August 17, 2010 by Stacy McDonald

Bitterness: An Addiction of the Soul

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By my husband, James McDonald, of Providence Church

“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled…” (Hebrews 12:14-15)

Bitterness is a common sin within the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve. It is one we often try to hide, at least for a while. But bitterness, like holding one’s breath, can’t be detained for long. In the end, it overtakes us and becomes our constant focus. A most hated and beloved idol, bitterness is the cancer that consumes. It is a self-destructive sin that triggers an addictive adrenaline rush that floods our being. And, like most addictive behaviors, when out of control, it leads to our destruction.

I have seen the impact of bitterness throughout my life. As a first generation Christian, I grew up in a dysfunctional home where bitterness reigned unchecked. My father was bitter against my grandfather for sending him to boarding schools rather than loving him. My mother was bitter against my father because of his alcoholism and abusive behavior. I saw bitterness growing in my siblings, a learned response from our parents. I felt the almost intoxicating pain of bitterness in my own soul. Reminiscing back on my younger days is a painful exercise, mostly because the memories are filled with the agonizing results of bitterness.

But, then, Jesus sought me. I didn’t seek Him; I was consumed with myself and the unfairness of life. I was an angry, bitter man until Jesus overwhelmed me. He showed me my own wretched sin; and, in those fiery flames of grief and sorrow, the bitterness melted. As Jesus forgave me and pulled me out of my grief, I learned the meaning of forgiveness. When I saw my own sins for what they were—sins against a mighty and holy God, my perspective changed. I found myself able to extend to others what I had freely received, the healing balm of forgiveness.

But as time went by, I found the old man sneaking back in. He still tries. Even as Christians, we may find ourselves dealing with bitterness. Simple affronts, unaddressed, worm their way into our thoughts and soon become an unwanted obsession. Left unchecked, the effects of bitterness begin to take root in the soil of our souls to poison every part of our lives.

Often, we superimpose our own past or secret sins upon others. We certainly know what “we” would mean if we said “that.” Assumed offenses cause chaos and misunderstanding; people talk past one another and feelings are hurt. Emotions rage. Instead of dealing with issues, weeds grow and become deeply entrenched. Christian adversaries may smile as they pass one another at church or online, but inner vows of broken fellowship broil out of sight. Our pain attempts to justify our bitterness. We make a mental list of our offenses, and remind ourselves of our “rights.” We take comfort in the number of people who would surely agree with us.

I’ve experienced bitterness. I know how it works. I remember one instance when the Enemy deceived me into believing I was justified in my sin. I had been hurt. I had a right to be bitter. But God didn’t let me rest. In my quiet time, not long after my conversion, He spoke. I read some challenging verses. It began when I first read through the Book of Ephesians.

I remember the day when God broke me. I was sitting outside of church in my good old 1974 Nova when I read in Ephesians 4:31–32 “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.”

I was convicted. I was cut to the quick. The process of sanctification can often be a painful thing. This is especially true when we are confronted with a sin we hate, yet at the same time guard and love. This verse shouted out to me. “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.” This was not a suggestion, this was a command! “Let all bitterness be out away from you!” It was right there before me. God was speaking to me. The Holy Spirit was convicting me. I was bitter and angry.

Although I might couch my words in righteous “Christianese,” I would indeed speak evil of my neighbors, even my brothers and sisters in church. And, even though I was now a Christian, I recognized that familiar, intoxicating feeling of bitterness, and it was still in my heart.

I remember being frustrated as I started to evaluate verse 32. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” Again, more commands. Be kind to the one who hurt me? Be tenderhearted to the one who seemed so hard hearted and hard headed? Forgive? How could I do that? Was it even possible?

But I continued to read the final section of verse 32, “…even as God in Christ forgave you.”

As I read God’s Word, there are times when I feel like I am undergoing open heart surgery without anesthesia. This was one of those times. The text spoke to my heart, “…even as God in Christ forgave you.” Even as God had forgiven me. Even as God had forgiven me. I knew God had forgiven me. I was fully aware of the sins of my youth, the things I had done against others; the things I had done against the Lord. The weight of my sin had been very heavy. And yet, through Jesus, God had forgiven me!

