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Welcome to our final episode in The Merciful Life Series. If you are new to the show, I encourage you to start your journey with us with episodes 125 through 128. Those four shows dig into the Mercy of God — which is the facet of God’s character that we celebrate from September through November.
And then you can move right into the first episode of this series which will help you to live a more merciful life.
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And then don’t forget about our free episode notes, transcript, and mercy resources on our blog at CelebrationOfGod.com.
And now let’s reveal and address the sinful heart at the root of all of our merciless anger.
1. The Definition of Bitterness
About what do you think when you hear the word “bitter”?
According to Merriam-Webster, there are 3 main definitions.
The first is the effect something has of being distasteful or distressing to the tongue and/or mind.
The second is “marked by intensity or severity” in pain, determination, animosity, reproach, cynicism, rancor, and temperature.
And the third definition relates to expressing severe pain, grief, or regret.
When referring to people, most of us think along the lines of the second definition. We imagine a person being resentful and having animosity toward someone. And I would say that to read that understanding into Ephesians 4:31 isn’t heretical. Of course, God wants us to put away resentment. And resentful bitterness if often a consequence of sustained anger.
However, the biblical understanding of this word is not deep-seated animosity. It’s not resentment. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary describes the word this way, It “is used in Acts 8:23, metaphorically, of a condition of extreme wickedness; in Romans 3:14, of evil speaking; in Ephesians 4:31, of ‘bitter’ hatred; in Hebrews 12:15, in the same sense, metaphorically, of a root of ‘bitterness,’ producing ‘bitter’ fruit.”
So, here’s what we need to understand about this concept — the word translated bitterness in Ephesians 4:31 is referring simply to evil and wickedness.
But it’s important for us to acknowledge that the Bible does not reserve the words “evil” and “wickedness” only for Satan and Hitler and Stalin. These words refer to everything that is the opposite of righteousness. It refers to the foundational root of all our sin.
Once again, the heart of the issue is an issue of the heart.
And that leads to . . .
2. The Nature of Bitterness
A. Bitterness is internal.
Okay, so we know that bitterness is the same as evil, but what about us is bitter? Obviously, it’s not talking about how we taste.
This particular Greek word is only used 4 times in the New Testament.
Ephesians 4:31 simply reveals that bitterness exists and needs to be put away.
Romans 3:10-14 explains bitterness in a little more detail and connects it to the unrighteousness that damns people to hell. Verses 10-18 read, “As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.' 13 ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ 14 ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ 15 ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.’ 18 ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’”
Among other things, bitterness can describe the words that come from our mouths. Of course, that should have you thinking of Matthew 12:34, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
Bitter words come from a bitter mind.
Moving on . . . the Acts 8 passage is interesting because it talks about Simon the Sorcerer. The passage reveals that Simon is a Thorny or Rocky-Hearted individual who displays partial belief in the message of the apostles.
Then Peter and John show up, they lay their hands on the new saints and these new believers receive the Holy Spirit, and Simon gets all excited about that power and says to Peter and John, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” To which Peter responds, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.”
Peter was helping Simon see what his problem was. His thinking was wrong. He thought he could buy this power. So Peter told him his heart wasn’t right. Peter said he needed to repent because his thinking was wicked. He compared it to bile, a bitter fluid secreted by the liver, and told him that he was in the bondage of iniquity — that is, slavery to sin.
In Ephesians Paul tells us to put away bitterness. In Romans he explains that bitterness can be betrayed in our speech which the Lord tells us comes from our hearts — that is, our minds — our spirits.
Then Peter tells Simon that his bitterness is the wicked frame of mind he’s in — thinking he can buy the grace of God with money. It’s something sinful from which he should seek repentance and forgiveness.
So, it is very important for us to conclude that bitterness is a state of mind.
B. Bitterness is the consequence of believing a lie.
If you tell me that Santa Claus exists and that I need to be good this year so that he’ll be happy with me and give me presents, and I believe you and — subsequently — be a good as I can be to make Santa happy, I am engaged in bitter thinking.
Christians should never do what they do merely for personal profit. We don’t make fairytale creatures the main motivation for our good behavior.
Even though I’m all happy and excited about what Santa will bring me this year, my thinking is evil. It’s not recognizing God and giving Him the priority and preeminence in my life.
Let’s use a more readily applicable example. If I believe that I deserve my kids’ respect, and I believe that if my kids disobey me in church that people will think I’m a bad parent, and we absolutely can’t allow that, and my whole identity is tied up in my children, then that is bitter thinking.
