—Written on August 3, 2015—
It’s a pretty plant, when it all begins. An invisible root bursts forth into a sweet little budding flower. At the encouragement of sunlight and water, infant vines begin to launch from the stem. You think to yourself, for a few days or a few weeks, that it’s blooming into a beautiful addition to your home décor. But as the sun rises and sets and the water soaks into the soil, it becomes more apparent that you’ll have to prune, even re-pot the plant. It is growing far more rapidly than you expected.
You are likely under the impression that you have it under control. So you care for it, nurse it, and a part of you is afraid to stop watering it. When its vines begin to encroach on the space outside of the pot, when it creeps up your walls and onto your furniture, you enter into a sort of blissful ignorance, even though its thorns are quick to cut.
Your fingers are covered in bandages and your clothes are torn, but aren’t the little flower buds pretty?
You see, the name of your no-longer-little plant comes from Greek rather than Latin. It is called riza pikrias. Bitterness root springs up before you notice it, grows while you try to look past it in denial, and overtakes you before you even realize its size. The first thing you do is try to make excuses. “It grabbed me by the foot while I was just sitting there on my couch!” What you forget in the moment, however, is that you went to the store, picked it out, purchased it, and took it home as your own. Then you cared for it with the utmost diligence; its vines and thorns are the result of your attentive nursing.
Perhaps you feel as though you are too self-aware to let this sharp, biting herb spring up, grow out of control and become the décor of not only your home but also your heart. Far be it from you to grow so attached that you take it with you wherever you go! You may even pull up weeds as part of your daily housekeeping ritual. You’ve seen others grow riza pikrias before, incognizant of their tyrant foliage, even smiling as they are overtaken by their lovely, vicious greenery. The idolatrous human heart is the most fertile of soil for just this sort of seed. It is planted inconspicuously in a variety of circumstances, most frequently along with a perceived or real wrong, whether it is sown by another human or by “fate,” or “the powers that be”—also known as “God.” It shifts from dormant potential to aggressive blooming when the normal, proper hurt is not cared for, bandaged, and healed. Riza pikrias’ fuel is the usual water, sunlight… and festering resentment. The little riza pikrias quickly grows from a seed into a full-fledged plant. Soon you are a slave to it and helpless against it.
Don’t walk by it every morning, enjoying the foliage as it climbs up your walls, convincing yourself it is some intentional decoration—that you’re going for a “woodsy ambience.” Don’t think for a minute you have a right to let it grow. Though somebody else might have sown, and though the sense of injustice and pain may be real and right, you have watered and fertilized it, you have let it blossom into bitterness and begun to harvest its rancorous fruit in abundance.
Savoring Rotten Fruit
Day after day, your little plant draws blood with its thorns… it hurts, but for some reason, you like it.
There is some morsel in you that is convinced that dwelling on offenses will be pleasurable and somehow fulfilling. Humans find some sick sense of enjoyment in both re-living and telling others about how they’ve been hurt. You may even spend time having imaginary conversations or confrontations in your mind—what would happen if that person knew how much they’d hurt you? This is akin to rubbing your wound with the dirt of animosity and relishing the sepsis. The more you give attention to the offense and the pain, the more the sense of injustice grows. And lo, watch riza pikrias thrive.
It is easier to nurse your bitterness root rather than address the hurt before it festers. Many take this path of least resistance. Soon, any healthy envisage of confrontation becomes a biting vision of retaliation rather than restored fellowship. Acting on anticipation of retribution will be found empty and unfulfilling. If you have been savoring the rancid fruit of bitterness, there is no lasting satisfaction, no long-lingering sweetness in pummeling another person with the same rotten fruit. After all, you’ll likely receive one of two responses: prideful self-defense or immediate, repentant apology. In the first case, you’ll get no apology, no admission of wrongdoing, no justice, and no satisfaction. In the second case, even if you are calloused enough to enjoy another’s squirming sorrow, the apology will likely not be enough—or it will drive you to guilt. When the conversation is over, a strange feeling of discontentment will settle in and the confrontation will leave you realizing that perhaps what you really wanted was just to dwell, just to soak, and even, at the very core of your motivations, just to hate.
