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The root of bitterness 1/2

Updated: Mar 3

"For I see that you are full of bitter gall and in bonds of unrighteousness" 
(Acts 8:23) 

"Do not forget the good days! When all seems dark, when bitterness floods your heart, when all hope withers, search your memory for the good days. The days when you were full of joy and confidence; the days when everything was good. Do not forget the good days! For if you forget them, they will never come again."
(Phil Bosmans)

"Praise the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget the good things he has done for you." (Psalm 103:2)

My dear friends, dear wonderful women of God,


Once it has taken root in us, it is as troublesome as the goutweed in our garden.

Bitterness is not a dandelion that can be easily and skilfully pulled up by the root. No: it forms deep, tangled roots that reach invisibly into all parts of the garden until its origin, its true cause, is no longer discernible.

Fed up with this weed ourselves, we try desperately to contain it, and what others see makes them raise their eyebrows and prefer flowering gardens. Deep trenches are dug, for this weed, this goutweed, has a tendency to spread furiously, underground and initially unseen. And if you don't fight it, you'll end up hopelessly overwhelmed.

Bitterness. Often we don't even recognise it ourselves.

We are so used to it that we think it is part of us. We are just more critical of what we have experienced!

"It is just the truth that this world really is a terribly phoney place of injustice! And it was unfair, and you have to be allowed to say that! The way they behave is really the last straw, and we didn't deserve it either.

Life was hard and others had it better. Yes, if only I, if only they had seen what I needed. And where was God? Obviously He was in coffee break again when it happened."

Anger floods us. Constant nagging spreads, and fear.

Fear, of course, that things will go back to the way they've always been: that we'll be left out. That we will be overlooked. And that the good intentions in our hearts will not be recognised. That we will not be recognised, and that we will be unjustly robbed, cast out and left with losses, paying the bill for others.

The most famous biblical example of bitterness is probably Simon the sorcerer.

After a rigid refusal of Simon's requests, that he wants to buy the Holy Spirit (so that he can resume his business), Peter gives him a hint :

 "For I see that you are full of bitter gall and in bonds of iniquity!" (Acts 8:23)

We tend to think that Peter was angrily throwing this statement back at Simon, but let's be honest:

It doesn't really make sense on this reading. So why does Peter point out this bitterness and this "bond of iniquity" to Simon?

Well, first of all we can safely assume that it was not easy to deal with Simon, because for him this appearance of the apostles became a nightmare. After all, he had the village completely under control before! And he was seen as THE miracle worker, the revelation, the chosen one! For years, we read, the villagers had sought him out, and now all of a sudden? Reputation gone, customers gone, world image collapsed, everything just ashes.

"You spit poison and bile, it is unbearable! Yes, I understand now that everyone is totally unfair to you!" 

Do you know this?

Do you know people who behave like that? If not, then know this: for all the love and grace and kindness I may have in me - I know these thoughts and this behaviour of mine all too well, and it doesn't take much to instigate it. All it really takes is fear and a feeling of being overwhelmed.

I can complain like a tinker. And behind the scenes, everything that is really going on inside me at those moments resonates:

Uncertainty, loss, overwhelm. Sadness for what was, for what I have lost. Fear of trust, fear that God will not come to help.

Why is this? I had to search for a long time to find the root, the place where it all began.

We are all imprinted.

There was a time when we depended on the care, comfort, help and love of those who were our parents. At that time we could not decide for ourselves, we could only cope with what we were given. With the lack of attention. With the conflicts of our parents that were passed on to us, perhaps with violence, with devaluation, and with the sin that hurts the most: "the sin of not doing what is good".

My parents were divorced and the relationship between my father and me was not good, to put it flatteringly. In his eyes, he did for me what he was "obliged to do" - and I was very ungrateful in his eyes for not seeing it. What he did was to pay me alimony, to give me 50 marks in a coffee cup every now and then, so that I could "buy myself something nice".

My childish soul was crying. My teenage soul was crying. And the young woman I was becoming was also resigned, sad, resigned to fate.

