Psychologists tell us that bitterness generally begins with hurt. Biblical teaching shows that it also springs out of discouragement. Hebrews 12:15 says, “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.”
This statement in Hebrews comes after the writer has described in verse 12 in the same chapter a body language that describes discouragement: hands hanging down and feeble knees. He says, “Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees,” There is a number of causes to bitterness: grief, divorce, offence, trials of life, a rebellious child, failure generally.
But what is more interesting to know about this feeling is its effect. It can lead one to evil. Hence, the Hebrew writer warns against letting it breed in one’s heart. The term “bitterness” is used in the New Testament in most cases with the sense of wickedness and hatred (cf. Acts 8:23, Ephesians 4:31). It comes from the Greek root word “pikros” which denotes an acidic taste and is applied to things like sour fruit.
This emotion oftentimes follows from experience of someone sinning against another and not repenting of the offence. And the feeling of being treated unfairly that is left to fester in the victim’s heart may become corrosive and destroy his well-being. American poet Maya Angelou described this reality this way. She said, “bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure.”
An embittered person is inclined to view his offender with resentment. This happens in some marriages when grievance turns into anger and results in unkind words traded between spouses or, worse, physical violence. In Colossians 3:19, the apostle Paul guards husbands against ruminating their wives’ faults. He said, “Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.” The same can be said to wives.
To prevent such situation from occurring in a church setting, Jesus commanded that conflicts be dealt with head on in a three-step process. The Lord said, “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:15-17).
Efforts to resolve the dispute are undertaken in the hope that the offending party will recognize his wrong and ask for forgiveness as instructed by the Lord (Luke 17:3). If repentance doesn't take place, after the three God-ordained avenues for reconciliation have been exhausted, the matter is laid to rest. Jesus said of the sinning brother, “if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). At this point, it’s time for the victim to choose to put the offence behind him and focus on the future.