What does the Bible say about resentment and bitterness?
Resentment and bitterness are two sides of the same coin. Resentment is the attitude people have toward someone or something. Bitterness is the accompanying inner feeling. Resentment is a negative reaction to events that we see as unfair. Left unchecked, continued resentment can change someone's nature into bitterness. Resentment and bitterness are both passive-aggressive reactions to anger.
Resentment is as old as Genesis 4. Cain was angry that God accepted Abel's sacrifice and not his own. Instead of actively dealing with those feelings by admitting his own part in the situation and considering God's point of view, he buried his anger under feelings of resentment which grew until he killed his brother.
Mankind followed Cain's example throughout the years. Sarai asked Abram to impregnate her maidservant Hagar, then resented Hagar when it worked (Genesis 16:4-6). Leah and Rachel's resentment regarding their fertility created a baby-war that didn't end until Jacob had conceived thirteen children by four different women (Genesis 29:31-30:24; 35:16-26). And when King Saul realized how much the people loved David and celebrated his accomplishments, Saul resented David so much he tried to kill him with a spear (1 Samuel 18—19).
The epitome of bitterness in the Bible is Job's wife. Anger would be an understandable reaction to God allowing her children to die and her family's assets to be taken. Instead of accepting God's sovereignty like Job or even being honest and talking to God, she allowed anger to lead to resentment which molded her character into bitterness. The apex occurred in Job 2:9 when she told Job, "Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die."
Bitterness is easy to fall into, but it is also possible to reject bitterness and return to faith in God. In Ruth 1:20, having lost her husband and two sons, Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to call her Mara, which means "bitter," saying, "for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me." The devotion of Ruth, however, redirected Naomi's anger to action, and God restored Naomi and redeemed her story as she became nurse to Ruth's son, the grandfather of King David.
King David also escaped the trap of bitterness. In 1 Samuel 30, David and his men returned to the city where they had been staying to find their wives and children taken captive. Verse 6 says, "And David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because all the people were bitter in soul, each for his sons and daughters. But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God." Instead of resenting God, David used many such occasions to write what he was feeling, composing much of the book of Psalms.
Perhaps the most significant example of resentment in the New Testament is that of the crowd that demanded Jesus' death (Matthew 27:15-23). They resented the fact He did not come to be a political ruler and free them from Roman rule. Many of the scribes and Pharisees went a step further. Between the attention Jesus received from the people and His constant public chastisement of their sins, the Pharisees became bitter — what the Bible calls "hard-hearted" — and rejected Jesus and His offer of new life.
Bitterness and resentment spring from a belief that someone, often God, is being unfair or not giving what is due. Peter recognized this in Simon the Magician in Acts 8:14-24. Simon wanted the power that Peter and John wielded — even offering to pay for it. But Peter saw a "gall of bitterness" behind Simon's request.
We do the same. It's easy to resent God when we see Him blessing others while we suffer. If we feed that belief long enough, it will lead to a bitter attitude. We'll begin to see everything as a hardship — even blessings that God tries to give us. Eventually, we won't be able to see His work in our lives at all.
The Bible tells us to reject bitterness. Ephesians 4:31 says, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice." Hebrews 12:15 says, "See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no 'root of bitterness' springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled." And James 3:13-18 warns that words spoken in bitterness have nothing to do with wisdom but are "earthly, unspiritual, demonic." Strong words.
The most effective way to deal with resentment and bitterness is to appropriately handle the anger that comes first. Anger is a natural, sometimes physiological, response, but left unchecked it can do great damage. It can blind us to our part in the situation. It can push out all empathy for and understanding of others. Even when our anger is just, we must not let it control our actions or beliefs; taking every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5) and submitting to God (James 4:7) will drive us to forgive others (Colossians 3:13) and keep our anger from turning to resentment.
God can heal resentment and bitterness if we let Him. He can heal our hearts and turn us to forgiveness of others and trust in Him.
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