace to you is up to you. You are told what to do to please God. You are directed how to live your life to be obedient to Him. In addition, when you obey God He will supply all that is needed to maintain that life style. However, it is up to you. Most Christians become bitter when they begin to disobey God in some area of life, and thereby restrict the abundant supply of grace for living. Oh, you may blame the preacher, or the deacon, or the wife, or the economy, or your boss. However, in reality the problem is yours. Your own failure to attend church regularly, to hear challenging and provocative Bible preaching, or read your Bible daily, or some other impediment to grace, has hurt you spiritually. In addition, the result was that you began to blame someone else for a problem that is actually your own spiritual problem.

Are you bitter? Take a close, hard, look at your own consecration and devotion to God. Usually, something is wrong and you know it is wrong. So, do something about it. Fix the problem. Obey God. Stop contaminating the lives of others you say you love with your selfish disobedience.

Finally, you must look at your consideration of God’s sovereignty. Face the fact that Job was more spiritual that most of us could ever imagine ourselves being. His devotion to God and his level of commitment was profound, to say the least. Yet Job became bitter. His bitterness was not the result of not being converted. In addition, his bitterness was not the result of not being consecrated. After all, the entire episode of his testing and suffering came about because he was such a godly individual. In addition, what about Hannah? There is every evidence that she, too, was godly. However, she was also bitter. Why? Like Job, her bitterness seems to have resulted from not understanding some of the details of the sovereign plan of God for her life.

Think about it. These people became bitter, not because they were carnal, but even though they were spiritual. That is, God was doing something entirely beyond their ability to conceive and, although they loved God and bowed to Him, they became bitter. They were not perfect.

Friend, sometimes things will happen in your life that seems to make neither rhyme nor reason. Great suffering for no apparent reason, accomplishing no apparent good. In addition, if you so insist on understanding everything that is going on in your life, you might become bitter. Be careful, friend. Neither you nor I will ever understand it all. Concerning many things, we simply have to let God be God. Oh, other people will judge and evaluate, just as they did Job and just as Eli did with Hannah. However, what others think is not nearly as important as what God thinks.

 

So. Are you bitter? Do you complain about physical ailments, about financial difficulties, about anything persistently? Are you carnal? Being carnal does not mean that you are bitter. However, if you are bitter you will be carnal. Moreover, most telling, do you contaminate others? Are others affected by your bitterness?

Folks, bitterness is spiritual cancer. Deal with it or it will ruin you.

Are you bitter, tonight? Is there something, anything, that you have not swallowed? Something that has stuck in your craw and nags you?

Perhaps you are bitter toward God. Perhaps you are bitter toward someone in this room. During our invitation time tonight, I am going to ask you to deal with it.



[1] Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996), page 215.

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