Bitterness” Hebrews 12:14-15
SCRIPTURE INTRO: In a sermon series on unbelief.
The thesis of this series is that whenever sins crop up in our lives—
whether attitudinal or behavioral—
it’s a sign of lurking, growing, unbelief in God.
The flip side of the coin, the positive side is that all righteousness,
all good deeds in our lives come from faith in God,
in his word, both the promises and the warnings.
So the way to fight sin in our lives is to battle unbelief,
and the way to pursue righteousness and holiness and love,
is to fight the good fight of faith.
Each week, we’re looking at passages in which believers
are struggling with certain sins, trace those sins back to unbelief,
and then show how faith helps us overcome.
In this series, some of these will apply to you more than others.
But I hope you will see that there are common lessons about faith in all of them.
And if the temptation today is not your struggle—it may be for a Christian friend.
And you may be able to use this to help them some day.
INTRO: I’ll never forget a conversation that took place one night
in the commons of my college dormitory.
A bunch of us were sitting around, and the conversation turned to families,
and parents, and fathers—and one boy began to tell, with deep bitterness—
about the wrongs his father had done to him as a child.
And he finished by saying: “I will never forgive my father.”
He said it with such intensity that we were all taken aback—nobody said anything.
And then someone said: What about the Sermon on the Mount?
What about Jesus saying, “If you do not forgive men their sins,
then my Father in heaven will not forgive your sins.”
This college boy said, “I will never forgive my father.”
Isn’t it interesting that the writer of Hebrews calls it a bitter root?
A root is deep, it spreads unseen beneath the surface—
but then it produces shoots that push out of the dirt.
That’s exactly what bitterness is—it’s a root.
It’s a deep, spreading anger that operates beneath the surface—
but then it produces things that grow out of it and push to the surface.
Like a refusal to forgive.
Constant criticism of people and life.
Irritation when people don’t agree with you.
A short temper.
The inability to talk about the past without bringing up wrongs done to you.
Telling people you forgive them, but then making them pay by hurtful comments
and reminders of what they have done.
Anger or disappointment at people and God for always letting you down.
Bitterness starts when you are wronged by someone.
And it focuses on that person, and the wrong done to you.
But it spreads—that’s what roots do—spreads to more and more people.
Bitterness toward not just toward your father, but all fathers,
or not just your wife, but all women,
or not just your boss, but everyone in authority.
Wrongs begin to be imagined, where there aren’t even wrongs.
Eventually bitterness will even extend to God himself.
Why is bitterness like a root? Why is it so deep and settled?
Because bitterness, unlike any other sin I can think of, has a moral component. What I mean by that is this:
Bitterness begins as a cry against a wrong that has been done to you.
It begins with a boy crying out against bad things his father did to him—
because they were bad things, and the human heart always cries out at injustice.
Bitterness always begins with a legitimate sense of moral outrage.
But it is that deep sense of legitimacy that gives bitterness its root-like quality.
We know deep down that this wrong must be punished.
Yes, Jesus may have said to forgive men their trespasses against us—
but there is this deep, moral sense that the person who did this wrong
does not deserve forgiveness.
And to do so is morally repugnant to us because it seems
that would be making light of the wrong that was done.
So you combine that moral indignation
with your own tendency toward self-righteousness,
and you have the root of bitterness.
Deep, settled anger that feels morally justified.
Not all Christians struggle with bitterness
because not all have been deeply wronged.
We’re all susceptible to it, or the Lord wouldn’t warn us.
But some of you do struggle with bitterness, and I want to speak specifically to you.
How do you overcome it? By faith.
Faith in three things:
1. The promise of God’s justice.
2. The sufficiency of Christ’s death.
3. The reality of your forgiveness.
If you believe these things, you will be enabled,
to pull the bitter root out of your life.
Let’s look at each.
MP#1 You must believe in the promise of God’s justice.
What is the promise of God’s justice?
Most clearly summarized in these word:
“It is mine to avenge, I will repay,” says the Lord.
You have to believe that promise.
The Lord promises that he is keeping perfect records,
and as the Judge of all the earth, nothing will escape his notice.
The punishment will perfectly fit the crime.
This promise permeates the Bible—I want to give you a quick survey.
You see it in the Books of Moses.
God reveals himself as the Judge who will carry out justice.
Abraham learned this and said: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
In the Psalms, you see this revelation of God the Judge made more specific.
Several Psalms speak of the Judge coming to earth to judge, time, event.
Our call to worship, Psalm 96 one example: He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness. Psalm 9 another.
In the prophets this coming judgment of God is connected to the Messiah.
We read one example in Isaiah 11.
The Branch of Jesse, Son of David will come and judge perfectly.
Perfect justice, guided perfectly by the Holy Spirit.
No one will be able to deflect the force of his judgments.
