“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…” (Hebrews 12:15 ESV)
My dad entered my room and lovingly told me the truth. “You’re allowing bitterness to take root in your heart. You don’t want that to grow, and I don’t either. It will only hurt you and others.”
He was paraphrasing this verse from the Bible from his heart.
Someone had wronged me, hadn’t said sorry, and continued to wrong me each time I saw them. I had a right to stay angry, right? It was okay to harbor bitterness toward them, right?
My dad saw what I could not—someone’s wrongdoing presented me with a choice. I could harbor anger and let it spoil my own attitude or I could “let it go.” Letting it go would mean I accept this person’s offense and entrust the situation to God (1 Peter 4:19).
But who wants to do that?
They deserve some sort of punishment, even if it’s just my disdain towards them. They’ve done wrong! Shouldn’t they be punished—why aren’t they being called into account by anyone?
And here we see that it’s a longing for justice, or rather retribution, that tempts us towards bitterness. That’s what Hebrews 12:15 tells us. Scripture commands us to see to it, or pay careful attention, that bitterness does not take root in our heart. But bonded to that command is a second and synonymous instruction: pay careful attention that no one “fails to obtain the grace of God.” Failing to obtain the grace of God fertilizes bitterness.
Let me explain.
Grace is God’s undeserved kindness towards us. To understand this, is to see that our life is absolutely awash in the grace of God. James tells us that everything good—everything—in our lives comes straight from God’s hand (James 1:17). What have we ever done for God to deserve the sun to rise each day, or the marriage we enjoy, or the delicious foods that spring up from the ground to nourish us? We experience God’s grace all the time whether we believe in Jesus or not.
But for those who believe in Jesus, there is an even greater grace—God has chosen to not treat us as our sins deserve—he has promised to not give us justice in this life or the life to come (Psalm 103:10; Romans 6:23). He has wiped clean the record of all our sin against him, because Jesus absorbed the justice due for our offenses at the cross (Colossians 2:13-14).
To obtain the grace of God means to understand and take to heart that God has been eternally kind to me though I do not deserve it and could never earn such favor. To think that God would not treat me as a divine offender, though I fail at keeping his law every single day, but instead to treat me like his perfect Son, Jesus—all as a free gift (Romans 3:24)!
That is amazing—it’s the grace of God.
Bitterness is the sin that woos us to exact punishment from people when we’re mistreated.
It says, you hurt me and deserve to be hurt.
Do you see why God would be so opposed to this attitude? God went to great lengths to make sure we did not have to suffer for our wrongdoing, out of his great love and mercy.
When we demand punishment from other people, we’re not only being quite unlike God, but we are forgetting the immeasurable debt we owed to God that he freely forgave (Matthew 18:21-35).
When we understand what God has done for us daily in his simple kindnesses, and what he has done for us eternally in his immeasurable love towards us in Jesus, we will become more forgiving people, quick to overlook offenses for the sake of love (1 Peter 4:8).
Perhaps the injustice done to you was exceptionally grave. It may sicken you to think of “overlooking” such an offense. The grace of God answers this distress. God has promised to punish all evil (Deuteronomy 32:35; Exodus 34:7). Every evil deed will be punished in one of two places: at the cross of Jesus for those who believe, or in hell eternally for those who don’t believe.
If the person who wronged you truly belongs to Jesus, Jesus bore the punishment they deserve on the cross. Justice has been dealt. We must give them the grace God gives both them and us. And if, God forbid, that person does not belong to Jesus, they will receive justice for every evil deed, including the one done to you. That should absolutely sober us and stir up compassion for that person and urge us not to demand their punishment, but instead plead for God’s mercy for them and seek to show them the love of Christ that they might turn and know Jesus.
Bitterness really is evil, and God instructs us to get rid of it (Ephesians 4:31)—for our own good. Sin has destructive effects, beginning with your attitude, and then spreading through your lips, and then overflowing into your life (James 1:15). In the words of a friend of mine, don’t let bitterness live in your heart— “cut it at the root so it won’t bear fruit.” But how?
Confession is the only way to siphon out the poison of bitterness from your heart (1 John 1:8-9; Psalm 51). Tell God that you’re bitter, why you’re bitter, and ask for him to reveal his grace to you and change your heart. He is the master of miracles for the bitter soul, if only we will humble ourselves and confess our need. Don’t spend another hour watering this poisonous plant. Go to the Great Gardener, and ask him to help you weed it out.