If you believe that you deserve to be treated well by your coworkers, if you believe it’s unfair that you — a good Christian — would get cancer, if you believe that it’s appropriate to get angry at the president when he does things you don’t like, if you believe that your teacher is treating you poorly because she doesn’t like you, if you believe you should follow your heart, if you believe the Christian life will bring you health and wealth and prosperity, if you believe you don’t have to be merciful to people who are jerks, if you believe any number of lies . . . your thinking is bitter.
Bitterness is evil thinking. It’s a wicked worldview. It’s believing and thinking about and meditating on things that are biblically untrue.
And this is why . . .
C. Bitterness is the mother of every form of sinful anger.
If we start with bitter thinking, we can only bear bitter fruit.
In Matthew 7:15-20 Jesus says, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will know them by their fruits.”
James 3:8-12 reveals, “No one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.”
I strongly encourage you to listen to our Grow Your Worship Series. It does a deep dive into our anthropology and helps us to see that everything we do, say, feel, think, and want is a product of what we believe.
This concept is the most seminal truth when it comes to our sanctification.
And so it makes all the sense in the world to recognize that bitter thinking will only lead to unmerciful responses.
My mom has always said that if you’re doing a math problem, but you start with the wrong numbers, you’ll never be able to get the right answer.
If you’re thinking sinfully, it will always be easy to lash out in emotional wrath. This will make it easy to dwell on that bitter thinking and allow it to stew and steam in anger. And that will eventually break out in clamor, slander, and malice.
Angry actions always grow from an angry heart.
Understanding this progression of anger from internal to external and seeing how it morphs from one to another will help us reverse-engineer our anger and better determine how to mercifully withhold anger in all its forms.
If I beat a man, I should be able to easily trace that beating to an unrestrained shouting match we had. But why were we shouting? It shouldn’t take too much work for me to make a connection between that argument and the perpetual state of anger in which I’ve been since the man verbally assaulted my wife. And then I remember that when he said those terrible things to my wife, I did respond in an emotionally explosive way.
But where did it all start? Why did I respond in wrath, continue to stew about the situation, look for an opportunity to yell at him later, and eventually hit him?
Because I was believing a lie.
In this made-up illustration, the bitter thinking may be that I have the right to explode on someone who says something inappropriate to my wife. Perhaps I believe that if I don’t do something to teach this guy a lesson, he’ll just keep doing it to other people. Maybe I believe that if I don’t lash out at him my wife won’t think I’m being a good husband.
It really doesn’t matter what lie I was believing, what matters is what truth God would have me believe.
And when it comes to how people treat me, the Bible commands me to be loving and merciful. Period.
So, let’s talk about how God would have us renew our bitter minds.
3. The Cure for Bitterness
A. You need to recognize that your merciless responses are the result of your believing a lie.
The hardest part of overcoming bitterness is the fact that this beginning stage of anger is often difficult to see because it’s all inside. It’s the way we think, and it doesn’t always looks “angry.” In fact, it often isn’t necessarily angry at all. It’s just wicked. It’s godless. It’s a delusion and a lie.
We do what we do because we believe what we believe. Bitterness is simply the state of not believing what we should believe. It’s the state of believing a lie.
This is our greatest problem. When I said in an earlier episode that 100% of your angry outbursts are caused by believing a lie, I was laying the foundation for this episode. In fact, you can go back through all the episodes and see this thread weaving through the entire study.
Therefore, to stop being bitter requires that we think correctly. We need to believe right.
Since none of us were born into this world thinking God’s thoughts after Him, we should recognize the necessity to learn truth.
And that leads us to . . .
B. You need to know God’s Word.
This has to happen before we’re bitter. It has to happen when we’re bitter. It has to happen after we’re bitter.
And, please know this, you are already bitter.
I am too.
We don’t perfectly know, understand, and believe all truth and no lies.
If we’re not thinking correctly in any area of our lives, then we’re bitter in that area. If we’re believing any of the lies I mentioned before or any of the nearly infinite number of lies there are to believe, we’re bitter.
If we believe it’s okay to be afraid of life’s circumstances, follow our hearts, take revenge, complain, or argue with our authorities, we’re bitter.
So, let’s just establish the fact that you have been bitter, probably are bitter, and if you’re neither of those . . . I guarantee you will be bitter at some point in the near future.
You’re not perfect. Therefore, your thinking is bitter in one way or another.
And if you’re still struggling admitting that — right now — there’s bitterness in your heart, then just remember that all sin is a product of bitter thinking. Each and every sin in your day is a revelation of the bitterness in your heart.
