What happens in a church that causes church members to become so dissatisfied that they reach the point where they want to fight one another and, in some cases, go to the court to put a restraining order on a person to prevent them from attending services? How do these things develop, and how can we avoid this type of behavior in our own church?
We know we are living in the time that will be as in the days of Noah and many people, who have had the hope of the soon coming of Jesus, are going to fall out by the way. It is only by being filled by the Holy Spirit and a strong connection with Jesus that any of us can stay on the narrow path and not turn our weapons against each other, but be united and get serious about taking the Three Angels’ Messages to all the world.
A study of the book of Hebrews reveals that, interspersed with all the theological content in the book, Paul gives five warnings:
- Do not neglect salvation (Hebrews 2).
- Be faithful (Hebrews 3).
- The peril of not progressing in your Christian experience (Hebrews 6).
- Do not cast away your confidence and lose eternal life (Hebrews 10).
- Be sure that you listen to the heavenly voice (Hebrews 12).
As Paul gives these fourth and fifth warnings, he counsels: “Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed.” Hebrews 12:12–14. This is not referring to physical lameness but to spiritual lameness. In every church today there are people who, because of their inheritance or their home background, are spiritually lame. If a child grows up in a home where he does not receive adequate affection, when he becomes old, he will become a hard-hearted person. There are many hard-hearted people in our churches today; they are spiritually crippled and not able to do what they otherwise could without this handicap.
There are many other ways that a person can be spiritually crippled. If you are hiking and come to a place in the path where a big log has fallen over it, you just climb over the log and continue, but if you have a crippled person along with you, he is stuck right there and cannot go any further. As read before, the apostle Paul says to “make straight paths for your feet,” because there are crippled people in the church, and if you have a lot of these barriers, they will trip up; they won’t be able to make it. He says if you are not crippled, you need to be looking out for the other person, and see to it that that person doesn’t get in trouble because of an unchristlike manner of dealing with each other. Continuing in verses 14 and 15, notice what he said: “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully [or pay attention] lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled.”
Obviously, Paul is using symbolic language when he talks about lameness. He is talking about spiritual lameness. The root of bitterness spoken of is not actually the root of some bitter herb that you may have in your garden, but it is symbolic language. The root of bitterness is our words and our feelings. We all communicate our thoughts and our feelings to other people; it is like sowing seed, and our thoughts and our feelings become multiplied.
For example, the great controversy in heaven began with one person; not two, just one. And from that one person there eventually developed a rebellion in heaven. Ellen White is very clear that at one point almost half of the angels were deceived, but some of those who were inclined to join Lucifer did not, resulting in one-third being thrown out of heaven.
How can something develop from just one person to affect one-third of the angels of heaven—billions of intelligences? Sowing seed, through communication of words, thoughts and feelings, easily does it. Ellen White describes it this way: “As the seed sown produces a harvest, and this in turn is sown, the harvest is multiplied. In our relation to others, this law holds true. Every act, every word, is a seed that will bear fruit. Every deed of thoughtful kindness, of obedience, or of self-denial, will reproduce itself in others, and through them in still others. So every act of envy, malice, or dissention is a seed that will spring up in a ‘root of bitterness’ (Hebrews 12:15), whereby many shall be defiled. And how much larger number will the ‘many’ poison? Thus the sowing of good and evil goes on for time and for eternity.” Christ’s Object Lessons, 85.
The seed does not just reproduce once; it reproduces, and then it reproduces again, then again and again. There was an elderly minister when I was a small lad who had held the office of president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. At the time there were one-half million Adventists worldwide, and Elder Spicer would tell God’s people that it would be possible to finish God’s work in three months. He said if every Adventist told just one person and that person the next day told another person, and that person the next day told another person, everybody in the world would know the gospel within three months.
That is just an illustration of how things can multiply from our words and acts. Now, the devil is alive and busy, and he wants to inject poison into our families as well as into our churches. How does he accomplish that? “The root of bitterness, envy, distrust, jealousy, and even hatred, which exists in the hearts of some church members, is the work of Satan. Such elements have a poisonous influence upon the church.” Testimonies, vol. 4, 489. If the devil can keep church members holding grudges, he gains much ground. This is a very real problem among God’s people, being unwilling to forgive.
“Satan will be highly pleased to have you cherish an unforgiving spirit instead of drawing together in even cords. But Jesus, Who places a high value upon man, is grieved to see division among brethren.” This Day With God, 121. When this unforgiving spirit is addressed, it is often justified by people saying, You don’t know what they did to me. That may be true, but no matter the cause we are admonished to, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you.” Luke 6:27, 28. This is not something that comes easily and requires a change of heart experience on the part of the one who is wronged.
