Beware the Root of Bitterness

Every human experiences the struggle of existence in a world that is marred by sin. The pain some people encounter makes them stronger Christians, others become bitter. How can we avoid this root of bitterness?

A Study of Hebrews 12:14-17

Every human being experiences the struggle of existence in a world which is marred by sin. We all contend with our own human weaknesses, disappointments, trials—and also with the injustices and offenses caused by others. It is important as believers that we maintain the right perspective toward these difficulties in relation to our understanding of God and His relationship to His children. We need to be careful not to fall into the trap of deceiving ourselves into thinking that other believers appear exempt from difficulty and that God has singled us out for unjust punishment. The level of affliction may vary from one person to another depending on God’s purposes for their life; yet all true sons of God will experience chastening of the Lord which will be grievous to them at the time (Hebrews 12:8). However, the struggle with difficulty, if rightly accepted, can be used by God to stimulate personal growth (Hebrews 12:11).

If our perspective toward difficulty differs from what God has in mind, we can easily become bitter against Him for that which He either designs or allows in our life. God asks us to look diligently lest a root of bitterness spring up in our lives.

We shall study Hebrews 12:14-17 in order to identify some principles about dealing with pain and suffering, and avoiding the tragedy of being overwhelmed by bitterness.

  1. Follow Peace with Men and Holiness with God

“Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

In this phrase we are given the focus which we must maintain during times of suffering—following peace and holiness. As we shall see, this admonition is given within the context of dealing with bitterness. This command is stated in strong language. Without pursuing peace and holiness, no man shall see the Lord. The term “no man” indicates that there are “no exceptions” to this requirement. When we are struggling, we often are tempted to think that somehow we are a special case, or that our hurts justify acting irresponsibly. The penalty for not following peace and holiness is being barred from the presence of the Lord. Since this command is given within the context of suffering and dealing with bitterness, God intended that these two goals be the focus of believers when they are in the midst of deep trial. It is not that believers may never fall short or even commit grievous sin when under tremendous strain, but rather that they must remain committed to peace and holiness in order to be recovered by the grace of God. By grace through faith we must follow peace and holiness.

It is difficult to follow peace with others when we think we have been unjustly treated. Suffering for perceived wrongs against us will sharpen our emotions and tend to embitter our spirits. Yielding to bitterness or resentment runs counter to the command to pursue peace with “all men.” The term “all men” means our pursuit of peace must be extended also to the offenders. One of the key components of pursuing peace with others is choosingto forgive offenses and demonstrating the spirit of forgiveness in speech and relationships.

Coupled with the pursuit of peace with others is the pursuit of holiness to the Lord. God calls upon us to follow holiness in the midst of trial—to mortify our fleshly responses. We must accept the sovereignty of God in what He has chosen for us to endure, and be committed to allowing the fires of affliction to refine us into the image of Christ. Holiness involves separating our lives from sinful and bitter reactions and becoming Christlike in our behavior when the temptation is strong to do otherwise.

There is a connection and a balance in these two objectives. We cannot be holy before the Lord while being mean-spirited and bitter toward others. Neither should we pursue peace with others at the expense of holiness to the Lord. God has designed that these two objectives will give us the proper balance and perspective through times of suffering, both in our relationship to Him (holiness) and in our relationship to others (peace).

  1. A Bitter Root will Bear Bitter Fruit

“Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled” (Hebrews 12:15).

It is the pursuit of peace and holiness which opens the channel of God’s grace into our lives so that we can endure tribulation. Without the grace of God in affliction we will not:

  • Recognize God’s sovereign right to bring us into difficulty
  • Experience His love in the midst of trial
  • Be at peace with God, others, and our circumstances
  • Accept His purposes for our lives

If we fall short of experiencing the grace of God, we will grow a bitter root which will ultimately bear bitter fruit. Let us notice the two warnings we have been given in the text beginning with the word “lest:”

  1. Lest any man fail of the grace of God—We may come short of grace and become ungracious toward God and others.
  2. Lest any root of bitterness—Bitterness is the end result of not properly dealing with our hurts and afflictions.

We notice that the root of bitterness troubles embittered persons. It affects their whole outlook on life by casting a shadow of discouragement or resentment over their thinking patterns. Their smoldering anger prevents them from fully enjoying what is truly beautiful. They are marked by a troubled spirit that easily flares into anger with small provocations. The bitterness eventually takes over their whole lives unless it is pulled out by the root.

We notice further, that while one embittered person is troubled, many others can be defiled. The troubled and bitter person eventually defiles many others by seeking to drag them into their misery or causing them to take sides in their conflicts with others. It is a poison, which if left undisciplined, can bring about the death of a whole congregation. In Deuteronomy 29:18, God warned Israel that He would curse the land for allowing idolatry or a root of bitterness to go unchecked among them. This shows the gravity and effect of the sin of bitterness to the health of any group of people.

  1. The Example of Esau

“Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Hebrews 12:16-17).

