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What Does the Bible Tell Us about Healing a Bitter Heart?

  • David Sanford Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • Updated Feb 09, 2021
What Does the Bible Tell Us about Healing a Bitter Heart?

When it comes to eating, we have five basic taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, savory, and bitter. But when it comes to living, we have two very different paths set before us. Both paths apply when the Bible talks about “bitter,” “bitterly,” and “bitterness.”

Path 1: Normal, healthy, and acceptable

  • Crying in sorrow and grief (e.g., over the death of a loved one)
  • Praying and weeping (e.g., someone is rebelling against God)
  • Weeping over oppression (e.g., military devastation, slavery)

When we read about Joseph, Hannah, David, Isaiah, Hezekiah, Jeremiah, Ezra, Mordecai, and others weeping “bitterly,” they weren’t sinning. Instead, they were expressing their very real human emotions.

Then again, figuratively speaking, “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning,” (Psalm 30:5 KJV). In other words, weeping bitterly should last only as long as is normal and healthy. Otherwise, the Bible says “bitter” can go bad, become rancid, and eventually become a deadly poison.

Path 2: Destructive to you and others

  • Deeply rooted feelings of anger, envy, jealousy, rage
  • Caused by arrogance and other sinful attitudes
  • Caused by continually denying what’s true and right

Counterintuitively, even a small amount of healthy “weeping bitterly” over time can become destructive if you or I take the wrong path.

My lifelong mentor, Luis Palau, says it best: “How you and I respond to the difficult experiences of life directly affects our spiritual well-being.” Palau adds: “As many lives are spoiled and ruined by bitterness and a lack of forgiveness as by almost anything in the world. The longer we carry a grudge, the heavier it becomes. People go through physical and emotional breakdowns because they refuse to forgive others and jettison bitterness.”

No wonder the Bible says, “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).

What Does the Bible Say about Bitterness?

Deuteronomy Says…

Rebelling against God activates the most poisonous form of bitterness. 

1. Deuteronomy 29:18 says, “Make sure there is no man or woman...among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God...; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.” 

2. Deuteronomy 32:32 compares rebels against the Lord with the worst of the worst: “Their vine comes from the vine of Sodom and from the fields of Gomorrah. Their grapes are filled with poison, and their clusters with bitterness.”

Samuel Says…

Warfare can easily activate bitterness. 

1. 1 Samuel 30:6 says, “David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters. But David found strength in the Lord his God.” 

2. 2 Samuel 2:26 stops a battle with these words, “Abner called out to Joab, ‘Must the sword devour forever? Don’t you realize that this will end in bitterness? How long before you order your men to stop pursuing their fellow Israelites?’”

Ruth Says…

Suffering can activate an identity of bitterness. 

1. Ruth 1:13 quotes Naomi saying, “No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” 

2. Ruth 1:20 quotes her again: “‘Don’t call me Naomi,’ she told them. ‘Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.’”

Job Says…

Again, suffering can activate an identity of bitterness. 

1. In Job 3:20, Job asks, “Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of soul?”

2. In Job 7:11, he says, “Therefore I will not keep silent; I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” 

3. In Job 10:1, Job complains, “I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.”

4. In Job 23:2, Job adds, “Even today my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning.

Proverbs Says… 

Troubling life circumstances can activate bitterness.

1. Proverbs 14:10 says, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.”

2. Proverbs 17:25 says, “A foolish son brings grief to his father and bitterness to the mother who bore him.”

Lamentations Says…

The devastation of war can readily activate bitterness.

1. In Lamentations 3:5, Jeremiah says, “He [the Lord] has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship.”

2. In Lamentations 3:15, Jeremiah adds, “He [the Lord] has filled me with bitter herbs and given me gall to drink.”

3. In Lamentations 3:19, Jeremiah reiterates, “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.”

Amos Says…

Systemic injustice can activate bitterness.

1. In Amos 5:7, the prophet says, “There are those who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground.”

2. In Amos 6:12, the Lord reiterates, “But you [rebellious Israelites] have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into bitterness.”

The New Testament Says… 

Anyone and everyone can activate bitterness.

1. In Acts 8:23, Peter rebukes someone by saying, “For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”

2. In Romans 3:14, Paul quotes Psalm 10:7, which says, “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”

3. In Ephesians 4:31, Paul urges believers: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”

4. Hebrews 12:15 says, “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”

What to Do if You Feel Trapped in Bitterness

Luis Palau warns about the worst consequence of bitterness: taking our own revenge.

He notes: “The Bible says, ‘Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: It is mine to avenge, I will repay, says the Lord,’ (Romans 12:19). The Lord, after all, is the One who measures out justice. He wants to handle such judgment for us—perhaps now, certainly ultimately.”