“There are those who cherish a spirit of envy and hatred against their brethren, calling it the Spirit of God. There are those who go up and down as talebearers, accusing and condemning, blackening character, inspiring hearts with maliciousness. They carry false reports to the doors of their neighbors, who, as they listen to the slander, lose the Spirit of God. …
“This sin is worse than the sin of Achan. Its influence is not confined to those who cherish it. It is a root of bitterness, whereby many are defiled. God cannot bless the church till it is purged of this evil that corrupts minds and spirits, the souls of those who do not repent and change their course of action.” The Upward Look, 122.
It is clear that the church cannot be blessed while this is going on. “He who is renewed after the Spirit of Christ will not only love God; he will love his brethren also. Those who make mistakes are to be dealt with according to the directions given in the word of God. ‘Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.’ (Galatians 6:1).” Ibid.
The gospel deals with the wrong. It does not teach us to just overlook and pretend nothing happened. But remember, when you and I were ruined, Jesus came down here to this world, not to condemn us (see John 3:17) but to save us. This is an area in which each of us needs to examine ourselves, and then often, just get over it. Give it to Jesus, casting all your cares upon Him (I Peter 5:7), and get over it. Ask yourself, what kind of spirit do I have when other people do things to me that are wrong? This is not talking about pretending that it didn’t happen.
Jesus came into the world to restore people who had fallen. He is in the restoration business, and let me tell you something else, when somebody falls and Jesus picks them up, and they fall again, He picks them up again. What if they fall a third time? Does He say, “You’re hopeless material, now”? Jesus cast the devils out of Mary Magdalene seven times. I can only imagine what the disciples thought when He was casting the devils out on the fifth and sixth occasions. “Lord, are you never going to give up?” The answer is, “No, I am not going to give up.”
Jesus is in the business of restoring people who have fallen, not just seven times, but hundreds or thousands of times if necessary, and He still helps them to get up. But we are just like Peter. We say, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother? Shall I forgive him seven times?” Peter thought that he was being very liberal, but Jesus said not seven times, but seventy times seven.
The devil is trying to inject poison, spiritual poison into every church, and that poison has the same effect whether you know it or not.
“No one should ever permit his mind to get into such a state that he will speak the words prompted by Satan. To accuse the brethren, to discourage them in their work, is to personify Satan and to be his helping hand by putting into the minds of others the evil leaven of criticism.” Bible Training School, June 1, 1903.
That is a heavy denunciation, “to personify Satan.” This refers to any kind of criticism, not just false criticism. Even if the criticism is true, it can still destroy a church. “How long will those who claim to be Christians tolerate the evil of listening to the criticisms of their brethren, and, in turn, communicate these criticisms to others, thus strengthening one another in an evil work?” Ibid.
“Souls are defiled by this root of bitterness and are, through these questioning, murmuring ones, placed where the testimony of reproof which God sends will not reach them.” Testimonies, vol. 4, 230. That is really scary, because it means that when that happens, the testimony of reproof that God sends won’t reach them.
What then should I do if I have been injured, and if I am the one who has been under the receiving end of an injury? If you do not have the grace of God in your hearts, the root of bitterness will spring up in you and many will be defiled. When you feel that you have been dealt an injury, you decide to back off and leave him alone and have nothing more to do with him and just stay separate, but the first thing you do is to tell it to someone else. This is what the Bible calls a root of bitterness. You tell your trouble to everyone but Jesus, and the reason you do this is you do not feel clear in your conscience, so of course, you do not want to tell it to your Saviour. When you spread the report, and the report may be true, you weaken that person’s influence. This can happen to anybody. Children who hear criticism will have no confidence in that person because of what they have heard or overheard.
“If you have misjudged your brother, if you have in the least degree weakened his influence, so that the message which God has given him to bear has been made of little or no effect, your sin does not rest merely with the individual, but you have resisted the Spirit of God; your attitude, your words, have been against your Saviour. Jesus says, ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto Me’ [Matthew 25:40]. He identifies his interest with that of every human soul, believer or unbeliever. That God Who marks the fall of a sparrow, marks your deportment and your feelings; He marks your envy, your prejudice, your attempt to justify your action in the least matter of injustice.” The Review and Herald, December 16, 1890.
When you feel this way, you are going to make statements, and you are going to weaken that person’s influence, and so they regard him just the way that you do, and by the root of bitterness springing up, many are defiled. “When it is evident that your feelings are incorrect, do you try just as diligently to remove the erroneous impressions as you did to make them?” Ibid.
Jesus regards these things as having been done to Himself. As human beings, we have a tendency to put people in one of two main categories—the bad people or the good people! We can act like a Christian if we are dealing with the good people. But if we are dealing with the people that we consider bad, we justify our actions. Hitler considered the bad people to be the Jews. If he had succeeded in having them all killed, he would have started on the next group that he didn’t like.
