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Responding Appropriately to Chastisement (3): Guarding Against Bitterness

Responding Appropriately to Chastisement (3): Guarding Against Bitterness

Responding Appropriately to Chastisement (Hebrews 12:1217) 

Find the first and second part in this series here.


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. (Heb. 12:15) 


In Hebrews 12, the writer under divine inspiration teaches us the right response to God’s chastisement. He does so by identifying some of the wrong responses to God’s chastisement. The first warning is against discouragement: chastisement from God’s hand, if misunderstood and received wrongly, can cause discouragement. That discouragement is described as “hands that hang down” and “feeble knees.” Positively, we respond to chastisement by strengthening our resolve, by walking uprightly, by helping the weaker members, and by following after peace and holiness. 

The second wrong response of the chastised saint against chastisement is bitterness. Bitterness is a very sinful response to chastisement: bitterness is a refusal to follow after peace and holiness; a bitter person chooses to live in anger and enmity. Bitterness is a sin found in our hearts, but we must not allow it to bear bitter fruit. 

The Evil Root of Bitterness 

Bitterness is a sinful attitude of the heart, a form of resentment. Bitterness is really a combination of a number of sins, a poisonous cocktail if you will. The first ingredient of bitterness is selfishness. A bitter person focuses almost exclusively on himself; he reacts to what others have done to him, or to what has happened to him. A bitter person refuses to forget what others have done to him or what has happened to him; instead of letting go, he holds on to his grievance. The result is that the bitter person embitters his own spirit or heart. The expression of such bitterness is self-pity. 

The second ingredient of bitterness is pride. A proud person thinks too highly of himself; he believes that others exist to serve him. When others do not serve him, or when God does not serve him, by giving him what he thinks he deserves, he becomes bitter. A bitter person will say, “This should not be happening to me. I deserve better. I am entitled to better.” In response to affliction, he becomes bitter. Instead, when something unpleasant happens to us, we must say, “The Lord sent this for my good: the Lord has not dealt with me according to my iniquities. I deserve much worse than this. As a sinner, I am entitled to nothing. If God has determined this rod for me, then I will humble myself under his mighty hand.” That is not easy, of course, but it is our calling. 

The third ingredient of bitterness is anger. An angry person is upset because people do not treat him as he desires; or an angry person is upset because God does not give him what he wants. Instead of exercising patience and forbearance, a bitter person becomes angry with the neighbor for what he did; or the bitter person becomes angry with God. Bitterness is the opposite of love, forgiveness, and contentment. The anger of bitterness is internal: a bitter person internalizes his anger, and keeps it inside his soul, so that his soul becomes increasingly bitter and angry. 

The word “bitterness” expresses the meaning of the sin: it means “harsh,” “sharp,” “cutting,” or “cruel.” In English, bitter is the opposite of sweet. We find the reference to “bitterness” in Deuteronomy 29:18, “Lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood.” The writer to the Hebrews refers to that verse in Hebrews 12:15. It is not a direct quote, but it is a clear allusion to that text. Gall and wormwood are bitter-tasting herbs. The idea here, however, is of a bitter tasting, poisonous fruit. The bitter root bears gall and wormwood, which are its bitter fruit. 

Be careful, though—bitterness is not the terrible injustice that someone perpetrated against you; it is the sinful response of the heart to that circumstance. Most bitter people have a reason to be bitter—perhaps someone betrayed them; perhaps they had a bad marriage or they never married although they wanted to be married; perhaps they lost a child or could never have children; perhaps they suffer from an illness or a disability; perhaps they were mistreated in the family, in work, or in the church; perhaps they are poor. But bitterness is not just a feeling that we cannot help: we choose to be bitter; we are responsible for our responses to the behavior of others; we are responsible for our refusal to forgive; we are responsible for our responses to trials. We know this because others who face similar afflictions are not bitter. We have all met people who faced affliction with godly contentment and even cheerfulness; and we have also met people who are consumed with bitterness and self-pity. The difference is in the response of the heart. 

This bitterness is called “a root” (v. 15). It is called a “root” because it is a sin of the heart: it begins deep in the soul. The root is that part of the plant that grows under the surface of the ground. If you have ever tried to pull up weeds, you will understand this. Certain stubborn weeds have deep roots: it is easy to pluck off the flowers or pull off the leaves, but the roots remain in the ground. The roots are growing, causing damage to your garden, long before the first green shoots sprout up above the surface. 

The same thing is true of the sin of bitterness. A person might appear happy and calm on the outside, but bitterness festers beneath the surface. For a time, only the bitter person knows the bitterness of his own heart. But that root of bitterness grows: it slowly poisons a person’s thinking; it affects a person’s attitude; it affects how a person interacts with others; and it even affects one’s view of God; and soon it is ready to appear on the surface. Perhaps something happened some years ago, and the initial response was selfishness, pride, and anger. Slowly, the sinful flesh fed on those sinful motives until bitterness grew in the soul. 

The danger in bitterness, however, is that it “springs up”: “looking diligently…lest any root of bitterness springing up…” (v. 15). 

