I was a bit surprised in the last few weeks when an old folk song (think: early 1960s and Peter, Paul and Mary) started rattling around in my mind. The lyrics (original with Will Holt in the late 50s) compared the bitter fruit of the lemon tree with fickle young love. Now, I wasn’t thinking at all about teen crushes (and their crushing aftermaths). Instead, the Bible’s perspective on bitterness had occupied my study and thinking.
Someone’s remark about realizing they had a problem with bitterness prompted me to review what the Bible says about it. The book of James, full of blunt counsel about religious pretention, didn’t spare a thing. After characterizing “wisdom” as evidenced by a “good life, by deeds done in the humility,” he denounces its opposite:…if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.” (James 3:15 NIV)
The writer of Hebrews offered a similar warning:Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will ever 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.” (Hebrews 12:14-16 NKJV)
Like the weeds in my flower beds, bitterness will take over and choke out what’s good if it’s not dealt with. In the relational realm, bitterness can divide families, strangle what could be healthy relationships, and poison both mind and body.
Bitterness slips in when we respond to suffering in wrong ways. Everybody suffers. But we make the choice to be bitter—or better.
Ruth of the Old Testament showed the “better” choice. Death took her husband, her brother-in-law and father-in-law. Rather than slink back in the shadows of her pagan homeland (Moab), she chose the compassionate and courageous route. Despite knowing it would be a difficult and dangerous journey, she decided to accompany her sad and bitter mother-in-law back to her homeland (Bethlehem), even though living there might be just as bleak. Naomi, in fact, had started to call herself “Mara,” meaning “bitter.”
Of course, the rest of the story was that God rewarded faith. In turning away from her “bitter roots” of paganism and blaming, she received a fresh start and was grafted (via her marriage to a compassionate “kinsman-redeemer,” Boaz) into the lineage of the coming Messiah.
Bitter or better? Remember the lemon. Its main characteristic is sour. And bitterness turns us into sour people.