The Root of Bitterness, Part 1

Therefore, lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 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; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 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. Hebrews 12:12-17

    During the first year Barbara and I were married, I was working on a roof about one week before Christmas. It was cold and there was a prediction of rain that evening, so we were working late in order to finish. Toward the end of the day I moved wrong and slipped on the roof. The good news was I stayed on the roof, but the bad news was I dislocated my left shoulder. The men I was working with helped me off the roof and into the house. I called my wife, Barbara, to come and get me, and then I sat and waited while the others went back and finished the roof. As I sat there talking to God about my latest uncomfortable predicament, it occurred to me that I could reset my own shoulder. With my left hand resting in my lap, I reached over with my right hand and placed it on my left forearm, just below the elbow. Very firmly I pressed down with my right arm, and my shoulder gently slid back into place. Barbara arrived a few minutes later and we went to the hospital just to make sure there were no broken or chipped bones. Nothing was broken, but I had to keep my arm still and wrapped against my chest for a few days, allowing the shoulder to heal.

    At this point I had a number of choices: I could go back to work and pretend nothing happened; I could get mad at the roof for hurting me; or I could rest and heal. I decided that if I went back to work my wife would hurt me worse than I already was, so that really wasn't an option. I could get mad at the roof, but that seemed rather silly. So, I stayed home awhile and healed. My wife was very pleased.

    Although I stayed home and rested, giving my body time to heal, that is not always the response one sees when there is an injury.

Some people do get mad at things that have nothing to do with their situation. I could have become unreasonably upset with the roof, or blamed my boss for making us work in the dark. But the truth was neither the roof nor my boss was at fault. An accident occurred and I got hurt. Still, I had the choice of blaming something or someone else and becoming bitter and angry over the situation I found myself in. Yes, there are times when we are injured due to faulty manufacturing or the inconsideration of others, but I'm still responsible for my response to my injuries. 

    A similar situation occurs in every church across America. People may find themselves injured, and they have a number of ways they can respond. They can take time to heal, they can deny they are hurt, or they can lash out and become bitter at their situation. I'm concerned for those people who become bitter and would like to address the causes, the consequences, and the cure for a bitter root of judgment people may find in their lives after being injured.

    Directly following his teaching on discipline, the author of Hebrews takes us on a journey into the causes of a bitter root that so easily ensnares many people's lives.

He says to 'strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (12:12-14). If we don't make ourselves strong against the 'hardships” (v. 7) that we all must face and stay on the 'straight paths” (v. 13) that God puts in front of us, we will find ourselves living a defeated life, replacing the 'peace” and 'holiness” of God with a life rooted in bitterness. 

    As a good pastor, our author is concerned about the spiritual health of his people, and he does not want to see them 'disabled” (v. 13, NIV). This word 'disabled” actually means 'turned out of the way” or 'out of joint.” It brings to mind an ankle that has been sprained or a shoulder that has been dislocated. These types of injuries need to be bound up until the injury has time to heal. In the spiritual realm we do this by adhering closely to the truth of God's Word and rejecting any message or spirit that would endeavor to turn us away and dislocate us from God and His established authorities.

    The other way that we do this is by living in peace. And peace is certainly an 'effort” (v. 14, NIV). Peace is something that we must press toward, and not simply say we possess because we are not at war with anybody. This word for peace literally means 'one, rest, quietness, to join, set at one again.” Now, if we have become lame or disjointed from God and His body, then we can no longer claim to have peace with God. If we have become disjointed, then the cure for being apart is to rejoin the body we have found ourselves dislocated from. There have been some among us who, on their own account, left the fellowship of the saints, set themselves apart from the leaders in God's church, and found themselves 'out of joint” with the rest of the body. Others have been yanked out of their place in the body by stronger forces than themselves, usually other people who are themselves disjointed.

    Have you noticed in this passage that peace and holiness walk hand in hand?

There is no holiness without peace, and without peace there can be no holiness. Likewise, there is no seeing God without peace, for only the 'pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8) will see God. Therefore, the discontented, the gossips, the liars, the malcontent, and those who distort the truth will have no peace. They are not holy in God's sight, and no matter how much Scripture they can quote, how many years they have attended a fellowship, how much money they have given or how long they have served on the board or worked with the youth, they are not seeing the work of God, their sight is distorted, and since misery loves company they will do their best to draw others into their pit of self-destruction. They are not one, nor at rest with, nor joined together with the body of Christ. They are set apart, but not in holiness or sanctification. Instead, they are rooted in bitterness, exhibit a critical spirit, and are discontent because the church refuses to behave as they would like. No longer the big fish in the little pond, there are people in churches today who, because they are no longer recognized by many in the fellowship (and this is their church, you know, just ask them), have decided to make big splashes in the water in order to be seen and heard—even if that splash comes through anonymous letters distributed throughout the fellowship. (I've seen it happen). If you are offended by what I have said, then my question is, 'Does it apply to you?” My dad was fond of saying that if you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one that yelps is the one that got hit.

    Is it any wonder such people cannot and will not see God? They are not at peace nor are they set apart for God's holy purposes, but instead they work to accomplish their own goals under their own steam. They are disjointed, disabled and dislocated from the rest of the body, and 'are not setting [their minds] on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23). We must all understand that if we are spending more time trying to get other people to see things our way instead of sitting in God's presence and learning to see things His way, then we can rest assured that we will not be seeing God anytime soon.

