What Does the Bible Say About Bitterness?
Is becoming bitter a problem for Christians? Should you be concerned with bitterness? Let’s look at examples of bitterness in the Bible to find answers.
A number of years ago, members in a congregation I was pastoring were having to adjust to being part of a new organization. Breakups of churches over doctrinal differences are notoriously difficult, and the members were struggling with the shock and emotions that often accompany these trying circumstances.
In the midst of the swirling emotions—which included anger, fear and discouragement—a woman who was wise beyond her years told me how she was dealing with the situation. She said, “I know that God is in charge, and I’m praying every day that I don’t become bitter.”
In the years since, I’ve learned more about the subject of bitterness and why striving not to become bitter is so important for spiritual health.
Let’s begin by examining some of the biblical teachings regarding bitterness, and then focus on ways to overcome it.
New Testament teaching on bitterness
The word bitterness is found in only four places in the New King James Version of the New Testament. Each occurrence adds to our understanding. These passages are Acts 8:23; Romans 3:14; Ephesians 4:31; and Hebrews 12:15.
Let’s briefly consider each of these passages.
The bitterness of Simon the sorcerer
The first reference to bitterness is found in Acts 8, where we read about a man in Samaria named Simon who had previously practiced sorcery (verse 9). Instead of “sorcery,” the English Standard Version translates this word as “magic.” The International Standard Version renders it “occult arts.”
Having been convicted by the preaching of Philip, Simon was baptized (verses 12-13). Then the apostles came from Jerusalem to lay hands on the newly baptized people so they could receive the Holy Spirit (verses 14-17). When Simon saw people receiving the Holy Spirit through prayer and the laying on of hands by the apostles, he tried to buy this power.
Peter rejected Simon’s request and told him, “You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity” (verses 21-23, emphasis added throughout).
The Greek word translated “bitterness” is pikria, meaning “bitterness . . . bitterness of spirit and language, harshness” (Mounce’s Concise Greek-English Dictionary).
In this situation, Simon was likely spiritually poisoned by envy that the apostles had a power that he did not have. His heart was not right with God. This envy was tearing down the initial belief he had when he heard the gospel and saw miracles (verses 12-13).
What does bitterness mean in the Bible?
Bitterness is a toxic emotion that can lead people to have pent-up anger and that can destroy their relationships with other people. Bitterness is hardened, unhealthy spiritual thinking. This kind of thinking is a poison that affects our spiritual health. Left untreated, this poison can keep us from spiritual growth and maturity. It usually begins when someone feels mistreated or neglected.
Bitterness is a toxic emotion that can lead people to have pent-up anger and that can destroy their relationships with other people.
To learn more about dealing with anger, read “Overcoming Dangerous Emotions: Anger.”
Bitterness seeps into communication
The next passage where bitterness is found in the New Testament is Romans 3:14. Here, Paul is referencing Old Testament passages that describe unrepentant sinners. Among the various practices of these people is the description: “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”
Why were these people expressing bitterness? Because their speech was reflecting the poison within their minds regarding God’s truth. Calling attention to this principle, Jesus said, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).
Warning to put away bitterness
Because of the serious and adverse effects of bitterness, Paul warns: “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice” (Ephesians 4:31).
These three New Testament passages provide sufficient information for us to know that all bitterness, all unhealthy spiritual thinking, is destructive and something to avoid.
How does bitterness develop?
There is one more passage in the New Testament that adds to our understanding of bitterness. This passage describes how bitterness can develop.
This insightful section of Scripture follows Hebrews 11—all about powerful examples of faith. Hebrews 12:1 then admonishes us, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
Bitterness can easily develop in our lives as well when we believe we have been slighted, overlooked or mistreated.Included within this advice for how to successfully run our spiritual race, we are told to be “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” (verse 15).
The text then refers to Esau as an example of someone who allowed a root of bitterness to take hold in his mind. The passage explains: “Lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears” (verses 16-17).
Esau had great bitterness toward his brother, threatening to kill him, because he had lost the birthright blessing (Genesis 27:41-42). He even shed tears regarding his loss, but it seems that he didn’t think he had done anything wrong.
Bitterness can easily develop in our lives as well when we believe we have been slighted, overlooked or mistreated.
To learn more about fighting the temptation to be hateful, read “Fighting the Works of the Flesh: Hatred.”
Root of bitterness meaning
The phrase root of bitterness in Hebrews 12:15 appears to be a reference to a passage in Deuteronomy that admonished the ancient Israelites to guard against abandoning God and turning to idolatry.
The warning reads: “So that there may not be among you man or woman or family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from the LORD our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations, and that there may not be among you a root bearing bitterness or wormwood” (Deuteronomy 29:18).
