The most infectious diseases are ones that lie in the unseen regions of the body. If proper attention is not given to it, the infection hidden beneath the surface will eventually emerge and corrupt the whole person. If the infection is not released, the gall poisons everything it touches and the outcome can be terminal. In like manner, this is how bitterness affects our lives.
Bitterness is poisonous to the soul. It is unrealistic to expect to go through life without having the opportunity to become bitter over difficulties. A person in leadership is at greater risk because their relationships are usually more numerous, thus, he is more vulnerable to being offended, which results in having to deal with bitter feelings. Jesus said, “offenses must come” (Matthew 18:7), and notice, He did not say they “may come,” but “must come.”
It remains then, what will we do with our offenses? The answer is simple. We will allow them to make us better or bitter. The Lord uses our offenses as our cross, to put to death everything that is of the flesh. Paul stated, “I am crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20a), therefore, when we willingly die “with Christ,” only then will we be able to say “nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20b, KJV).
In order to die, you follow the path of Christ, give up your rights to prove yourself and look acceptable before people. Leaders who are living to the fullest are those who have died to the most. On the surface, it may seem that they have taken great losses and given up their right to defend their actions or tell their side of the story. On the other hand, these same people are more in control of their life and destiny than anyone you will ever meet. Striving has ceased, and they plot their course with peaceful confidence. This is where the “nevertheless I live” addendum is added to their life.
Indeed, no one is freer than a dead man. When you decline the opportunity to become bitter over the circumstances in your life and choose to die to yourself, you are more alive than ever. When you refuse to embrace bitterness, the ploy of the devil is broken and the Lord can continue dealing with the real issue at hand: you.
Bitterness affects three people, the Holy Spirit, other people in your life, and you. To the church in Ephesus, Paul stated:
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.
And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:30-32, emphasis mine).
The Holy Spirit is saddened in the presence of bitterness. In the Greek language the word in the New Testament for “grieve” could also be rendered to cause to be heavy, sad, uneasy, or sorrowful. When we harbor bitterness in our heart we actually hinder our relationship with the Holy Spirit. We cause Him sorrow, which can cause the atmosphere of our worship to be heavy. Have you ever been in a worship service and sensed heaviness in the meeting? When this is the case, it does not matter how much the worship leader tries to bring the Lord’s presence into the meeting, sometimes it is useless. We could be sensing the mood of the Holy Spirit, and in some instances, the Spirit is saddened because the offenses mentioned in Ephesians 4:31 are present among the body. The Holy Spirit can be uneasy with what we harbor in our own spirit and conceal within our heart.
At the same time, bitterness affects other people we relate to. For this reason, in the same context Paul said, “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.” Christians are “members of one another” (Romans 12:5), therefore, if the hand has an infection the whole body will suffer from it.
Likewise, we cannot hold bitterness within our heart without affecting others within the body. Paul exhorted the church in Ephesus to release kindness and forgiveness among themselves because these virtues are opposite of bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, evil speaking and malice. Choosing kindness and forgiveness over bitterness serves as an antidote against the poison it releases.
Bitterness is a spiritual and emotional cancer. As cancer is to the physical body, bitterness is like renegade cells attempting to co-exist with the healthy parts of the body. However, once they began to have “fellowship” with other cells, the healthy cells become contaminated with the same disease, and join in the rebellion. Like cancer, bitterness may run rampant for years before it distorts the original plan of the body, and in some cases, causes death. The ploy of bitterness is to destroy the original purpose and bring an end to God’s original plan for a life.
This makes for a strange co-habitation within the same person. While you carry on in some areas of life, seemly unscathed from anything you have experienced, the cells of bitterness can still be alive and well within the soul. Bitterness has a life of its own, and for a while, can live independently from us while we carry on day-to-day activities. However, in a moment’s time, bitter feelings that are deeply entrenched in our heart will rear their ugly heads and defile us.
A person who harbors bitterness can go on living life and do fine for a while. Then, while shopping at the store, you run into the person who offended you and, suddenly, your day is ruined. Bitter cells, hidden in the heart, surface and take over. Emotions like anger, wrath, jealousy, and depression surface and in an instant, you become someone you were never intended to be.
At the core of bitterness is the need for revenge. When the pain within our soul seems unbearable, our flesh yearns for those who we feel caused or approve of our pain to experience the same thing. There is the tendency to live with the need to see them suffer as we have. Indeed, revenge is the fundamental longing and unfulfilled desire of bitterness.
