To unroot bitterness, the first step is understanding what bitterness is.
Editor’s note: This article, written by guest blogger and biblical counselor Julie Ganschow, the founder of Reigning Heart Counseling Center, first appeared at her website.
Understanding the Heart of Bitterness
Bitterness is unresolved, unforgiven anger and resentment. It is the result of anger changing from an experience to a belief. Bitterness is seething and constant. Bitter people carry the same burdens as angry people, but to a greater extent.
Watch out that no bitter root of unbelief rises up among you, for whenever it springs up, many are corrupted by its poison. Hebrews 12:15 (NLT)
Bitterness does not affect only you, dear counselee; it affects everyone with whom you come into contact.
A Picture of Naomi
In the book of Ruth we read about Naomi (which means pleasant), the wife of Elimelech. Elimelech took his wife and two sons down from Bethlehem to the country of Moab because there was a famine in the land. While living in Moab, the sons took wives named Ruth and Orpah from among the native people. Elimelech and his two sons died in Moab and left Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah to fend for themselves.
When news came that the famine in the land of Judah had lifted, Naomi decided to return home to her own people. The three women set out together, but on the way, Naomi gave the young women the freedom to return home to their own people.
‘No,’ they said. ‘We want to go with you to your people.’ But Naomi replied, ‘Why should you go on with me? Can I still give birth to other sons who could grow up to be your husbands? No, my daughters, return to your parents’ homes, for I am too old to marry again. And even if it were possible, and I were to get married tonight and bear sons, then what? Would you wait for them to grow up and refuse to marry someone else? No, of course not, my daughters! Things are far more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD himself has caused me to suffer.’ Ruth 1:10–14 (NLT)
Orpah did turn back, but Ruth was committed to Naomi and to her God.
So the two of them continued on their journey. When they came to Bethlehem, the entire town was stirred by their arrival. ‘Is it really Naomi?’ the women asked. ‘Don’t call me Naomi,’ she told them. ‘Instead, call me Mara, [meaning bitter] for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me home empty. Why should you call me Naomi when the LORD has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy?’ Ruth 1:19–21 (NLT)
What do you suppose it was that caused the whole town to stir? Could it have been Naomi’s appearance? Do you wonder if they could see the changes that had taken place inside her heart or on her face? Note the things Naomi says in verses 20–21:
‘Call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me home empty. Why should you call me Naomi when the LORD has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy?’
Naomi blamed God for making her life bitter and empty. All she could see was that she no longer had what she loved. Her bitterness reflected a heart of unbelief in the justice and sovereignty of God. She held on to the anger for what had been done to her and stood in judgment over God. In the entire text, we see nothing of Naomi’s quest to understand the purpose of God in her suffering. We only read that she was angry and bitter for what she had lost.
What’s Your Story?
Perhaps you struggle with the same type of bitterness. Sometimes women and men who have lost children to illness or accident blame God for their loss. “God, how could you take my beloved child from me? Don’t you know how much I loved him? How could you do this to me?”
An abandoned spouse may become bitter as they wonder: “God, don’t you see how much I am struggling to raise these kids while he is out living the high life? How can you let him get away with this? I am the one who was faithful, and now I am the one who is miserable while he has it made! Don’t you care about me? Why aren’t you punishing him?”
The honest businessman sees a crooked businessman prospering while he flounders. “God, how can you stand by and let this happen? I am an honest businessman, and my business is failing! How can you let him get way with such thievery? I have a wife and kids to feed, God; why are you doing this to me?”
The childless couple is bitter when they see families with several children and they cannot seem to have even one. “God, why don’t you let us have even one child when these other people have so many! It isn’t fair that we can’t have even one child to love while so many are being aborted and abandoned! God, why are you doing this to us?”
You become bitter out of a belief that God will not punish the people who hurt you, that God does not hear your plea, or that He does not care about your plight. Since God is apparently not going to intervene in your circumstances, you stand in as judge, jury, and executioner in the lives of other people.
It becomes a circular pattern. The more you dwell on what has been done to you, the injustice you have suffered, or the loss you have incurred, the deeper goes the root of bitterness. You already know that carrying around a load of bitterness is exhausting.
Bitterness hardens your heart on the inside and your features on the outside. It also defiles those around you because it is contagious.
Curing The Bitter Heart
Do you want the cure for bitterness? You must understand that the only cure for bitterness and anger is forgiveness.
Bitterness is focused on what has been done to you. To break up bitterness, you must also be willing to look at what you have done to others. Your task is to admit what your responsibility is in the matter and go to those you have hurt, confess your sin, and first seek their forgiveness. You must be willing to get the log out of your own eye prior to examining your neighbor’s eye.
