About twenty years ago, I was a bitter Christian. As far as I can tell, it all began around the time we made an offer to purchase a big farmhouse in the country. We had just spent five years renovating our first house and realized we had outgrown it. Five daughters sharing one bedroom was a signal to look for something roomier. So, we began looking for a place on a few acres for our seven kids to roam. We didn’t care how much work it needed. We just wanted some space. So, we sold our fully remodeled house and signed a contract on a large, dilapidated house on seven acres ten minutes from church.
Since the farmhouse was an income property for its owners, they told us they needed an extra month to find another place to put their investment capital. In the meantime, however, they said we should go ahead and close on the sale of our house and move into the soon-to-be-ours homestead. The owners were professing Christians and zealous evangelists, so we took them at their word. Unfortunately, as time went on, they repeatedly informed us that they had not yet heard the voice of Jesus telling them to close the sale, but they were sure he would speak soon. We believed and hoped for the best.
Some of our new neighbors began to quietly reach out with careful inquiry. Whenever we optimistically said, “we should be closing any day now,” they smiled and offered a few sympathetic words. We were confused. And we began to get angry, especially when we learned the previous purchaser-turned-tenant had been strung along for ten years. So, after five months of waiting, we were forced to hire an attorney to draft a letter insisting they set an official closing date. But the letter was ignored.
Finally, we awoke from our bad dream and faced reality: we had been swindled and it was time to move on. But there was another problem. We were naïve and ignorant of the fact that a signed real estate contract can fall through. As a result, we made other financial decisions based upon a closing that was linked to the mortgage-plus-renovation package from our credit union. We were broke. At this point, all hope was gone. And our ability to purchase another home was slim. But the Lord was watching over us. Within seven days, we found a suitable house in a nearby town, closed on it, and moved in. One week later, our eighth child was born, and we were exhausted at every level.
Once the dust settled, I started to become resentful but didn’t realize it. My anger against the sellers was justified: They’re crooks and liars! Worst of all, they did this while mentioning Jesus’s name in every other sentence! My anger started out righteous, but it quickly degenerated from there. Most of all, I was angry at myself: I’m a total idiot! Not only did I make an unwise decision that would impact my family for years to come, but I’m also a failure. I deserve all of this. What a loser! This was my self-talk.
Deep down, however, and unbeknownst to me, I was also angry at God. I knew from Scripture that being angry at God was sinful and unacceptable, but I didn’t understand what was going on in my heart. I never cursed God, like Job’s wife (Job 2:9), but clearly, I was not trusting him with my family, my future, or my feelings. I was disappointed with God because he could have prevented this trouble. And my words and actions betrayed that I did not actually believe in his sovereignty over all things for our good. I had not yet learned from personal experience that Jerry Bridges is correct: “Bitterness arises in our hearts when we do not trust in the sovereign rule of God in our lives.” My response only made a bad experience worse. Though we had moved to another house, my heart was unable to move on from how badly we had been mistreated. I was stuck. The wrong committed against us was all I could think about. The crock pot was plugged in, and my heart was hot all the time.
Bitterness was taking root, confirming to me that their sin was greater than mine. The wrong they did to us is more serious than my failure to trust God, I thought. For months, I prayed in anger and lacked self-awareness of what was happening inside me. I blamed the swindlers for deceiving us. I blamed my wife for talking me into moving (even though it was my idea in the first place). I blamed myself for all our problems and became irritable. Years later, while reflecting on our six-month stint in the country, one of our daughters graciously referred to it as “that time when you and Mom argued a lot.” To this day, our family’s affectionate name for that house is the dump in the country. We laugh about it now, but it wasn’t funny then. Our hurt was deep. The pain was real. But in turning to the Scriptures the Holy Spirit helped me begin to learn what it means to lament before God. He turned my eyes to the abundant grace of Jesus and showed me where I had gone wrong. Only then was I able to find God’s way back to the path of childlike trust, forgiveness, and the joy of contentment.
My desire is to teach you what the Lord taught me. I want to help you to understand why the Bible warns against “the root of bitterness” which “springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:15). I don’t pretend to be immune to the subtle attempts of this bitter root to grow back. I’m still learning to be more aware of the workings of my heart. But I do hope to spare you some trouble by learning from my mistakes, and those of others found in the pages of Scripture. By examining the meaning of bitterness in the Bible, and drawing lessons from an Old Testament case study, I will draw your attention to three levels of awareness that will help you.
Be Aware of What Bitterness Looks and Feels Like
Two words are most often used in the Bible to define and describe bitterness. One in the Old Testament and one in the New. The Old Testament uses the Hebrew word marah, which means angry, bitter, chafed, and discontent. It is used literally of water (Exodus 15:23), food (Proverbs 27:7), wormwood (Proverbs 5:4), physical pain (Numbers 5:24), or the result of ongoing conflict (2 Samuel 2:26).
It is used figuratively of the bitter cry of Esau after he realized his brother Jacob had stolen his father’s blessing (Genesis 27:34), bitterness of soul (Isaiah 38:15), and the bitterness of death (Ecclesiastes 7:26). The book of Job employs the word to describe the poisonous putrid bile from the gall bladder (Job 16:13; 20:25) or the poison of snakes (Job 20:14). This description predates but agrees with the New Testament warning of how bitterness poisons yourself and others around you.
The New Testament employs the Greek word pikros, from the root meaning to cut or prick. It refers to a sharp, pungent sense of taste or smell (Think of a freshly hit skunk on the side of the road). For example, James employs the word both literally of water, and figuratively of jealousy (James 3:11, 14). As an active verb, it means to become bitter (Colossians 3:19), or to irritate or help someone else become embittered (Revelation 10:9-10). It may also describe emotional pain, like the poignant grief of Peter who, after he denied Jesus, “went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:62).
Together, these words portray bitterness as the opposite of sweetness. We see this vivid contrast in the book of Exodus.
Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.Exodus 15:22-25
Two major categories of bitterness are revealed in Scripture. The first category explains the bitterness of hard life experience, while the second exposes bitter responses to wrongs committed against us. Life in this broken world can be very hard, even dangerous at times, and we all endure various kinds of bitter tasting experiences. But how can we learn to respond in humble faith and childlike trust in our faithful Lord?
 Steve Viars, Overcoming Bitterness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2021), 13.