First, let us begin by looking at what the Bible says about the heart in general. The Book of Proverbs has much to say on the metaphorical heart of man. Beginning with the call to “listen closely to wisdom and directing [the] heart to understanding,” followed by the directive to “guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life” (Proverbs 4:23, CSB).
Once again in Proverbs 27:19, we are told that “as water reflects the face, so the heart reflects the person.” There is a direct correlation established between the health of one’s spiritual heart and their actions.
If “a joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22), then it is imperative that we are diligent in storing up the wisdom of God’s Word in our hearts to avoid giving room for any foothold to sin that would seek to destroy us.
Before we dive into the wisdom of God’s Word on the matter of a bitter heart, we must first have a clear definition of the word bitter. According to Oxford Dictionary, there are two definitions.
The first is having a sharp, pungent taste, or smell; not sweet. The second one is the feeling of being angry, hurt, or resentful because of one’s bad experiences or a sense of unjust treatment.
Neither definition invokes a feeling of joy, quite the opposite, which leads us to the question, “What does the Bible say about a bitter heart and why is that important?” Throughout the Old and New Testament, we find bitter used in both its defined contexts of physical senses and relational emotions.
Bitter Beginnings and the Heart
Going all the way back to the very first sibling relationship we see unrepentant bitterness play out in murder. Cain was angry, hurt, and resentful that his half-hearted fruit offering was not accepted by God, yet his brother’s sacrificial lamb offering was accepted and pleased the Lord (Genesis 4:3-5).
God, in His omniscience, calls out Cain to warn him that “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). Though Cain was the first embittered sibling, he certainly has not been the last.
Unfortunately, similar scenarios have played out many times within familial relationships through the ages. Maybe you have been slighted by the supposed favor shown by a parent towards a sibling.
Do you go to the parent and discuss your grievances as an adult and fellow brother/sister in Christ as commanded in Matthew 18:15? Or do you play the silent treatment against your sibling letting the ember of jealousy burn within your heart eventually leading to a poisonous infection of bitterness seeping into the rest of your relationships?
Fast forward to the New Testament, Jesus was teaching tax collectors and sinners, meanwhile, the Pharisees and scribes were complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2).
It was during the parable of the prodigal son that Jesus pointed out the hidden bitterness within the hearts of the Pharisees and scribes, like that of the older son who had been faithful to the father.
It is so easy to take our eyes off Jesus and look to the left or right to see how God is blessing others and think — why did God bless them with that and not me? And a seed of discontentment has been sown.
In Ephesians, Paul addresses unity within the church at Ephesus. He begins by quoting Psalm 4:4, “in your anger do not sin,” and then proceeds to admonish the readers to “not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26-27). Why is that? God knew that conflict would continue to grow and fester the longer it went unresolved.
I homeschool my children and this semester we did the experiment of growing a lima bean in a Ziplock bag. I’m sure most folks have done this at some point in their educational careers. If, however, it has been a while, then I encourage you to google the process and try it with your children.
Each day we checked the progress and marveled at how the lima bean began to change so quickly. It was not long before a small root began to grow, by day six or seven, the root had attached itself to the paper towel!
Bitterness works much the same way, starting off hidden in the depths of the heart as a perceived slight in treatment or a straightforward attack from someone.
If not identified and appropriately dealt with, then it opens the door for Satan to bring about death and destruction within your heart and relationships. Hebrews 12:15 warns us to make sure “that no root of bitterness springs up, causing trouble and defiling many.”
Bitterness in Relationships
Bitterness can stem from many sources, the most common are from an unforgiving heart, unrepented coveting, discontentment with one’s circumstances, and an ungrateful attitude. I, unfortunately, can attest to how deep the root of bitterness can take hold when any of the above occurs and when one refuses to address the issue.
I specifically remember a time when my heart was so embittered that it impacted everything in my life from relationships to my physical health. My husband and I had been going through secondary infertility for almost five years after the birth of our daughter.
At the time, we were at seminary school where you could quite literally turn any corner on campus and run into a pregnant woman. The joke for many was — don’t drink the water unless you want to get pregnant. The not-so-funny punchline was that I was not able to get pregnant again.
Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to grow my faith and trust in the Lord’s timing, I became resentful and started to internalize that maybe the Lord thought I was an awful mother. That had to be why He was not giving me more children, or so I thought.
Here’s the thing with bitterness, it has everything to do with where our eyes are fixated. Are they fixated inward on ourselves and our circumstances or are they focused on God and how we can trust in His goodness and praise Him in all things? That bitterness was making me angry, snarky, and uncompassionate to those around me.
Not to mention my chest felt like I was lugging around a sack of bricks and my blood pressure had begun to read high. During that period, I heard via a family member that a young unwed teen was pregnant and seriously considering an abortion. I begged the family member to encourage the girl to keep the baby and that I would gladly take him/her.
All I could see, and feel was bitterness that God would give a new life to someone so willing to kill it, but not me, not a woman yearning to give her daughter a sibling that she so desperately had prayed three years for, not the woman who had hoped and dreamed of having a big family to love.
Nope, not me. God and I had a real big come-to-Jesus-conversation one day in our tiny 650 sq ft apartment. I lied prostrate on the floor sobbing and crying out to the Lord for answers.
He met me there on that floor with my bitter and raw heart saying once again, “Amanda, do you trust me? I want you to focus on loving others and seeing them how I see them rather than being so self-centered.”
In those moments I realized that my perfectly good desire had become an idol and because of that envy, jealousy, anger, and bitterness were consuming me so much that I was not showing the love and forgiveness of Jesus to others. As I began to repent, the weight lifted and slowly my heart began to heal.
About a week later, I was sitting at a luncheon with an older woman in her 70s. She confessed to me that she had aborted her first child many years ago. It was a burden that she carried and regretted all those years. She told me her story and insisted that God could not forgive her of that atrocious act.
My heart broke for her and at that moment, I looked into her tear-filled eyes and shared the gospel with her, assuring her that the blood of Jesus covers all our sins. It was truly the work of the Holy Spirit in this once embittered heart to be able to look with compassion into the eyes of my previous target of resentment.
Steps to Remove the Root of Bitterness
We are commanded to “let all bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander be removed from you, along with all malice” (Ephesians 4:31). So, how do we go about removing those evil roots?
- Pray — ask God to reveal the root of your bitterness (Hebrews 4:12).
- Read the Bible — daily. Write scriptures on notecards and place them all around your home, work, car, purse, and on the kids (kidding about the kids…kind of) (Psalm 119:105).
- Repent of any hidden sin on your part (1 John 1:9).
- Forgive the one who has hurt you. It is not easy, but it is necessary. We have been forgiven by the God of all Creation, who are we to think we are higher than God to refuse to forgive? (Matthew 18:21-22; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13)
- Accept all situations from God — both good and bad (Ecclesiastes 7:14) and set wise boundaries to guard against future sprouts of bitterness (i.e., limit social media, etc.).
Bitterness is sneaky, it can sprout up quickly and proliferate like a weed not really needing any tending just left alone to grow and choke out the beauty around it. This is why the Bible speaks directly to, and often, about the pitfall of an unchecked bitter heart.
For further reading:
How Can I Guard My Heart?
How Can the Peace of God Guard Your Heart?
What Does the Bible Say about Resentment?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/taa22
Amanda Robinson is a pastor’s wife, homeschooling mom of three, and a Christian blogger. As someone who has struggled through the deepest valleys of depression, Amanda hopes to share the complete joy that comes through forgiveness and renewal in Jesus Christ. For more, check out her blog.