What Bitterness REALLY is

I have written on bitterness and accused people in the past (rarely to their face) of being bitter. In the church, we think that complaining leads to bitterness which leads to divisiveness. A few months ago, a pastor friend, Bob Bixby, wrote a thought provoking post on what bitterness really is biblically. It’s the first real exposition I’ve heard of Hebrews 12, and it has radically changed how I think about this passage and subsequently how I view or judge people who “rock the boat” in Christian circles. Here are parts of Bob’s exposition. You can read the full post here. Bob is writing in a very different context, sexual abuse in fundamentalist Christianity, than the one I face here in Seattle. Yet, read in my context, his exposition of Hebrews 12 is very meaningful. Where is part two by the way, Bob?!

The “Bitter Card” has trump power. Pop that baby out, and you can dismiss the criticism. It’s played this way: person A has a grievance that he/she does not feel is being understood. Eventually Person A vents too often, too emotionally, or even sinfully, or gets too close to unsettling the happy delusion of the establishment and consequently in danger of getting too much influence. At this point, play the “Bitter Card.” This puts them on the defensive and, in the minds of the clueless, guts their argument. Plus it has the added benefit that you can say that their defensiveness is proof of the truth of your claim. Often people who play the “Bitter Card” employ Hebrews 12:15 and warn that the bitterness could result in the defilement of many.

So, let me explain. Biblically. 

… The “root of bitterness” in Hebrews 12:15 could more aptly be applied to the scourge of immorality and its abuses than to the wounded, spiteful, angry, and sometimes over-the-top venting of those who have been “defiled” by it. In other words, friends, the disgruntled are more likely the “many” who have been defiled by the “root of bitterness” … than bitter souls who ought to be dismissed for having a bad attitude.

It is the root of bitterness, not bitterness that defiles. But that may be stretching it too much. At the very least, “root of bitterness” ought to be understood as an evil core, a wickedness that cannot be more darkly described than using the words from the Pentateuch. It is the essence of a person who, though in the fellowship of believers by association, has “failed the grace of God” and is not even a saved person. That wickedness, a wickedness that could manifest itself in all sorts of ways … ultimately springs up and defiles many of the people within the fellowship of believers. That the writer of Hebrews thinks such a person is an unsaved person seems clear by his use of Esau seeking repentance even with tears but not able to find it.

The Scripture repeatedly emphasizes the need to be vigilant over the community of believers. Hebrews 3:12 calls for community vigilance. And, when sin occurs, there ought to be a godly purging. Instead, (in certain situations) the root of bitterness was retained and those who were defiled by it were sent away.

There’s no denying that sometimes victims and their friends and the disgruntled “many” are sinful. Very sinful. But, pastorally, it’s just plain stupid to try to control somebody’s speech or the effect of it on others by pulling out the “Bitter Card.” First of all, anger and indignation is not always “bitterness.” Wounds and hurts still felt are not bitterness.

When I was at (Bible college), I was wrongly taught that bitterness is “harbored hurt.”  The idea that you still felt the pain of something ten years later meant that you had “harbored the hurt.” That, we were told, was bitterness. And, “Be careful,” we were warned, “because that root of bitterness will spring up and defile many people.”

To the contrary. The reason there are so many disgruntled and hurt and wounded and angry opponents of (various offensive people or institutions within conservative evangelical Christianity) is because the “root of bitterness” was not vigilantly rooted out. It’s not too much of a stretch, considering the context of Hebrews 12:15, to read into the word “defiled” something more than just a moral defilement but a cultic/ceremonial/communal defilement. In other words, the cultic (and, I mean here “worship”) and communal fellowship among those affected by the “root of bitterness” and the rest of the believers is severely damaged. That’s why it is a community obligation to “see to it that no one among you fails the grace of God.”

The whole of Hebrews 12 is misapplied if applied exclusively to the individual. The verbs are plural. It is addressed to the community. “Lay aside every weight… and sin” is not just to the individual, but to the community. … The community of faith is, like the Author of our faith, in a conflict with sin. In fact, the writer says exactly this in verse 3: “in your struggle against sin.” Unlike the Author of our faith we have not resisted to the point of “shedding of blood” (a euphemism for death, I believe). This struggle against sin includes our own sin which “clings so closely” (v.1) and, like our Captain’s struggle, “hostility against” us (v. 3). Our own sin has painful consequences and the hostility of sinners against us is also painful. This we are called to endure because it is training (“discipline”). …

This understanding makes the following verses make sense, especially as it is understood corporately. While too many people get defensive and circle the wagons trying to point out the excesses of accusers, instead he/she should “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather healed” (v. 12-13). Again, this is all plural and directed to the community of faith. It simply says, “Fix the problem. Straighten the path.”

It flies in the face of reason not to admit that many people have been hurt in (certain) circles and it is belligerently ungodly to dismiss it by saying, “Well, everybody is a sinner.” The godly response is to be trained by it and to say, “Let’s lift up the drooping hands and the weak knees.” In other words, let’s strengthen those in our community that are discouraged by sin. Yes, even our sinfulness. Therefore, “let’s make straight paths” and fix the problem so that what is already “lame may not be put out of joint.”

