Two tiny leaves popped through the newly thawed soil. Stretching toward the sun, they began to grow, each extra bit of sunlight and water fueling them to become the exact imprint of the seed that had been planted months before. Laid dormant through the harsh winter, it was finally time for this new life to break forth into the world.
I watched with delight as the seedling burst forth. I hadn’t lived long in this place, and certainly didn’t know what may have been planted. In the beginning, the tiny leaves were indistinguishable from one another, so I waited with baited breath while I imagined what beautiful things had been sown in this place. I watched carefully, at first, but as they continued to grow I lost track and checked in less often. Until, one day, I rounded the corner to find that the innocent tiny duo of leaves had somehow transformed overnight into a gnarly tangle of thorny foliage.
A weed. In fact an army of weeds, had invaded my yard as I stood there watching. I didn’t have the time to wrestle with it that day, so I left it and went about my business, sure that it would be there to face another day.
Sure enough, when I came back, it was there. Nearly as tall as I am, with a thick stalk and strange alien defenses, the weed defiantly stared me down. Inch long thorns drew blood and precariously fragile fluffy seed pods drifted defiantly in the air around me.
In the cool of the day, as I yanked out the deep roots of this intruder, I began to think of how similar my heart is when infested with unexpected bitterness.
Bitterness has never been something I saw coming. Instead, it always appears as an unexpected invader. As a seed dormant for a long time, promising new growth, all hiding and disguised bitterness. Death that masqueraded as life until it was so deeply entrenched that tearing it out tore me up in the process.
The seeds of bitterness are tricky, because the same experiences can lead us to different places, depending on how we respond. One way leads to death, and the other to life and peace.
“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Romans 8:5-6
Here are some unexpected seeds of bitterness to watch out for:
Pain becomes bitterness when we don’t allow God to heal us. The source of the pain doesn’t really make a difference. Loss, betrayal, physical anguish, and the things that make our heart hurt can either push us away from one another and from God, or pull us closer.
When we face pain points in our lives we need to watch carefully. Guard against bitterness towards God by meditating on and wrestling with the truth of his goodness, faithfulness, and power despite the current situation. Guard against bitterness towards others by not expecting them to fix it, or say exactly the right thing.
Relationships become filled with bitterness when we don’t bring up hurts or offenses. We try to get past problems without facing them, and in the process drift away. Soon we realize we haven’t seen the person in months, and it would be quite uncomfortable to encounter them. A gnarly bitterness has grown where there needed to be a simple conversation. In confronting hurts rather than avoiding, we guard our friendships and relationships. The initial plucking out is far less destructive than what we could allow to grow.
Control produces bitterness when we discover that control is a mirage. Whether it is a cancer diagnosis, or a person you’d rather act a different way, any effort to control things can quickly turn into bitterness.
We all long for something, but if we make our happiness contingent on the fulfillment of our longings, we will discover that none of our longings truly satisfy. That specific person’s approval. The next step in your career. A child. To be included. It isn’t as if these desires are for “bad” things, but the overwhelming nature of the longing can easily elevate it beyond what these good things were meant to fulfill. Long-term lack of the very thing you feel entitled to moves quickly from disappointment to bitterness.
How can bitterness grow in the solitary mind? Unspoken expectations can quickly pile up, until our thoughts become centered on how “He never______ ” or “She always____.” This is especially true of roommates, or family members. The people we share close physical proximity with have ample opportunities to fail to meet unspoken expectations. Instead of letting expectations morph into bitterness, have a conversation.
This year, I am facing spring head on. Trowel in hand, I am heading into the mud to root up the seedlings that I have seen turn into painfully-spiky alien invaders. And as I dig, I am examining my heart once again. What have I let grow that God would ask me to dig out? What at first glance looked like innocent leaves, but is beginning to grow into bitterness? Are the things in my life full of the Spirit? Life and Peace? These must be answered if I want true life to flourish.