Planting Hypocritical Hydrangeas
Unless you’ve been actively trying to uproot any resilient riza pikrias in your heart, it is likely that you think you’re right to own it. After all, you didn’t plant it. Perhaps you find yourself saying to yourself, “How dare he?” or “How could she?” Though the deep hurt, injustice, and sin against you may be real and deserving of judgment, moments like these may indicate that you think you’re sinless in your bitterness.
All humans struggle to lift their gazes from their navels. It is easy to forget that other people don’t normally go about their day asking themselves, “What’s the most efficient way to hurt [insert your name here] today?” In reality, you haven’t been singled out for wound infliction. You neglect to see that other people possess hearts that are idol factories just the same as yours. In damaging some idol of yours, they were probably attempting to protect one of theirs. Enamored with their navels—just like you—they have probably thought very little about the damage they may cause others. The worst of offenses, even purposeful affronts, are the result of the same sinful nature you yourself own. When bitterness pushes up through the topsoil, you must remind yourself that you are no less sinful than your neighbor, and the very bitterness you feel at being wronged is evidence.
Absolute horror at another’s sin betrays your own erroneously positive view of yourself. When you suffer at another’s hands, remember the far more catastrophic suffering you rightfully deserved, which Christ took in your place. Christ was the only sinless human to ever live. He was the only one that suffered without deserving it, yet he alone suffered perfectly.
When you are bitter and want nothing more than the faux-satisfaction of letting the instigator know how badly he or she has hurt you, it is because you have such a low view of God’s wrath that you feel you should add to it. When you have the impulse to enact your own justice, it means you aren’t satisfied with God’s. This is often the result of having forgotten the real nature of the other person’s idolatry, callousness, selfishness, or whatever the issue may be. The offender has sinned, first and foremost, against God. The offender has hurt, first and foremost, the God that created them and loved them.
Your bitterness shows that you don’t think God’s wrath is good enough—you need more, you need your own, too.
If your offender is a brother or sister in Christ, bitterness also betrays that you don’t think Jesus’ suffering on the Cross on their behalf is good enough, either. When it comes to your sin, of course Christ’s sacrifice is enough to cover it. Sometimes, in your prideful human heart, you forget that you even need His sacrifice. Yet in his forbearance, Christ died to satisfy God’s wrath for even this self-righteous forgetfulness. Christ’s sacrifice was enough to satisfy not only the wrath you incur for the bitterness you harbor toward others, but also every past, present, and future sin we commit. How, then, is it not enough to cover a neighbor’s offense, however heinous?
When we wake up to our home overgrown with vines of bitterness, the road toward repentance requires a look at our own sinfulness. We must ask God to show us a glimpse of how He sees us—the monstrosity of our sin and the enormous sacrifice of Christ as He covered it.
Fertilizing with Fake Forgiveness
There you were, watering and pruning away, and as you opened up your windows to let the sunlight in, God gently brought rays of truth to illuminate the vines you had not only allowed to grow, but had encouraged to flourish. Then, when you finally felt a desire to forgive your offender, He showed you yet more: your hands had gotten away from you yet again, and there you were watering again, for the root of your “forgiveness” was the desire to prove yourself better than your offender. You, unlike your offender, would be noble enough to do the right thing.
The very reason you may struggle with lack of true forgiveness is because you are, once again, on the same helpless plane of sinfulness as the one who offended you. You have been forgiven not only for many wounds inflicted upon God himself, but also upon brother and sister. While you heap unforgiveness and bitterness upon others, God heaps His grace and mercy upon you. While you kindled hatred, Christ gave his life as a sacrifice for the very ones who handed him over for crucifixion. In your pain, you disparage your offenders in your heart if not with your words. In His pain, Christ begged God for His offenders’ pardon. And while you refuse to suffer one wound graciously, Christ suffered perfectly for every sin ever committed. Christ suffered even for your inability to suffer well. He suffered so that God could graciously grant you forgiveness for your bitterness as well as the repentance and faith to put this nefarious greenery to death. So weed the bitterness from your heart’s garden before it takes root, knowing that it is only by His grace that you should have a riza pikrias-free home.