Esau is set forth as an example of a person who was troubled by a root of bitterness which in time would defile many. He made a rash decision to cheaply sell his birthright. The birthright of the firstborn included the following:

  1. A double portion of the inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17),
  2. A special blessing (Genesis 27:4; 48:1-22),
  3. The spiritual priesthood of the family (Numbers 3:12-13, 40-51; 8:14-19; note how Levi became the firstborn to Israel as their priests)
  4. The right to rule over the rest of the family (Genesis 27:29; 2 Chronicles 21:1-3, the firstborn was always the king, Colossians 1:18),
  5. The official representation of the father’s name and character to succeeding generations (Deuteronomy 21:17, note how the first son is the representation of the beginning of his father’s strength to the rest of the family, see also Romans 8:29),
  6. The ancient custom of responsibility to care for his mother and unmarried sisters with the double portion of the inheritance.

Most of these aspects of the rights of the firstborn are referenced in the description of the superiority of Christ over all others in Hebrews 1. It is important to note that with the birthright there were both privileges and responsibilities—blessings and duties.

When Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, he was equating the value of his family and inheritance (both material and spiritual) with that of a bowl of food. Jacob must have known that Esau did not properly value his birthright or he never would have tried to obtain it with such a small offer. For this reason the Scripture indicates that Esau despised it (Genesis 25:34)—meaning he had no regrets for selling it for so little.

However, the special blessing belonged to the birthright. Esau despised his birthright, but still coveted the blessing that was attached to it. In other words, he wanted the blessings of the birthright without any of the responsibilities which were a part of it. He had already shown contempt for the faith of his family who worshipped the one true God, when he chose wives from the Canaanite idol worshippers against the wishes of his parents (Genesis 26:34, 35). We note also that Esau is described as a fornicator and profane person. Bitterness typically leads its victims into godless profanity or sexual immorality. It was evident that he was not going to be the spiritual priest of Jehovah to the succeeding generations of the family. Nor did he reveal to his father that the blessing was rightfully forfeited with the sale of the birthright. He had sworn the birthright to his brother, making the transfer binding; yet he desired to obtain the blessing which he had no right to claim. The loss of the blessing which no longer belonged to him made him bitter against Jacob. His bitter tears were not from the sin of rejecting the birthright’s spiritual responsibilities, but rather from the loss of the material blessings associated with it. In this respect, his sorrow was not a godly sorrow which works true repentance—turning from the root of the sin. Therefore the text says he found no place of repentance; because the tears of remorse were not the evidence of a changed life, but of a bitter heart.

It should be noted that Jacob also paid for wrongly obtaining that which was rightfully his by prophecy of the Lord (the elder shall serve the younger). The deceit he used against his brother was reaped many times over in the trickery which Laban employed against him in many years of service. Jacob reaped what he sowed. When Jacob came back to Canaan and met Esau, he brought a gift of reconciliation. He looked at the face of Esau as a visitation from God—speaking to him of the necessity to repent of his transgression against his brother (Genesis 33:10). In this act of reconciliation, Jacob was delivered from his former sin and became free before God of any bitterness against his brother’s murderous hatred. Jacob’s descendants (Israel) were required to treat the descendants of Esau (Edomites, Idumeans) with courtesy in order to avoid reaping the iniquity of their father, Jacob. “Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite; for he is thy brother” (Deuteronomy 23:7). This cut off the root of bitterness against Edom, which could have grown in Israel, because of Esau’s intent to murder Jacob. Jacob could well have asked, “Why did I need to flee from my own home, for obeying the voice of my mother who was seeking to fulfill the prophecy of the Lord concerning me?”

Esau, on the other hand, in spite of bitter tears because of losing the blessing, went through the outward act of forgiving his brother when they met (shedding tears again at this meeting). But Esau did not truly repent of his bitterness, and was never delivered from it. His personal grudge against Jacob was extended to his children (Edomites), and they have carried on the offense to the succeeding generations of Jacob’s children (Israel). Esau became bitter at God and his family for the transfer of the birthright and blessing to the younger. Edom became a nation distinguished by its enmity against Israel and its hatred of anything holy. The following Scriptures give a time-line revelation of the Edomites’ enmity against Israel and God:

  • Numbers 20:14-21—refused Israel passage through their land when they were leaving Egypt
  • Psalm 137—spoiled Israel after Babylon conquered them
  • Ezekiel 35—refers to their perpetual hatred and violence against Israel
  • Obadiah—God’s promise to judge them for their arrogant pride
  • Jeremiah 49:1-33; Malachi 1:1-5—God’s hatred of Esau’s offspring is based upon their hatred of Him and Israel, and promises that they will be totally cut off and will cease to exist as a people.
  • Matthew 2:16-18—The family of the Herods are the last of the Edomites. Herod initiated the slaughter of the children in Jerusalem in an attempt to cut off the Jewish Messiah. One of the Herods beheaded John the Baptist. Another Herod also persecuted the early Church (Acts 12). God finally judged and cut off the Herods so that eventually the last of the Edomites disappeared from history.

