On Guard Against Bitterness

Read: Proverbs 4:23; Hebrews 12:14-17

In October of 2012, Psychology Today published an article about a phenomenon simply labeled as “EC.”  “EC” stands for emotional contagion.  It is that unseen, powerful force where one person’s feelings and attitudes can influence the thoughts and feelings of another, especially those with whom they have close contact.

If you stop and think about it, the concept of emotional contagion is self-evident. When you are around a person who complains all the time, chances are you will start complaining. When you visit with someone who talks only about their illnesses, chances are you won’t feel very happy at the end of the conversation. And if you are around a person who tells you how bad life is, and how God has let them down, you may very well start to think they are right. Yes, you will think in those terms unless you take steps to GUARD YOUR HEART from negative emotional energy.

You will not find the phrase "emotional contagion" in the Bible. But there is a term that comes close to what the Psychology Today article addressed. It is the term “bitterness.”  When we think of “bitter” people we often picture someone who is at the level of a “slow boil,” ready to explode because of one’s frustration with life. And the influence of these individuals is greater than what we might first imagine.

Our anchor text, Hebrews 12:14-17, provides us with God-given insight into how we can deal with the bitter emotions and attitudes of others. But first take a look at our text’s structure to uncover an important truth.
  • Notice that the author was attempting to encourage “discouraged people” from abandoning their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 12:1-11 he reminds them that the troubles they had been facing were being used by God to transform them into holy people (cf. HEB 12:10).
  • Then in Hebrews 12:12-13 the writer was basically saying, “If God is using trouble to train you, then persevere. Don’t quit!” He uses metaphors of “strengthening feeble arms and knees,” and “moving ahead in life on a righteous path.”
  • And then we come to our main text. There is a basic command in verse 14 telling the reader to continually pursue peace with everyone. In addition, these believers were to pursue holiness. The reference to “holiness” was a subtle way of telling the readers to remember that God had set them apart as his people for his purposes. This primary command is followed by a series of present tense participles (implying continuous action) that gives greater clarification to what it means to pursue peace and holiness. And the one phrase that gets our attention is the warning to “see that no bitter root grows up to defile many." (v. 15) What is a bitter root? It is an allusion to Deuteronomy 29:17-18, where Moses warned the people to NOT let anyone enter the Israelite camp, especially in the midst of difficult times, to lead them away from faithfulness to Yahweh!

So how do we guard our hearts against bitterness?  It won’t be easy, but it can be accomplished.


There is so much more that we could say about this passage, but let’s consider what we might be doing if we were to continually practice “holy perseverance.”
  • First off, holy perseverance means that we continually keep in mind that even in our most difficult times, God is always at work. He is training us to be holy (cf. HEB 12:10-13). Therefore, it would be wise for us to trust God, and allow him to do his good work in our lives. To help remember that God is working in and through you, plan on memorizing Hebrews 12:11-13 this week.
  • Second, holy perseverance means that we must continually make it our aim to encourage our fellow believers to persevere even when life is hard. That is what the biblical writer was saying when he encouraged his readers to see that no one falls short of the grace of God (cf. v. 15a). Is there someone you need to encourage in the faith before this day ends?
  • Third, holy perseverance means that we must continually surround ourselves with brothers and sisters in the faith who desire to serve the Lord Jesus more than anything else. On the flip side it will mean separating from those who are less than enthusiastic about the things of God.  That is what the writer is referring to when he speaks of Esau in verses 15-17 (cf. GEN 26:34-35 & 27:46). 

So are there any contagious people in your life? People who are “emotionally contagious” and disrupting your faith?  If so, be on guard!

Protect your mind and soul through holy perseverance.

Yes, you may have difficulties in your life, but God is at work to transform you into the servant he wants you to be.

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