The authors of Scripture use the word bitter to describe the taste of water (Exodus 15:23), the circumstances of life (Ruth 1:13, 20-21), and the state of a nation (Amos 8:10). Job’s tragic losses and King Hezekiah’s decaying health cause each man to lament in the bitterness of his soul (Job 7:11; Isaiah 38:15). We hear bitter weeping resounding off the pages of Scripture, from Hannah’s barrenness (1 Samuel 1:10) to Ezra’s confession (Ezra 10:1) to Peter’s denial of Jesus (Matthew 26:75). The prevalence of this topic in the Bible beckons prudent counselors to prepare themselves to minister the Word effectively during a likely encounter with the long-standing issue of bitterness.
Grasping the Concept of Bitterness
A word study reveals the following semantic range, or the possible meanings of a single word, for the term bitterness: chafing, discontentment, anger, harshness, embittered, and acrid. The Bible shows that food (Exodus 12:8), life (Genesis 26:35), tears (Genesis 27:34), words (Psalm 64:3), and even the attack of an enemy (Genesis 49:23) can be bitter. Knowing these biblical definitions and examples may help you and your counselees grasp the concept of bitterness should you discover you are sitting across from something else the Bible describes as bitter: people (1 Samuel 30:6)!
The Bitter Heart
Bitterness is the long-term, slow accrual of anger. It is less like the catastrophic earthquake and more like the slow, four-inch per year drift of a tectonic plate. Its smoldering nature can make it difficult for the counselor to detect bitterness within the heart of a counselee. Proverbs 14:10 expresses this reality well, saying, “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.” Regarding this verse, one commentator writes, “that no one knows the inner life of another’s heart and that the appearance of happiness can be deceptive.”1Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1993), 126. In other words, a counselee can hide bitterness in their heart like water at the bottom of a deep well (Proverbs 20:5). Fortunately, the Apostle Paul helps the counselor recognize bitterness by providing several symptoms of a bitter heart.
Bitterness and Her Cohorts
In Ephesians 4:31, the Apostle Paul writes, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” While it may be challenging to see bitterness brewing in the heart and mind of a counselee, it is not as challenging to see one of her cohorts: wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice. Paul clues his audience in that bitterness rarely rides alone; she is often in the company of one or more readily noticeable heart problems.
A counselee may manifest clamor through withdrawing emotionally, crying, pouting, sulking, retreating to another room, going for a drive, and employing the “cold shoulder” tactic.2Lou Priolo, The Heart of Anger: Practical Help for the Prevention and Cure of Anger in Children (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 1997), 53. A counselee may express wrath, anger, and slander through “raising their voice, name calling, using profanity, throwing, hitting and kicking things, [or] the use of biting sarcasm.”3Lou Priolo, The Heart of Anger, 53. Threats (Psalms 73:8) and thoughts/acts of vengeance (Ezekiel 25:15) are manifestations that malice rests within the heart of a counselee. These lists help the counselor identify wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice; and wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice help the counselor identify bitterness. When these cohorts parade themselves throughout the life of a counselee, making frequent strong showings of solidarity and fidelity to one another, be watchful, for bitterness likely lurks among them.
Putting off Bitterness by Putting on Forgiveness
Bitterness often stems from unforgiveness. Opposing love, bitterness keeps a record of wrongdoing (1 Corinthians 13:5), and maintaining such a record is tantamount to unforgiveness. Like a king who studies the tomes of his nation’s deeds (e.g., Esther 6:1), a bitter counselee often opens their mental record of another’s offenses against them—both real and perceived—and reads from the ledger over and over. This repetitive recollection fuels their bitterness and wrongly justifies their unwillingness to forgive another person.
In Paul’s “put off, put on” instruction to the Ephesians (Ephesians 4:17-32), he links the presence of bitterness to the need for granting forgiveness by saying, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32, emphasis added). Counselors must follow Paul’s pattern of instruction, which teaches counselees to follow Christ’s pattern of forgiveness. Counselors must instruct counselees to put off bitterness and her cohorts and put on kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness.
What if My Offender Does Not Ask for Forgiveness?
There are at least two possible ways to assist a counselee if their offender has not asked for their forgiveness. The first instruction is in Luke 17:3, which says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” This verse gives hope and direction to the counselee by instructing them to rebuke their brother. Often, counselees grow bitter over many years but remain unwilling to rebuke their brother and address the problem, therefore, contributing to their bitterness. Such inaction is a violation of Luke 17:3.
Secondly, when an offender refuses to repent and ask for forgiveness, recall that the semantic range of the term bitterness includes the words chafing, discontentment, anger, harshness, embittered, and acrid. Examine Ephesians 4:31-32 with your counselee and have them compare “harshness” with “tenderheartedness” and “kindness” with “acrid.” Doing this may help them think of “putting off bitterness” as exchanging harsh, caustic thoughts and deeds for tender and kind ones. Even if an offender does not ask for forgiveness following the God-honoring rebuke, a counselee can still put off bitterness by being kind and tenderhearted toward their offender (cf. Matthew 5:43-45).
Furthermore, if a counselee struggles to be kind and compassionate toward another person, examine the phrase in Ephesians 4:32, which says, “forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (emphasis added). Remind him of the Lord’s kindness, compassion, and forgiveness in his life and then show him the command immediately following in Ephesians 5:1, which says, “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Together, these verses command believers to grant kindness, compassion, and forgiveness on the basis of being the recipient of God’s kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. The task of putting off bitterness is an active pursuit of Christlikeness.
The Means and the Motive for Putting off Bitterness
It is vital to remind our counselees continuously that God provides both the means and the motive for saying farewell to bitterness and her cohorts. The means (the Holy Spirit) and the motivation (God’s glory) are found in Ephesians 3:20-21, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.” It’s true, bitterness never walks alone… but neither do those whom the Holy Spirit indwells (Ephesians 1:13-14; 2:22; 3:16, 20; 4:4).