When we come to the Gospels, we understand this judgment more fully.
What the Old Testament prophets talked about that sounded like one coming—
he would come and judge the earth and save his people—actually two comings.
Jesus’ first coming for salvation—birth in
Jesus’ second coming for judgment on the last Day.
Separated by an age of grace in which the message of salvation is proclaimed.
Jesus himself spoke very clearly about his second coming to judge.
Son of Man coming in glory with angels, to separate people, judge deeds.
In the Epistles applied to the lives of Christians—especially suffering persecution.
Jesus will come to judge—retribution for those who wrong.
Revelation—Vision of justice falling on Whore Babylon, represents all those
who have wronged God’s people. Command from heaven. Rejoice!
John hears this great multitude shouting:
Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments.
He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.
He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.
And again they shouted:
Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.
So we see, from Genesis to Revelation this promise of God’s justice.
He will not overlook evil. He is keeping perfect records of every wrong.
This is an age of patience and grace—but Jesus Christ has been appointed Judge.
And the day will come when he will judge and punish every wrong
with such perfection that no one will dispute him, and his people will praise him.
Now, let’s apply this to your bitterness.
Remember the power of bitterness is the moral component.
I’ve been wronged and this wrong must be punished.
But God has promised justice—and he commands you to trust him,
and let go of your bitterness, and desire for revenge.
John Piper put it more powerfully than I ever could, listen to this:
“God’s promise says, ‘Yes, an outrage has been committed against you. Yes, it deserves to be severely punished. Yes, the person has not yet experienced that punishment. But, No, you may not be the one to punish, and you may not go on relishing personal retribution. Why? Because God will see to it that justice is done. God will repay. You cannot improve on his justice. He sees every angle of the evil done against you—far better than you can see it. His justice will be far more thorough than any justice you could administer.’ If you hold a grudge, you doubt the Judge.”
This summer at General Assembly, representatives from Voice of the Martyrs.
Organization that documents stories of Christian persecution, provides help.
Giving away a book by founder, Richard Wurmbrand.
He’s with the Lord
now, but he was a Lutheran pastor in
Tortured for Christ is about his experiences in communist prisons,
story after story of the suffering of Romanian Christians in 40s, 50s, and 60s.
Read just one.
A Christian “by the name of Florescu was tortured with red-hot iron pokers and with knives. He was beaten very badly. Then starving rats were driven into his cell through a large pipe. He could not sleep because he had to defend himself all the time. If he rested a moment, the rats would attack him. He was forced to stand for two weeks, day and night. The communists wished to compel him to betray his brethren, but he resisted steadfastly. Eventually they brought his fourteen-year-old son to the prison and began to whip the boy in front of his father, saying that they would continue to beat him until Florescu told them what they wanted. The poor man was half mad. He bore it as long as he could, then he cried to his son, ‘Alexander, I must say what they want! I can’t bear your beating anymore!’ The son answered, ‘Father, don’t do me the injustice of having a traitor as a parent. Withstand! If they kill me, I will die with the words, Jesus and my fatherland.’ The communists, enraged, fell upon the child and beat him to death, with blood splattered over the walls of the cell. He died praising God. Our dear brother Florescu was never the same after seeing this.”
How could you not be bitter over such terrible evil?
How could you not hold on to that grudge your whole life?
Only by trusting the Judge of all the earth to do right.
“It is mine to avenge, I will repay,” says the Lord.
MP#2 You must believe in the sufficiency of Christ’s death.
In Wurmbrand’s book he tells several stories of communist torturers
who came to faith through the witness of Christians they tortured.
One amazing story about a communist official named Reck converted by
words of a Christian named Grecu whom he tortured to death.
And that raises another crucial question about bitterness.
If God’s promise of judgment is the basis for not holding grudges
against unrepentant enemies—
then what’s the basis for not holding grudges
against Christian brothers and sisters who do repent?
Our moral indignation does not evaporate just because the offender is a Christian.
In fact, we may feel even more betrayed.
The wrongs done by a Christian spouse or Christian pastor
are sometimes felt even more deeply.
And a simple confession of the wrong and request for forgiveness
often seems completely disproportionate
to the painfulness and ugliness of the offense.
It’s that moral component again.
I’ve been wronged and this wrong must be punished somehow.
This is a problem in Christian homes and churches
when serious sins have been committed.
Christians know, I’ve got to forgive this person because he’s a Christian..
Here he is doing everything Jesus told him to do.
He’s confessing what he’s done, he’s admitting his guilt,
he’s telling me his sorrow, he’s expressing a desire for reconciliation.
I’ve got to forgive him. Jesus says forgive your brother 70 time 7.
But it just doesn’t seem that this wrong has been punished enough.
And so you say you forgive him. Maybe even think you have.
