"See to it...that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled." (Hebrews 12:15)
So how does one keep bitterness from growing in the fertile soils of the heart? Here are four practical helps for fighting bitterness.
1. Seek the Lord.
Hebrews 12:15 contains a loose quotation from Deuteronomy 29:18 which is a warning for God's people to avoid idolatry. An idol is a substitute for the true and living God. Therefore if you want to avoid bitterness don't let your heart turn away from Jesus to other inferior saviors. Colossians 3:1 tells us to seek the things above where Christ is while putting to death those earthly things like immorality, covetousness, and idolatry. When we look to other things like relationships, sex, money, careers, and comfort to give us meaning and significance, instead of Jesus and his perfect life and death for us, we are opening ourselves up for failure. Those things and many more promise us so much but they always under deliver. They leave us empty, hurting, and disallusioned. They prepare the way for bitterness to creep in and grow. So if you will combat bitterness you must seek to know Jesus (see Philippians 3:7-11). Only he can save you and satisfy you. In his presence is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11).
2. Seek rest.
Sometimes the Lord is very practical. He made us with limitations and when we forgo those limitations we burn ourselves out and develop acute cases of bitterness. I have met too many bitter who are simply burning the candle at both ends. They need rest. Think about the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Martha was busy. She was working hard and did not have time to seek Jesus (see point one above!). Her sister on the other hand was content to sit at Jesus' feet and listen to Jesus' teaching. Of course this infuriates Martha. It probably made Martha bitter too. You can read the rest of the story and hear Jesus' words to Martha but it's not hard to see that part of Martha's problem is that she is doing way too much. Her priorities are wrong. She needs to rest. Although bitterness is not mentioned in that passage overwork and wrong expectations can greatly increase our bitterness.
3. Seek to serve others.
Yes, this is the opposite of point two. Some bitter people need to rest but some bitter people actually need to serve. They are too busy sitting around singing "woe is me." The best thing for these little gardens of bitterness is to branch out and start serving others. Here is an illustration that might help. The other day I woke up with a headache. It happens. I was grumpy. After heading off to work I got busy and before long I had forgotten that my head hurt. My mind was elsewhere. Some people are bitter and miserable because they sit around all day staring at themselves in a mirror. That's just not healthy. What these people need is to get out and look at others; serve others; help others. They need to get their minds off their "pathetic" lives. They usually lean then that their lives really aren't that "pathetic." So yes rest is good but some people need to get busy and serve.
4. Seek discipline.
I am referring to the discipline of an athlete who has his or her body under control. The Apostle Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:7 that we are to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness. We need to discipline ourselves to serve, to memorize Scripture, to take thoughts captive and to replace them with what is good. Bitterness, like so many other sins, begins in the heart. In the heart it takes root and begins to grow rotten fruit (behavior). The cure as well as the ongoing treatment is to learn to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness. Try memorizing Scripture to combat the seeds of bitterness that seek to implant themselves in your heart. If you are prone to bitterness try cultivating godly relationships where people can hold you accountable and alert you to bitterness rising up inside you. They might see it before you do. Discipline yourself to embrace the promises of God and that if you belong to him he is for you and not against you (Romans 8:28-31).
Here is one last thought. Hebrews 12:15 (see verse at the beginning) commands us to declare war on bitterness. it can't be tolerated. Bitterness must be removed from us (Ephesians 4:31).