He often forgot me.

He promised to pick me up on visiting days.

I sat on the wall, out in the street, 20 minutes earlier than I should have. I often sat there, very often still after an hour. I did not want to admit that he had not come. And then I would run back into the house, crying at first, later with a frozen face, with anger and rage. "I don't need you!" my anger said. "Why don't you love me, why am I so wrong in your eyes?" my heart cried.

I lived alone with my mother.

Difficult years lay behind us, and the shaken measure of suffering that we all get washed over us in a bitter cup. But one day something happened that shook my mother and she became the most devoted, loving mother imaginable. It was a few years only, you see. She caught it when my father pushed me away, excluded me, ignored me.

She was my everything. My safe haven, a haven of acceptance, comfort, love and kindness. My harbour of goodness.

I was 16 years old when the phone rang at half past ten in the evening. I was returning from babysitting, having had dinner with my mother and a friend a few hours earlier, laughing and joking. Then she had gone to the choir - and I to my part-time job. I can still see her reaching for her drops because she thought her dizziness was caused by the low blood pressure she sometimes had.

I wasn't thinking anything bad when I heard my sister's voice saying, "You've got to be very strong now, Sibby. Mummy - she is very, very ill. She has had a brain haemorrhage and is now in intensive care at the University Hospital. The doctors can't tell yet if she'll survive."

I was alone, so alone with this news, when I hung up the phone.

My father, my sister said, had cancelled his own choir rehearsal, he already knew.

But he didn't come. He didn't jump in the car to look after his youngest. He didn't come to give me a comforting hug and say:

"I'm here. I know how alone you must be, and here's my arm. We'll get through this, no matter what happened or what's happening. I'm here for you, darling, don't be afraid."

And so every event, everything that happened later, became proof that I was alone. That I was not getting what I needed. That I had been betrayed and that love and promises were not trustworthy. Like a web, this feeling spread and like a blueprint, it ran through my perception. That I had to make it on my own, that no one would be there when I needed them and that help was not available. That I didn't count and that I had to somehow cope with overwhelming, unaffordable situations.

A dark world. An unsafe world. An unfair world.

You know, I think Simon the Magician also suddenly stood there, robbed of the monstrance he was carrying. When the light of truth fell on this magician's life, when he was confronted with the truth, the real joy and lightness that came when the apostles spread the good news of God's love and kindness, he lost not only his business, his public recognition, but also his self-image. He wanted to buy it back, trade it in, just move on.

But Peter saw deeper.

He saw the accusations of injustice, the anger and wrath of Simon, the disappointment and bitterness. And we do not read that he left him behind when they moved on, that he stopped following Philip. He was rebuked, yes. But he was not cast out.

The root of bitterness is deep. And it is only when we recognise it that we recognise the reasons for the accusation, the judgement and our own harshness.

The root of bitterness is experienced injustice, lack and the pain of being overlooked. What drives it is goutweed. And what needs to be removed for it to be truly defeated is living water. It is soft soil that allows the roots to be traced, dug up and filled with good soil.

What it needs is healing. What it needs is to be given the right to say that what we have experienced was wrong. Was sin. Sins of omission. The good that was not done. And that our pain matters and is justified.

So we can't forgive what we don't recognise. And we cannot replace what we do not even perceive.

But God can: He is a God who sees us. And His living water of truth flows kindly and gently into the ground until it is loose enough to pull up the roots. Sweet words will not fix it. Suppression won't fix it. Survival patterns won't fix it.

Let it rain, Lord.

Be blessed with every heavenly blessing. And with all that you need.

Sibylle/Daughter of Zion.

This article is part of the preparation and accompaniment to the eight-week Zoom-online Study: "Becoming myself-embracing God's dream for you" by Stasi Eldredge. 20.03.2023-15.05.2023.


Bible. Acts 8, Psalm 103, here: Elberfelder translation.

Photo: Pixabay

Quote from Phil Bosmans: Quoted from:

Worship: Michael W. Smith: "Let It Rain".

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