Bitterness is a real killer of effective ministry. Every man and woman in ministry must guard against this danger. In this post I’ll explain the ways bitterness can take root in our lives. Understanding how bitterness grows prepares us to be on guard against this danger.
See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.Hebrews 12:15
One of the great dangers to an effective ministry is bitterness. Bitterness is like a poison concoction that stays in the blood. You must rid yourself of bitterness before it is too late. I believe bitterness comes into our lives in a predictable pattern. No one is immune from the danger of bitterness. However, the good news is that every believer in Christ can be free. When you know the pattern of bitterness you can work more effectively to destroy this stronghold before it takes root.
The Predictable Pattern of Bitterness
A wound. Bitterness usually begins like an infection that enters the body through a wound. The wound may be small. However, an untreated wound can have devastating effects. A critical word, a heated argument, a misunderstanding, an injustice, a betrayal, or some type of abuse are all ample opportunities to be wounded. Wounds can come from a parent, child, spouse, friend, or group in the church. Some are wounded by situations they cannot control or change. The types of wounds people experience are as numerous as grains of sand on the beach. Wounds come in all shapes and sizes. Anyone can get wounded.
An important thing to note about wounds is that they can be real or imagined. Sometimes we get wounded by something someone did or said. Other times, we get wounded by what we “think” someone said or did. Our imaginations can get carried away with this type of speculation.
It’s dangerous to assume we know the inward motivations of others.
Disappointment. When a wound is not dealt with properly disappointment follows. It is the next pitstop on the road towards bitterness. Disappointment can come when we feel that we have been let down, betrayed, or defeated. Those are common feelings when you have been wounded. These type of feelings can be directed toward others, a specific situation, or God. The idea that we can feel disappointed in God makes many of us uncomfortable. (I don’t even like typing that statement). There is no justifiable reason to be disappointed in God. Nevertheless, this can happen because we are sinful creatures who are prone to wander.
Anger. The next stop on the road to bitterness is anger. Anger is the result of allowing disappointment to fester in our hearts. This untreated ailment begins to stir our passions and emotions. When a person allows anger to brew in their lives, the effects will be apparent. It can be seen in their attitude, negativity, sharp words, irritability, or a lack of peace and joy. The bottom line is this: an angry heart manifests itself in some way.
Unforgiveness. If left unchecked, anger opens the door to unforgiveness. How do we know if we are harboring unforgiveness?
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Does a person’s name cause your stomach to tighten?
- When thinking about a specific situation (or conversation) does your joy evaporate?
- Do you secretly wish for vindication or retribution?
- Do you long for the day when those who hurt you experience the pain you have experienced?
These are a few clues that unforgiveness is lurking in your heart.
As a follower of Christ, you are called to extend lavish amounts of grace and forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is unlimited; the forgiveness we show others should be the same (cf Matt 18:21-22). Are your thoughts about the person that hurt you marked by an attitude of extending grace and peace? Are you free to choose to love, bless, and wish this person the best? Or, do you secretly hope your offender experiences the same pain you have experienced? Forgiveness is all about grace and mercy. Unforgiveness is all about the details, hurts, and wrongs.
Bitterness. When a person is bitter they focus on the wrongs of others, while oblivious to their own sin. Those who are bitter can recall conversations, words, and details about the people or events that hurt them. Bitterness remembers the details. A bitter person will rationalize their own innocence while condemning the one(s) who hurt them. A bitter person may in fact be the victim to a horrible injustice. However, allowing the injury of that wrong to remain unhealed is dangerous. A bitter person is tormented and abused by the past. The good news is that no follower of Jesus Christ has to be bitter. No matter the offense, pain, or injustice, you can experience healing.
Bitterness can be difficult to diagnose in our own lives because it distorts our perception and skews the way we look at things.
I had a bitterness problem long before I realized what was going on. In fact, I suspect, many people in ministry struggle with bitterness. We serve on the frontlines of spiritual battles. Not everyone outside (or inside) the church likes to see people working to advance the gospel. Pastors, pastors’ wives, and ministry leaders can find themselves under attack. So, we must be careful to keep ourselves free from even a hint of bitterness.
Bitterness can be difficult to diagnose in our own lives because it distorts our perception and skews the way we look at things. We can be bitter while claiming “I’m not bitter! How could you say that?” We can tell ourselves we have forgiven someone while still allowing resentment to fester and build. Allowing bitterness to remain in your life will plunge you further and further away from the liberty and freedom of Christ. It will harden, break, and destroy the good in your life. Bitterness erodes optimism, shatters joy, and kills our ability to love others well. A bitter person goes through life with a heart that does not fully function. They live in a land of spiritual poverty while those around them drown.
The good news is that no one has to be bitter! Jesus Christ offers the power to stop bitterness before it starts and heal wounded hearts no matter how great the offense. Forgiveness is the key. Part of Jesus’ coming into the world was to “destroy the works of the devil,” (see 1 John 3:8b). Bitterness is a work of our flesh that the devil loves to exploit. Jesus came so that we could be truly free! In the next post I’ll discuss some keys to destroy bitterness and live a life of freedom.