Destructive bitterness is the bitterness of the abuser

posted by Rebecca

This is Part 4 in a four-part series on Biblical bitterness. Here you can read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.


Besides the well-known passage from Hebrews 12 about the root of bitterness and the passage from Acts 8 about the gall of bitterness, there are only a few other Scriptures in which Biblical bitterness is clearly a bad thing (as opposed to simply being the agony and grief that is the natural response to tragedy). In fact, so few that we can look at every one of them.

 Psalm 64:1-4bow-arrow-set

Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint; preserve my life from dread of the enemy. Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked, from the throng of evildoers, who whet their tongues like swords, who aim bitter words like arrows, shooting from ambush at the blameless, shooting at him suddenly and without fear.

The enemies David faced were people who wanted to overturn his rightful place, people who engaged in conspiracies, gathered in throngs, and shot words like arrows and swords. It is most likely here that—because tongues and words were being used as swords and arrows—the enemies being referred to are someone David should have been able to trust (rather than enemy nations), either King Saul or his own family members.

But when King Saul or David’s own family members used their tongues like swords and bitter words like arrows, what were the reasons? Not lack of forgiveness, as many preach, but jealousy and lust for power. That’s what we see again and again in David’s story.

This reason for “bitter words” doesn’t at all match with the meanings for bitterness given by many modern-day pastors of bitterness being born of lack of forgiveness or taking up offenses for others. Rather, the bitterness of the words that were aimed like arrows was a bitterness that caused agony and grief for David, which makes it a #3 bitterness producing the #1 bitterness in the chart in this post.

Habakkuk 1:6

babylonian-armyFor behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own.

The Chaldeans were a bad bunch, so it’s quite safe to acknowledge their “bitterness” as a negative. But what kind of negative is it? By what were the Chaldeans characterized?

First of all, they were swift (“hasty”) in conquering other nations—that was a big part of how they were able to amass the eventual Babylonian Empire. But was their “bitterness” a lack of forgiveness? That obviously doesn’t make a lick of sense in this context.

The “bitterness” of the Chaldeans was caused by a lust for power. It had nothing to do with the “root attitude of the heart” or “resentment” born of “resisting the grace of God,” as so many modern-day preachers preach. They were “bitter” in the sense that their lust for power, their aggression and violence, caused the experience of bitterness (#1) for those that they attacked.

Romans 3:14

angry-mouthWhose [the wickeds’] mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.

This is a quotation of Psalm 10:7, which says, “His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression.” In this case, we can see that “bitterness” would be equated with “deceit and oppression.”

In the context of this psalm, the wicked crushes the helpless (vss 2, 8,9,10), and believes God will not see or know (vss 3,4,11,13). This bitterness is overt, not the “subtle sin” described in many modern-day sermons. It is not about “lack of forgiveness,” but about abusive behavior. This is reminiscent of the “root of bitterness” in both Deuteronomy 29 and Hebrews 12, the person who wants to exalt himself and make himself his own god. This bitterness, having to do with cursing, deceit, oppression, crushing the helpless, and exalting oneself as god, will cause the experience of agony and grief for those who have the unfortunate experience of being in the abuser’s path.

James 3:13-18

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.

This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

This “bitter jealousy” can be compared to the “bitter words” of Psalm 64. This is the kind of jealousy that can cause agony and grief to those who are its targets, through the disorder and vile practices that it produces.

This is contrasted to wisdom, understanding, good conduct, meekness, wisdom, peaceableness, gentleness, reasonableness, mercifulness, impartiality, and sincerity.

Colossians 3:19

Husbands love your wives, and do not be bitter against them.

Because there is no immediate context for this term, except that it is in opposition to being loving and husbands in particular are told to guard against it, it needs to be interpreted in the light of the other Scripture passages about bitterness. If we were to follow after the interpretations that fit with the other passages of Scripture we’ve looked at, we could interpret it to say, “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be a source of agony and grief to them.” This would fit with both the context and the sense of the passage.

Ephesians 4:31-32

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.

Those words wrath and anger are both from Greek words for violent passion (the first one implies hard breathing). Clamor is yelling. Evil speaking is vilifying, slandering, railing (yelling insulting language, expressing scorn and contempt). Malice is wickedness.

In this context, the poison of bitterness appears to be being spewed out of the mouth. This is reminiscent of Psalm 64—we can easily imagine the bitter words being aimed like arrows. Also, looking at it in the light of Romans 3 (and Psalm 10), we can see that Ephesians 4:31 is actually describing abusive behavior, not the words that express the pain of having been injured by abusive behavior.