But you hold on to the offense and the bitter root grows.
Sometimes when a Christian bitter towards another Christian, doesn’t even know.
It’s repressed. It’s denied.
“I’m not bitter. I’m not bitter towards my husband.
I’m not bitter towards that church member. We’re Christians.”
But the root is there. That deep and settled anger.
And it sends up shoots of all kinds of ugliness.
So how do you deal with wrongs done to you by Christians?
Where do you turn to assure yourself that justice will be done—
and that Christianity is not a mockery of the seriousness of injustice?
You turn to the cross.
All the wrongs that have ever been done to you by fellow believers
were avenged in the death of Jesus.
Look at Jesus in mental and emotional agony in
sweating drops of blood—look at his mockery, his flogging,
and his crucifixion.
That is God’s vengeance for the wrongs done against you by fellow Christians.
God does not make light of those things.
He takes those sins so seriously that to make them right,
he gave his own Son to suffer more than you could ever make anyone suffer.
Do you believe that?
Can you look at the suffering of Jesus,
and then draw a line from his suffering to the suffering that you think
this person who wronged you deserves and say—OK, it’s been paid.
You have to.
This is the only way for you to be rid grudges against fellow Christians.
As John Piper puts it so well—“All injustice will be avenged—
severely, thoroughly, and justly. Either in hell, or at the cross.”
But that’s not quite enough, is it?
It helps to know that God avenges injustice in hell or at the cross, it’s a big help.
But it doesn’t give you the thing that you ultimately need
to deal with your bitterness.
That brings us to the third point.
MP#3 You must believe in the reality of your forgiveness.
The only way bitterness can be decisively dealt with
is when you replace it with forgiveness and compassion
for the person who wronged you.
And they only way you can do that—
is by believing that you, yourself, have been forgiven by God in Christ.
If you are struggling with bitterness this morning—
it’s because someone has wronged you.
But you’ve wronged someone too—
you’ve wronged God by sinning against him.
And God has forgiven you through the death of Christ.
God’s vengeance for your sins has been turned aside
by his loving provision of his Son as your substitute.
You are a forgiven person.
Totally, completely forgiven.
And greatly loved.
It’s very simple—to the degree that you really believe you are loved
and forgiven by God, to that degree you will be able so show compassion
and forgiveness, towards the person who has wronged you.
One of the themes in Richard Wurmbrand’s book—
the love and forgiveness of Christians towards the communists.
“A minister who had been horribly beaten was thrown into my cell. He was half-dead, with blood streaming from his face and body. We washed him. Some prisoners cursed the communists. Groaning he said, “Please, don’t curse them. Keep silent! I wish to pray for them.”
“When one Christian was sentenced to death, he was allowed to see his wife before being executed. His last words to his wife were, ‘You must know that I die loving those who killed me. They don’t know what they do and my last request of you is to love them, too. Don’t have bitterness in your heart because they killed your loved one. We will meet in heaven.”
“I have seen Christians in communist prisons with fifty pounds of chains on their feet, tortured with red hot iron pokers, in whose throats spoonfuls of salt had been forced, being kept afterwards without water, starving, whipped, suffering from cold—and praying with fervor for the communists. This is humanly inexplicable! It is the love of Christ, which was poured out in our hearts.”
If you are still struggling with bitterness,
probably because you are unsure of God’s love and forgiveness towards you.
You may know it intellectually, but not experientially.
On a day to day basis, you probably think that God is frowning and demanding—
and you are doing your best to make yourself acceptable to God,
and punish yourself for your mistakes.
Listen, God loves you and he has forgiven you in Christ.
How do you become convinced of that if you aren’t already?
Ask the Holy Spirit to convince you—it’s his work.
“The love of God has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”
But then there is something you can do—
do the works of love and forgiveness.
“If your enemy is hungry, fed him, if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”
What does that mean? Paul explains it in the preceding verses:
“Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse.”
Pray for the blessing of the person who has wronged you—
pray that his hungers will be filled, and this thirsts quenched in Christ.
Pray that God will pour out blessings on his life.
And as you obey this impossible command,
you, will find your own heart changed, bitterness softened,
as you express in prayer, the loving heart of Christ.
This is the age of grace, God is patient—
sends rain on righteous and unrighteous,
makes the sun rise on the good and the wicked.
He wants all men to come to repentance before the day of his wrath.
And he wants you to imitate him in his mercy.
You can, because you’ve known his mercy and love.
CONC: The root of bitterness will make your whole life bitter.
Don’t feed it by unbelief—pull it out by faith.
Believe God’s promise of justice—all wrongs will be set right.
Believe Christ’s death is sufficient punishment for the sins of his people.
And most of all, believe that you are greatly loved, and completely forgiven
by your heavenly father.
Then, in the assurance of that love, bless and do not curse.