In local communities, neo-bullies force political correctness on any who disagree, sometimes with verbal or emotional violence. Across the U.S., cities erupt in frustration and rage, and many may never recover. In the Middle East, Christians are slaughtered for their faith, and my country’s perceived response is indifference. And we, the body of Christ, respond not by crying out to the Prince of Peace for help, but by launching grenades of hate and shame at each other because we can’t agree on the causes of and solutions to these tragedies.
In no way do I want to judge or diminish all of this suffering and chaos, but in each case—including the infighting among Christ-followers–I see offenses of bitterness beneath it all (Hebrews 12:15) And the terrible fallout is not only individual but also collective—with familial, societal, and even global implications.
The pain of it has filled me with confusion and anger—along with a wish to climb to the heavens and shout: “Stop!” I’ve longed to find some verse I could post to convince everyone to put away bitterness and give life instead of death.
Funny thing is, Scripture doesn’t always give me what I’m looking for. Sometimes it gives me something completely different.
Just before I started this blog, as I was reading through Proverbs, suddenly one verse punched me in the liver:
“Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.” (Proverbs 14:10)
I tried to move on, but those words kept drilling into my ears. The irony was obvious: I wanted to find a verse to convict others of their bitterness, but God gave me a verse to convict me of mine. I wanted to use God’s word to go all prophetic on everyone else, but instead God’s word went all prophetic on me. I wanted to call out the hearts all around me, but this verse called out my own.
I hate it God when does that.
I think the reason this verse hit me so hard is that it is both an observation and a warning.
Let me explain.
Bitterness says, “I don’t deserve the bad that has happened to me.” Much of my life has felt that way—like one undeserved land mine after another. Forgive me if you’ve heard my backstory: broken by my parents’ divorce and battered by nonstop bullying, I dropped out of and flunked sixth grade, struggled through my teens and twenties and then, in adulthood, lost my dream job, my postgraduate degree, and my future all at once – the rotten cherry on top.
Yeah, I could be bitter. Surely, I told myself, I had a right to hold on to some of that rancor.
But God says no (Hebrews 12:15, Ephesians 4:31, James 3:14). Apparently, he can see something I can’t about the great dangers of bitterness—even the tiniest little bit of it. And as I’ve watched the world erupt into chaos, I’ve started to see those dangers too.
So instead of what I wanted—a verse to launch like a hand grenade at what others are doing—I found this verse, which forced me to look within and strongly convicted me of what I myself must do:
Stop denying and start acknowledging the existence and the degree of my bitterness. From Proverbs 14:10 I take two main points: 1) Only the heart can see the bitterness within; and 2) Only the heart knows the full depth of that bitterness. No one can see into another’s heart and detect its bitterness, or measure how much is there. Face it, we are all pretty good at throwing up a façade of “Who, me? I’m not bitter” to fool others and even ourselves, excusing and denying our bitterness while it festers for years or even decades, consuming us from within. We say we’re not bitter; we’re just a little miffed, upset, teed off. We even give our bitterness watered-down names like “resentment” or “grudges.” But after years of coddling those grudges like pets – when in truth they are wild beasts which will devour me – I believe I am finally starting to admit and deal with my bitterness. Which leads to the next point…
Understand that my bitterness will destroy me. Many scriptures teach that bitterness ends in destruction and death. Proverbs 14:10 is part of a longer passage, Proverbs 14:8-15, which is a type of chiasm (sometimes called a chiasma or chiasmus) – a mirrored parallel structure which introduces words or concepts and then reverses them (for example, “All for one and one for all”). In this type of chiasm, the most important point is placed in the center for emphasis. So verses 8 and 15 contrast wisdom vs. foolishness; verses 9 and 14 contrast sinfulness vs. uprightness; verses 10 and 13 contrast bitterness vs. joy; and verses 11 and 12 contrast the way of life vs. the way of death:
The house of the wicked will be destroyed, but the tent of the upright will flourish.
There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.
These two verses are the center – the most important point – of the chiasm. The writer wanted to emphasize that the righteous behaviors in the surrounding verses, like wisdom and thoughtfulness, will surely lead to life, while sinful choices like foolishness and bitterness will certainly lead to death. So there is only one remedy…
Allow God to clean out my bitter heart and give me a grateful one. Bitterness never goes away on its own; it is defeated only when God barges into our hearts, entering rooms we wish he wouldn’t. Fortunately, he is fully able to break open all the darkest cabinets and deepest closets, dig into the muck and mire, and clean everything out. It may be true that I haven’t “deserved” the bad things I’ve received in life—all of the rejections, losses, and failures; this is the voice of bitterness. However, the opposite is also true: I certainly haven’t “deserved” even one of the good things I’ve received either—not a single awesome sunset or a single amazing moonrise—and yet I keep receiving them, day after day; this is the voice of gratitude. Bitterness, if fed, destroys gratitude, bringing death to the soul. Yet gratitude, if fed, overcomes bitterness—bringing life and healing.
As I write this, the news is revealing yet another new situation involving deep-seated bitterness, threatening to destroy lives. There is no panacea to alleviate all the pain and turmoil, and there is nothing I can do to resolve it either. Bitterness can be uprooted only as each person opens his or her heart to a gracious God, and I can’t make anyone do that.
I can, however, begin by opening my own heart, giving Jesus the keys to every dark, decaying room, and allowing the King of Kings to start cleaning out the bitterness within.