Have you ever sat in a restaurant while waiting for your meal and taken note of those around you? I’m especially fascinated by the dynamic of couples and how they tend to change as they grow older. You see it most of all while they sit there for an hour, eating their food, and rarely even look at each other, much less talk.
Those that are young and dating or haven’t been married long are very conversant, expressive and there is no boredom evident on their countenance. Typically as the age increases between a couple the very opposite happens. Words become sparse, there is no light in the eyes or joy in the countenance, and there is a lack of interest, even indifference, between them.
It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when the tired, dull couple was once like the teenagers that are two booths away from them, laughing and enjoying the company of the other. Sure, love matures, but it doesn’t make us stale and ugly.
When I counsel people with problems I look for root causes rather than symptoms. I have learned that most people don’t think about the cause of their problem, but the pain as a result of it. This is the way bitterness operates in our lives. It is a prelude to many other negative issues. But it is the fountainhead – and will be until we realize it is at the source of so many of our other relational problems.
God compares bitterness to a plant with hidden roots that eventually blossoms on the surface – “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”. (Hebrews 12:15)
The blossom of the plant is but the reality of a nourished root which is out of sight. One can clip away at the flower every time it grows, but until the root is unearthed and removed it will continually reappear. There’s a problem in doing so. Roots are very difficult to remove.
Many years ago my grandmother had about twenty-five old bushes in her back yard that she wanted to remove. My brother and I hatched a brilliant plan to expedite the process. (As you will soon find out it was a scheme that Larry, Curly and Moe would have devised).
We knew we needed to test our idea on one of the bushes to see if it would work. We dug deepl into the ground on the side of our test plant until the roots were exposed. We then took a big steel chain and intertwined it in the roots and attached it to the bumper of a pick up truck. I got in the truck to pull the bush out of the ground and Hoss stayed behind to watch and direct me.
I slowly pressed the accelerator, but the truck didn’t budge. Then I gave it some more gas and then, “Thwack”. Hoss yelled, “Stop, Rick!” The rear bumper had pulled off of the truck as the deep root system would not yield to the power and traction of the truck.
At the core of many other sins is the root of bitterness, hidden below the surface, but very stubborn and impossible to remove without God’s grace on us. Five devastating consequences stem from a heart that is resentful from a past hurt.
“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice”. (Ephesians 4:31)
I’ll say just a few words about each of these. It all starts with “bitterness”. The root word of “bitter” means to pierce. It has the idea of a person that has been wounded and pierced in their spirit. Bitterness isn’t hatred, but harbored hurt. It is being disappointed and, if not dealt with, leads to resentment.
The word “wrath” refers to an inner, simmering anger. It is a feeling that comes and then subsides. It’s a slow boil that occurs when you think about the person or institution that has let you down.
“Anger” is the emotional outburst of the negative feelings you have been nursing. Now the disappointment is no longer hidden. Most often, sudden expressions of temper are angry thoughts that have been slowly heating up over a period of time.
“Clamour” is another visible indicator of bitterness. The word has the idea of a loud outcry. It is a verbal protest, a signal to those around you that you have a bad attitude about a person. The initial disappointment has now developed into a continual negative spirit. This is why attitudes are so difficult to change – we can’t just will them away. The reason is that they are frequently rooted in a bitter spirit toward someone.
The problem is that your attitude spills out on everyone around you. Henry Ward Beecher wisely wrote, “A cynic is one who never sees a good quality in a man, and never fails to see a bad one”. Cynics are bitter people.
“Evil speaking” means to slander a person, seeking to injure them with your words. The classic scenario is when someone speaks positively about the one that hurt you, there is an immediate “correction” to let them know what kind of person they really are and how they hurt you. This is an attempt to sway others to your viewpoint – and to get them to dislike your offender as much as you do.
“Malice” is the root word of maliciousness. Now the bitterness, what was once a disappointment and resentment, becomes hatred. There is a desire – even to being possessed – to seeing the person that has done them wrong hurt and experience pain.
For many years I have seen this sequential pattern in the lives of people whom I have counseled. Their real problem wasn’t malice, evil speaking or the other areas. They were symptoms of a bitter, wounded spirit. I know this because I have been on every level in my own life.