The Harmful Fruit of Bitterness 

When a root of bitterness springs up, it produces bitter fruit in the life of the bitter person. First, a bitter spirit produces harsh and bitter words. In Colossians 3:19, Paul writes, “Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.” Bitterness against a wife is seen in cruel, cutting, harsh words. Why would a husband be bitter towards his wife? She has done something to upset him: she has not served him, as he wanted. (Then his attitude is one of selfishness, pride, and anger; he is not serving her, but he expects her to serve him. In his selfishness, he becomes bitter against her). 

Second, a bitter spirit produces an angry, negative, complaining attitude. Job confesses this in Job 7:11, “Therefore I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” A bitter person can never speak positively about things—everything is bad; everything is a reason to complain; everything is a source of contention. There is very little praise for the Lord. Talk to a bitter person—ask him how he is, and he will respond with complaints. Such a person is angry with his spouse, his children, his siblings, his friends, members in the church, with life in general, and even with God. If he does not wallow in self-pity or sulk in sullenness, he becomes irritable and bad tempered. 

Third, a bitter spirit produces envy, violence, and even murder. Simon the sorcerer was in “the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity” (Acts 8:23). He was bitter because the people no longer viewed him as “the great power of God” (v. 10). He envied the apostles. In his bitterness, he sought to purchase the Holy Spirit with money, but Peter exposed his evil heart. Joseph’s brothers were bitter against him in their envy: they “hated him and could not speak peaceably unto him” (Gen. 37:4). When Joseph greeted his brothers, they either gave him the cold shoulder or spoke harsh words to him. Cain was bitter against Abel and against God: God accepted Abel’s sacrifice, but refused Cain’s sacrifice; this so enraged Cain that he murdered his brother. 

Fourth, a bitter spirit produces self-pity and anger against God. Naomi is the classic example of this—she lost her husband, her children, and her prosperity. Mark her reaction in Ruth 1:2021: “Call me not Naomi; call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty; why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the Lord hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me?” Notice the cause of her bitterness—“The Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me.” Instead of repenting, confessing her sins, and receiving God’s just chastisement with patience, she becomes bitter against God. Instead of humbling herself under God’s hand, she becomes bitter/filled with self-pity. Don’t call me Naomi (it means pleasant); call me Mara, which means bitter. 

Beware of such sins: harsh words; a negative attitude; envy; and self-pity and anger against God. Such sins will destroy your life, if you allow them to grow. Let me at this point issue a caution. Not everything that seems to be bitterness is actually bitterness. One important example is the quest for justice. Often those who have been oppressed in the church—perhaps they are victims of abuse—are labeled as “bitter” because they seek justice. They are chided by the other members, “Why won’t you let it go?” They are admonished to forgive. Such people could be motivated by bitterness, of course—we all could be; we must examine our own hearts—but more commonly they are not, and it is cruel to jump to that conclusion or buy into that narrative, often spread by the abuser and his family. If a person earnestly desires change in how the churches address abuse, he or she is not bitter, he or she does not hate the church; if a person wants answers for how abuse was mishandled in the past, he or she is not bitter; if a person wants to see genuine repentance in the abuser, he or she is not bitter; if a person reports an abuser to the authorities so that he can be punished, he or she is not motivated by bitterness. 

A person can put away selfishness, pride, and anger, and still seek justice—without being bitter. 

The text identifies two harmful effects of bitterness. First: “trouble”; “lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you” (v. 15). The trouble in view in Deuteronomy 29:18 is idolatry. Moses warned that someone might arise in Israel who would serve idols. The reason the idolater would serve other gods is the turning of his heart: “whose heart turneth away from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of these nations” (v. 18). That turning of the idolater’s heart, warns Moses, has its source in bitterness. The idolater becomes bitter against God, perhaps because God makes him walk in a difficult way, and he turns to idols. 

The trouble in view in Hebrews 12:15 is apostasy or departure from Christ. The idea is that the difficulty of the way makes a person bitter and resentful against God, against Christ, and against the other members of the church. A bitter, disappointed, disillusioned, discouraged person can become so bitter that he leaves the Christian faith, abandons the church, and returns to false religion or to the world. That was the issue with this epistle: why remain a Christian and suffer persecution when it was easier to be a Jew? We have the same temptation: why live as a Christian when it makes my life more difficult? It would be easier for me to live in unbelief. And even if the bitter person does not go that far, he can ruin his own soul, ruin his marriage, his family, and his relationships in the church. 

The second is “defilement”: “and thereby many be defiled (v. 15). To defile means “to stain” or to “make dirty or unclean.” The point here is that bitterness is not a private sin; it begins, perhaps, as a private sin, for it begins, as we have seen, as a root in the heart. But bitterness spreads: it spreads from the heart to the mouth, so that the bitter person speaks bitter words; it spreads from the mouth to the various members of the body, so that the bitter person commits bitter actions. “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:3132). Bitterness is the root of other terrible sins, which will defile our lives. 

