Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. The LORD will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven.
“For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity…”
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;
Bitterness is ugly. I’m sure you’ve seen it in others, and I know that each one of us is tempted by it. Some of my college friends who I had thought would really serve well as pastors have ended up being stuck in rotten situations being eaten up and spit out by churches, and as a result have turned quite bitter. I have also seen other, older folks that I never knew as young people also become bitter because of their life circumstances in their 50’s or 60’s. What is with this spread of bitterness? These aren’t just non-christians, these are all Christians who confess the gospel.
At its most fundamental level, bitterness is a lack of repentance and faith in the word of God. When we read Deuteronomy 29, it ought to strike us and make us fall to our knees. We all want to keep a little bit of our stubbornness. We want to be the one who is pitied as if the pity of other people will supply my every want. Of course, Moses preached these words to the Israelites who were condemned to live in a desert. Their parents had to learn to be satisfied with heavenly bread and God’s word and nothing else. ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ As we know from Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, much of Israel did not learn to be satisfied by this glory. Instead, many of them were ruled by divisiveness, envy, and strife. They rejected Yahweh God, and served other gods. These roots of disbelief bore the poisonous and bitter fruit that ultimately led to condemnation.
Of course, this is a hard teaching to Christians. We don’t think of bitterness as related to disbelief. But I think it is more often than not the case. Peter in assessing the heart of Simon the magician connects his disbelief to bitterness. I think that much in the vice lists of the New Testament (these shall not inherit the kingdom of God) is related both to bitterness and disbelief: envy, strife, jealousy, even sexual immorality. I know of adults raised as Christians whose bitterness and resentment have turned into all sorts of sexual deviancy (or perhaps it is the other way around, because their desires are thwarted, they are resentful). Finally, the book of Hebrews cautions us against this root of bitterness, ‘by it many become defiled.’ The point is that it is everywhere, and I think it is quite common in the church. It is one of these basic problems that is the fruit of the sin of Adam.
We could go on in various directions. I was talking with a pastor friend this week, and we were agreeing on the troubles of our therapeutic world. This was famously described as ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,’ by an author describing conservative Christian churches. We imagine both in our physical issues and in interpersonal problems and everywhere in between that we can find solutions to all of our problems. As much as there are many things we can work through, and many solutions to be found, in the end, this is a lie of our own flesh and the devil, and it is a denial of original sin. You may know me enough to know that I think the neglect of original sin is a big deal. I preached my two (not so good I’m sure) candidating sermons on Romans 5! Well, we are awash in this stubbornness that thinks we can get therapy for everything. If we’re not sleeping, just eat this ground up root powder, if you have problems with people, a self-help guru might have a list of things to do. If we have a chronic illness, we spend tens of thousands of dollars to find the answer (or at least some relief). If you have a baby who isn’t sleeping (count me in this category), you buy everything on the shelf and your conversations basically revolve around the various factors that contribute to your baby’s poor sleep. If you have a plan for your life, but your job, cancer, or kids throw it for a loop, you feel like a failure because you think you just didn’t do quite the right thing. All these tendencies can teach us to deny original sin. And when our remedies don’t work out, what is our response? This is the crux of the issue. Where is God in our machinations? Have we ever taken a step back to see that he is almighty creator and sustainer who made the heavens and the earth, the light and the darkness? Do we not remember that God’s making all things new is only going to be realized in the new heavens and the new earth? I really appreciated hearing one of our elder folks saying the other week, ‘Guys, getting old is really, really hard.’ Full stop. Our bodies are wasting away. Sin separates those closest to us. Reconciliation in your broken relationships is super hard, and sometimes it feels impossible. Years will go by without any acknowledgement of the issue let alone making things right.
So what is the answer? Is it trite to say the gospel? If the basic problem of bitterness is disbelief and stubbornness, then part of the answer must be faith in the gospel of Christ and repentance with our entire lives. The second is to repent specifically of our entitlement mentality that expects all good things to come our way. Instead, we receive every good and perfect gift from the Father of lights as it truly is: a gift (even the simple things like the peanut butter cookie Ami bought us yesterday). These are gifts of our good God. And then I’d encourage a thorough and regular meditation on the Psalms. David shows us the way of suffering, and if we are to avoid bitterness we must not simply ruminate on our suffering but instead practice a continual turning toward God in the suffering.
As we meditate on the great suffering of Christ this upcoming passion week, may we come to realize our own suffering is a light and momentary affliction preparing us for this weight of glory won by Christ’s suffering. And may our eyes be so focused on what is ahead and on he who is good that we leave behind any bitterness.