“Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord. Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.” – Hebrews 12:15-16
What thing causes the most problems in a local church? It is the thing that Hebrews 12 warns us about—a root of bitterness.
By using the image of a root, the writer of Hebrews taught us a number of practical truths about bitterness in the human heart. For one thing, a root has to be planted. How does bitterness get planted in the heart? Usually it’s by our getting hurt by something somebody has said or done and then holding a grudge against that person.
It could happen in a church committee meeting or in a private conversation. The culprit probably doesn’t even know that he or she has hurt us. Instead of facing the matter openly and honestly, we bury it in our hearts; and a root of bitterness starts to grow.
But roots will not grow unless they are cultivated. If you and I would honestly confess our hurt and our sin to the Lord, He would help us pull up the root. This would save us a great deal of pain.
The trouble is, we enjoy feeding our egos and cultivating the bitterness down inside. Outwardly, we maintain pious behavior, but inwardly, we are full of bitter poison.
Hidden sins do not stay hidden very long. A day and an hour comes when that root of bitterness springs up in bitter words or actions, and then everybody discovers what only God had known. Poison that has been brewing in the heart for weeks, perhaps years, suddenly erupts and infects everybody around us.
A root of bitterness causes trouble and defilement, according to the Scriptures. It never makes the bitter person better, nor does it improve the people in the home or the church. In fact, the root of bitterness troubles and defiles long before it is recognized openly.
It is impossible for bitter believers not to have that hidden bitterness affect their praying, witnessing, fellowshipping, and serving. Because they are troubled and defiled, they trouble and defile everything around them; yet all the while, everything looks spiritual.
A root of bitterness must be dealt with drastically. It must be exposed and pulled up. The ax must be laid to the root of the tree. It does no good to break off the sick branches or pluck off the dead leaves; the trouble is at the roots.
If you have ever had to dig up a tree root that was causing problems, then you know what a difficult task it is. This kind of spiritual surgery is never easy, but it is necessary.
Of course, the best approach is to keep the root from getting started in the first place. This takes effort, which explains why the writer used exhortations such as “follow peace” and “looking diligently” (vs. 14-15).
Just as the gardener must hate weeds and pull them up, so the believer must hate roots of bitterness and pull them up. Keep this in mind: It is easier to pull them up when they are small. The longer we wait, the deeper they grow and the more bitter the poison gets.
Three words tell us how to keep roots of bitterness out of the soil of the heart: “peace,” “holiness,” and “grace.” If we are following peace with all men, we will obey our Lord’s instructions in Matthew 18:15-20, and we will not permit hurt feelings to break our fellowship with our brothers and sisters.
If we are cultivating holiness of life, the atmosphere will simply not permit roots of bitterness to thrive. All of this we do by the grace of God. By nature, we want to defend ourselves and get what is coming to us (and perhaps give othes what we think is coming to them). But the grace of God changes all of that.
It is foolish to waste time and energy cultivating roots of bitterness when we could be cultivating the fruit of the Spirit. It is next to impossible for bitter roots to grow successfully where love, joy, and peace are flourishing. Bitterness would be crowded out! And the harvest of the Spirit is much more beautiful and enjoyable than an ugly root of bitterness.
The grace of God never fails, but we might fail to appropriate the grace of God if we refuse to heed this warning. Perhaps the time has come for some of us to examine the soil of our hearts.