The best and worst of our nature lies beneath the surface in the deep places of our heart. I never cease to be amazed at the good and bad that can arise out of my own heart. Bitterness can lie dormant for a long time and brew over an incident that occurred many years ago, and, without notice, it emerges. Hebrews 12:14-16 gives us insight into bitterness and how it continues to live within the heart.
Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord:
looking diligently lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled;
lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright.
In the scripture above, the writer of Hebrews describes bitterness as “a root”. At this stage, we meditate about all that has happened, which only serves to deepen the effects. The more you meditate on it the more the root grows, and as time goes on, the root becomes a channel that nourishes the offense in you and everyone else who takes your offense upon themselves.
Like all roots, it looks for nourishment. As in a tree, roots grow, and the longer they grow, the more they become a foundation for the offense. Consequently, bitterness becomes more difficult to uproot from our lives as the roots run deeper and deeper spreading out until they find a source of sympathy to feed upon.
Eventually the root will “spring up,” and cause trouble. While bitter roots lie dormant and unseen for a while, eventually they sprout and begin to manifest problems in areas other than attitudes and behavior. Even psychiatrists and medical professionals agree that people who embrace bitter feelings open the door to all kinds of physical infirmities.
BITTER FROM FAILURE
Over the last twenty-eight years of ministry, I have known countless leaders, most of them pastors, who lived and ministered out of their bitterness. Many of them, at some point, made a mistake and never felt forgiven by people in the church. Others were misused or misunderstood. Without fail, leaders who never get free from bitterness, never walk in the full purpose of God for their life. Sadly, some of the men and women I knew were older, seasoned ministers, and instead of finishing their course, they died angry and bitter. Still, others went on with life by securing a different vocation and leaving ministry altogether. In worse cases, some even gave up their faith.
A failure can become a stronghold that gives bitterness a place to take root. As odd as it may seem, bitter roots take hold even when the circumstances are our fault. You can become angry at yourself for committing sin or for allowing a situation to get out of control, which caused your downfall. In some cases, the anger within us may even be turned toward God as we accuse Him for “allowing” it to happen. If we do not get free from them, such bitter roots become a ploy to deprive us of God’s blessings.
A classic example of this is found in the story of the twin brothers, Jacob and Esau. Esau, the first born of the twins, by Mosaic Law had the right to receive the birthright and blessing of his father, Isaac. Jacob, however, wanted it…badly. His desire to have the birthright and blessing was so obsessive that he would go to any length to get it, even so far as to deceive his own brother and father, thus living up to his name, Jacob.
Finding Esau in a weak moment of hunger after a day of hunting game, Jacob lured him to trade his birthright for lentil stew. His physical hunger satisfied, scripture states, “Esau despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34). At the time Esau did not fully realize what he had lost or the effect this would have upon his destiny.
As their father was nearing death, he called for Esau to bring him a freshly cooked meal, after which, he would give him his blessing and die. Jacob, ambitious for the family blessing, with the help of his mother, deceived the hard-of-seeing Isaac into thinking he was Esau. Disguising himself, he served Isaac his favorite meal. Nearly blind, Isaac thought he was blessing Esau and passed the family lineage and blessing to the younger, more ambitious, Jacob.
Upon realizing this, Esau became a bitter man. Genesis 27:34-41 describes the scene:
When Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, "Bless me-- me also, O my father!"
But he said, "Your brother came with deceit and has taken away your blessing."
And Esau said, "Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright, and now look, he has taken away my blessing!" And he said, "Have you not reserved a blessing for me?"
Then Isaac answered and said to Esau, "Indeed I have made him your master, and all his brethren I have given to him as servants; with grain and wine I have sustained him. What shall I do now for you, my son?"
And Esau said to his father, "Have you only one blessing, my father? Bless me-- me also, O my father!" And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.
Then Isaac his father answered and said to him: "Behold, your dwelling shall be of the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above.
By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; and it shall come to pass, when you become restless, that you shall break his yoke from your neck."
So Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father blessed him, and Esau said in his heart, "The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then I will kill my brother Jacob."
