Ministry Resources

The Root of Bitterness

Finding the Cure

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

Let me paint a picture of what I think happens as a result of a bitter root of judgment.

We’ll call our character Dave. Dave has been attending the same fellowship for many years, but recently has become disturbed with leadership because the church is not heading where he feels it should go. No longer given the responsibility he once had, or simply not granted the ministry he thinks he is capable of leading, Dave finds his ideas are being rejected or simply put on hold. But this reminds him of something. It smacks of the time as a child when his father was always right, and he hated that. Dave couldn’t talk to him about anything new that he was doing with his friends, and he especially couldn’t talk to him about his dreams. Dave had thoughts of being a singer or an artist, or perhaps of going away to college. But his dad’s response was, ‘That’s not the way of our family,” and the discussion ended. Dave came to resent his dad for putting him in a centuries-old box called ‘We’ve never done it that way before” or ‘The old ways have always worked for us. No need to change ’em now.”

Flash forward many decades later. Dave is involved in a fine little assembly of Christian folk. He knows all of them and even grew up with most of them. The songs he sings are familiar, and he has known since childhood many of the evangelists who come to preach at the church. He is teaching Sunday school, sits on the board, helped paint the parsonage, and has dinner with the pastor and his wife a couple of times a month. Then slowly, imperceptibly at first, things change. The church moves into a new building, which is fine, because Dave knows that they needed the room. Some new faces appear in the congregation. That’s good, he thinks, because it means we are growing. He’s still a leader, has an inroad to both the pastor’s office and his home, and still feels good about his little, growing fellowship. But then one day something happens. The pastor suggests a change of direction, an expansion of a ministry, an enhancement of vision. And Dave, although he was consulted, feels something is just not the way it used to be. He makes suggestions, but they are put on hold or quietly disregarded. Other people, outsiders, are now coming in and taking up the time he used to have with the pastor and his wife, and he starts to resent these people.

Then one day it all comes to the surface. Dave longs for the good ol’ days, the way it used to be, and in an instant he has reaped the bitter fruit of the seed of judgment sown against his dad decades earlier. He hated it when his dad wouldn’t let him do his own thing and fulfill his own vision, and now Dave is bitter with the pastor for taking the church down a new road. He could have gone with the pastor, but he was now shackled by God’s law which said he must reap what he’s sown and be measured with the rule he measured with. But Dave still has a chance. He can fall upon God’s grace (see Hebrews 12:15) and let the Father forgive him as he forgives his own father, or he can stay where he is, fists clenched at his side, a smile of “hey there, pastor” coming from his lips, while at the same time a fire of animosity burns within his heart. Dave has now exchanged God’s lifelong plan for him in the assembly of believers for a short-term appetite of revenge upon his father, which is played out against the pastor and leaders. Or, Dave can repent, and once again walk the path made straight through discipline.

The cure for a bitter root is a twofold, either/or proposition.

Either you can repent, or God can wield the ax. John the Baptist said, ‘The axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). The seed of a bitter root is judgment. The fruit of this root is trouble and defilement. The reason Jesus told us that we could know a tree by its fruit is because He knew that the roots would also be bad. Jesus can turn a bad tree into a good one through repentance, or He can take an ax to the tree and the world will never know that it was even there (see the Parable of the Fig Tree, Luke 13:6-9).

However, another principle is at work here. There are many Christians today who love the Lord, attend church regularly, read the Word, pray often, tithe, and serve the body in teaching Scripture and by giving their time and talents. Yet there always seems to be something wrong in their lives. Things are constantly going wrong and they can never seem to get ahead financially. Their relationships are good but not great—both at home and at work—and although they like their church, they feel detached. This too can be traced to a seed of judgment toward their parents, for what they are discovering is that God’s promise of honoring their parents is not being applied to them. Paul said we should honor our parents, and when we do ‘it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth” (Ephesians 6:2, NIV). But things are certainly not going well, there seems to be a pall of death that hangs over every aspect of their lives, and now a long life on earth seems like an awfully long time, and certainly not something to enjoy. The problem may be nothing more than the reaping of a seed of judgment sown toward one’s parents.

Now the author takes us a step further into the consequences of a bitter root, and Eugene Peterson calls it the “Esau syndrome.”

His translation of verses 15-16 says, “A thistle or two gone to seed can ruin a whole garden in no time. Watch out for the Esau syndrome: trading away God’s lifelong gift in order to satisfy a short-term appetite.” Esau grew up in a house filled with God. He knew from his father, Isaac, and his mother, Rebekah, that God is real and that He watches over the lives of His people. However, just because a person grows up hearing about God, lives in a home with people who know and fear God, attends church regularly and can quote Scripture liberally does not mean they have a keen sense of spiritual values.