    Our author tells us in verse 15 that it is God's grace that is needed at times like this. Not man's efforts, but God's grace. Without His unmerited favor setting our lame feet onto straight and level paths, we will walk disjointed. It is only by God's grace that His peace and holiness can be obtained. If we do not have God's grace in our lives at times like these, our author says that a bitter root may grow up in our lives, which will 'causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.”

    The author is referring to a passage in Deuteronomy 29:18 which says, '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.” Deuteronomy tells us to watch out for roots that point toward idolatry, which is the rejection of the Lord. Idolatry occurs when we turn our hearts toward the gods of other nations, the gods of a conquered people. It is turning back and desiring to replace the life God has given us in the Promised Land for the life we left as slaves in another country. It is taking the god of the defeated and putting it in place of the God of victory. It is the Philistines taking the ark of the covenant and with it the presence of God into their temple, only to have their own god Dagon diminished, not enhanced, by the Lord's presence. Since many people would rather worship a god they can control versus a God who is in control, the Philistines put away from their midst the obviously stronger and unknown Lord God Almighty for the familiar, controllable and weakened Dagon. A bitter root is an idolatrous spirit where people desire to control circumstances, leaders, and life. They will even send the Lord Almighty away from their fellowship in order to maintain the god of familiarity. A bitter root of idolatry occurs when, given the choice between serving the Lord God in quietness and humility and serving our own ideas and desire of being recognized by the church, we choose to serve ourselves.

    The fruit of a bitter root is trouble and defilement. When a person produces trouble, schism, animosity, pride, rivalry, or moral defilement, they are planted in the soil of self, not God. Bitter roots produce bitter fruit, and when other people, saved and unsaved, are subjected to their fruit 'many” (v. 15) are troubled and defiled. But even a root must have an origin, so we must ask, 'What is the seed of a bitter root?” And the answer is: judgment.

    God's creative love for us conceived all kinds of laws for our benefit, such as those that govern gravity, aerodynamics, and electricity. Once we know these laws we can use them to our advantage, but if we disobey them we can get hurt, as I found out on that roof one evening. But God also created laws that govern our spiritual selves, such as judgment, sowing, and reaping, and these laws are no more bending than the laws that keep my house on the ground and allow planes to fly.

    There are a number of ways that we can reap the bitter fruit of judgment.

Sometimes we become bitter because we judge our current fellowship to be less 'spiritual” than the fellowship we left by saying, 'We did things differently where I came from.” Other times it's because we do not have the prestigious position here that we had there. Sometimes we become bitter because we compare ourselves with those around us, believing ourselves to be either inadequate or far above those we are looking at, depending on the current desires of our hearts. Other times we group ourselves with those who have similar gifts and judge those in the body who have been given different gifts. We forget that we are all filled with the same Spirit; it just manifests itself in different areas.

    God's law concerning judgment says that we will be judged the way we judge others, and we will be measured with the same ruler we have used to measure others (see Matthew 7:1-2). A bitter root has as its origin a seed of judgment, and I believe that one of the most insidious seeds of judgment we can plant is a judgment against our parents. Why our parents? Because God told us to honor our parents and when we did life would go well with us. But if we dishonor them, the root of bitterness begins to grow and one day we will look up and notice that the seed we sowed has multiplied and we have reaped the bitter fruit of judgment.

    If you are a parent of young children, you know that it is impossible for your children to understand why you do some of the things you do, and why it is not right for them to judge you when you know they don't have the whole story. They will understand when they mature. Likewise, it is the same with the judgments you may have leveled against your own parents. God knew that you would never understand the depths of their pain, the hurts inflicted upon them by their parents, who in turn had sinful parents, who also had sinful parents, all the way back to Adam and Eve. So God, right up front, in the first of the Ten Commandments which deals with relationships, says to honor our parents, and Paul tells us why in Ephesians 6:1-3: 'Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 'Honor your father and mother' (this is the first commandment with a promise), 'that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.'” You cannot honor a person by judging their actions and saying you know WHY they are doing what they are doing. But quite often that is exactly what we have done.

    For instance, a man may have hated the way his mother kept house, and in his heart said, 'My mom's just lazy and won't work. That's why the house is a mess.” One day he gets married and becomes very critical of every housecleaning effort his wife makes. Fearing she'll be like his mother, he criticizes her every move. She, on the other hand, sees that nothing she does satisfies her husband and quits trying to keep a clean house. The man, then, has reaped his judgments against his mother.

    The man's mother, in fact, may have kept a very neat house. That man as a boy, however, may have had a different set of ideals, or may have seen a 'neater” or 'nicer” house when visiting a friend, and compared his house to their house, and in the process he judged his mother. This root of bitterness toward his mother caused trouble for his wife, and she was profaned, dishonored, and no longer hallowed or special in his life, and she was certainly not treated as Christ treats the Church.

    Perhaps the man's mom was lazy, or even promiscuous or an alcoholic. Judgment is still wrong. Whether our parents were right or wrong in the way they lived and in the way that they raised us, our critical judgment of them is ALWAYS wrong. Furthermore, people carry their judgments into the church, and I believe that much of the discord sown in church is due to bitter roots of judgments of earlier years.

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