Instead, … churches too often (not always and, yes, there are many exceptions), shoot the wounded or tell them to quit “harboring hurt.” The striving for peace of Hebrews 12:14 is not to have a voiceless group of subdued villagers who meekly bow to the elders. The striving for peace in the community of faith is accompanied by a striving for holiness without which no man will see the Lord (v. 14). This is why it is absolutely imperative that the community of faith “see to it” (episkopéō) that no one fails the grace of God and that a root of bitterness springs up and defiles many people.
The word “see to it” is a Greek word that even most laypeople would recognize. It’s a word that is at the root of our word for pastor/overseer. I suppose you could translate 12:15 this way: You all oversee [yourselves] that no one fails to obtain the grace of God. The person who fails to obtain the grace of God becomes a “root of bitterness” that will spring up and defile many.

I think that Hebrews 12:18-29 builds on this community idea. The Hebrews were inclined to think that they needed to protect the visible, tangible, and touchable identifiers of their previous community of faith under the old covenant. Thus, the writer says, “The reason why I have encouraged you to lay aside every weight and sin and vigilantly make sure no one in your community is actually with an unbelieving heart (3:12, 12:15) is because it is the heart, not externals and names and labels, that matter. “You have not come to what may be touched….” (12:18-21). Instead, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (12:19-24).

I am moved by Bob’s words–”it is the heart, not externals and names and labels, that matter.” I immediately think of Christ’s strong warning that “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12: 34). When someone’s words are contemptuous, angry, and unloving, it is because their HEART is contemptuous, angry, and unloving. And the community of faith has an obligation to examine, hold accountable, and guard against the ones that “fail the grace of God” and sow this root of bitterness, NOT the ones who were wounded by it and cry out against it.

10 Responses to What Bitterness REALLY is

  1. Bina July 15, 2011 at 5:25 am #

    Love this! Thanks for sharing it Wendy.

  2. Rachel July 15, 2011 at 11:41 am #

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Anonymous July 15, 2011 at 12:56 pm #

    “Instead, (in certain situations) the root of bitterness was retained and those who were defiled by it were sent away.”

    Thank you so much for this. It has really helped me understand what has happened in my life/church situation in the last few years. It has hurt so badly. And thank you for explaining there is a better way. God's way. Thank you, thank you.

  4. Anonymous July 15, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

    Wendy, as someone who has been deeply and life-alteringly wounded by other believers {though in a completely different context than the one Bixby is referring to}, these words are balm to my spirit. Thank you for sharing them!

  5. Erin July 15, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

    That is a very reasonable and enlightening exposition of the text, thank you!

  6. Anonymous July 15, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

    Thank You! As a woman working in a mixed gender setting, different views arise. When my perspective is shared, it is/was often different than the other voices in the room, which were mostly men, it would introduce complexity and that complexity would be seen as problematic. Then the “bitter card” comes out. This blog post helps me to better understand why it the bitter card is misapplied and also helps to understand how to apply it correctly.

  7. Anonymous July 15, 2011 at 6:36 pm #

    “…Anger and indignation is not always ‘bitterness’. Wounds and hurts still felt are not bitterness.“ WOW. Thank you. Thank you. For YEARS my heart has been condemning me, telling me I need to forgive certain “Christian” people for the many deep wounds they’ve inflicted on me, feeling guilty for not loving or forgiving these people, feeling depressed that I am not a “good” Christian like I want to be, worried that I am bitter, and upset that I don’t know HOW to forgive them or fix myself or whatever. Just a few weeks ago, a woman told me that God told her that I need to FORGIVE these people. It was like getting kicked while already down. As you put it, “churches too often … shoot the wounded or tell them to quit ‘harboring hurt.’”

    After that woman’s comment, I thought yet again about this idea of forgiveness, and came to the conclusion that no, that’s not the problem. The problem is that I need HEALING. Your writeup here, Wendy, brings me one more step along the path to freedom, and gives me some validation that while there is a root of bitterness here, it is in their hearts, not mine. Thank you. Your words are like fresh water to this wounded soul.

  8. stephy July 15, 2011 at 8:40 pm #

    Thank you for writing this! I feel similarly and wrote about it here. http://www.stuffchristianculturelikes.com/2010/09/190-calling-anger-bitterness.html

  9. Anonymous July 16, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    Thank you-always appreciative of your wisdom.
    Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Eph 4:15)

  10. Laurie July 17, 2011 at 9:52 pm #

    Wendy,
    I vote for Bob to write Part 2 as well :-). Think he will listen to us??

    After reading your post, I went back and read his. In the early years after leaving fundamentalism behind, I found myself not really knowing what I believed from the teaching of my childhood and early adult years. I found myself studying so many different passages of Scripture with Hebrew and Greek lexicon in hand. I found myself saying, “If they were so wrong about this (thinking of all the years of church sanctioned and hidden abuse), what else were they wrong about?

    Tina Anderson's husband Tim just wrote a new blog post that he posted today dealing with the issue of forgiveness. I think that is one of the biggest areas of teaching/preaching/counseling where the accusation of bitterness comes in within fundamentalism. I know I saw it first hand at Trinity Baptist Concord and every other church I attended within fundamentalist circles. I thought he had some good things to say and that you might be interested.
    http://bit.ly/piq91n

    I continue to enjoy your blog.
    Laurie Moody