Esau is an example of a person who has the immediate moment in mind, not giving value to the vision God has for his future. He will easily trade God’s lifelong gift to satisfy a moment’s appetite. Fornicators and adulterers do that. Men and women easily throw away their spouses (with whom they once vowed in front of God and men that they would stay “until death do us part”) for one moment of lust used to quench their appetites. Others, to fill their short-term appetites, will reap AIDS or pregnancy. They do not value what God values, nor desire His gifts, nor take joy in His grace. Rather, they value the fulfillment of their own happiness, the satisfaction of their own appetites for sex or power or recognition, and take whatever joy may be obtained in the fulfillment of their own goals and aspirations. The result of this disjointed life is the breakup of families (with children separated from their parents because one spouse wanted to be “happy”), and the breakup of fellowships, with members splitting off and starting their own “church” so that they can hear what their itching ears want to hear, not what challenges them to change. These same people will also poison anybody around them who doesn’t have the spiritual maturity to distinguish such a poisonous root from the life-giving root of Jesse. The spiritually proud will tell you they have a spirit of discernment. The spiritually wise will “share all good things with the one who teaches” (Galatians 6:6) so that together they may reap the good things to come.

Verse 15 tells us that this root grows up or sprouts quickly, according to the Greek.

I know a man who could not get his wisteria plant to grow until he transplanted it to another part of his property, where it shot up beautifully. It always had roots; it was simply waiting for a change of soil. Bitter roots may lie in people’s lives a long time until the right soil of circumstances comes along and they spring up, and in their “profane (godless and sacrilegious)” (Amplified) ways cause trouble and defile many.

This profanity, which means to tread under foot, is what we do with our words and schemes when we walk on people, especially God’s anointed, which God’s Word tells us twice not to do: ‘Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm!” (1 Chronicles 16:22; Psalm 105:15). Don’t you know that when a father tells his children something twice he really means it? I do find it interesting how the discontent, the gossips, and the rumormongers never want to talk to me. At least not more than once. They do not find me a fertile field to sow their seeds of bitterness. Of course, they rarely confront the pastor either, and when they finally think that they are brave enough to address the church board, they write anonymously. Only a person without God-inspired convictions writes anonymously. Those with true convictions, even if they are treasonous, will sign their names. Just ask those men who signed the Declaration of Independence. Or, ask Jeremiah, Isaiah, Paul, Peter, or John.

Esau sold himself out when he found himself weakened through his own chosen activities. He was famished, weakened and weary, staying out in the open country longer that he should have, and not preparing for the journey. It was in this weakened state that he sold his birthright in order to fulfill an immediate physical appetite. This is the way bitter roots produce fruit. Esau’s character already contained the items necessary to sell his birthright. All that was needed was the right opportunity. When it presented itself, God’s grace—the grace that saw Esau to be the firstborn and inheritor of two-thirds of Isaac’s estate—was exchanged for an appetite which would return to him a few hours later.

But there is a cure, and it involves being truthful with yourself, and then confessing that truth to others.

Psalm 15 is a good start regarding integrity, for here David tells us who will find life in the presence of God. “O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart; who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the LORD; who swears to his own hurt and does not change; who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved.”

The truth some of us must tell ourselves is that we have not been speaking the truth and we know it. We have slandered our neighbor and have invited others to do so. We have put on a face of congenial fellowship and given verbal support to certain people when we are at church, but turn and speak in an evil manner about these same people when we are out of earshot. The truth is we have not been very truthful, and we know that our agenda is not the agenda of God and His leaders, and we need to repent.

After being truthful with ourselves, we must then be truthful with others. James 5:16 says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” This confession needs to include the bitter seed we planted against our parents, and the bitter fruit we have reaped and dispersed within the church. Remember, bad fruit springs from a bad root, and a bad root is seeded in judgment. This confession will see the healing of a bad root, then a bad tree, and finally bad fruit. When this confession takes place then life will start to fall into God’s order. Suffering and persecutions will still come, but there will be a spirit of life about them, and not that pall of death we have grown accustomed to. New energy regarding relationships will rise up, and a long life on earth will sound like a joyous event and not simply another burden to bear. We will be at peace with our parents, our children, and our church. Our prayers will go from “Lord, I’m running out of steam so You have to return quickly,” to “Lord, give me supernatural energy to accomplish Your will. And Lord, could You hold off coming for a while? There are still a lot of people I want to reach with Your love.”