I keep repeating this because I know how easy it is to look at our lives and believe everything is great. We tend to only focus on the good, and/or we compare ourselves with people worse than we are.
But this is why we need Bible, not pragmatism. The Bible teaches us that we’re fools to compare ourselves to anything other than God’s standard, and that we’re fools if we don’t recognize the log in our own eyes.
But knowing isn’t enough.
C. You need to understand God’s Word.
I won’t belabor this point, but I will invite you to listen to our Discipleship Spiral Series. In that series we take knowledge, understanding, and wisdom and dissect what they mean and how we’re to achieve them.
For now, though, please recognize that there are not many ways to understand God’s Word. The question, “What does that passage mean to you?” is terrible on so many levels. The question needs to be “What does that passage mean to God?”
Yes, there will often be different applications of truth, but there’s only one way to understand it.
Listen, I don’t want to stir the pot here, but infant baptism is either glorifying to God or it’s not. The premillennialists can’t be right if the amillennialists are right, and vice versa.
We need to make it our deepest goal not just to know what the Bible says, but also to understand it as well as we possibly can.
And, yes, this is achievable. We can know the mystery of the Gospel. We can recognize that someone is a false teacher. God is a God of order, not chaos. We can understand absolutely everything He wants us to understand, otherwise He wouldn’t have told us about it.
It’s going to take a lot of significant and time-intensive work, but we must do our best to understand what we know.
And then that leads to . . .
D. You need to believe God’s Word.
To believe something is to live it. You don’t believe anything that isn’t viewable in your life. In fact, everything you do, say, feel, think, and want betrays exactly what you believe.
If you need more clarity on this point, please listen to the Discipleship Spiral Series and the Grow Your Worship Series.
If you know, understand, and believe God’s truth, you will be thinking biblically. You will be like a tree planted by the rivers of water.
But if you don’t know, understand, and/or believe God’s Word, your thinking is bitter, and you’re sinning and will continue to sin.
And that’s why . . .
E. You need to accept biblical reproof.
This is where the author of Hebrews provides the complete picture of what is looks like to restore someone who is bitter.
Let’s pick up in Hebrews 12:5, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. 6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
Reproof is when someone takes God’s Word and shows us that we’re sinning. I like to call this the Interpretation Step of discipleship.
I was believing a lie, I was interpreting the situation and my response incorrectly, and my friend helps me to interpret the event and my response in light of truth — the Bible.
Consider again God and Cain in Genesis 4. Cain’s thinking was bitter enough that he offered God an unacceptable sacrifice. God didn’t change. It wasn’t His fault Cain did wrong, but instead of owning his choice, Cain got upset.
Of course, God’s paying attention to what’s going on, and He reproves Cain. God reinterpreted Cain’s situation for him. God helped Cain see that the issue was Cain’s own anger. God showed Cain how his emotions were not being controlled by righteous thinking. God helped him see the common sense reality that when you do well, you righteousness is acceptable, but when you sin, consequences come.
God even gave Cain the hope that he needn’t be ruled by sin — in fact, Cain was told that he could rule over sin in the power of the Lord.
God’s reinterpretation hit all the right notes, and reminded him of the Primary Consequences of sin. However, Cain didn’t respond well. His bitter thinking turned into smoldering anger which eventually turned into malice as he stole his brother’s life. He refused to submit to the reproof.
But God graciously reproved him again, however, this time, because Cain didn’t learn from the Primary Consequences, God added Secondary Consequences.
In case you didn’t know, consequences are often part of the Reproof Stage.
Okay, so then the author of Hebrews continues starting in verse 7, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
God wants to rectify our bitter thinking by helping us to see how we should respond to reproof. It’s a good thing designed for our benefit! It’s for our maturity and conformity to Christ’s likeness.
Sure, it may be painful, but it’s good.
Therefore, when we’re reproved from God’s Word, we need to . . .
First, confess our bitter thinking and choices. We need to agree with God about our sin.
Second, we need to apologize. This involves asking the people against whom we’ve sinned to forgive us.
And third, we need to repent. We need to change our mind. We have to stop believing the lies that lead to the sinful actions, and we need to know, understand, and believe the truth.
And then . . .
F. You need to continue studying and submitting to the Scriptures.
Bitter thinking isn’t an “oops.” It’s an affront to God. It’s an attack on His character. It’s calling Him a liar.
When we discover or have someone else point out to us that our thinking has been bitter, we need to recognize that failure for what it was and redouble our efforts not to believe that lie ever again.
