In her book Having a Mary Spirit Joanna Weaver wrote in 2006, “Bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Steve Farrar also wrote this in Finishing Strong: Going the Distance for Your Family, in October 2000. It’s always hard to tell who should get credit for an original quotation. The original quote was most likely about resentment and is credited to Augustine of Hippo, who said, “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.”
I remember when I first heard this bitterness quote, and it wasn’t from my reading. My friend Slip Gray said it while we were on a Caribbean cruise together. What he basically meant was that bitterness is usually caused by my anger at someone else, but takes its a toll on me rather than the person I’m angry at.
Besides Skip’s quip, I know that I have heard several sermons warning about the effect that bitterness can have on a person. As I recall, each of those messages were warnings about what bitterness will do in a person’s life – the person holding the bitterness.
Many people point to the New Testament book of Hebrews when they talk about this warning of the effects of bitterness. There it says, [See to it] “that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled” (Hebrews 12:15b, New American Standard Bible).
There an important word that I noticed this morning in my devotional time. Let’s look at the NIV translation for another perspective: “that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” In both of these translations we find the word “many.”
Bitterness does not just poison the person holding it. Bitterness has the ability to defile “many.” In neither of these translations does the context solely point at the person with the bitter spirit. This verse is found in a section of the book that lists things the Hebrew readers should do (beginning with the word “therefore” at the beginning of verse twelve).
When I look at the immediate context of verses 14-16, there is a common focus – the community of Christ; the Church. We are to “see to it that” (1) “no one comes short,” (2) “no root of bitterness…causes trouble,” and (3) “there be no immoral or godless person.” Each of these “that” imperatives are for the protection of the Christian community.
Bitterness will, in fact, eat the soul of a person for breakfast. But it will also defile anyone who comes in contact with it. That contact could be innocent; like Covid-19 being spread without intention.
As members of the Body of Christ, we need to watch not only that a root of bitterness not spring up (NASB) in our own lives, but also expect that it might grow up (NIV) in someone else’s life. We simply can’t take the stance that “It’s not my problem.” By allowing bitterness to take root, we allow the defilement of every Christian that it comes into contact with.
Watch for it. Take action. Protect the Body.