Four Ways to Spot a Bitter Root

Every good gardener knows that you can’t chop weeds. Try to go after those buggers with a weed eater, and you’ll get nowhere in a hurry. You’ve got to rip weeds up by the roots. Otherwise, they will just keep coming back and when they do, they’re bound to bring more and more of their weedy friends.

It’s no accident that God uses the image of a weed to describe a particular sin that has a way of creeping into all of our hearts. . . bitterness.

“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Heb. 12:15).

Bitterness isn’t one of those big, flashy sins that you can see growing above the surface of our hearts. It may not show off like anger or produce big ol’ hunks of rotten fruit like disobedience. Bitterness is a sleeper sin. It grows beneath the surface, down deep in the soil of our hearts.

But the author’s warning in Hebrews is clear—that bitter root will one day sprout and when it does, “many will become defiled.” In other words, if that bitter root keeps growing there will be a harvest of pain for you and the people in your world. And because bitterness is a weedy sin that burrows in our hearts first, we can’t just cut off the behaviors that bitterness causes. (We will get to those in a minute). We need the Lord’s help to yank that baby up by the root.

The Pack That Bitterness Travels In

Ephesians 4:31 says,

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with malice.”

Paul is describing a cluster of emotions here that come along with bitterness. I know from experience that bitterness almost always travels in a nasty pack. When bitterness is taking root in my heart, usually wrath is too. The same goes for anger, slander, and malice.

Our pastor directed my husband and me to this passage as part of our pre-marital counseling. He described these emotions as a progression.

  • If we don’t deal with bitterness, that bitterness will progress toward extreme anger (that’s wrath).
  • If we don’t deal with the anger, we will start to clamor or demand what we want.
  • If that doesn’t work we will start to talk bad about the object of our bitterness in the hopes of recruiting others to agree with and justify our feelings (that’s slander).
  • If that goes unchecked we will eventually have a desire to cause harm to the person we are bitter toward.

All along the way, people are hurt, relationships are derailed, joy is stolen, and the Fruit of the Spirit growth is stunted.

Four Ways to Spot a Bitter Root

With so much on the line, it is wise to ask ourselves often, “Am I bitter?” Since bitterness is a sleeper sin, the answer isn’t always obvious. Here are four questions to help you spot a bitter root.

Am I replaying the tapes?

Do you find yourself constantly replaying the tapes of a conversation with someone? When you interact with her, do you spend days rehashing every word or body language cue?

Bitterness flourishes in the soil of justification. I’ve found that when I fixate on my interactions with a specific individual, I am looking for justification for the anger or frustration I am feeling in a relationship. I’ve learned that if I find myself replaying the tapes often, I should see it as red flag that something is off in my own heart.

Is my mouth out of control?

Romans 3:14 says, “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

There is a connection between the junk that comes out of our mouths and the bitterness that tends to take root in our hearts. Do you find yourself losing your cool often? Are you critical, snappy, rude? Maybe the sins you are committing with your mouth are simply an extension of the bitterness that you have allowed to grow in your heart. If you are trying to deal with the way you speak and gaining no ground, it’s possible that you need to dig deeper and yank out the root of the problem.

Am I sick?

Psychologist Dr. Carsten Wrosch has studied bitterness for fifteen years. He says,

“When harbored for a long time, bitterness may forecast patterns of biological dysregulation (a physiological impairment that can affect metabolism, immune response or organ function) and physical disease.”

Scientists have concluded that bitterness, if left unchecked, interferes with the body’s hormonal and immune systems. Bitter people tend to have higher blood pressure and heart rate and are much more likely to die of heart disease and other illnesses.

Of course, the apostle Paul didn’t have access to this scientific data when he wrote much of the New Testament, but that didn’t keep him from connecting the dots between bitterness and our bodies. In Acts 8:23 Paul describes the “gall of bitterness.” It’s a bile, bitter substance that can literally make us sick.

Is my clan bitter?

The “bitter root” in Hebrews 12:15 is first described in Deuteronomy 29:18.

“Beware lest there be among you a man or a woman or a clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord or God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit.”

Like all weeds, bitterness has a way of spreading. This passage describes one possible progression. A man infects his wife. She infects her children. The bitterness spreads and soon the whole tribe is infected.

  • Is your marriage marked by bitterness?
  • Are your children bitter?
  • Does your group of friends tend to sit around and gripe?
  • Is your church filled with harsh and angry people?
  • Is your community prone to placing blame?

Is it possible that your own bitterness has had a ripple effect and that the poisonous root has burrowed past your own heart and into the hearts of the people you love?

Trust the Gardener

In John 15:1, Jesus said, “I am the true vine and my Father is the Gardener.” If those questions revealed some weedy roots, would you join me in this prayer?

Father, I confess my bitterness to you. Please show me how to get rid of the bitter root. Replace it with the Fruit of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

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