Back in the 80’s several prominent television preachers made national news because of their greed, immorality, and selfishness. In short, they were not genuine and lived a pretentious life. For weeks it was the lead story on news programs, magazine covers, and the talk of the nation. It gave fodder to those that already had a perception that people in ministry were quacks, cons and fakes.
I was a pastor and was angry that these people had made some people wonder if I, too, was a fraud. (No one ever said it to me that I remember, but I assumed that some were thinking it). I was so upset that it got to the point where I didn’t want to tell people that I was a preacher. The negative fallout of public opinion from the failures of others I feared was being passed on to me.
I wanted these people to pay for their hypocrisy, stupidity, and duplicity. The root of bitterness and resentment began to flower in my heart. Each of the five ensuing negative qualities began to develop and grow until they were public and known to others.
Shortly after all this had happened I was studying the Scripture mentioned above (Ephesians 4:31) and I came to the word “malice”. As I studied it I realized that I had come to hate these people; I had malice in my heart toward them. Each of the attendant behaviors and attitudes were a part of my life and had developed in exactly the order God had given them. I was shocked and embarrassed at how my spirit had been infected and how negative I had become toward them.
My problem wasn’t malice; that was the outcome of the root problem. I was bitter. These people (I had resorted to calling them “clowns”) had hurt me so deeply that it gradually birthed the other consequences.
I had striven to live a life of integrity, sincerity and my family had sacrificed as we had been in the ministry. We lived simply, frugally and genuinely cared about people and wanted to honor the Lord by our lives. We had no air conditioned dog houses, no gold-plated bathroom fixtures, no luxury cars or planes.
Yet, I felt the backwash of criticism toward them directed toward me and what God had called me to do. I remember watching the news program, Nightline, one night with Ted Koppel interviewing the “clowns” over several different nights. The malice in my heart was so great. I hated what they had done to me and to others that were true and sincere.
I remember clearly the day that I got alone with God and asked Him to forgive me for the way I had been talking about these people. Also, I forgave them. While they had to pay for their wrongdoing in the courts, in my heart I grew to pray for them. My anger and malice had turned to compassion and pity. And I enjoyed life much better.
To be honest, I’m still reticent to tell people I’m a preacher because of the damage they did to those that serve in a calling to ministry. But I am not in bondage to the feelings of hate anymore. In fact, I haven’t thought about them in many, many years until I began to write this post to illustrate how potent and poisonous bitterness can be.
Perhaps the problem you are dealing with is not the real problem. Maybe at the core of it is bitterness – harbored hurt, a wounded spirit, being disappointed.
Bitterness untended to inevitably turns to a slow boil as you think about the hurt. Soon the simmering anger becomes explosive and volatile. Then it affects your attitude and weighs you down. You begin to consistently speak negatively against them. The worst part of the infection is when you arrive at the place when you want to see them hurt as much as they have hurt you. You want revenge. You want justice.
It’s just my opinion, but I believe it. Remember the vast majority of older couples in a restaurant that barely speak and don’t even look at each other directly? It isn’t the length of the time they have been married. They have become bitter and allowed hurts to pile up. Now they just tolerate each other and live in a truce. I call it “emotional divorce”. They don’t like each other.
There was a time when they enjoyed conversation and there was laughter. Going out to eat wasn’t as much about the food as it was being together and sharing. It didn’t happen overnight, but the slow death of the relationship began years earlier. It is the result of allowing bitterness to build a wall between the two of them. It’s a terrible way to live.
As you read these words, is there a person, a business, an institution, a company with whom you are bitter? God will help you to take the stinger of bitterness out of your soul and replace it with His compassion and love. Learn to deal severely with a bitter spirit. It is the prelude to a lot of other troubles. Bitterness will catch up with you, weigh you down and diminish the quality of your life.
I wonder what people see when they look at Paula and me as we share a meal in public together? How about you and your spouse? It’s a sober question, but one we need to ponder. Just remember, don’t try to fix the problem by treating the symptoms. Go to the root – a heart that has been hurt, disappointed, and is not resentful. Deal with it – you’ll be glad you did. I was.
“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, 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.” (Ephesians 4:31-32)