And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log from your own eye; then perhaps you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye. Matthew 7:3-5 (NLT)
The examination process begins right here at home. Start with yourself and seek God’s help in revealing the contents of your heart in relation to how you have sinned against others.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)
There needs to be a willingness on your part to forsake your sin of bitterness.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of malicious behavior. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. Ephesians 4:31-32 (NLT)
Confession of your own sin and repentance for that sin must take place in your heart first. Then you must seek for other relationships to be healed and restored. You may want to pray a prayer similar to this one:
Gracious Heavenly Father, I realize now that I have a root of bitterness in my heart. Thank you that you have chosen this time in my life to reveal it to me. I ask for your help, dear Lord, to see the areas of my heart and life where bitterness has grown. I trust the Holy Spirit will reveal to me my sin and I confess to you the sin of bitterness regarding the following circumstances in my life : __________
Thank you, dear Lord, for revealing to me the areas of my life over which I am bitter. Please help me to overcome this sin that defiles many and begin to put on the fruit of forgiveness in my life. Please help me to restore and repair the relationships that I have wounded and destroyed by my bitterness. Thank you for your great gift of grace to me. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Forgiving others is not an option for the Christian; it’s required, and it is step number one in removing bitterness.
Since God chose you to be the holy people whom he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. You must make allowance for each other’s faults and forgive the person who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Colossians 3:12-13 (NLT)
In forgiving others, it is important to remember a few important rules: When I forgive, I resolve never to bring this circumstance or situation up again to the one I forgave, to anyone else, or even to myself. It is a closed book. If you are going to pattern your forgiveness after that of the Lord, then you will choose to remember no more the sin committed against you.
But what if you are bitter toward God? What if it is God who has hurt you and caused you pain? My dear friend, please take hold of this truth: God is the sovereign God of the entire universe. It is His, and He does with it what He wishes, and it is always good. In fact, it is always very good!
If you believe you must forgive God for what you perceive He has done against you, this insinuates that God has sinned—and this cannot be. God is a loving, holy, perfect, sinless God who does not make mistakes.
Naomi, as recorded in the book of Ruth, may have believed for a time that God somehow made a mistake in taking her husband and sons from her, for she said He “brought me back empty.” It was no mistake, however. God was purposely unfolding His divine plan for humanity in Naomi’s life and in the death of her loved ones. Take note, dear one, that if Naomi’s son would have lived, Ruth would have remained his wife. Without the death of her husband, Ruth would not have been free to meet and marry Boaz, who became her kinsman redeemer. Ruth would not have given birth to their son, Obed, who became the father of Jesse, who is the father of David, from whose lineage comes the Christ.
Acceptance of hard things at the hand of a loving God is not easy. I encourage you to seek God in your circumstances and to trust that He is unfolding a divine plan that you cannot see right now, just as He did in the case of Naomi and Ruth. God’s sovereignty is always balanced by His love, and He promises to bring good out of every tragedy and heartache.
And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn, with many brothers and sisters. Romans 8:28-29 (NLT)
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This is one of the best postings on bitterness and UPROOTING IT that I have read. Its practical, addresses all 3 sides (you, the offenders and God), and actually give practical steps to UPROOT the tree of bitterness – which is the whole objective! (Yes the root will eventually grow into a tree). It discusses some hard tuths but is nevertheless an excellent post for those who are serious about being free!
Yes we need to forgive. But the directive to never bring up the offense again is not biblical though it certainly sounds pious enough. If you forgive someone who say, molested your child, does that mean you must prove you are a forgiving Christian by not bringing this matter up again, because say, the molester claims to have repented? No. Was Paul unforgiving when he wrote under inspiration, in a book that was going to be read by millions of people ” Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm, or Diotrephes, who likes to be first among them….etc? I don’t think so.
And was Joseph unforgiving when he contrived a way of testing if his brothers had truly repented of their wickedness, to see if their hearts had changed? Hardly. In fact, Joseph subjected his brothers to some real testing before he reconciled with them. Depending on the nature of the offense, so ought we, for our sake and theirs and that of the church.
Too many churches today are so quick to reinstate someone who has seriously offended just on the basis of some noble sounding speech, without subjecting them to any requirements or testing of repentance. This amounts to allowing wolves to run among sheep and devour lambs.
We are in fact, required to forgive. Hatred is not an option for a disciple of Jesus. Bitterness does indeed poison and defile everything it touches.
However, we are not required to forgive blindly, nor are we required to keep quiet about a person or situation that is capable of bringing harm to others. Forgiveness does not always equal reconciliation. You can’t reconcile with someone who is untrustworthy.
This article makes some very valid and truthful points and is on target as far as what bitterness is and does. However, like many articles from the biblical counselling camp, there seems to be a lack of understanding of what a spiritual guilt trip such unbalanced directives can put on someone who has been done serious harm by another and worse, in the name of obedience to God. Jesus Himself would not entrust Himself to men because He knew what was in them. That says at the very least, we ought to follow the scriptural directive to be wary as serpents as well as gentle as doves. There’s the balance.
Things that happen may hurt us deeply, and, like children who know themselves loved, even if they don’t understand, we need to take our hurt to God, our loving Father, and let His light explain it to us. This may take time, and a willingness to say, as Jesus did, “Not my will but Yours”.