“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).
While the original language of the New Testament contains many nuanced words that may benefit from a closer analysis, the word translated “bitterness” in the passage quoted above is not one of them. Instead, this word is defined exactly as we might expect: “acridity (especially poison), literally or figuratively” (1) In addition to what we read here in Hebrews 12:15, the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy made use of this idea as well…
“Make sure that no man, woman, family, or tribe standing here today turns from the Lord our God to worship the gods of other nations. This would be like a root that grows to be a bitter and poisonous plant” (Deuteronomy 29:18 GNT).
These passages illustrate an important principle: cultivating an intimate knowledge of God through His Word serves to align our thoughts and behaviors. As we draw closer to God through the Biblical Scriptures, we will surely find it to be “…alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (NIV) as we read earlier in Hebrews 4:12.
In this instance, the penetrating nature of the Scriptures can help us identify some common roots of bitterness before we sow them. Some examples might include…
- Excessive negativity towards others.
- A sense of disapproval when others are blessed or successful.
- Holding grudges against others.
- Viewing the circumstances of life through a prism of the things we feel we deserve, but haven’t received.
- An overly defensive attitude.
- Recruiting others to sympathize, justify, and reinforce our bitter feelings.
- A desire to hold on to our sense of resentment instead of making changes that might help resolve the issues involved.
When faced with these rooted behaviors in our lives, we may prefer to rationalize or justify them. However, the corrective nature of the Scriptures will not permit us to take that course of action, for Hebrews 12:15 reminds us that such attitudes “…cause trouble and defile many” (NIV). If we do not wish to become a source of defilement for others, we will work to identify these behaviors (and others like them) as we prayerfully seek God’s help in addressing them.
As one source reminds us, “Bitterness is a characteristic of the ungodly (Ro 3:14) but should never characterize Christians (Ep 4:31-32 Jam 3:14-15).” (2)
(1) G4088 pikria Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g4088/kjv/tr/0-1/
(2) Institute for Creation Research, New Defender’s Study Bible Notes Hebrews 12:15 https://www.icr.org/bible/Hebrews/12/15/