As wrong as Jacob’s deceit seems, our issue is with Esau’s indifference toward his destiny. Jacob had a greater passion for his father’s birthright and blessing than Esau did. Thus, the downward spiral of Esau’s negligence began with his disregard for the birthright. Not suppressing his momentary hunger caused him to surrender his future destiny. Esau’s greater deceit was what he suffered from himself, rather than from Jacob. His own failure and weakness was the basis for his bitterness.
The moment Esau realized what he had lost, bitterness took root and “He cried with an exceedingly great and bitter cry.” The root of bitterness is revealed in the words, “So Esau hated Jacob.”
When leaders fail, the devil does everything he can to get us to either turn excessively outward on others or excessively inward on ourselves. In Esau’s case he allowed a bitter root to grow hatred toward Jacob and blamed all his trouble on him. He did not look into his own life to realize if he had only refused to give in to his flesh he would have never lost his destiny.
When a leader suffers a fall or any type of failure, it is indeed a bitter moment when he comes to the awareness of all he has lost. The strategy of the devil is to get us to focus on everyone involved, accuse them and blame our present position on their actions.
Also, these days can be intense times of spiritual warfare. The devil knows if he can get a root of bitterness entrenched within your heart he can stop any prospect of restoration, thus, not having to deal with your part in the Kingdom of God ever again.
Some tactics will tempt us to become bitter at people who took advantage of us, at those who have taken over our ministry or church when we have to be away for discipline, or at others who have rejected us because of our failure. Ultimately, our enemy wants us to become bitter toward God for “allowing” everything to happen. If not cut off “at the root,” this will eventually affect everything in our life, even the remainder of our days on earth.
In the Old Testament the Lord gave Moses and Aaron specific instructions concerning the qualifications of a priest who was to minister before the Lord. Leviticus 21:16-21 gives those qualifications and explains that among the things that would disqualify a priest from ministry in the Tabernacle was a scab or a sore on his body. In short, the presence of wounds disqualified a priest from serving before the Lord until he was fully healed.
Likewise, leaders must be healed before they minister again. We must not minister from a wounded heart because bitterness, an infection in the heart and soul, can be passed to others around us. We must be healed from bitterness before we minister to other people. Otherwise, we risk passing the gall and poison of bitterness to those to whom we serve.
You may try to cover your bitter root with ministry activity or even spiritual verbiage. This can also prove to be an open door for a religious spirit. It is much better to be honest about your pain than to cover it up with religious pursuits and masks. The most pleasant person, after eating from the tree of bitterness, can become a distorted version of the person the Lord intended him to be.
After losing her husband and two sons to death, Naomi was left alone with no way to make a living. She reacted to her situation in bitterness. To her credit, it shows that she at least recognized her state and was honest about her condition when she said to Ruth: “Don’t call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20). Her name, Naomi, means pleasant. However, she had allowed “life” to cause her to become anything but pleasant. Naomi was so bitter that she requested she be re-named “Mara,” or bitter. Whether we caused them or not, we become bitter to the same degree that we dwell upon the bitter circumstances of our life.
This same principle is suggested in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “But we all…beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” We will become what we behold. If you continue to look at the bitter circumstances of your life, you will become bitter. In spite of the unpleasant events that have transpired, if you choose to spend time beholding the Lord, you will take on His likeness, which is the opposite of your present situation.
A bitter spirit does not reflect the purposes of God in our future, but rather, points toward the bitter happenings in our past. As Solomon acknowledged in Proverbs 14:10, “The heart knows its own bitterness, and a stranger does not share its joy”(emphasis mine).
What happened to Naomi happens to all of us when we allow bitterness to take control. Not only do we take on a bitter attitude, in time our name and character literally become bitter. No wonder when someone embraces a bitter spirit for a long period of time, we say, “They are bitter,” as if that is their name. Even so, in many respects, it is.
THE THREE “D’S” OF BITTERNESS
There are three ways that bitterness can affect a leader’s restoration. I call these the “Three D’s of Bitterness”.
First, bitterness is a path that DETOURS your destiny. As I stated, a bitter heart is full of unfulfilled revenge. Either anger at yourself, others, or God causes a bitter root to grow within your spirit. The flesh wants to “get back” at someone and take the path of revenge. Revenge, however, never happens and we end up in an emotional and spiritual condition God never intended for us. Recompense is best left in the Lord’s hands.
Second, a bitter root DELAYS the process of our restoration. Along with shame (which we will deal with in the next chapter), bitterness holds up restoration more than any other ploy of the enemy. All the failure, pain, sin, and hurts have to be dealt with before you can proceed through restoration.
