The Root of Bitterness

February 7, 2019 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments

Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement


Anger and disappointment at being treated unfairly. 


There is an attractiveness in bitterness… a sense of “rightness” about it. As the definition above indicates, bitterness is rooted in feeling mistreated. Someone or something has wronged me. Perhaps the anger and disappointment of bitterness is seen as a necessary motivator to confront and overcome such unfair treatment. In a culture where “you do you,” and entitlement empowers the individual towards self-justification, bitterness and revenge are commended. 

So, in a pastoral letter to a beleaguered group of Christians, facing the threat of persecution, why does the writer of Hebrews bring up bitterness? Certainly this small church could make a case for “being treated unfairly.” Doesn’t God care for this fragile group of people? Maybe bitterness isn’t the best response to the circumstances, but is it really that big of a deal? Shouldn’t we cut them some slack? 

After calling the church to “be subject” to the discipline of the Lord (12:9), the writer of Hebrews warns them, “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” (12:15). He understands that this group of people were susceptible to bitterness. So he warns them that bitterness does not satisfy; it does not give them what they want. In fact, he argues that bitterness cuts them off from the grace of God. 

How does bitterness cut us off from God’s grace? 

Ultimately, it’s rooted in sovereignty. Bitterness is rooted in our sense of sovereignty. We determine what is “unfair.” We sit in the seat of judgment. And we determine the path of retribution. Bitterness is fed when we see ourselves as the sovereign in the circumstances of our lives. 

What does this say about the One who is sovereign in all things? Tim Keller puts this succinctly when he says, “Bitterness is believing God got it wrong.” In bitterness, we put ourselves over/against God. We judge our circumstances in a way that determines God, if he really is in control of everything, has made a mistake in this area. 

So, how does bitterness cut us off from God’s grace? It cuts down God. It sets us up in God’s place. It presumes to “know it all.” Bitterness is rooted in pride and “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

Bitterness is not as innocent as it may seem. It is not noble. It is not justifiable. And it solves no problems. In seeking to guard these young Christians in their faith, the writer of Hebrews warns them of this dangerous pitfall. Watch out for bitterness! Trust in the Lord’s goodness, even in the midst of hardship. Enjoy his grace to you.



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