‘Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will 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 12:14-15).
Everyone knows that weeds grow more readily than flowers or fruit. Since the sin of Adam and Eve the earth has been cursed with thorns and thistles. So it is in the garden of the believer’s heart. God desires that we produce the fruit of the Spirit but too often we produce the weeds of sin and self.
Gardeners need to be able to identify weeds so that they can eradicate them. There is a research centre in America that hosts an annual exhibition of weeds to assist in their elimination.
The Bible is where God displays and exposes the obnoxious weeds that grow in our hearts – so that we may identify and deal with them effectively. One of the most pernicious weeds that can take root in the human heart is bitterness. These verses in Hebrews tell us that this weed causes widespread trouble.
We are all susceptible to bitterness. It is all too easy to allow hurts to take root until they produce resentments. May the Lord, the master gardener, help us to identify this weed, isolate it and interrupt its growth and influence in our lives!
What is bitterness? Many weeds resemble domesticated plants until inspected more closely. In the spiritual realm, too, there are attitudes that masquerade as right thinking but are damaging to spiritual growth and destructive of harmony among God’s people.
Mood of the soul
Bitterness is the attitude that blames circumstances or people for our disappointments. It is the mind-set produced when we meditate on life’s circumstances and decide that we have been treated unfairly.
It is the mood of the soul when we question the scales of justice. It makes a person harsh, critical, negative and unpleasant in his relationships with others. Bitterness is essentially a failure in the core of our being to come to grips with life’s disappointments and defeats.
But we don’t have to be victims. We can be victors over bitterness in the power of the Holy Spirit!
How do we detect this vile and poisonous weed of bitterness? In these verses the writer to the Hebrews instructs them to diligently inspect themselves. The gardener who devotes himself to the cultivation of fruit or flowers knows immediately when a weed lifts its head. He can distinguish good from bad, true from spurious, weed from flower.
In these verses we have two simple guidelines to help us examine ourselves. Firstly we must ask, ‘Are we able to follow peace with everybody?’ We cannot do that while at the same time harbouring bitterness in our hearts.
In Genesis 37 we read how Jacob gave Joseph a coat of many colours. His brothers deeply resented the special affection that Jacob had for Joseph and they hated their brother. We are told ‘they could not speak peaceably to him’ (v. 4). So every time Joseph came along there was tension and unpleasantness.
If there is a root of bitterness in our souls we will find it impossible to speak peaceably to others. This will show itself in grumbling and complaining. If we allow that root of bitterness to take hold, our words will be characterised by suspicion, hostility, censure and condemnation.
In this condition we will fight major battles over minor issues. We will be disrespectful of other people, derogatory about their lifestyle, and negative or critical about whatever they do or say.
Peace and holiness
Paul instructs the Romans: ‘If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men’ (12:18). This speaks to the very heart of the issue. There may be some situations that we cannot resolve, where matters are beyond our control. But it is our responsibility before God, as far as possible, to live at peace with -everyone! We must work at producing harmonious relationships.
Our text tells us not only to ‘pursue peace with all people’ but also to follow ‘holiness’. We cannot follow holiness and harbour bitterness – they are mutually exclusive. If we harbour bitterness in our hearts we limit intimacy with God. Bitterness is an obstacle to everything positive in the Christian life.
Bitterness obstructs the flow of blessing normally derived from Bible reading, prayer (if we can pray at all in this condition) and worship. We may arrive in church in such a state that communion with God and true fellowship with his people cannot take place.
The Lord’s Table becomes a sham and we add hypocrisy to bitterness. If we find ourselves in this sad situation we are merely playing church, marking time and ticking boxes.
This was true of God’s people at the time of Malachi, when there was a mechanical observance of external religious rituals without true heart religion. When bitterness takes hold, our faith becomes formality – an empty habit, a nominal Christianity.
Our passage teaches that if we ardently and actively pursue holiness, then bitterness will be repelled from our hearts. Conversely, if bitterness rules our spirit then the pursuit of holiness is prevented.
Some people are super-sensitive and imagine (without cause) that they have been slighted. They think their feelings have been deliberately slighted and their viewpoint ridiculed. So they mull over these imaginary circumstances and the weed of bitterness takes root. The issues themselves may be imaginary but the bitterness is real.
On the other hand, some have genuine hurts but allow them to fester. They develop into grievances that, if left unchecked, cause bitterness. For example, it is very difficult to watch loved ones suffering and unless we are careful this can lead to bitterness.
Remember Job’s wife? She saw her husband suffering boils from head to foot and sitting in a rubbish heap in a miserable condition. Upset and annoyed, she urged him to curse God and die. That was hardly any comfort to the tormented man!
There is an obvious note of bitterness here. Of course, Job didn’t do what his wife suggested. Rather than assume the attitude of a victim, he became a victor and triumphed over his troubles.
Perhaps you have been involved in some failed scheme or project. Frustrated hopes and ambitions can leave us bitter – but bitterness in the heart of the believer is a failure to understand (and rest in) the sovereign benevolence of God.
No church or Christian organisation is perfect. Incidents will occur that may give rise to bitterness. Christian leaders make mistakes. There can be manipulation, excessive control, poor communication and ham-fisted handling of sensitive issues.
But nothing justifies bitterness. It is very dangerous in a fellowship of believers because it is difficult to contain. Like yeast, it can spread through the whole loaf – and ‘many become defiled’. Bitterness impedes unity, while its absence improves the accord God desires.
How do we win the battle against bitterness? The text tells us that we should be ‘looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God’. In one of his sermons Spurgeon said:
‘In the centre of my lawn, horseradish will sprout up. After the smallest shower of rain it rises above the grass and proclaims its vitality. When the gardener cuts it down it resolves to rise again. Now if the gardener cannot get it quite out of the ground it is his business to constantly cut it back’.
A root of bitterness is not like a dandelion that can be pulled up by the roots. I used to visit a dear old lady (since promoted to glory) most Thursdays of my pastoral ministry. One particular Thursday I asked her how her day had been.
She told me she had watched from her window as several men struggled to uproot the stump of a tree felled some time -previously. Hours of intense toil failed to shift it.
Eventually they had to bring in a mechanical excavator to complete the job. The enormous root was hoisted on to a truck and hauled away. The spectacle had entertained this great saint for hours.
A better root
This illustrates the point that some roots adhere so tenaciously to the soil that nurtures them that they require great effort to remove them. Bitterness is such a root. It takes a power far greater than human will-power to tear it from the heart.
But there is a power that can do the job. Paul prays that God would grant us, ‘according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man – that Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith, that we [might be] rooted and grounded in love’ (Ephesians 3:16-17).
Here is a rooting that will dispel all bitterness and lead us ‘to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge’ (Ephesians 3:19). Let us join Paul in his prayer!