The Bankruptcy of Bitterness

 
 
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As the apostolic witness of the Gospel of the Kingdom began its slow-burning spread from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,[1] it first penetrated a national culture governed and “tutored” by an external “type and shadow” of what God would ultimately and fully achieve internally.[2] As grace often offends, the Good News of the Kingdom was seldom without an awkward collision with a competing ideology or opposing worldview. Sometimes God will do something public and mighty, and people around won’t “get it.”

And the worst thing to do is sympathize with them.

Right after Stephen was killed in cold blood in Jerusalem, Philip traveled to tell the Samaritans the same message Stephen had just been stoned for saying publicly. (What an interesting response to grief, no?) Maybe it was in the neighborhood of the “woman at the well” in the fourth chapter of John. Maybe they’d heard something about Jesus before he got there. In any event, the community’s response was miraculous: “the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip.”[3] The whole lot of them believed and were baptized. This is no small thing to celebrate.

The rest of the leadership team in Jerusalem heard about what happened and sent Peter and John down to pray for these new disciples, who had already left their “old men”[4] in the waters, and were ready to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Peter’s and John’s excitement was tempered with sobriety, and they had the discernment to see through the wiles of some new followers. A local man named Simon, with a reputation for witchcraft and an ego, had seemingly forsaken all to follow Jesus and become something like a second shadow to Philip by the time Peter and John arrived. However, when Simon saw the power heaven imparted through the apostles’ hands, he offered to buy it off of them.

It’s not quite what any pastor would like to hear from a mouth also confessing the Lordship of the slaughtered Messiah.

Before hearing how the apostles responded to him, try to imagine what would run through your mind. Perhaps your first thought would be something like, “Silly rabbit, you can’t buy the Holy Spirit!” But what root would you blame for this verbal blunder and doctrinal confusion? How would you respond to a man you knew had a history with spirits of manipulation and sorcery? When a young, immature, and professing believer executes a defiled power grab, how would you counsel him?

Never one to mince words, Peter struck swift and strong: 

“Your money perish with you, because you thought the gift of God could be purchased with money! You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God.”

But Peter, he just got saved, right? How is his heart already wrong in the sight of God?

“Repent, therefore, of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you.”

The apostle’s message hadn’t changed since Pentecost. He hadn’t deviated from the main and plain: “You’re dead in your sins, you can’t work or bargain your way out of it, and you need to repent. You need to call on the name of the LORD.”

Maybe Peter could’ve ended there. Maybe his rebuke was worded strongly enough to rattle the emotional fiber of even a counterfeit disciple whose first thought might have been less “I really should repent” and more “Snap! They’re on to me!” But it’s where Peter finally landed that we are forced to confront our own emotional state and pray as David did that God would search our depths and expose any wicked way within us:[5]

“For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity.”[6]

Simon’s mistaken zeal wasn’t the confusion of an immature disciple. His ego-driven pursuit of power wasn’t even simply an issue of lacking humility. His crass injection in the middle of a holy revival among societal outcasts (as the Samaritans were considered unclean by the traditional Jerusalem elite) wasn’t merely impolite. “Out of the heart, the mouth speaks,”[7] and Simon’s well was defiled by the subtle and seductive darkness of bitterness.

Most of us don’t have backgrounds in pagan sorcery, but we probably aren’t strangers to manipulation. We’ve probably pulled some kind of stupid and unholy stunt in a relationship, and we’ve probably misunderstood the nature and character of Jesus at one time or another. We’ve probably pursued precious things like pigs sniffing out pearls, probably behaved like some kind of brute creature whose singular hope was the pity of heaven on high.[8] It would be irresponsible to read Simon’s story and not ask why Luke saw fit to include it. Simon wasn’t a tarot card reader when it happened. He was a publicly repentant, baptized, confessing believer under the discipleship of the apostle Philip. He was publicly in the Body. If we are publicly in the Body, I think it is only fair and responsible to read Luke’s account of Simon—and Peter’s shepherding—and ask why Peter had pointed to such a common, subtle, internal emotion. Out of the whole scope of the human experience, why point to bitterness? Isn’t bitterness what happens when you’ve been hurt? 