I remembered how Jesus had come for me, a sinner—how He had forgiven me, a stubborn, rebel. Again, He made the first move. And He did it without my groveling, without my penance, without my suffering. God had forgiven me because of the finished work of His Son. As I looked up from the Word, and at the door of the church, I prayed for the Lord to forgive me, and to help melt my bitterness. I asked Him to help me forgive and love those who had hurt me, intentionally or unintentionally. And He did.

Over the past 31 years with Jesus, I can’t say that I have never felt the temptation to be bitter. I still live with and work with, well, sinners. There are many opportunities to be hurt, and there are likewise many opportunities for me to hurt others. Yet, God often brings to mind that moment so long ago in the parking lot with Jesus. I remember the day, I remember my car, but most importantly, I remember the words of Ephesians 4:31-32.

Consider your own heart. Are you harboring offenses against a brother or sister? Are you dealing with bitterness against someone in your past? Are you aware that bitterness (regardless of who it is against) will consume you and harm those closest to you? Have you considered the fact that bitterness is a sin? Jesus forgave you—are you not willing to extend a small amount of that grace to someone else?

Don’t walk like the Gentiles, because you’re not one. Let go. Cough it up. Give up your bitterness—lay it at the feet of Jesus. Put off the old man and put on the new. “Forgive one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.”

“If indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:21-24)

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12 Responses to “Bitterness: An Addiction of the Soul”

  1. Joyce says:

    Bitter vs. better…thanks for the gentle reminder ~

  2. Sherry says:

    Praying that I can make sure to not let faults fester as I dont want bitterness in my soul.

  3. Mary Weaver says:

    Love your new look.

  4. Denise says:

    Just tried to explain this same thing to our pastor thru counsel after nearly giving up on our marriage. Bitterness IS and can be an addiction. How like God and how confirming to read these words this morning. It IS simply a choice, with God’s help, to put it away. Then prayer to continue the change.
    a changed wife

  5. Sharon says:

    Thank you for this post. Also, I really like your new look. :)

  6. Donna says:

    This article seems an appropriate follow-up:

    “The Power of Our Words” by Rev. Bruce Goettsche

  7. Rosanne says:

    I was bitter for a couple things in my life and this came to me today to remind me how much I really have to be better for!!!

  8. Ginger says:

    Will have to come back when I can read all that, but wanted to say I love the new blog!!

  9. Cherry says:

    Love the new site!

    I think what helped me was when I realized that everything I had been through was for my own good. What others meant for harm, God intended for good, for my sanctifying, to change me, so that I could bring Him glory. When I looked at it that way, I realized I owed them my forgiveness! God used them to change me. I want them to experience that same tenderness and love from Him. Jeremiah Burroughs said, “Joseph dreamed of the preferment and honor he would have above his bretren, but dreamed not of being sold into Egypt, nor of his imprisonment there.”

  10. Ginger says:

    I believe when we hold grudges against those who have sinned against us it shows that we don’t truly understand our own wickedness. How can we not forgive when Christ has forgiven us so very much? We are totally depraved without Him.

  11. Lisa says:

    Thank you for posting these most needed and encouraging words. Far too many of us struggle with bitterness from time to time, but it truly is a poison that, like yeast, can mulitipy and infest one’s entire life and outlook if left unchecked. Only when we do see each other as our Heavenly Father sees us are we able to cough up the forgiveness He demands we have toward one another. It is a most freeing experience to forgive others when we have been offended! The reward is being able to love them as we have been loved. What joy we have when we obey HIM!

  12. Shelley Gehman says:

    This is something that I have needed reminding of, and encouragement with over and over… This was surely providential to happen upon this post especially today. Thanks for taking the time to write, and reach out with the love of Christ. The biggest difficulty I have, is deciding when or IF there is a need to break fellowship, out of protection for children, or even my own emotional capacity to continually interact with those who hurt, though I truly think I keep forgiving, and work hard to never repay evil… I want to do the right thing, and in the case I am dealing with, the offending party are relatives and unbelievers. So, today, with renewed hope, I will meditate on Heb 12:14-15 and watch the Lord work.

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