. . . beginning with these words, “Look 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.”
What is bitterness? In the Biblical usage, it means a poisonous harshness of taste. In a figurative sense, it means the sharp or biting negativity in a person’s thoughts, words, or behavior.
Bitterness is to be avoided. Ephesians four says, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, fighting, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.”
Yet bitterness first comes into us because of difficulties in our life that often are sent by God. For instance, in Revelation ten, Saint John is given a scroll to eat that tastes bitter in his stomach. That scroll was sent by God, who knew what effect it would have on the apostle. In our lives also, God sends troubles that cause bitterness in our hearts.
How could we not go through this valley of the shadow of death without feeling some bitterness from time to time? Life is not as it should be – far from it. Friends betray, tragedy strikes, injustice so often seems to prevail. Frustration and pain must afflict us sometimes. Even Christ felt sorrowful to the point of death. Those emotions do not make Him a sinner, nor us if we feel the same.
What we do with the feeling of bitterness is what makes it sinful or not. If we harbor it and feed it like a pet and watch it grow, then we engage in a pity party. God may get blamed for our troubles. We may assume He does not wish us well.
Bitterness that is allowed to fester in our hearts also affects our behavior. Our words may become bitter. It is easy to lash out at others or mumble harsh things under our breath when our heart is filled with such thoughts.
The writer to the Hebrews says that a root of bitterness that springs up causes trouble, and may cause many to become defiled. The poisonous feelings in one person spill over to another through words or actions. Bitterness is contagious. The harmony that should characterize our fellowship can be disrupted by one person creating a snowball affect among others.
Do not let it be so for you. Resist bitterness in you. When you feel the bitterness of others pressing upon you, do not let it push you into the same attitude.
This is not a call to be an insufferably cheerful person. There is a time to mourn. Especially, we feel sorrow in sympathy with others who are suffering. Although we are to rejoice in our sufferings, that does not mean that no negative feelings can ever enter your heart. That would be a ridiculous standard.
But when you feel sorrow or bitterness of any kind, realize that these emotions will not last forever. Pray and depend upon God that He will deliver you in His time. Especially, do not let the pain you feel become a poison that you pass on to others.
But who has not failed at this sometimes? Who has not said an impatient word because something else bothered them? Who has not harbored bitter thoughts in their heart a little too much? The man who could avoid all these things surely has no sin in his heart.
When we see this bitterness in others, let us be quick to forgive, quick to sympathize, quick to offer gentle words in response to harsh ones. We also stop the spread of bitter poison this way.
If bitterness goes unchecked, one may lose the grace of God. Constantly turning to the negative inevitably denies that there is a God of mercy. Choosing the darkness means turning away from the One who is full of light.
Let me add that some do not choose the darkness, but God allows it to happen to them. Some suffer from depression and other afflictions, most likely not from any fault of their own. I do not speak of those people, but of those who deliberately turn away from the light toward the darkness by choosing to let go of their trust in the God who cares for them. Where the heart fills with poison, it can no longer bear to hear the Words of God’s goodness in Christ. One turns away from the promise, as Esau did, who literally sold his birthright for a bowl of beans. One stops hearing the Good News, even if he remains in the pew.
Take care that you do not become one of these. Watch others so that you can help them if they begin down that path.
We should not act like children of darkness and anger and despair, because that is not who we are in Christ. He has brought us to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. We do not deserve this, since our sinfulness should make us children of wrath to be cast away into darkness. But in Christ we are declared the holy people of God. We are His own city, His dwelling place. He has brought us to the place of promise, the place of mercy and blessing and light. This is not a place of terror as Mount Sinai was, when the people of Israel could not bear the frightening voice of God in His majesty. We are not brought to a place of crushing Law without hope. No, God has come to us in gentleness through His Son, speaking tenderly as a Groom to His bride.
He has brought us into the innumerable company of angels. The ministering spirits of God tend to us now, who are constantly with us invisibly. We sing out in our worship along with the voices of the multitudes of the heavenly hosts. No matter how tone-deaf our singing may be, we are worthy to praise God alongside them because we are brothers of Christ, the Lord over all angels.
He has brought us to the church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven. This church is a general assembly of all saints, both those we call living and those we call dead (although all are alive with God whether in the body or not). We are in their company as well, those ancient patriarchs and prophets and judges and kings and apostles. In Christ, all are one. He is the Firstborn from the dead because He rose first, the first fruits of all who will rise. Now we are called firstborn as well, for we are in His image. We are spiritually raised now in Baptism, and therefore sealed for the resurrection to glory. For God has promised it in Christ, and He cannot break His word.
Most of all, we have been brought to God the Judge of all, and to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant. For our fellowship is most of all with the Godhead. There is no exclusion of the Holy Spirit here, since anyone who is with the Father and the Son is with the Spirit as well. We have communion with this Holy Trinity even now, but will enjoy it fully in the kingdom to be revealed, when we see God face to face. This is a far greater joy than anything else we could imagine. All other blessings pale in comparison to the reconciliation we have received in Christ Jesus. He has brought us back to our Father in a perfect relationship, since we are declared righteous and perfect in Him. We are sprinkled with His Blood so that no wrath from God remains on us. Instead of calling out for vengeance on our heads, as the blood of Abel did, the Blood of Christ has pronounced us innocent for all eternity.
This is the Gospel Word of our Lord that He speaks to us from heaven through unworthy servants. Only a fool would reject such a Word. Although in our sinful flesh we are still fools of the first degree, our God of mercy will keep all His elect from the poisonous bitterness of unbelief, that we may enjoy eternity in the kingdom that cannot be shaken.
In His Name, the God who has come in human flesh, and who will come again in glory, Amen.
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