We all know bitterness when we encounter it in a culinary sense, it is something that has a harsh, disagreeable taste. We naturally dislike it. Bitterness of the soul is no different. It is that characteristic of being cynical, disagreeable and distressed. Bitterness nurtured leads to resentment and anger.
There can be few things less glorifying to the Lord in a Christian's life than bitterness and resentment. In fact, the Apostle Paul spoke directly to this in the book of Ephesians:
"Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice:" (Ephesians 4:31).
Here the Apostle Paul gives Christians the admonition to actively put away from us bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, evil speaking and malice. Then he tells us what should take the place of those characteristics:
"And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you." (Ephesians 4:32.)
Bitterness is like cancer. It is from the single, tiny cell that huge tumors grow. Resentment and bitterness eats away at us from the inside, robbing us of our joy and contentment, until finally it consumes us.
The beginning of this disease is so subtle, so easy to miss. . .at first. Perhaps it begins with the thought that we have been overlooked, taken advantage of or forgotten. In some way someone or something has not been to us what we think they should be.
Once the spark of bitterness has begun, the tiny cell, like cancer, does not stay tiny for long. Soon anger and clamour, evil speaking and malice join it and the bitterness grows. As it becomes bigger in us we begin to share our mistreatment, and how we feel about it, to everyone who will listen. Rarely does a bitter person keep silent. Soon the whole body is consumed, the mind constantly fomenting against the person who has so ill-used us.
I remember when our mother was first diagnosed with cancer. My brother sought out the advice of a friend of his who was an oncologist. He explained our mother had lung cancer with a metastasis to the brain. His friend told him, forthrightly, that our mother had cancer everywhere. "She has cancer in her whole body, it just hasn't formed tumors everywhere yet." While the words were difficult to hear, the truth of them was something we needed to know.
The same can be said for bitterness. Once allowed to flourish, it is everywhere in us.
I know a person who is totally consumed with bitterness. It rules this person's life and has become their focus. I was myself headed down that road at one point in my life. Nothing could satisfy me, I was displeased and disagreeable. Somehow, at some point, the Holy Spirit enlivened the words of Ephesians 4:31 and 32 and showed me what I was becoming. I resolved to allow the Lord to eradicate the bitterness in me as I made the choice to consciously reject it and put it away, as the Apostle Paul admonished.
There are times still, the temptation to harbor bitterness comes my way. We have enemies who will whisper the deadly thoughts in our minds hoping the seed will take root. It is then we must, by faith in the power of Christ who lives in us, turn from those thoughts and choose the thoughts of forgiveness, mercy and tenderness.
Indeed, how can we who have been forgiven so much refuse to grant forgiveness to others? We must make the choice to guard our hearts from the bitterness which can so easily take root, and also to be "determined to be pleased," as was said of one of my favorite literary characters. We must choose to pour out tenderness and forgiveness to all those around us just as our Lord so willingly poured out forgiveness and tenderness to us.
"Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: 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."
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