How to Reach Someone Who Has a Bitter Heart
How to Reach Someone Who Has a Bitter Heart
Kathy Collard Miller Contributing Writer
A bitter heart is a serious spiritual problem with many causes. The word “bitter” and its variations are referred to in 81 verses in the Bible.
Anyone and everyone can have a bitter heart to some degree. None of us are exempt from the temptation of hardening our hearts. We need to examine our own hearts but how do we reach out to someone who has a bitter heart? A bitter heart diminishes our ability to serve God, but a pure heart, even if imperfect, empowers us to respond more effectively by obeying God with the right motives.
We have all tasted something bitter and scrunched up our faces in disgust. We want to avoid tasting it again. That same response is symbolically what bitterness does to our soul, heart, and mind, thus affecting our relationships with other people. If we have a bitter heart, other people want to avoid us and feel tense thinking of interacting with us. We don’t want that to happen. We need to identify our own bitter responses and with a pure heart reach out to others who are suffering and possibly don’t know it.
The writer of Hebrews tells Jewish believers, “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” (Hebrews 12:15 NIV). The Greek word in the New Testament for bitter is pikria, which includes a sense of pride, rivalry, and animosity. The writer of Hebrews is emphasizing that bitterness can end in apostasy, a turning away from God. Being bitter can lead to other sins and possibly even renouncing Christ.
What Is a Bitter Heart and What Causes It?
A bitter heart is a serious spiritual problem with many causes. The word “bitter” and its variations are referred to in 81 verses in the Bible. The first time is in Genesis 27:34 when Esau gave a loud and bitter cry saying to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!” (Genesis 27:34). The Hebrew word there is mar which can include something being disagreeable including the extreme meaning of being poisonous. The word also includes anxiety, despair, anguish, discontentment, and anger. No wonder God tells us a bitter heart is not good for us and wants us to find the underlying reason growing within our hearts.
Other verses indicate being bitter is aligned with cursing (Romans 3:14), futile thinking (Ephesians 4:17), loss of spiritual sensitivity (Ephesians 4:19), malice, and other forms of anger (Ephesians 4:31), and an absence of grace (Hebrews 12:15).
A bitter heart primarily stems from anger. It can be caused by taking offense at how we are treated. Or we feel deprived of something we think will meet our needs. We could also believe we are being left out purposefully. We might feel disrespected, unloved, unimportant, and ignored. We develop a protective shield of a bitter heart that blames others. Then the layer grows as we rehearse over and over again what happened.
Our bitterness and defensiveness seem completely justified as if we have no other choice than to harden our hearts. We are disbelieving God wants the best for us and He promises to provide everything we truly need (Philippians 4:19). Our faith is diminished, and we forget what God has already done for us (Mark 8:17-19). This process is what we can share with others who are struggling with a bitter heart.
Who Were People in the Bible Who Experienced a Bitterness of Heart?
Once we start thinking of it, we can identify many people in the Bible who experienced a bitterness of heart. The most famous might be Naomi. In the book of Ruth, Naomi has lost everything she values: her husband, her sons, her home, her identity, and hope for the future. She only has her daughter-in-law, Ruth, who refuses to leave her even though Naomi tells her she should.
When Naomi returns to her homeland Israel, her old friends are shocked and can’t believe it’s her. She looks like the devastated and hardened woman she is. She tells them, “Don’t call me Naomi…Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me” (Ruth 1:20-21 NIV).
It is obvious Naomi believes God doesn’t value her, provide for her, and that He is afflicting her. She blames him for all her problems and woes. Regardless of how Naomi criticizes God, God still comes through for her, restoring her inheritance of land and providing a husband for her daughter-in-law, Ruth. The best part is Ruth gives birth to a son who is in the line of the future Messiah. Naomi’s joy is restored by seeing God’s provision and deciding to trust Him again.
But there are other biblical characters who suffered from a bitter and hardened heart.
Hannah weeps bitterly because God is withholding a child from her (I Samuel 1:10).
Pharoah’s heart is hardened as he takes out his fear and anger on the Israelite slaves (Exodus 4:21).
Sihon, king of Heshbon, has a stubborn and obstinate heart (Deuteronomy 2:30).
King Zedekiah did evil and is stiff-necked, continuing to turn from Jehovah (2 Chronicles 36:11-14).
Job lost everything, and though eventually acknowledged as righteous by God, Job battled against bitterness (Job 10:1).
Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand the lesson of Jesus miraculously providing food for 5,000 (Mark 6:52). Jesus says they are “hardened.” Jesus called “stubborn” the disciples who wouldn’t acknowledge He had risen from the dead (Mark 16:14).