Another mentor of mine for two decades, James Williams, also is a close friend of Luis Palau. Like Luis, Jim has studied in-depth what the Bible teaches about bitterness. Here is Jim’s story: “My father was murdered. Two guys went into his office and, for less than $50, shot him right in the face. What were my options? Vengeance? Bitterness? No, I have a commitment with the Lord: holiness in everything. We believe in a sovereign God and we respond biblically and godly to life’s most painful situations. Was there deep sorrow? Yes. Were there many tears? Absolutely. Were there difficult times? You bet. Were there consequences? Yes, many. Did others become bitter? Yes, many. Was I bitter? No, by the grace of God, I’m not bitter. I believe God is sovereign. I’m not minimizing a gut-wrenching situation. Instead, I’m maximizing God’s infinite, eternal grace.”

Consequences of a Bitter Heart
By James Williams

Bitterness is the best way I know to punish yourself for someone else’s sin. Here are some of the serious consequences.

1. Bitterness fails to see God’s real purposes in a situation. In its place, it finds short-sighted substitutes. The patriarch Job didn’t know what was going on in the courts of heaven. That’s why we believe in and worship and praise God for His sovereignty. And that’s why we respond biblically and in God-honoring ways, even in the worst situations.

2. Bitterness causes people to miss the grace of God. Hebrews 12:15 begins, “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God...” A non-Christian can miss the grace of God by growing bitter against a Christian and not wanting his God. Or a Christian misses God’s empowerment and grace to help them forgive. They miss out because “I’m going to take care of this situation in my own strength,” without grace. What a disaster.

3. Bitterness contaminates many others. Hebrews 12:15 goes on to say, “See to it that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Notice it doesn’t say “a few,” but “many.” Bitterness never stays at home. It goes out and looks for friends. It defiles many. That’s why bitterness is the most contagious of all sins. Bitterness always runs in a group. Its friends include hurt feelings, self-pity, anger, resentment, vengeance, envy, slander, gossip, paranoia, vain imagination, and cynicism. What a terrible gang of thugs. That’s why Scripture says to “get rid of all bitterness,” (Ephesians 4:31).

4. Bitterness causes us to lose perspective. Asaph talks about this in Psalm 73. He admits, “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you [Lord],” (Psalm 73:21-22). The bitter person makes decisions filtered through bitterness and these decisions are not godly. The person eventually evaluates all of life through resentment-filled eyes.

5. Bitterness gives place to the devil. Ephesians 4:26-27 warns: “‘In your anger do not sin.’ Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” In Genesis 4, Cain gives the devil a foothold. Eventually, he murders his brother, Abel. How wicked. Don’t give ground to the devil “in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes,” (2 Corinthians 2:11). One of Satan’s schemes is to get us bitter because bitterness divides, hurts, kills, and destroys people.

6. Bitterness often disguises itself, including disguising itself as knowledge, discernment, or even wisdom. Many go through a divorce and later say, “Now I’m going to go counsel divorced people.” That sounds good, but if there’s bitterness in their hearts, what are they going to counsel?

James 3:14-15 says, “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly [the way the world thinks], unspiritual [not the way God thinks], demonic [the way Satan thinks].”

7. Bitterness can cause physical problems. The ancient word for “resentment” comes from a word that means “restate,” and that’s exactly what we do when we become bitter. Especially at night, we restate it. We go over and over it again. It bleeds into our days. Eventually, we do irreparable damage to our health and well-being.

How to Avoid and Heal a Bitter Heart

Summary of Biblical Principles:

Rebelling against God activates the most poisonous form of bitterness.

Battles and warfare can easily activate bitterness.

Suffering can activate an identity of bitterness.

Troubling life circumstances can activate bitterness.

The devastation of war can readily activate bitterness.

Systemic injustice can activate bitterness.

Anyone and everyone can activate bitterness.

Again, Luis Palau says it best: “Keep short accounts with God and others. Don’t lock bitterness and guilt within your soul. Allow the Holy Spirit to shine His divine spotlight in your heart. Let Him clean out every room in your soul. Then claim God’s wonderful promises.”

One of God’s wonderful promises says, “If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness,” (1 John 1:9).

Again, bitterness is the best way I know to punish yourself for someone else’s sin. Don’t do it! It’s my prayer that you experience God’s wonderful forgiveness, cleansing from all poison, freedom from vengeful impulses, and complete healing today. 

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/marietjieopp

headshot of David Sanford new 2020The late David Sanford’s book and Bible projects were published by Zondervan, Tyndale, Thomas Nelson, Doubleday, Barbour, and Amazon. His latest book was Life Map Devotional for Men published concurrently with his wife Renee’s book, Life Map Devotional for Women.