Among the Christian buzzwords common in churches, perhaps one of the most uncomfortable is “bitterness”. This term often surfaces in unpleasant contexts and, unfortunately, can be used or viewed as a conversation ender. After all, who wants to be called bitter?
Bitterness is a heavy accusation and an often-misunderstood concept in the church today. While the term does have biblical backing, the concept is a little more complicated than simply being angry about something. In fact, it’s easy to accuse someone of bitterness when their feelings are closer to the biblical definition of righteous anger. It’s time for a more thorough examination of what both terms mean.
What Does Righteous Anger Look Like?
While there are plenty of biblical examples of righteous anger, two in particular stand out as shining examples. First, let’s look at the actions of Jesus Himself. It’s easy to forget that even though modern Christianity tends to portray Jesus as entirely merciful and gentle, He had some pretty harsh words for the Pharisees and other corrupt leaders of the Jewish people. And let’s not forget the time He made a literal whip and chased money-changers and sellers out of the temple, destroying their wares in the process. As our sinless role model, Jesus can hardly be accused of bitterness or unrighteous rage toward these people. While we may not be called to overturn tables and deliver sermons that start with “Woe to you!”, we’re certainly called to demonstrate zeal for holiness and not let popular opinion stand in the way of truth.
For the second example, let’s look at the Old Testament and a particular verse from Isaiah, where God is telling the Jewish people to truly honor Him with their actions rather than just continue to offer sacrifices. Isaiah 1:17 instructs them to “Learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (James’ description of true religion is reminiscent of this verse.) Interestingly, the Hebrew words used in this verse give a clearer picture of what these actions look like. The word translated as “reprove” refers to judging and, in some cases, legal punishment for evildoers. Meanwhile, the word translated as “plead” refers to striving verbally, physically, or legally for a defined goal. The usage of these semi-legal terms in this verse is no accident. Part of righteous zeal clearly involves using the civil government to pursue justice for those who deserve it, as well as simply providing outspoken support for the truly oppressed.
What Does Bitterness Look Like?
Based on the verses examined above, it’s clear that simply being angry over injustice being done to others or disrespect shown to God hardly qualifies as a sin. Even anger to the point of taking rather drastic steps isn’t condemned. So where’s the line when righteous anger becomes true bitterness? Abuse victim advocate Barbara Roberts proposes a helpful test to determine if our anger is no longer righteous:
If my anger is directed against the Lord, then it is not righteous anger. It is bitterness. Where bitterness exists, you can be sure that it is directed ultimately against the Lord, not just against those who have wronged us.
For example, it’s perfectly normal and acceptable to be angry that someone stole money from you. It’s equally acceptable and even commendable to take legal action against them and make sure others are warned of what they’ve done, not only to get justice for yourself, but also to prevent others from being victimized. What isn’t righteous, however, is becoming angry with God for allowing someone to steal from you. If you feel mad at God, your anger has crossed the line.
Pro Tip: Only God knows what a person is truly thinking or feeling. Accusing someone of being bitter toward God when they’ve been wronged by another person is short-sighted and a wrong use of the term.
Why Accusations of Bitterness are Problematic
Aside from the obvious issue that judging another person’s motives is nigh impossible, calling someone bitter effectively ends the conversation and puts the person on the defensive. Let’s continue the earlier example of someone stealing money from you. Based on the Bible, you’re more than justified in pursuing restitution to ensure that the thief is punished and justice is done for you in your zeal for righteousness. Now imagine that a friend accused you of holding a grudge against the thief and being bitter. Rather than continuing your pursuit of justice, now you have to defend yourself and explain how following these biblical examples are not sinful or symptoms of unrighteous anger. Meanwhile, the original pursuit of justice is pushed aside.
Rather than demonstrating a spirit of forgiveness toward the thief, this shows that your accuser is more interested in appearances and an attempt to make a bad situation go away rather than in justice being done. And this problem isn’t unique to minor legal disputes. Abuse victims have heard this accusation plenty of times as their often still unrepentant abusers are welcomed with open arms.
Another important thing to remember is that calling someone bitter can be a form of attempting to speak improperly for God. Consider the format these accusations often follow: “This person said sorry and prayed a prayer. God has forgiven them and so have these other people. Why are you still angry with them or about what they did? You’re just bitter.” First of all, these comments frequently come when there hasn’t been nearly enough time to demonstrate true signs of repentance, such as changed behavior or an attempt to make things right. Consequently, claiming God has forgiven someone before they’ve demonstrated actual repentance shows a misunderstanding of what forgiveness means and puts words in God’s mouth. Additionally, an outsider to the conflict has no right to intervene and call the offender forgiven when they weren’t the ones affected by their wrongdoing! The crime is between the criminal, the victim, God, and any legal forces involved.
Pursuing Righteous Anger
The Bible makes it clear that anger is possible without sinning. It’s up to each of us to make sure our anger against sin stays directed at the sin itself and that our desire for justice doesn’t turn into an unrelenting rage against God. As for those on the outside of the conflict, it’s important to remember that it’s difficult to judge whether a person is demonstrating righteous anger or bitterness. Before you confront someone else for being bitter, examine your own motives and ask yourself why they’re behaving this way. They may have a very good reason.
Join the conversation to learn more about bitterness vs. righteous anger and their accompanying behaviors.