Is your worship more like honey or wormwood? When we allow a root of bitterness to grow in our hearts, our worship can become just as bitter as wormwood.
Scripture: Hebrews 12:14-16 (NIV)
Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.
How a Root of Bitterness Disrupts Your Worship
In 2009 I lost two jobs within a month of each other. The first one was understandable, but the second one hurt deeply. This was my dream church job. I was part of a thriving multi-site ministry in San Diego and I envisioned being there for decades.
But the realities of life collided into a perfect storm. The Great Recession caused church giving to drop. My father-in-law developed cancer for the second time and this resulted in his death in October of 2009. Since we homeschooled our children, my wife and I decided that she and our children should go help her mother during the last few months of his life. That meant my family lived in Florida while I lived in California for about 6 months.
We were living apart when three church leaders sat me down and told me I should resign so I could go be with my family and seek a full-time job. It makes sense now, but at the time, it was really hard. The elders were showing love toward me. They knew that unless I could pour into my family, my long-term ministry would be empty.
When I was unable to quickly find a full-time job in ministry, I become bitter. I started saying things like, “See. I told you this would happen. You should have let me keep my job while I looked for another job. Now I’ll never be able to get another full-time worship job.” I held on to this narrative for a long time. Too long.
I began to think those pastors hated me or devalued the work I was doing. I questioned my usefulness in God’s kingdom. I withdrew from my calling and assumed I needed to do something else. I became distant to my family and was very difficult to live with. As my children look back on those months, they can only remember the pain. Yes, we were together physically, but my heart was in California and I was bitter toward God.
This led to my becoming ineffectual as a worship leader. You see, I was more concerned with my own pain than I was with the people I was leading. I wanted God to know I was mad at him and if he wasn’t listening then I was going to numb my heart.
Over the last few years, God has slowly restored my heart and pulled out the root of bitterness, but it hasn’t been easy.
Why do I share this long story? Because it reveals some of the ways bitterness can grow in all of our hearts. Bitterness directly affects our attitudes toward God, life, and those we hold dearly. The consequences are dire, but the cure is readily available.
How a Root of Bitterness Forms
We become bitter when we believe lies. In Hebrews 12 the author reminds us of how Esau gave up his birthright for a bowl of stew and some bread. He became convinced he needed food so badly that he would give up anything. Sometimes we do that with sin. That late night bowl of ice cream turns into a carton and we abandon our goal of losing weight and becoming more healthy. Our bitterness toward our spouse causes us to “look” other places for satisfaction. Our bitterness toward our employer causes us to give less than our best effort.
We feed bitterness in our hearts when we continue to believe lies instead of clinging to the truth. Satan deceived Eve and then Adam to believe they could be like God. Their momentary forgetfulness led to a mortal wound that corrupts all humanity. Before eating the fruit they enjoyed intimate fellowship with God. Now they were ashamed and wanted to hide from God.
When we become bitter and allow it to fester in our hearts the same thing happens: we become ashamed of our sin, we hide from God and we sometimes go deeper into sin.
How Bitterness Affects Our Worship
One of the unfortunate consequences of my bitter descent is that I became overly focused on my needs and desires in worship. I lost sight of the one I worshiped. I couldn’t receive the truth that God loved me and my family so much that he wanted us to be together and not apart and that this was more valuable than a steady income. I went through the motions of leading worship and leaned too heavily on past experience. I became afraid to get too close to God lest he point out my bitterness. Oddly I started taking comfort in my bitterness.
Can you relate? Sometimes the sin we love is more comfortable than the grace we need. You see the cure for bitterness is God’s radical grace shown at the cross. This caused extreme discomfort for God. It’s funny how when we feel miserable we think it’s honorable to not want others to share in our misery–especially God.
How to Overcome a Root of Bitterness in Worship
Jesus drank the bitter cup reserved for you and me by enduring the Father’s wrath toward our sin, dying for the consequence of our sin and then rising again to show His power and victory over sin. We will only see the bitterness in our hearts removed as we repent of our sinful attitudes and actions. We must forgive those who have sinned against us and not harbor bitterness toward then.
Forgiveness drives out the root of bitterness. We find freedom only as we receive God’s forgiveness and then turn around to offer forgiveness to those who have sinned against us (whether the sin is real or imagined).
We also need to confess the sin in our hearts that lead to bitterness. Often it’s pride that causes us to impugn wrong motives on those around us.
In the hymn Rock of Ages, Augustus Toplady uses a phrase that sums up the cure we need:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.
Notice the last two lines. Jesus provides the double cure for sin. He saves us from God’s wrath; in other words, He justifies us before God. He also makes us pure by giving us the righteousness of Christ. We stand before God as if we are righteous because we now own Jesus’ perfect record. There is no more stain of sin. Every trace of sin has been removed in God’s eyes.
Do we still sin? Absolutely, but we don’t have to. Before our salvation, we couldn’t help but sin. Now we have a choice. We don’t have to let the root of bitterness grow in our hearts. By God’s grace that bitter root can be removed. Sometimes it will be painful and God will usually use others to show us our need and to pull up that root. If we pull it ourselves, we may leave the roots intact–just like when we don’t properly pull a weed from our garden.
For further reading about bitterness and how to become free, I recommend Robert Morris’s book Truly Free and his chapter on “Breaking the Snare of Bitterness”.
May God keep the garden of our hearts free from all roots of bitterness that we may serve him freely and worship without any hindrance.
Prayers for Today
Self: Lord, I confess that I have been clinging to a root of bitterness thinking it was food and therefore good for me. I now see it is evil and doing me no good. I forgive those who have sinned against me overtly, even if they have not sought my forgiveness. I pray your blessing on them. I forgive those who have acted kindly toward me but I have mistaken their kindness for evil. I’ve been maligning them in my heart because I really am mad at you. I forgive my spouse for all the ways he/she has failed my expectations and desires. I really thought he/she could replace you. Forgive me for withdrawing from you. You continually show kindness toward me through providing for my needs and preaching the Gospel to me in unexpected places. Thank you.
I pray you would fill my heart with joy, gratefulness, love and pure delight. Fill my mind with thoughts of all that is true, noble, good, right, pure, lovely, admirable and worthy of praise. Empower me to show kindness and goodness toward every person I meet. And use me to help others pull out the roots of bitterness in their hearts.
Family: Father, help me this day to show kindness and mercy toward my spouse, children, parents, siblings and extended family. You have forgiven me so much. Help me to release those I love from the ways they have sinned against me. Enable me to pursue them, love them and delight in them regardless of how they treat me.
Work: Master, I pray you show me how to forgive my boss, my colleagues, and even my competitors. May I not allow their actions toward me, whether ill-willed or not, to foster a root of bitterness in my heart. Protect me from jealousy, greed, gossip, and idle talk that undermines my relationships with all those around me.
Church: Father, I pray you would protect our church from bitterness. May we be quick to apologize in our relationships with each other. I pray our leaders will model repentance in how they preach, teach and live before us. I pray our worship will not be hindered by bitter thoughts, but instead, may we find weekly refreshment, encouragement, and joy as we recall how you tasted the bitterness of death so that we would never have to taste that cup.
Community: Lord, open doors for me to show mercy toward my neighbors. As we rip out weeds from our physical garden, I pray you would help us to pull out any relational weeds that hinder our relationships with those who live around us.
World: I pray for the leaders in our city, state, country, and world. Many nasty things are said about our leaders, by our leaders, and between our leaders. I pray for godly men and women to rise up who will not allow these things to get to their hearts, but instead will lead by showing grace and clinging to truth. Grant our leaders wisdom and show them daily mercy.