Yes, but. Bitterness is a very particular response to pain—it’s not the wound inflicted, but the habit of licking it afterwards that creates further injury, and no apostle was scripturally sympathetic to it. James may have used the harshest language against this entangling weed: “If you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, and demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.”[9]

We’re not left without examples of “every evil thing.” Here are a few: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contention, jealousy, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissension, heresy, envy, murder, drunkenness, revelries, sodomy, theft, covetousness, reviling, extortion, perverted passion, evil desire, cowardice, unbelief, and lying,[10] just for a start. It seems as though everything Jesus rebuked and warned against in Matthew 5-7’s beloved “Sermon on the Mount,” all the works and passions of the flesh, can be found anchored in James’ diagnosis: bitterness and a swollen ego. Murder is the fruit of a root of anger. Anger is sown by what seed? Bitterness and self-seeking. Adultery? Same seed. Unbelief? Also the same seed. Dissension? Community fractures? Robbery? False doctrine? Drunkenness? Manipulation? Fighting? Sexual immorality? All are grounded in bitter envy and self-seeking pursuits. Why did Saul turn on David? He envied him.[11] James could identify bitterness and jealousy in one breath because bitterness is the lashing out of a calloused heart grieving over what we think we deserve. It is no wonder Paul pointed to Jesus’ selflessness in Philippians 2 and told us to “have this mind in us also.”[12] Those words aren’t a light suggestion. They’re a lifeline: prefer people above yourself so you don’t get drunk on the seductive doctrine of wayward spirits.

What happens when you’re hurting? What about when a cruel injustice is committed against you? What about when life is unnecessarily difficult? Doesn’t everyone get a little calloused and cynical? Must we use such harsh language? Yes, and yes. But narrow as the way may be, Jesus’ yoke is yet light and His burden is yet easy.[13] It is possible to be in pain, even to get a bit jaded, and not let the seed of bitterness grow into a weed that chokes out the life spring of your heart.[14] We are not beholden to bitterness. We do not need to go the way of Simon.

We can go the way of Naomi instead.

After the death of her husband, Naomi went through what no parent should have to and buried both her boys. Rather than turning on their Gentile wives—“If we hadn’t been here and they hadn’t married you, maybe they’d still be alive”—she gently blessed them instead.[15] Rather than turning inward, she sought the good of her widowed daughter-in-law.[16] Rather than stewing over the affliction she had survived, she was yet willing to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.[17] 

Though she was a woman in mourning, though she was a woman who returned to her hometown telling all her friends she’d only answer to her own self-appointed nickname: “Bitter,” though she was a brokenhearted widow and grieving mother whose life almost certainly did not go the way she had dreamt, and likely not the way she probably thought she deserved— Naomi navigated her pain in a way that did not allow her to turn inward. Rather, she served someone outside of herself. “Mara” rejected the bankruptcy of bitterness. And in a beautiful twist of grace-saturated fate, she became all the richer for it.

Naomi and Simon’s stories serve us with colored narratives, informing us the fruit of either path we can take in response to pain: lean on Jesus and trust Him in the dark, satisfied in Him and content with how and when He vindicates you (Naomi), or attempt to bypass a relationship with Him on the whole and try to buy power born out of intimacy from someone else instead. Scripture is not unclear: Naomi’s life, though painful and complicated, was navigated in a healthy manner. Simon’s was not—and we don’t know if he had sight to see the mercy granted to him in Peter’s rebuke. Are we able to see what Peter saw and help our brothers and sisters uproot the toxic seeds and weeds of bitterness?

“Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of lights,” the “Father of glory,” in Whom there is no shadow of turning; no deviance, no perversion, no confusion, no double-handed slight.[18] He has called, washed, sanctified, justified, and adopted us in Christ so that He can show us the almost-impossible-to-believe “riches of His kindness” for all the ages to come.[19] (That’s ‘ages,’ plural.) We can choose today to anchor our deepest convictions in the bankruptcy of bitterness and erroneous entitlement, or we can go deep in the abundance given to us in Jesus, knowing God is the Good News and everything else is a bonus. Let’s choose wisely.

 
 

Stephanie Quick is a writer and producer serving with Frontier Alliance International in the Middle East. You can watch her films for free, read her books, and sign up to receive her ministry updates. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and browse the Covenant and Controversy film series and resource library.


 

[1]  Acts 1:8
[2]  Galatians 4:1-5; Hebrews 8:5
[3]  Acts 8:6
[4]  Colossians 3:9
[5]  Psalm 139:23-24
[6]  Acts 8:23
[7]  Luke 6:45
[8]  Psalm 73:22; Matthew 7:6
[9]  James 3:14-16
[10] Matthew 15:18-19; 1 Corinthians 3:3; 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:3-4; Colossians 3:5
[11] 1 Samuel 18:6-9
[12] Philippians 2:1-11
[13] Matthew 11:29-30
[14] Proverbs 4:23; 14:10; Ephesians 4:31
[15] Ruth 1:8-9
[16] Ruth 2:19-3:5
[17] Ruth 4:13-17
[18] Ephesians 1:16; James 1:17
[19] Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 2:4-7