As a kid, there were certain old people I avoided. They were the kind that didn’t seem to have the capacity to endure the messiness and clumsiness of children. They couldn’t see the intentions of little ones when something got spilt or broken. They were the kind who yelled or growled when there was a bit too much noise. They complained when kids walked on their lawn, left fingerprints on their windows, created stains on the carpet, or ran through hallways in church. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t always avoid them. At times it felt as if they were stalking me, pointing accusing fingers, wishing aloud for the good ol’ days when children were seen but not heard. In general, they lamented how poorly they were treated by almost everybody. It wasn’t till I got older that I learned a good descriptor for this type of person: bitter.
Getting older myself, I now sometimes wonder what can keep me from becoming like one of those crotchety elders whose company I so much wanted to escape. It’s not as simple as I once assumed. For I can feel within myself attitudes or thoughts that remind me of those despised ancient ones. When I feel irritated that those around me don’t see things the right way – the way I do. When I want to blame the world’s messes on all the people out there who know nothing but at the same time overlook my own ignorance. When I don’t want to let go of the hurt and offenses committed against me and those I care about. When I feel like God has forgotten me and doesn’t seem to be concerned if I hurt or wallow in bewilderment. When pain and confusion get the better of me and all I want to do is spill it out and force others to feel it too.
The hard truth: I have great potential for becoming a bitter old man.
It Can Take Over
No one turns into a rancorous, vitriolic, distasteful human being overnight. It seeps into an individual little by little, choice by choice. I know of no one who has made it their life ambition to become that person everyone wants to avoid. But bitterness, nevertheless, shows up and produces more fruit like itself until it takes over and rules a personality.
The Bible warns us of the possibility. “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” (Hebrews 12:15, ESV).
It’s described as a root for a reason. It sucks nutrients and life from other parts of my being to consume on itself. Healthy parts of my personality will tend to then shrivel while ugliness increases. And it’s also difficult to remove once its tendrils connect with and wrap around the core parts of my identity. As a result, I don’t merely act out bitterly on occasion but rather become a bitter person.
It creeps from the inside out.
How Does It Start?
The Bible doesn’t say for sure. But I have seen it begin with experiences that plant seeds through hurt, unfair treatment, and loss. Everyone experiences these in one form or another. They are sown liberally in this present world. We each get to determine how much we’re going to cultivate, water, and nurture them along. They can either be encouraged to grow and make a home within, or they can be plucked and tossed while they are young and easier to identify. The choice to forgive an offender is the main “utensil” that is given to us to dig up the roots. We can always find good reasons to justify letting them stay and have their own way as they burrow deeper into our hearts. But they will eventually take over if not plowed up (Read Choosing to Forgive).
A friend of mine has said that bitterness can also take root as grief and loss that are not properly mourned. Because of the inconvenience of change or traumatic disruptions, it’s tempting to bury the hurt and sadness that inevitably come and just try to bear it all alone. But when we merely cover them with activity, distractions, blame, or some kind of drug that numbs the ache (be that an actual substance or something else that helps us forget), the wounds and bruises of the soul put down roots. They grow out of sight until they push back up through the surface in the form of rancorous, resentful, and sour fruit that defile many.
The Sweetness of Jesus’ Presence
Mourning loss is appropriate and healthy. And Jesus offers Himself as a companion in those seasons to guide us in doing it well. We don’t have to do it alone or give in to merely burying the messy feelings. His presence and the wisdom and counsel He brings offers a different flavor to change the essence of what permeates our being.
“My child, eat honey, for it is good, and the honeycomb is sweet to the taste. In the same way, wisdom is sweet to your soul. If you find it, you will have a bright future, and your hopes will not be cut short” (Proverbs 24:13-14, NLT).
The wisdom of Jesus, when invited in, brings an other-worldly grace. Pain, betrayal, sorrow, and disappointment don’t have to leave the final taste in our mouths or be the seeds that grow the fruit that flavors our futures. Grace is given as a gift that comes from outside of us. We just have to choose to receive it.
My prayer is that the sweetness of Jesus can continue to increase within me on into my elder years. This is what He offers to all His followers if we will keep Him close through all the bumps, bruises, and trauma of life in this present world. Neither I nor you have to become the crotchety old person that embitters everyone he or she comes into contact with. We can choose to cultivate a divine sweetness in ourselves and others.
And there’s no better time to start than now.