A physician once told a story about a patient who was being treated in the emergency room and how the demeanor and the way of caring for the woman completely changed when the nurses found out the woman was a prostitute. She was immediately one of the bad people. The same thing happened in Jesus’ day. There were the good people and the bad people, and the worst of the bad people were the prostitutes and the tax collectors. One of the reasons the Pharisees became so angry at Jesus was that He made them see that the people they called the bad people would be saved where He was not so successful in being able to save them.
In the final reckoning there will be many whom we thought were the bad people who will be saved, and there will also be many people whom we thought were the good people who will be lost. What should I do if I have done an injustice to someone because of my evil speaking about them? It is not enough to confess an incident. The false impression you have made to all the people that you talked to also needs to be corrected. This takes humility to go to the person whom you have harmed and ask for forgiveness and then go to all whom you have talked to and admit your mistake. Ellen White says that you can confess it and by repentance and confession have pardon registered against your name, or you can resist the conviction of the Spirit of God and during the rest of your life, work to make it appear that your wrong feelings and unjust conclusions could not be helped. If you work hard enough, you may be able to persuade everyone if that’s really the case, but you will never be able to persuade the angels or the court of heaven where accurate records are kept.
This is a very serious problem because, “if the root of bitterness springs up, many can be defiled” and it can spread through a whole church. “You tear away the hold their brethren have on them, because you destroy their confidence in them. But do not allow the enemy so to use your tongue; for at the day of final reckoning, God will call you to give an account of your words. Do not exert an influence that will break the hold of any trembling soul from God. Even though you are not treated as you think you should be, do not allow the root of bitterness to spring up; for thereby many will be defiled.” The Voice in Speech and Song, 57.
When Paul and Silas were unfairly put in the stocks, wrongly beaten and thrown into prison and put into shackles, the jailer, who was used to his prisoners cursing and swearing, noticed there was something different about these men. In their discomfort and pain, instead of cursing, they prayed and sang in the hearing of all the prisoners around them. If you were treated unjustly, how would you react?
In The Review and Herald, September 14, 1897, Ellen White wrote, “I beseech all who engage in the work of murmuring and complaining because something has been said or done that does not suit them, and that does not, as they think, give them due consideration, to remember that they are carrying on the very work begun in heaven by Satan.” The devil knows how to do this; he has been doing it for several thousand years, and he is trying to get this going in every church, to destroy us, so we will all be at somebody’s throat, and eventually, of course, it will be our throat. “They are following in his track, sowing unbelief, discord, and disloyalty; for no one can entertain feelings of disaffection, and keep them to himself.” Ibid. Did you get that? She says, “Nobody!” That would include me, and that would include you too. “He must tell others that he is not treated as he should be. Thus they are led to murmur and complain. This is the root of bitterness, springing up, whereby many are defiled.” Ibid.
When we are caught and are forced to recognize our involvement, the temptation is to compare ourselves with others, justifying ourselves, because, after all, everyone is a bit guilty of the same thing! We attempt to distribute the guilt, but this is a deception of the devil.
“To those who have been injured without cause these words of Scripture apply, ‘If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men’ [Romans 12:18]. Their failure to live at peace with all men is not due to the course they themselves have pursued, but to the envy, jealousy, and evil surmising of those who have been in the wrong. A division is caused. How shall it be healed? Shall the man that has been sinned against, misjudged, and maligned, be called to give an account? Shall he seek for something in his past course by which he can humiliate himself? Shall he acknowledge himself in the wrong for the sake of making peace?” The Review and Herald, January 16, 1900.
What’s the answer? —No!. It would be wrong for that person to make a confession.
“No. If he has tried to do his duty, and has been patient under abuse, he is not to humble himself to acknowledge that he is guilty. He does the offenders great wrong thus to take the guilt upon his soul, admitting that he has given them occasion for their course of action. This is very pleasing to those who have done the work of the enemy; but heaven’s books record the facts just as they are. Concessions that are not true from the one who has been wrongfully treated gratify the feelings of the carnal heart. The wrongdoers interpret their position as zeal for God, when in truth it is zeal to do the work of the adversary of souls.” Ibid.
“It is a most serious matter to go from house to house, and, under pretense of doing missionary work, scatter the seed of mistrust and suspicion. Such seed speedily germinates, and there is created a distrust of God’s servants. … The word falls upon ears that will not hear, and hearts that will not respond. No earthly or heavenly power can find access to the soul. … A sister or brother in the church planted the evil seed, but who will restore the soul thus imperiled?” The Review and Herald, November 27, 1900.
We need to understand this and not go to somebody and say, “Well, we need to pray for so and so …” and then unload on them that person’s character defects. If you have to talk about somebody’s character defects, talk only to that person; don’t talk to a third party.
