I remember the first time my oldest daughter tasted a lemon. She must have been around a year old, and she kept begging for the alluring yellow fruit tantalizingly adorning the rim of mom’s iced tea.
We thought we’d get a little chuckle and teach her not to beg by giving her a taste. Her eyes brightened as we passed the lemon wedge to her. She took it straight to her mouth with both pudgy little hands. Whomp! She took a big hunkin’ bite of the lemon with all eight little teeth!
How has God in Christ forgiven us? Completely. So, where then should the offense of others be placed? On His back, nailed to the cross.
The clinched eyes and flexed neck muscles told the entire story. She had expected a happy yellow taste, and what she received was a surprising bitter jolt.
What we didn’t expect was what followed. The corners of her eyes slightly watery, she glanced at mom and me, and then took another hunkin’ bite of the lemon! She loved that bitter taste! And for her first couple years, lemon wedges were a delicacy for her.
My daughter’s love for lemons taught me something about spiritual bitterness. It’s addicting. A bitter response can be as alluring as a glistening yellow lemon peel holding out the promise of a happy taste.
Of course, bitterness doesn’t announce itself so that we may know it right away and avoid it. Often, bitterness calls to us in the voice of “justice” or “wisdom,” or some other more noble action like “self-protection.” So, when we bite into it, our spiritual teeth clinch, our neck muscles flex, and our jaws lock hard. But then we grow accustomed to it and begin to think of it as our friend.
Many Christians struggle with bitterness—a harsh, hard to bear, stinging, pain-inducing, resentful and unpleasant attitude. Generally in Scripture, “bitter” is used to describe the suffering and pain that people experience at the hands of others. The labor of the Israelites was bitter (Ex. 1:14). Unfaithful kings caused bitter suffering for Israel (2 Kings 14:26). Mordecai wailed loudly and bitterly at the news of Haman’s plot against the Jews, and so did Peter after denying the Lord (Esther 4:1; Luke 26:62). Sometimes, even life itself can feel bitterly burdensome to a person in despair, as Job experienced (Job 3:20-21). Often sin and spiritual poverty result in bitterness of soul (Prov. 5:4; 27:7; Eccl. 7:26; Jer. 2:19; 4:18). And sadly, we are often bitter with those closest to us. This is why Colossians 3:19 insists,“Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh [or bitter, KJV] with them.”
That’s the effect of bitterness. It hurts and it hardens. But from where does this sour water flow?
Bitterness springs from an unforgiving and proud heart. Typically, bitter persons are convinced of their own righteousness in the face of offense (pride), and equally convinced that others are wrong and deserve justice at their hands (unforgiving). There likely has been some real injury done to them. Perhaps there has been the unkind word received, some broken promises, some praise worthy deed overlooked, or even physical abuse of some sort. But the bitter person responds in a way that loses sight of their own heart and sin, and of the cross of Calvary. To be bitter is to forget the gospel. And forgetting the gospel is neglecting to take the medicine that heals all wounds.
The Gospel and Bitterness
James helps us to understand how bitterness forgets the gospel in two short sections of his epistle. He writes:
“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt [bitter] flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” (James 3:9-12)
Here we learn that bitterness is blindness. First, the bitter person can not see that our fellow man is made in God’s likeness. Instead, the bitter person thinks of others as opponents to be conquered, enemies to be attacked, threats to be neutralized, or weaklings to be trampled. Second, bitter people lose sight of the holiness of God. “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.” James tells us “this should not be.” But the bitter cannot see that hypocrisy is displeasing to God (Matt. 6:1-18). The bitter tend to think that “God understands,” meaning He will look lightly on their sinful outlook. They are blind to His holiness. And third, this of course means they are blind to their own hearts. All that the gospel rests upon—the sinfulness of man, the holiness of God, and the universal need for the Savior—is not seen by sour-hearted people.
James continues his instruction to us in 3:13-16:
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
Overcoming bitterness requires first that we begin by asking ourselves a question: Are we wise and understanding in God’s sight and the judgment of our church family? Do we live by the wisdom of the gospel or the wisdom of this world and the devil?
It’s a sobering question designed to help us see ourselves with the more reliable assessment of God and God’s people. And it’s a question answered objectively. If we are wise and possess understanding, we must “show it by [our] good life, by deeds done in humility that comes from wisdom.” Pride and bitterness cannot coexist. And a life stirred to love and good deeds cannot live alongside a resentful, harsh, and critical heart.
Second, overcoming bitterness requires ruthless honesty and humility. Sins of the heart are sometimes the most deceptive and the most easily concealed. The fact that others cannot see our hearts and that we can be deceived by our own thoughts and feelings is a great disadvantage to us. Like my daughter’s love for sour lemons, we can come to love and coddle—to “harbor”—bitterness. So, wherever we discover it by the grace of God, we must acknowledge the truth about bitterness and cultivate humility. The truth is that bitterness is rooted in sinful pride, jealousy of others, and selfishness. And the fruit of a bitter heart is always pain and destruction. We mustn’t hide from these facts and be deceived by the momentary allurement of “control” and “self-protection” and “just desserts.” The anger of man does not lead to the righteousness of God. So, we must be truth loving, never denying the truth. And we must not brag about shameful things, including bitterness.
Third, in the power of Jesus Christ and His Spirit, with hearts longing for true worship of our glorious God, we must heed the counsel of Eph. 4:31—“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
How has God in Christ forgiven us? Completely. Where have our sins been laid? On the back of the crucified and resurrected Savior. So, where then should the offense of others be placed? On His back, nailed to the cross. Our Savior knew the sting of bitterness—from the jeers of the crowd, the mocking and scorn, the gall-soaked sponge, to the agony of God’s wrath against sin.
This is why Christian kindness and compassion take the form of forgiveness. We are to “get rid of all bitterness” and every form of malice like so much garbage better suited for trash heaps. And we do that by considering that that is just what God did with our sin when His Son was crucified outside the camp.Leaving Bitterness Behind
Today, my daughter looks at me with surprise that she ever liked lemons. They are the tartest things she can think of now. So it will be with the person who leans on the forgiveness of God in Christ and call upon the resources of the gospel to battle bitterness. By God’s grace, they will one day look at their bitter past and treatment of others surprised they ever gave themselves to such a sour life.