God will always eventually judge both the injustice of the offender and the bitterness on the part of the victim. Many people who become bitter, wrongly assume that God’s judgment is reserved for offenders. They overlook the fact that bitterness itself is a charge made against the justice of God and will have its own penalty. The example of Esau demonstrates the danger of bitterness to an individual and to the succeeding generations of children. The unfolding saga of Edom shows that the bitter root always bears bitter fruitwhich defiles many. The family situation with Jacob and Esau posed many difficulties in relation to their differing spiritual values, the prophecy of the birthright being given to the younger, the birthright transfer between Jacob and Esau, and the deception surrounding the blessing. Even an experienced counselor most likely could not have made recommendations on how to resolve this family problem in accordance with everyone’s preferences.

The lesson for us to remember is that some circumstances in life have no easy solution, and for some difficulties there may be no resolution which will satisfy all parties. Even with a peaceful resolution there may still be some unanswered questions as to why God designed or allowed some things to occur. It is in such difficult circumstances that the root of bitterness can easily grow, unless measures are taken to prevent it. When we refuse to accept the disappointments in life which we cannot change, the root of bitterness will spring up, trouble us, and defile many others. In the case of Esau, the bitterness inspired hatred against God and His people to the extent that God had to destroy the Edomites to cut off the spread of bitterness. The root of bitterness, if left unchecked, will eventually destroy those who nurture it. Both Esau and Jacob came from the same family, and both experienced hurt and injustice. The one learned from those painful lessons and the other became bitter. Their children carried on the perspectives of their father.

There are other examples in history where the bitterness of one defiled many others. Vladimir Lenin’s brother was executed by the Czar of Russia for being involved in a conspiracy to overthrow his rule. Lenin vowed to become a revolutionary and to overthrow the Czar’s government. The death of his brother inspired hatred against all Capitalist forms of government and instigated the Bolshevik Revolution, which brought the Communist government into power. Soviet Communism brought the deaths of an estimated fifty million innocent people and spawned revolution, death, and hatred for free market economies until it almost totally self-destructed, primarily because one man became bitter over his brother’s death.

Another example is seen in the life of Adolph Hitler. His father was an illegitimate son who married his cousin. Hitler struggled in school and eventually dropped out at age sixteen. He wanted to be an artist (against his father’s wishes), but could not make a living on his work and eventually was forced to live in a homeless shelter. Later in life when he became a social revolutionary, some of his political opponents exploited his ancestry and indicated that his family history included Jewish blood. He developed hatred against his past, and hatred for all Jews, and sought to destroy all remains of his genealogies. He made his father’s home village an artillery range in an effort to obliterate his ancestry and painful past. His bitterness about his family life, like Esau, fueled a murderous hatred against Jews, and a desire for conquest of other nations, and plunged the nations into World War II.

The examples of Esau, Lenin, and Hitler ought to remind us to beware of the root of bitterness. We need to guard against it by following the principles outlined in this passage—follow peaceful relationships with all men, and pursue holiness unto the Lord.

Some other Scriptures dovetail into the theme of this passage by giving us guidance in accepting and dealing with difficult circumstances in our lives. Ephesians 1:11 declares that God is working all things according to the counsel of His own will among His saints. This illustrates God’s divine purposes in the events we face. Romans 8:28 assures us that all the circumstances brought into the lives of those who love the Lord can be used for their own good. This passage reveals God’s good will toward us in difficult experiences. Hebrews 12:11 informs us that these circumstances are a part of the training that we receive from the Lord in order to be fruitful. From these three passages we understand that every event in a believer’s life (that God decrees or allows) is part of His divine plan, will serve a good purpose for those who love Him, and will stimulate growth in those who submit to them. Even when hardship comes as a result of grievous sin by others, God can still accomplish His divine purposes in a yielded heart.

Let us choose God’s perspective on affliction. When we adopt His viewpoint we can overcome the root of bitterness and avoid the bitter fruit. Let us remember that the injustices that others commit against us can never reverse the purposes which God has for those who continue to follow peace with men and holiness unto the Lord. How did God use strife in a family to the benefit of Jacob? The murderous hatred of Esau set in motion a chain of events whereby Jacob was cured of deceit. He met his wives when fleeing from home. He eventually reconciled with Esau. The key is that at the outset of his journey he vowed to pursue holiness toward God (Genesis 28:22) and peace with his brother (Genesis 28:21) while fleeing from a premeditated intent to murder. His commitment to peace and holiness changed him from “Jacob” into “Israel” through many years of difficult circumstances. God’s commentary on Jacob is very revealing, “As a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). Jacob prevailed over his difficulty by maintaining an attitude of peace toward Esau and holiness toward God. God can use the offenses of others to bring forth fruit in us if we will commit our lives to peace and holiness, and pull out bitterness by the root.


BIBLE HELPS  |  Robert Lehigh, Editor  |  PO Box 391, Hanover, PA 17331 United States of America

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