In summary, Ellen White says that this root of bitterness is all the result of selfishness, and if selfishness is allowed to develop, it will spring up in a root of bitterness whereby many will be defiled. What is needed is true heart searching. We need to go to the Lord and say, “Lord, I know we are in the time of judgment. Is my heart right?” The feelings that I have toward my wife or my husband, am I willing to go to the judgment bar of God and have those feelings revealed? Is that ok? But not just my wife or my husband; how about the feelings I have toward other people in the church?
On the Day of Judgment, the secrets of all hearts will be revealed. And if there are feelings toward anyone that are not right, it is going to be revealed. Now is the time to go to the Lord and say, “Lord, if I’m blind so that I don’t understand the feelings that I have that are wrong, please, Lord, have mercy on me, and by Your Holy Spirit show me those wrong feelings so that I can get them taken care of now before it is forever too late.”
It is thoughts and feelings combined that make up moral character. The heart is deceitfully wicked, and it is so easy to deceive myself. Lord, is my heart right, or do I have a wrong spirit? Do I need to go to the Lord and say, “Lord, I want my feelings toward this person or that person to be changed”?
We also have the free will not to do that. We can just go on the same until the devil injects enough poison and the church splits or something worse. Looking at our churches today, we wonder why people are not flocking in to worship with us for we have the truth for the last days, the Three Angels’ Messages. “The Spirit of God did not come into our meetings in a more marked manner … because of the dissentions which are allowed to exist among brethren. With some there existed envious and jealous feelings, evil surmising, tale bearing and fault-finding. These were referred to by the apostle as a root of bitterness.” The Signs of the Times, May 6, 1880.
Watch out, so you don’t think you are the children of God when you are actually the children of the devil because of your speech. “Nothing so manifestly weakens a church as disunion and strife. Nothing so wars against Christ and the truth as this spirit.” My Life Today, 276.
“The heart must be cleansed. Wrong-doing is the overflowing of the fountain of an unclean, unconverted heart.” Testimonies for the Church Containing Messages of Warning and Instruction to Seventh-day Adventists, 22.
“There are those who cherish a spirit of envy and hatred against their brethren, calling it the Spirit of God. There are those who go up and down as talebearers, accusing and condemning, blackening character, inspiring hearts with maliciousness. They carry false reports to the doors of their neighbors, who, as they listen to the slander, lose the Spirit of God. Not even the messenger of God, who bears to the people His truth, is spared.
“This sin is worse than the sin of Achan. Its influence is not confined to those who cherish it. It is a root of bitterness, whereby many are defiled. God cannot bless the church till it is purged of this evil that corrupts minds and spirits.” The Upward Look, 122.
Are you willing to say, “Lord, search me. Search my spirit, and see Lord, is there any wicked way in me”?
If you pray that prayer, also pray that you will be ready for a shock when you pray like David, Lord, I want you to search me. David said, “Thou hast possessed my reins.” Psalm 139:13 KJV. That word reins comes from the Hebrew word that means kidneys. In those days, the kidneys were thought to be the focal point or center of the person’s feelings. So David was saying, “Lord, search all my emotions, and know, is there any wicked way; do I have any evil feelings in my heart, in my mind?”
I encourage you to determine, as I am, to pray, day by day about the kind of feelings you have and ask the Lord, “Can I be taken to heaven right now with the feelings that I have, or is there need of change?” When there is unity and the Spirit of Christ in the church, we will see many more people accept the truths we know. Almost every time there is a split in the church or home it has to do with hurt feelings. “When selfishness is cut away from our experience, what a change will be seen in our lives. We shall not then be at variance with one another.” Manuscript Releases, vol. 19, 143.
This subject is so important that on the deathbed of her husband, James, Ellen White asked him point blank, “Do you love Jesus?”
He replied, “Yes, I do.”
She talked to him about that for a long time, about his feelings, then asked again, “Do you love Jesus, or do you have feelings against somebody. If you have feelings against somebody, you are not ready to die.”
“If Satan can get in among the people [and produce] a spirit of criticism, then he is satisfied, for a root of bitterness springs up in these [members] wherewith he will be satisfied.” Sermons and Talks, vol. 1, 39.
Often death gives no warning; if you have ill feelings against anyone, make it right today. Talk to the Lord about it and get rid of that root of bitterness that will cost you eternal life.
“Lord, search my thoughts and my feelings, and impress me by Your Holy Spirit, if I have any wrong feelings toward somebody in my family or somebody in my church.” When Jesus, our Example, went to the cross, He did not have one murmuring feeling or feeling of discontent. If we want to be like Jesus, our feelings and thoughts must also be pure.
(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)
Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Free Seventh-day Adventist Church in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.