The Sin of Bitterness

“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” (Hebrews 12:15)

There are two reasons why I have preached often about the particular sin of bitterness. It is a dangerous sin deserving of our special consideration, due to its subtle nature. It has caused Christians to backslide, church fellowship to go stale, and even denominations to divide. Also, many Christians will struggle with bitterness. I am surprised by the number of people who, after I preach on this topic, approach me confessing their struggle. I am in no doubt that this sin has existed since the Fall, but it seems to be that in today’s spiritual climate and culture, more believers are battling with it.

I want to examine what the Scriptures have to say about bitterness, with special consideration being given to Hebrews 12:15. In the first eleven verses of this chapter, believers are encouraged to look to Christ as they run the race through various difficulties and trials. In verses 12-14, they are exhorted to recommit themselves and follow peace and holiness. Then in verse 15, they are told to “look diligently” or carefully examine themselves lest there be a root of bitterness in their hearts. The connection between these verses is that Christians will stumble in their pursuit of peace and holiness if bitterness resides in their hearts.

This appeal to examine ourselves is not one that we can ignore. People are often too quick to excuse themselves and direct the command to another believer. Perhaps even as you read this, you are thinking, “I hope so and so is reading this because they need it.” We must not forego our responsibility to examine ourselves.

The Characteristics of Bitterness

In Hebrews 12:15, bitterness is described as a “root.” I believe the Holy Spirit uses this word so that we can glean spiritual truths from this analogy, because the physical root illustrates two characteristics of bitterness. First, roots are usually hidden. Whenever you look at a tree, you see the trunk, the branches, and the leaves, but the roots are hidden beneath the ground. When someone is bitter, it may not be immediately detectable to them or others. The waters of Marah that appeared drinkable were only found to be bitter when tasted. Someone may appear to be “sweet”, but time spent with them will soon cause you to taste their bitterness of heart. Bitterness will inevitably reveal itself in many forms such as anger, or slander; however, often the root of these sins is overlooked because the bitterness is hidden in the heart.

Roots grow deeply. When Naomi and I lived in Ulster, beautiful oak trees surrounded our house. On a stormy night, the trees would sway to and fro with the wind, often making me wonder if they would fall, but their roots were deep and secure in the ground. Bitterness is like a root: if left in the heart, it will continue to grow until it has a firm hold. This is why many people struggle to uproot this sin because it has deeply gripped their heart. We must guard diligently lest a root of bitterness would unknowingly begin to grow down deeply in our heart.

The Cause of Bitterness

Every root begins with just a seed. Even the mighty oak with its deep, expansive roots started with just a tiny acorn. Bitterness like a planted seed will grow in the soil of the heart until it consumes the individual. But what causes bitterness to be planted in our hearts?

I want to look at an example of someone who became bitter, and how that happened. In Genesis 25–28, we have the story of Jacob and Esau. A prophecy had already been given to Rebekah in Genesis 25:23 that “the elder shall serve the younger.”

In Genesis 25, this was partly fulfilled when Esau sold his birthright, but Jacob also needed the “blessing.” Rebekah knew that it was God’s will for Jacob to receive the blessing; however, instead of trusting God, Rebekah used manipulation and deceit to steal the blessing from Esau. What led her to do this? Many commentators suggest that both Isaac and Rebekah favored one son over the other. Isaac favored Esau and Rebekah favored Jacob. It was Rebekah’s lack of trust in God and her favoritism that led her to deceive and steal the blessing.

This had a significant effect on Esau. We read in Genesis 27:34 when Esau heard he had lost the blessing “he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry.” Rebekah’s partiality towards Jacob planted a root of bitterness in Esau. This root of bitterness went deep and manifested itself in Esau’s life. In verse 41, we read that he hated his brother, and meditated on murder. In Genesis 28:6-9 he married a foreign woman to hurt his parents.

Bitterness had been planted in Esau’s heart by the sinful actions of others. Jacob and Rebekah were wrong, but this does not excuse Esau from becoming a bitter man. We must guard our hearts to make sure that bitterness does not take root. Even though those who have wounded us are in the wrong, we must guard against bitterness.

The Consequences of Bitterness

In Hebrews 12:15, we learn that there are two consequences of bitterness taking root in the heart. First, there is personal trouble (“trouble you”). Bitterness will cause great trouble. Unless rooted out, bitterness will entangle every room of your heart. It will rob your relationship with God, it will rob your fellowship with believers, and it will stunt the growth of the fruit of the Spirit.

Has something in your life planted a seed of bitterness and you have let it grow?

It is interesting how that bitterness is included with these other sins; it almost patterns Esau’s life. He was bitter, filled with rage, angry, and unforgiving; he cried out, he slandered, and was filled with malice against his brother. Bitterness will always come to the surface and manifest itself in our actions and attitudes.

This verse urges us to be kind to those we have sinful feelings against. This may sound like a strange command, but it makes sense in light of the example we are given. God is directing us to think upon the cross-work of Christ. We must consider how He has paid the sin-debt of His people and pardoned them. Because of Christ, God was kind toward us, forgiving our sins; therefore, we ought to forgive and be kind to those who have wronged us. If we say like some, “I could never forgive that person”, we are essentially rejecting the very gospel that has delivered us.

Being kind to a brother or sister, praying for them, caring for them is a proven way of uprooting bitterness out of the heart. However, this does not ignore the reconciliation procedure of Matthew 18:15-20. If there is an issue with a brother or sister, we should seek to deal with the problem and be reconciled to them according to the principles of that passage.

I wonder, dear reader, are you struggling with bitterness? Has something in your life planted a seed of bitterness and you have let it grow? Let me remind you that the cure for bitterness is found alone in Jesus Christ. Look to Him by faith today and let your heart be filled with the love of Christ. Meditate on the forgiveness of God, through the work of Christ in order that our hearts are godlike and any root of bitterness is removed.

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By Andrew Simpson

Rev. Andrew Simpson is the minister of Heritage FPC, Prince George, BC.