I love to cook. I find cooking to be a relaxing and creative process that benefits not just me, but those around me. I try to embrace all the aspects of taste in cooking. Of course, a good dish is about balance. As humans, we can taste sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. The jury seems to still be out on umami (meaty or savory) and I am old enough to remember when umami wasn’t even a thing. There are many foods that fall into the “bitter” category including Brussel sprouts, cabbage, kale, cranberries, cocoa, and coffee (one of my favorites), just to name a few. In cooking, bitterness is a positive thing to embrace and even compliment as we seek to produce the most balanced dish possible with the ingredients at hand. What about bitterness when it comes to life? Should bitterness be embraced in the believer’s life as something positive? Perhaps as just another of life’s flavors that we need to learn to complement with other ingredients?
When we think of bitterness, we think of emotional pain and distress, hostility, and resentment. Obviously, these are very negative. These same ideas are present in the Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew word commonly translated as “bitter” is marah. Esau cries out with a great and bitter cry upon realizing that Jacob has tricked him out of his birthright (Gen 27:34), Naomi refuses to be called “pleasant” and requests to be called “bitter” (marah) because she feels the LORD has dealt bitterly with her in the loss of her husband and sons (Ruth 1:20), and Job asks why God gives life to those who are bitter of soul (Job 3:20).
In the New Testament, the Greek word most often translated as “bitter” is pikria. Peter confronts and rebukes Simon the Magician in Acts for trying to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit because of Simon’s bitterness (Acts 8:23), Paul tells the Ephesian Church that bitterness is one of many things that grieves the Spirit (Eph 4:30–31), and the author of Hebrews mentions a root of bitterness which evidences a lack of spiritual strength and the absence of peace (Heb 12:15).
If we wonder whether our people are prone to experience bitterness, we need look no further than ourselves. Have you experienced emotional pain and distress? Are you prone to hostility and, if that hostility is left unchecked, having that hostility develop into resentment? I am certain your answer is yes. You have experienced bitterness in different situations. You can empathize with Esau, Naomi, and Job and you have confronted these attitudes like Peter, Paul, and the author of Hebrews. How can you encourage your people who are dealing with or in danger of dealing with bitterness?
First, don’t deny it. We live in a fallen world and we all have the tendency to become beaten down and despondent. Often, we inadvertently preach a “fake it until you make it” solution that ignores actual problems in people’s lives. In your ministry, you will encounter many people who are dealing with significant emotional pain and perhaps resentment. They have not only allowed a root of bitterness but seem to have cultivated it. Pretending this is not the truth will help no one.
Second, don’t embrace it. Just because a thing is true doesn’t make it desirable. Bitterness is not something that should be tolerated in the life of the believer. It is a negative emotion that proceeds from a point of pain that hasn’t yet been healed. In effect, it is an indicator of an aspect of life that needs the Spirit’s touch. One mantra of modern Christianity is “it’s okay to not be okay.” This is true if we also understand that “it’s not okay to embrace being not okay.” Jesus didn’t die so that we could stay the same. Transformation is a process and change should be a part of daily life.
Third, fight against it. In adventure stories, you may “fight fire with fire” but in the Christian life, we fight the natural with the supernatural. If we view bitterness the way Scripture does, we will want to rid our lives of the infection of bitterness. We need to apply the Word of God to these points of pain and pray the Spirit of God will do His good work. Bitterness has no place in the believer’s life, but bitterness will take hold if we don’t fight it. Even in the hardest situations, God is working all things for good. People, us included, need this reminder on a consistent basis.
I have never had a kale cookie and I don’t want one. Certain things just don’t go together. My next statements will risk alienating all the kale fans (I anticipate this to be a very small group, so it is a risk I am willing to take). Kale has no place in cookies. Kale barely has a place at all, and one might argue that kale exists because of the fall and not despite the fall. Bitterness has no place in your life. Nor does it have a place in the lives of the people to whom you have the privilege to preach. Remind them of that and remind yourself of that on a consistent basis. Reject bitterness and pray that God will protect you and your people from the root of bitterness.
Jeff Campbell is Assistant Professor of Preaching, W. A. Criswell Chair of Expository Preaching, and Dean of Student at Criswell College.