Poisoned By Bitterness

by David Padfield

Simon the sorcerer committed a terrible sin by attempting to purchase the gift of God with money. He was among a large number of people from Samaria who obeyed the gospel of Christ through the preaching of Philip (Acts 8:4-13). When the apostles from Jerusalem came to Samaria, Simon offered them money so that he might obtain the same spiritual gifts they demonstrated. Simon was rebuked by Peter as being a man whose heart was not right with God, for he was "poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity" (Acts 8:20-23).

Bitterness is a sin that will keep people out of heaven. Paul admonishes us to remove bitterness from our lives (Eph. 4:31). The Hebrew writer tells us to "pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled..." (Heb. 12:14-15).

What Is Bitterness?

Our word "bitterness" is from the Greek word pikria, a word which is only found in four New Testament passages (Acts 8:23; Rom. 3:14; Eph. 4:31; Heb. 12:15).

Arndt and Gingrich define pikria as "bitterness, animosity, anger, harshness" (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 663). H.A.W. Meyer defines the word as "a bitter, malignant, and hostile disposition" (Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistle to the Acts of the Apostles, p. 172). Marvin Vincent defines it as a "bitter frame of mind" (Word Studies In The New Testament, Vol. III, p. 397).

John Eadie says that pikria is "a figurative term denoting that fretted and irritable state of mind that keeps a man in perpetual animosity -- that inclines him to harsh and uncharitable opinions of men and things -- that makes him sour, crabbed, and repulsive in his general demeanor -- that brings a scowl over his face, and infuses venom into the words of his tongue" (Commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians, p. 357).

Bitterness is a hostile disposition and a poisonous frame of mind that causes people to brood, scowl and become repulsive in demeanor.

What Causes Bitterness?

The basic cause of bitterness is sin and the guilt it produces. An individual with a guilty conscience often becomes bitter and repulsive.

Sin is at the root of the problem -- sin leads to guilt and depression, and sinful handling of sin further complicates matters leading to greater guilt and deeper depression, for a wicked man will be "caught in the cords of his sin" (Prov. 5:22).

The story of Cain illustrates the progression of sin. Cain began by giving a sinful offering (Gen. 4:1-8). Abel gave his best, whereas Cain merely brought an offering. When God rejected the offering, Cain complicated the matter by responding wrongly -- he got angry and depressed: his face "fell." Cain's anger was noted by God, who warned against the consequences of this wrong response. God graciously said, "If you do well, will you not be accepted?" Or, as some translations say, "If you do right, you will feel right."

God also warned Cain that failure to repent and offer the right kind of sacrifice would cause him to fall deeper into sin. The clutches of sin, like a wild animal, was crouching at the door and waiting to devour him. God offered hope by saying that he could reverse the spiral of rule over sin by breaking out of his sinful pattern through repentance and a subsequent change of behavior. Cain failed to heed God's words and fell deeper into the depths of sin just as God said he would. His bitterness led him to murder Abel.

Sin leads to guilt and bitterness, and sinful handling of sin further complicates matters leading to greater guilt and deeper bitterness. Proverbs 26:23-26 describes people who harbor grudges, resentments and bitterness in their hearts. Sometimes they cover their resentment with an outer gloss of tranquility and graciousness, but finally the resentment will burst through. Outwardly they might seem respectable; outwardly they may appear responsible; but inwardly their heart is seethed with hate. Proverbs says that anger, hatred, resentment and bitterness bottled up within will give rise to half a dozen other problems -- "there are seven abominations in his heart." The passage concludes with the warning that although for a time hatred can be covered, in time it "will be revealed before the assembly" -- that is, the feelings down underneath will be revealed.

Defeating Bitterness

You can either have your sins forgiven by the blood of Christ, or you can allow bitterness to destroy you.

Only one thing lifts the depressed spirit crushed by a load of sin: confession and forgiveness of sin! David's "music therapy" did not help king Saul -- it soothed him temporarily, but it did not change him (1 Sam. 16:23). Saul's own attitudes and actions kept making his condition worse, as day by day he brooded with jealousy and resentment. Saul's pride and self-centeredness affected every aspect of his life. The Scriptures do not attribute Saul's madness to "sickness," nor is his sin excused because he is considered mentally ill. Rather, his madness and his sin are linked directly (1 Sam. 18:6-11).