Unrestrained bitterness is often not limited to the person who has it. It easily spreads. In this verse, idolatry is likened to a plant that produces poisonous fruit. As we read successive verses in this chapter, we see that the problem was not only that such actions would negatively affect this person, but that his example would be a root that would grow and affect his children and other Israelites too, so that eventually the entire nation would be punished.
The point is, unrestrained bitterness (spiritual poison) is often not limited to the person who has it. It easily spreads. A person’s bitterness can affect his or her family and everyone he or she comes in contact with (if they allow themselves to be influenced).
Now that we understand the danger of allowing a root of bitterness to develop in our minds, let’s look at steps the Bible provides for overcoming it.
Biblical keys to overcoming bitterness
Bitterness can be found in multiple strong emotions. It can appear as envy, anger, resentment and desire for revenge. It can also be a hardened attitude, unwilling to change even when the need to change is clear.
Here are a few keys that God’s Word provides if we want to overcome this debilitating state of mind.
1. Recognize that our emotions can lead us astray.
We need to understand that our feelings are not the sole basis for determining the facts, the full story and all truth. Many people mistakenly think that whatever they feel is always right and believe they should just accept their emotions, no matter what they are. The Bible teaches that our minds can deceive us and that we must be careful about blindly trusting our thinking (Jeremiah 17:9; Proverbs 14:12; Romans 8:7).
If we wish to overcome bitterness, we can’t just excuse and justify our bitterness as acceptable. Instead, we need to think in terms of controlling and guiding our emotions. We can choose to not be bitter.
2. Choose humility instead of bitterness.
Proverbs 3:34 tells us that God gives grace to the humble. Choosing humility is not always easy to do. But this is what people striving to be Christians must do. This concept is cited by both James and Peter (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5).
3. When you become angry, control and quench your anger.
All of us deal with anger from time to time. After all, humans are human. We all make mistakes and occasionally mistreat others. When we do become angry, Ephesians 4:26-27 gives us three important things to remember: do not sin, get over your anger before the day is done, and don’t give Satan a means to take advantage of your uncontrolled anger.
4. Consider the needs of others and strive to help them.
People who are bitter tend to think only of themselves. When we pray for others who have needs and help them as we are able, we learn to put our problems in proper perspective. In Philippians 2:4 Paul advises us: “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” When we help others, we help ourselves have a more realistic view of our own circumstances.
5. Ask God to help you forgive others and have a pure heart.
Forgiving others is a necessity if we want God’s forgiveness (Matthew 6:12, 14-15). Closely related to forgiving others is the concept of having a pure heart. In his prayer of repentance, King David asked, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). Forgiving others and having a pure heart with God are great antidotes to bitterness.
6. Obey God’s instruction to bear with others.
When we are hurting and trying to recover from difficult circumstances, it is easy to get upset with others. Even under trying circumstances, we must strive to live in accordance with the instruction Paul gave us: “Bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (Colossians 3:13).
7. Show love to others.
Continuing his instruction, Paul added: “But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (verse 14). When we are genuinely loving to others through kindness and good works, bitterness tends to melt away.
8. Let the peace of God rule in your mind and be thankful.
When we are striving to overcome bitterness, there is a battle taking place in our mind between peace and bitterness. Since we have the power to choose which feeling prevails, we must choose peace (verse 15). Although this passage seems to close in verse 15 with an afterthought, “and be thankful,” thankfulness is also a powerful tool for establishing and maintaining peace as the predominant, ruling emotion in our minds.
Jesus Christ: the perfect example of avoiding bitterness
What does a person who isn’t bitter look like? Sometimes it helps for us to visualize in advance how we want to respond when we find ourselves in an emotionally charged situation that could lead to bitterness.
The person we should try to emulate under such circumstances is Jesus Christ.
In the most trying time imaginable—the agonizing hours He experienced as He was being crucified—Jesus was not bitter about what was being done to Him. He did not build up hate and resentment against those unjustly abusing Him. He did not become bitter.
As He was being crucified, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Instead of becoming bitter because of the pain and abuse, Jesus recognized that His abusers were acting out of ignorance. A lesson for us if we want to avoid becoming bitter is to be like Christ and choose not to have hard feelings when we know the other person doesn’t truly comprehend what he or she is doing.
Avoid bitterness regardless of what other people do (or don't do)
But what if people aren’t ignorant? What if they know the pain they are causing you or others?
Under these circumstances, we can remind ourselves that we aren’t their judge. God will be the One who judges them. And in the bigger picture, we still get to choose whether we will become bitter or whether we will let the peace of God rule in our hearts.
Intentionally choosing peace and forgiveness is the greatest biblical key to avoiding bitterness.