Let’s suppose someone who has been oppressed comes to you for help. Instead of listening to her, loving her, trying to help in any way you can, you accuse her of holding onto anger, your heart isn’t tender toward her, you tell her to get over it, you even become angry with her. This kind of communication doesn’t minister grace to the hearer. It does not edify the hearer, It is not kind or tenderhearted. In some cases it can even be considered corrupt communication.

  In a twist of irony, the one who accuses a person of sinful bitterness
 is often the one who in reality is exhibiting sinful bitterness.

Looking at Destructive Bitterness in a new light

Keeping in mind these Scriptures that show destructive bitterness, as well as the Hebrews 12 and Acts 8 passages expounded on earlier, we can see a pattern.

One who executes destructive bitterness is one who does one or more of the following:

  • Uses his words to cause agony and grief to others.
  • Lusts after power.
  • Practices deceit.
  • Practices oppression.
  • Experiences jealousy and selfish ambition.
  • Despises the inheritance of Christ.
  • Wants to have the ascendancy and make himself great.
  • Wants to use the Holy Spirit as a commodity to advance his own personal position, reputation, and sense of power.

Nowhere is Biblical bitterness shown to be a secret sin, “hidden deep within the heart” and needing to be pointed out by others in authority, which teaching forges it into a tool of spiritual abuse.

Nowhere is Biblical bitterness shown to be related to resentment. Nowhere is Biblical bitterness connected with lack of forgiveness. If so, it might describe the person who has been hurt by an abuser.

Instead, though, the type of bitterness that is described as negative in the Bible, “destructive bitterness,” paints the picture of an abuser.  Both spiritual abusers in a church or ministry setting, and those who abuse emotionally, psychologically, and physically within the home can qualify as Biblically “bitter” in the negative sense that they cause the experience of agony and grief to others.

The experience of those who need help or need to grieve having to endure accusations of sinful bitterness is indeed a bitter pill to swallow. This is a bitter pill that is poisoning all of the church of Jesus Christ.

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”
Isaiah 5:20

Rebecca Davis is the author of Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind. She is also the collaborating author of Unholy Charade: Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church and Tear Down this Wall of Silence: Dealing with Sexual Abuse in Our Churches.

2 Comments on “Destructive bitterness is the bitterness of the abuser

  1. Thank you for this series on the true biblical meaning of bitterness. So many churches and individuals are in need of this teaching.

    Shortly before my family and I left our former church (a BJU-associated IFB church), several of the women from the church attended a women’s prayer conference. When they got back, they were asked to share testimonies of what they had learned at the conference. Apparently the main speaker at the women’s conference (a man) had spend the weekend preaching to these dear women about “the sin of bitterness.” Apparently he had equated “feeling hurt” about something that happened in the past with “the sin of bitterness.” Ugh. So in other words, it’s a sin to feel hurt!

    Exactly the kind of teaching that is needed at a women’s prayer conference (NOT — I’m being sarcastic)! In a world where 1 in 4 women have been sexually abused as children, 1 in 6 women will be raped during adulthood, and 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence during their lifetime, this is exactly the teaching that is not needed (I don’t mean to dismiss the suffering of men and boys who have been abused, but this was a women’s conference, which is why I mention the statistics about women).

    The women who were sharing their testimonies about the conference had swallowed the false teaching hook, line, and sinker. They were crying and saying self-depreciating things. These are good, kind, caring Christian women. My husband and I felt sorry for those who had attended the conference. After the women got done sharing their testimonies, the pastor re-affirmed this message equating being hurt with committing the sin of bitterness, and encouraged the congregation to examine themselves and repent of this sin before partaking in the Lord’s Supper. Yes, the Lord’s Supper, that is supposed to remind us of the love and grace of Jesus, His victory over the powers of darkness, and His setting free of the captives.

    This concept that Christians are supposed to run around being unconditionally happy all the time, that it is a sin to experience grief and hurt, or even to hurt for a lifetime, is so false. The Bible teaches that even in heaven there are tears. In Revelation 6:9-11, the souls of the martyrs, sheltered under the altar, cry out for God to give them justice against their persecutors — “How long, Oh Lord?” In Revelation 21, when all is finally made right, God himself will wipe away the tears of his children. Until then, I will continue to weep whenever I remember horrific things that an evil man did to me when I was an innocent little child. Jesus wept too. I believe that Jesus weeps with me. And I also believe that grief and joy are not mutually exclusive.

    By the way, there was a huge weight lifted off of us once we left the oppressive teaching. There is freedom and joy in Jesus!

    • Thank you for your comment, Mom. That’s really familiar-sounding teaching, for sure! And yes, it keeps people locked in defeat when freedom is available. I’m grateful with you for the freedom and joy that you’re finding in Jesus! ~Rebecca