Most of us can’t pinpoint the moment a disappointment becomes bitter. Many of us experience repeated disappointments in the same area, and we still recognize the pain of being disappointed, but often there comes a certain point where we believe the disappointment and it makes a home deep in our hearts. Bitterness is basically unresolved grief that is very buried.
From then on out, there is no person or situation that can prove otherwise. Perhaps from time to time we feel glimpses of hope and forget about our pain, but it won’t be long before we are disappointed again in that area. Not just because life sucks, but because bitterness is an invisible ruler that sits on its own throne of our heart, ruling with its own interpretations. Bitterness is a stronghold. By nature bitterness takes root when we choose to stop hoping past our experiences. For most of us this starts in childhood.
Depression, anxiety, fear, a critical spirit, and a pervading sense of loneliness are often symptoms of bitterness. They can lift from time to time perhaps when we feel loved or a new possibility of love looms on the horizon. But pretty soon the old ruler comes back.
By nature bitterness is a belief-system that clouds our judgment of people and situations. When I was a child I experienced some very deep grief, a kind of grief that is not fair for a child to feel–the pain of divorce and other very painful things. I was constantly disappointed in people, friends, my parents. At some point I really believed this was just my lot in life and it was time to forget those things.
But “putting the past behind you” is not good advice. I could forget, and cope and act like the pain wasn’t there, because in a way as I grew older couldn’t feel it anymore. It was buried away. However, by the time I was an adult I had this whole belief system about people, which goes something to the effect of: “people never come through”. Now, mind you, I didn’t know this was my belief system, because the bitterness was so deep and invisible that I couldn’t see it was ruling me.
Several times over the last few years this little ruler raised its head and I had to confront it, expose it. As I’ve grown older I’ve learned that my bitterness actually affects other people. My bitter expectations in people can actually cause them NOT to come through. Bitter expectations, even invisible ones, can actually defile people, persuade them to act in ways they usually don’t.
This might seem like controversial theology, but the more I experience it in my own life, the more I know it’s true. I believe that I actually defile people and situations with my own bitterness. I believe that my own bitterness can block God from doing certain things. Obviously people can make their own choices but they are very affected by our expectations whether these are visible or not. For example, most women I know have experienced what it is like to be looked at with lust. We may not recognize it right away, but many of us know what it’s like to suddenly feel dirty and shameful after someone’s looked at us with lust in their heart. Sometimes we respond to those feelings of shame and secrecy by behaving lustfully even if that is not who we are. Jesus taught that if you even “look at a woman with lust” you are committing adultery and therefore defiling her. We can defile people with our bitter expectations.
We all know what it feels like to be criticized and judged by a person, even if the criticism is not verbal. Sometimes this critical spirit is not intentional or even towards us–perhaps it is a self-critic in there–but we can walk away hearing those thoughts in our head and fulfilling them on our own.
I read something recently: “Bitterness is not just a wound seeking healing, it is a prosecuting attorney building a case against the guilty. Because a bitter soul is conjoined to the injustice committed against it, it perpetually is listening to the voice of its heartache and, thus, perpetually wounded by the unforgiven offense.”
Perhaps you struggle with criticizing others. This might come from a place where you were harshly treated or criticized and have battled with insecurity as a result. Perhaps you dislike authority and often find yourself in conflicts with authority figures. Many people in our generation do. Often this comes from a root of bitterness where we have been hurt, abused or rejected by an authority figure–often starting with our parents and then repeated by others (religious, political, workplace). Perhaps you have difficulty trusting the authority of your spouse as a result. Deal with this bitterness, let the Lord touch it, otherwise you will not be able to receive HIS authority to overcome. Perhaps you have hidden bitterness towards men or women, or certain races. If you lost a loved one, perhaps your grief turned bitter.
When the deep root of bitterness gets exposed, there are intense disappointments that must be grieved. Many of us avoid this sadness because grief is difficult to enter. Many of us who know that we are wounded in a certain area and admit it but cannot grieve, because when you touch that sadness it feels uncontrollable.
Not only is there grieving, there is also repentance. The older I get the more I realize that I need to repent of my actions, my mind-set. As the wounds become visible I receive healing but also I must repent of wounding other people in the same area I’ve been wounded.
I once heard a really good teaching about why the priests were not allowed to minister in the temple if they had scabs. The scabs were a prophetic symbol of the places of injury that are not completely healed, and therefore are capable of muddling our hearing from God, our ministering to others, our heart. Many people mistake the voice of their inner bitterness for the voice of God (and often this is where the demonic can masquerade as the voice of God, too). I used to experience this quite often, when I was first really understanding how God speaks to me. The priests were “unclean” if they had scabs. They had to enter a prolonged period of healing before they could return to the temple. We too need to create space for grief and healing. A scab is a healing wound, but it is still able to be penetrated again, and therefore can spread infection. Bitterness is a perpetual scab that is consistently reinfected.
The way to know, I think, that you have been delivered from bitterness (when the scab is gone) is when you experience a familiar disappointment or injustice and you no longer feel victimized or retreat or blame others. You think the best of your friends and enemies, even if there is pain that needs to be discussed. I once heard a Holocaust survivor and artist give a talk and he spoke movingly about his family; his aunt lived and died in bitterness, while his mother had an inexpressible joy despite what she lost and what she saw. The difference between their attitudes in death inspired him to create redemptive art for people. I want that kind of grace, that kind of hope because hope always thinks twice of even one’s enemies. Although I can’t say I’m there yet, there are areas where I have yielded my disappointments and even if I have not experienced the total truth, I believe for it against all odds. I really want my heart to be mature and like Jesus, who experienced the ultimate betrayals and disappointments and yet rejoiced to see the day of salvation. Instead of bitterness, there will be rejoicing. The waters of Marah (bitterness) become sweet. What once was bitter is a place for joy. Only when we yield this bitterness to him will we be able to be persecuted and know the meaning of this: “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad and leap for joy, for your reward in heaven is great” (Matt. 5:11-12).