“Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness-without it no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no root of bitterness springs up, causing trouble and by it, defiling many” (Hebrew 12:14-15, HCSB).

As I see it, bitterness and forgiveness are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. One can’t be forgiving while harboring bitterness nor can a bitter person claim to be a forgiving person. It is also my opinion that someone who is clinging to a bitter spirit doesn’t understand or has not fully embraced the forgiveness that comes only from God’s grace. This takes on tremendous spiritual importance in light of Jesus’ words, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37) and Paul’s admonition that we are to be “accepting one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a complaint against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so also you must [forgive]” (Colossians 3:13).

Anyone who has been infected by bitterness knows that it can be so dominating that all of life is influenced by it. All sorts of spiritual, emotional, and even physical symptoms are typically manifested by it. But that’s not all. Bitterness destroys relationships – ours with both God and others. In Ephesians 4:31 Paul makes it clear that bitterness has some ugly cousins: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” None of these enhance our lives, promote the glory of God, or reflect the beauty of Jesus.

So let’s look at what the writer of Hebrews tells us about bitterness in 12:14-15. Given the epidemic proportions of this spiritual malady, I believe his words carry great weight and are well worth heeding. Let’s notice:

  • Bitterness is a severe hindrance to living in peace (v.14). We are commanded to live in peace to demonstrate the peace of God provided through Christ’s reconciliatory work at Calvary (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). We are even called ministers of reconciliation (a true counterpoint to bitterness and its ugly cousins).
  • Bitterness does not promote the pursuit of the holy life that God requires of His children (v. 14). Bitter people tend to do bad things. Ephesians 4:31 reminds us of the other attitudes and actions that inevitably spring from a bitter heart – wrath, anger, clamor, slander and malice.
  • Bitterness is evidence that we don’t understand or have not embraced God’s grace/forgiveness (v. 15). Bitter people withhold grace and therefore God, in a real sense, withholds His grace and mercy from them. God’s forgiven people are, by His endowment of grace, forgiving followers. Bitterness blinds us to God’s forgiveness of us but when we bask in God’s unmerited favor we are freed from the sin of an unforgiving spirit and practice forgiveness. Jesus clearly stated this in the Sermon on the Mount in the Model Prayer and afterwards emphasized it: “For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:14-15).
  • Bitterness is often an insidious and invisible spiritual flaw (v. 15). Roots are usually unseen but they supply the fuel that produces visible fruit. In other words, while one may not outwardly appear bitter, those infected with this spiritual disease will inevitably show fruit that will be the opposite of the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22 (which I urge you to read and memorize).
  • Bitterness defiles us (v. 15). Jesus said, “Don’t you realize that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is eliminated? But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a man. For from the [bitter] heart come evil thoughts, murders…false testimonies, blasphemies. These are the things that defile a man, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile a man” (Matthew 15:17-20).

I see 2 applications. The first is practical: Clinging to bitterness is like drinking poison and hoping someone else gets sick. The one who harbors unforgiveness and latent anger is the one who suffers the most, no matter how “innocent” they may be. The target of their inner rage tends to be affected less than the one who is unwilling to be reconciled. Secondly, bitterness shows a serious spiritual void. It suggests that someone who is unwilling to forgive has not been forgiven (by God) or they have refused to fully embrace His grace. Both options are a siren’s warning as to one’s spiritual condition.

So which will we choose; bitterness of forgiveness? Though lengthy, I will leave you with this parable of Jesus. It is well worth our serious consideration:

“For this reason, the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began to settle accounts, one who owed 10,000 talents was brought before him. Since he had no way to pay it back, his master commanded that he, his wife, his children, and everything he had be sold to pay the debt. “At this, the slave fell facedown before him and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you everything!’ Then the master of that slave had compassion, released him, and forgave him the loan. “But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him 100 denarii. He grabbed him, started choking him, and said, ‘Pay what you owe!’ “At this, his fellow slave fell down and began begging him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he wasn’t willing. On the contrary, he went and threw him into prison until he could pay what was owed. When the other slaves saw what had taken place, they were deeply distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had happened. “Then, after he had summoned him, his master said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And his master got angry and handed him over to the jailers until he could pay everything that was owed. So My heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from his heart” (Matthew 18:23-35).