Imagine taking a long trip in a car, and once you get halfway, your back begins to hurt, so you stop at a hotel for the night. You get a room, go to bed, rise early in the morning and still have a terrible backache. Since you are not better, you get the room for another night, and another, and still another. Consequently, the journey is delayed and you never arrive at your destination. Sounds ridiculous, right?
Similarly, bitter roots are connected to a point of pain from your past. If you stop and nurse the pain, thinking you will get better because you did, you are deceived. If you are not willing to release the bitterness you will delay the journey toward your healing and restoration.
Finally, bitterness can DERAIL your restoration. To put it bluntly, a bitter person will never become what the Lord intended for him to become because he is not the person the Lord placed the destiny and call upon in the beginning. Bitterness, as we saw with Esau and Naomi, can change a person completely.
A train cannot get to the desired destination without tracks. When something causes the train to get “off track,” we say the train was derailed. Even so, when we get off track and begin to focus on our failure and rejection from others, bitter roots go deeper and our restoration process is disrupted. Revenge never takes us in a godly direction, and we never end up at our God-ordained destination through bitterness.
Bitterness DETOURS, DELAYS and DERAILS you from the Lord’s original plan for your life and causes restoration to come to a halt. Therefore, you must get free from bitterness in order to proceed.
A bitter root grows when we rehearse the negative story again and again in our minds. Reenacting the situation feeds the root. However, the root can be starved to death by ceasing to give it the pleasure of being right. Bitterness not only wants revenge, it wants to be right. When you began to take responsibility for your own restoration and cease replaying the events in your mind, the root begins to die.
This was a major hurdle through my restoration. I rehearsed my own failure and people’s rejections, continually. I could not decide who was worse because I hated myself, but I hated them as well.
Here is some simple but profound counsel: Do not look back and rehearse your pain. Your life is ahead of you—but you must look forward to claim it. Past rejection and failure is nothing more than food for the bitter root. I am not glossing over your failure or sugar coating it to make you think this will be easy. Rehearsing the failure feeds the bitterness—releasing the failure cuts it off at the root.
In addition, forgiveness and blessing are the base spiritual medication and remedy for bitterness. Bitterness calls to mind the people who have hurt you. So instead of rehearsing the curse, reverse the curse by releasing blessing instead of bitterness. The Lord gave us a command with this in mind when He said, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45, emphasis mine).
One of the most difficult situations I had to overcome came as the result of my best friend rejecting me after my failure. Before this happened, he stated publicly that he would always stand by my side even if I was guilty of alleged wrong doings. As it happened, I was guilty, but he was not loyal. Not only did he reject me, he talked about me and made a bad situation worse. This resulted in a bitter root becoming a stronghold in my life.
To make matters worse, as I drove by his house every day, in my mind I rehearsed the good and bad moments we had together, which only fed my bitterness. One day the Lord spoke to me and told me to lift my hand and bless him, his wife, and children as I drove past. As I did this the release that came was amazing. The next day I did the same thing, calling each one by name, asking the Lord to bless them, declaring aloud that I forgave them. Over a period of time, the bitter root died because I starved it to death, deciding to bless instead of curse. As a result, over time, I was freed from the curse of bitterness.
Likewise, you must forgive and bless, not once, but over and over again, until your actions of blessing and forgiveness starve the bitter root to death. Together in prayer, my wife and I asked the Lord to bless the people that we knew were speaking curses against us because of my failure. Blessing and forgiveness reversed the curse of bitterness and released blessing into our lives. When we asked the Lord to bless the people who had not forgiven me, He answered our prayer and really did bless them. Therefore, if you ask the Lord to bless someone, you must be prepared for Him to answer the prayer, and not just to bless you for praying it.
Similarly, Moses and the Israelites, during their wilderness journey, found bitter waters at Marah. Because they were thirsty and could not drink the water, Moses “cried out to the Lord and the Lord showed him a tree” (Exodus 15:25a). This tree was a type of the cross of Christ. “When he cast it into the waters, the waters were made sweet” (Exodus 15:25b).
The foundational work of the cross is forgiveness. Whenever we cry out to the Lord and cast the cross of Christ into our bitter situation, eventually, it will turn sweet. As with Moses and Israel, applying the cross to the bitter waters of your failures will cause them to become sweet and pleasant, in spite of your unpleasant experiences.