It starts like this; ‘You want something but don’t get it’ (James 4:2). You look around you and see that what you want, others are easily getting- even when to you they don’t seemingly need it. You then start taking offense. Offense because of what you don’t have, what you could have had, or what you should have had. At this point, you have welcomed bitterness so that now, ‘you cannot have what you want’ (v2), because bitterness hinders God’s blessings. When one starts taking offense, the root of bitterness broadens so that they start taking offense at everything, even that which has nothing to do with them. Eventually, this bitterness is turned towards God, because bitterness has no limit. Jesus says, ‘Blessed is he who does not take offense at me’ (Matthew 11:6), and so those with bitterness already revoke their blessings.
Bitterness is not an emotion, but an anti-Christ spirit that defiles a person. That is why Paul urges, ‘let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God’ (2 Corinthians 7:1). So, those who have allowed the root of bitterness to cling to them have no reverence to God because, ‘No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other’ (Matthew 6:24). Those with bitterness (knowingly or unknowingly), thus allow its root to wrap around them, defiling not only their bodies (in thought, emotion), but also their spirit, because bitterness tends to rage against God. Paul writes;
‘See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no root of bitterness grows up to cause trouble and defile many’ ~ Hebrews 12:15
Those with a root of bitterness miss the grace of God, and so turn to their own works. They turn to Satan. Since they cannot receive or accept God’s power, they turn to demonic powers. And so often times, those into occult, magic, witchcraft, sorcery and such detestable practices have a root of bitterness in them. James adds, ‘But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual and devilish. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and every evil practise’ (James 3:14). Besides not getting what one wants or think they deserved, James reveals another recipe for bitterness – envy and selfish ambition, and proceeds to reveal that they are devilish as they lead to all sorts of evil practices such a boasting and denial of the truth. And as Jesus says, ‘He who is not with me is against me’ (Matthew 12:30). So, those who follow Satan’s practices and ‘cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs’ (Jonah 2:8).
When Peter and John had gone to Samaria to meet their fellow Apostle, Phillip, they met Simon the Sorcerer who ‘practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great’ (Acts 8:9). When Simon the Sorcerer saw that God’s power working through Phillip was greater, he believed and was even baptised, because ‘he was astonished by the greats signs and miracles he saw’ (v13). But when Peter and John arrived and placed hands on people so that they received the Holy Spirit, Simon ‘offered them money and said, ‘Give me this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit’ (v18-19). While Simon had seemingly left sorcery and believed (but for the wrong reasons), he still had with him bitterness which pushed him to want only what God could give. James writes, ‘You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may consume it upon your lusts’ (James 4:3). And so Peter noticing the root of bitterness, revealing as selfish ambition and envy in Simon, says to him, ‘You have no part or share in this ministry because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see you are full of bitterness and captive to sin’ (Acts 8:21-23).
False prophets also operate in the root of bitterness, because ‘anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God’ (2 John 1:9). Out of selfish ambition, they do not lean on God’s power but seek other means – yet disguising as servants of Christ. To their followers, ‘They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity – for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him’ (2 Peter 2:19). Jude notes, ‘They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord’ (Jude 1:4). They reject God’s ways and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and assume shortcuts to fulfil their craving for power, fame, and exploitation. ‘In the very same way, these dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject (God’s) authority and slander celestial beings’ (v8). Jude proceeds to liken false prophets with those in the past who had roots of bitterness saying, ‘Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion’ (v11). And to such, ‘Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping’ (2 Peter 2:3).
Like other sins, bitterness lurks and masks itself so that one may invite it unknowingly. And so it is crucial for one to ‘be alert and sober-minded because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour’ (1 Peter 5:8). The devil constantly scans our minds to bring out any loopholes, deficiencies, traumas, and hurts to use in order to arouse anger, pride, boastfulness, envy, or selfish ambition. One therefore needs to be alert and uproot such a defiling mind-set before bitterness takes root and defiles the spirit. Those who allow bitterness soon become ‘grumblers and fault-finders’ (Jude 1:16). They grumble against others, and especially against God, and are offended by Him on the basis of what they went through, what they are going through, what they did not have, or what they should have had. What started as an unchecked complaint, an aimless revisit of the past, a tainted consideration of the present, pride, envy, or unsubsiding anger soon digs deeper and stretches out the root of bitterness further to the depths of hell.
To keep in check, Paul advises, ‘But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, blasphemy and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self and its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of the creator’ (Colossians 3:8). Elsewhere, Paul again advises, ‘Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs . . . Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you’ (Ephesians 4:29, 31-32). While the work of transformation starts and ends with Christ and His Holy Spirit working within us, we are to be on our guard, constantly evaluating how we think, talk, and act- then keeping in check so as to not ‘grieve the Holy Spirit of God’ (v30). That is why Jesus constantly admonishes, ‘Watch and pray that you will not fall into temptation’ (Matthew 26:41), and, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed’ (Luke 12:15).