Peter wept bitterly (Luke 22:62) because he was angry with himself.
Some of these examples reveal people who were repentant and changed. Others continued in their hardened state. Regardless, God faithfully reached out to change their hearts. There is hope for anyone with a bitter heart to be set free.
Is There a Cure for a Bitter Heart?
Without a doubt, there is a cure for a bitter heart. To think God can’t “fix” this problem is to say He is powerless. A bitter heart is actually no different or more difficult than any other “problem” we have. Your friend who you are trying to help, may not cooperate with God’s healing process but that doesn’t mean God doesn’t care and is not helping. What can we do to cooperate with God whether we are the one who has a bitter heart, or we are reaching out to help others?
Recognize the source. Anger and fear are the two primary fuel tanks for bitterness. In Mark 8, the Gospel narrates the event of Jesus being aware that the disciples are fearful of a misunderstanding from Jesus’s comment, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod” (Mark 8:15 NIV). The disciples hadn’t brought bread along with them and they were feeling guilty and fearful Jesus would be upset. They concluded, “It is because we have no bread” (Mark 8:16 NIV) that Jesus is remarking about yeast. Jesus knows their discussion and responds, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?” Then He reminds them He had just fed 4,000. Their fear of the possibility of Jesus’s response blocked their ability to trust Jesus’ power to provide instant bread right then if He wanted to.
This story points to several principles for curing a bitter heart:
Make a choice not to be bitter. No one forces us to harden our hearts. We can’t say, “But if he had not treated me that way, I wouldn’t be bitter” (Ephesians 4:31).
Ask others for input on what they may observe in your life (Hebrews 10:24). Our own bitterness is often something we aren’t aware of.
Ask God to cure your heart. He wants to do that and can do it (Psalm 71:20).
Choose gratitude. Thanksgiving softens a hard heart. Giving thanks allows us to see how God wants to draw us closer to Him, even from painful experiences (Psalm 56:1-3).
6 Ways to Reach Someone Who Is Shrouded in Bitterness
Here are six ways to reach out to someone who is shrouded in bitterness.
Recognize your own hardened heart tendencies. If you don’t, you could easily come across as self-righteous and perfect. Then she will be resistant to your help because she compares herself to you (Galatians 6:4).
Share your own struggle to whatever degree you are tempted to have a bitter heart. There is no one who is free from this ungodly response (Jeremiah 17:9).
Assure her God doesn’t condemn her for her ungodly response. Her sin is covered by the blood of Jesus just like every other sin. Jesus took the action of wooing Peter back into fellowship with Him (John 21:16-20) and God wants to do the same for her.
Listen to your friend whose spiritual and physical wounds are extremely real. She may not be handling them in a godly manner, but the unjust ways she was treated are valid. Jumping in with pat answers (“just trust God”) or Bible verses may cause her to retreat from sharing (Proverbs 25:20, 25). In the beginning, she primarily needs to be heard. Respond with comments like, “It sounds like that was really hurtful.” When she feels safe, she will be more open to receiving God’s correction.
Ask her questions about God’s faithfulness in the past. Share biblical stories that reveal God still cares. When it’s the right time, share Scripture truths (2 Kings 14:26-27) and point out how her bitterness is basically saying God is not faithful, loving, and kind.
Invite her to study the Bible with you about bitterness. Trust the Word of God to convict her as you gently point out how bitterness is a sin and God holds everyone accountable for their sin, even if it seems justified. Remind her Jesus forgave her, and He wants to empower her to forgive the one who has hurt her (Ephesians 4:32).
Remind her a bitter heart is more harmful to her and doesn’t create repentance in anyone else. God will bring justice (Romans 12:17-20). Someone has said, “Being bitter is like drinking poison and expecting the one who hurt you to die” (Proverbs 28:14).
We have a mighty, caring, and loving God who mourns over our bitter hearts (Mark 3:5). He wants to set us free and restore our peace and our trust in Him. This work is a process that takes time, but He knows exactly how to help us and to prompt us to reach out and help someone who has a bitter heart.
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Kathy Collard Miller delights in sharing biblical insights to inspire Christians to trust God more and know His attributes in truth. She is the author of 58 books and over a thousand articles and blog posts. Her most recent book, co-authored with her husband, Larry, is God’s Intriguing Questions: 60 New Testament Devotions Revealing Jesus’s Nature. Larry and Kathy live in Southern California and are international speakers, parents, grandparents, and lay counselors. www.KathyCollardMiller.com