What is the purpose of our preaching? "Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith" (1 Tim. 1:5). The goal of our preaching is to bring men into a loving conformity to the law of God, and this in turn brings a clean conscience. Instead of excuse-making, the Bible advocates that you assume your responsibility, confess your sins and seek the wonderful forgiveness which is in Christ Jesus. A good conscience depends upon good behavior (1 Pet. 3:10-11).

Good lives come from good deeds. Good consciences come from good behavior. From his guilt, David cried out, "For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was turned into the drought of summer" (Psa. 32:4). It was as if God's hand was crushing him. He believed his depression was from God and he considered it the merciful punishment of God warning him and leading him to repentance. David acknowledged his sin and sought forgiveness (Psa. 32:5-7). David's forgiveness restored to him the joy of salvation (Psa. 51:1-13). As Isaiah said, "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon." (Isa. 55:7).

Dealing With Bitter People

We are warned to "make no friendship with an angry man, and with a furious man do not go, lest you learn his ways, and set a snare for your soul" (Prov. 22:24-25).

"When people get angry they often go through the day meditating on the cause of their anger. As this ruminating continues, the original causes are blown up into false proportions and anger increases, especially when critical people associate with other critical people and share their criticisms. In this way, some people develop a whole mind-set of negativism and bitterness which grows worse as they get older. This kind of thinking can be fun, at first, because it lets the thinker fantasize about his or her own superiority. But since this thinking is destructive and harmful it must be resisted and replaced with thinking which is positive and less critical." (Gary R. Collins, Ph. D., Christian Counseling, p. 112).

Be careful, lest you become the object of their wrath. We need to be careful about those whom we allow to become our close friends, "for anger rests in the bosom of fools" (Eccl. 7:9). "Do you see a man hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him" (Prov. 29:20). And again, "An angry man stirs up strife, and a furious man abounds in transgression" (Prov. 29:22).

The principle is to associate closely with friends whose lives accord with the highest Biblical ethics.

King Ahab of Israel was an exceedingly evil man (1 Kings 16:29-33). Ahab took Jezebel as his wife and set up an altar for Baal. Elijah was a faithful prophet of God and spoke out against Ahab. When Ahab met Elijah he accused Elijah of being guilty of sin (1 Kings 18:17-18).

"Introductory textbooks in psychology often describe the common human tendency to blame innocent people when things are not going well. The man who is angry with his boss may stifle his anger at work (lest he be fired), but he 'takes it out' on his wife or children at home in the evening because this is a safe place to ventilate. The family may not have caused the anger but they bear the brunt of the angry person's feelings. Anger is especially difficult to handle when we cannot identify who is to be blamed or when we cannot reach the person who created the situation. If inflation decreases our spending power, who do we blame? The grocer or drugstore manager may be charging higher prices but they alone are not responsible for inflation. If we decide that the real source of the problem rests with some government leader, this may be an aloof, distant person who is difficult to contact and never available to hear our anger and criticism. As a result, we verbally, physically, or cognitively attack some largely innocent but accusable person. Sometimes there may even be an illegal or criminal 'acting out' against innocent victims who nevertheless are part of the society." (Gary R. Collins, Ph. D., Christian Counseling, p. 107).

Conclusion

"All usefulness, and all comfort, may be prevented by an unkind, a sour, a crabbed temper of mind -- a mind that can bear with no difference of opinion or temperament. A spirit of fault-finding; an unsatisfied temper; a constant irritability; little inequalities in the look, the temper, or the manner; a brow cloudy and dissatisfied will more than neutralize all the good you can do, and render life anything but a blessing. It is in such gentle and quiet virtues as meekness and forbearance, that the happiness and usefulness of life consist, far more than in brilliant eloquence, in splendid talent, or illustrious deeds, that shall send the name to future times." (Albert Barnes, Notes On The New Testament, Vol. 12, p. 72).

If you are suffering from the sin of bitterness, or any other sin for that matter, there is hope, for "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15).