But the emphasis is not on how bitterness affects one person: bitterness defiles “many.” Bitterness spreads from one bitter member to another. Take the example of a person who is bitter towards another member. Often he will complain to others; if they listen to him, they will become bitter too. Before long, factions are formed in the church—one group is bitter against another group; one family is bitter against another family; the members are bitter against the officebearers. Bitterness spreads and grows. Even if the cause is good and the complaint is justified, if the spirit is not right, bitterness will cause many to be defiled. 

The text also explains the reason for the springing up of the root of bitterness: “lest any man fail of the grace of God” (v. 15). There is much confusion over this—what is “failing of the grace of God”? The meaning is not that a true believer falls away and perishes. A true believer cannot fall away from the grace of God. Paul writes, “Being confident of this very thing that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And Peter writes, “Who are kept by the power of God thru faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5). 

Besides that, the verse is not, “lest any man fall away from the grace of God,” but “lest any man fail of the grace of God” (v. 15). The same verb is used in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” They have not reached the glory of God, but they have fallen behind, or they have lagged behind. Similarly, the bitter person falls short of the grace of God; he does not reach the grace of God; or he lags behind the grace of God. The bitter person does not take his calling seriously—he does not follow after peace and holiness; he does not mortify his flesh; he does not fight against his sins; he does not remove the seeds of bitterness from his heart. Therefore, the root of bitterness springs up, troubles him, and defiles many. 

The Canons of Dordt help us understand this danger in the Christian life. “Converts are not always so influenced and actuated by the Spirit of God, as not in some particular instances sinfully to deviate from the guidance of divine grace, so as to be seduced by and comply with the lusts of the flesh” (Canons 5:4). The same article urges diligence in the means of grace and prayer. 

The bitter Christian neglects the means of grace—he either does not pray, or he prays without fervency; he either does not read the Word, or he reads carelessly and halfheartedly; he either neglects the preaching, or he does not listen to the preaching with faith, and does not listen in order to obey, but if he listens, he does so with a bitter, critical spirit. The result is that he fails of the grace of God—he falls short; he lags behind; he does not make good progress in the grace of God. And, of course, the possibility exists that he was never a recipient of God’s grace at all. Perhaps he was simply a hypocrite who, embittered against God and God’s people, leaves the church altogether. He never reaches the true grace of God. He falls away even from his external profession of the grace of God. 

The Urgent Calling to Guard Against Bitterness 

The text calls for diligent watching against this sin—“looking diligently lest…” First, this requires diligent self-examination. Is there, perhaps, a root of bitterness in our hearts? Is our attitude towards God, because of the trials of life, one of bitterness? Are there selfishness, pride, anger, or resentment in our hearts? If there is, we must view these as the seeds of the root of bitterness. As a good gardener who is merciless against weeds, so we must be ready to uproot bitterness from our hearts: “Let all bitterness…be put away from you with all malice” (Eph. 4:31). “Looking diligently” means that we watch! Bitterness could sprout up anywhere! Watch out especially for warning signs: are you neglecting the means of grace, especially the preaching, or are listening only to find fault and not to be edified and to glorify God? Are you neglecting the private means of grace, personal prayer and study of the Scriptures? Are you grumbling, complaining and impatient with God and his ways with you? Are you justifying and defending your sins? Beware! 

Second, this requires mutual oversight; we must take note of the lives of others. We must pray for one another, that God might preserve us and them from this sin. We must observe one another—is there bitterness in our attitudes; is there bitterness in our relationships; is there bitterness in the church? Do you sense bitterness in the attitude, words, or tone of those around you? Uproot it! 

What, then, is the way in which we can get rid of bitterness? First, we need to reevaluate our thinking, for bitterness starts in the heart. We need a proper response to affliction by understanding and confessing God’s sovereignty. When God sends an affliction, instead of being bitter, we must see God’s hand in it, and we must trust God. That was Joseph’s response—we do not read of him becoming bitter in slavery and in prison, although, undoubtedly, he struggled with that temptation. “God meant it unto good,” he said (Gen. 50:20). We must have a proper sense of the grace of God and proper humility—I am so sinful; if God is pleased to afflict me to make me holy, who am I to become bitter against God? God will use this affliction to serve my salvation; I am content. 

Finally, we look to Jesus to give us grace to avoid and uproot bitterness. Of all men who ever lived, none was so mistreated and unjustly afflicted as Jesus. Jesus never became bitter—he never complained against God; he never allowed affliction to embitter his spirit, and he pursued holiness and righteousness: “for the joy set before him [he] endured the cross, despising its shame” (Heb. 12:2). “For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds” (v. 3). 

By the power of the cross, we will overcome bitterness—Christ died for our sins, including our evil bitterness; Christ gives grace to live a new and holy life, including the grace to avoid bitterness. Let us run the race, following after peace and holiness, and without bitterness, to his glory. 


Return to the RFPA blog next week for the next part in this series, Responding Appropriately to Chastisement (Hebrews 12:12–17).


Martyn McGeown is a pastor in the Protestant Reformed Churches. He is also the editor of the RFPA blog and the author of multiple RFPA publications.

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