Hebrews continues in verse 12, “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 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; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.”
Let’s break this down.
The drooping hands and weak knees and wandering paths and being out of joint represent the bitter thinking that tempts us to dislike reproof and respond incorrectly to it.
Instead, we need to . . .
1. Embrace God’s grace.
This doesn’t refer simply to saving grace, but also the sanctifying grace that enables us to be conformed to Christ in holiness. You need to rest on God’s Word and look for the Spirit’s empowerment.
It’s God’s grace that enables us to be positionally righteous in Christ and live righteously in this life. It’s God’s grace that keeps roots of bitterness from springing up and defiling us by leading us into anger, sexual immorality, and other foolish living.
What does this righteous — aka: not bitter — life look like? God wants you to . . .
2. Strive for peace and holiness with everyone.
We could take a long time detailing this point, but — suffice it to say — you need to live righteously and lovingly with others. This is the kind of life that inherits a blessing.
A life that embraces God’s grace and strives for peace and holiness with everyone is a merciful life.
Now — I know we’ve gone long today, but this is important — let’s finish off our list in Ephesians 4:31-32, “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.”
This peaceful, holy interaction with those around us — regardless of how they treat us — will result in kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness.
How could it not?
If I’m believing the truth about God, myself, the situation, and the other person, I will want to be kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving.
Now, as we finish up, I want to point out that the word translated “kind” is really very important.
That’s not some subjective sense of syrupy sweetness or nebulous notion of nonthreatening niceness.
The Greek word translated “kind” is the opposite of the word translated “bitter.” It has the idea of being useful, good, and virtuous.
The word shows up seven times in the New Testament. Listen to how it’s used.
In Matthew 11:30 Jesus says, “For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
In Luke 5:39 it’s used to describe something that is “good enough.”
Luke 6:35-36 says, “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
In a similar way, Romans 2:4 and I Peter 2:3 use this word to refer to God’s kindness.
And I Corinthians 15:33 warns, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.’”
God is not socially acceptable. He’s often sinlessly wrathful. He gives consequences for sin. But He never ceases to be good and kind and loving.
So, too, we must recognize that to be kind is to think and act in line with God’s goodness. It’s to love the person in such a way that our relationship is biblically useful to them. It will involve us fleshing out the one-anothers in our relationship. That will include living peaceably, but it also includes the necessary reproof and rebuke.
And a truly kind person — from the inside out — is going to be tender-hearted. This is another word for compassionate. It’s another way to understand mercy.
And they are going to be forgiving.
This has been such a powerful study for me — primarily — because as a biblical counselor it’s made angry people more accessible for me. They’re not as enigmatic. They’re not as scary. They’re a little bit easier for me to understand, and that’s invaluable.
And I know how I can help them work through the layers of their Angry Onion in order to keep them and everyone else physically and spiritually safe.
But even more important than that, it’s valuable for me. And I pray it’s been equally as valuable for you.
In conclusion, let’s review some necessary steps for withholding sin and living a merciful life.
1. Bathe yourself in truth. Know it. Understand it. Believe it.
2. Malicious people must be protected from themselves . . . and so must others. Malicious people need biblical help to address this layer of their Onion.
3. Malicious and Slanderous people need to have their controlling natures confronted.
4. Malicious, Slanderous, and Clamorous people need to communicate biblically.
5. Malicious, Slanderous, Clamorous, and Angry people need to have their heart revealed.
6. Malicious, Slanderous, Clamorous, Angry, and Wrathful people need to respond correctly to their emotions.
7. Malicious, Slanderous, Clamorous, Angry, Wrathful, and Bitter people need to have their wrong thinking reproved and respond in truth.
8. They also all need to stop the sinful behavior that’s revealing their bitter mind.
9. Regardless of what anyone else has to say, you need to run to the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible . . . so help you God.
And . . .
10. We need to invite people into our lives who will help us withhold these sinful responses and live a merciful life for the glory of God.
Thank you for your patience today. I love you. You can do this by God’s grace and in His strength.
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And join us next time as we seek to better know, love, and worship God and help the people in our lives do the same.
To that end, we’ll be considering what the Bible has to say about fasting.
The Year Long Celebration of God is a discipleship experience designed to equip followers of Christ to better know, love, and worship Him as they help others in their lives do the same. We exalt God, teach His people how to practically worship Him every day of the year, and train them to disciple others.
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AMBrewster is the creator of The Year Long Celebration of God and host of its podcast.