On 14 March 2002, I managed to convince a bunch of sensible friends to join me in enjoying (but mostly enduring) twenty-four hours of nothing but beetroot. It would become the first of a series of physiological experiments that included carrots, curry and broccoli.
By the time we got to broccoli, I think it was just me.
The premise was simple enough: for twenty-four hours, eat whatever you want – so long as it’s beetroot – and monitor the effects on bodily function using a range of sampling paraphernalia provided.
The beetroot binge began with a celebration of the bitter root on a Thursday night. About a dozen of us enjoyed roasted beetroot, beetroot soda, beetroot straight from the can – essentially, beetroot in as many unadulterated forms as we could conjure.
I may have overdone the canned beetroot a little. The next day I woke with a voice of gravel. Something about curing beetroot with vinegar, I think.
The sample jars began to tell their own story. My urine sample was more akin to a heady merlot than a dainty rosé, and it was certainly a long way from a tepid apple juice.
We’d branded the proceeding because, well, you’ve got to brand these sort of things, right?
I referenced the only bible verse I could find that alluded to beetroot in some vague form.
See to it that no root of bitterness grows up and causes trouble and by it, many are defiled.
I can offer no assurance whatsoever that on March 14, and the couple days that followed, many weren’t defiled by beetroot. I’m most certain that I was – it put me off the subterranean vegetable for quite a while. I don’t think its botanical name is Beta Vulgaris for nothing.
What I understand with even greater clarity is the vulgarity of bitterness and why the writer of the Hebrews wants us to be vigilant.
If you want to turn clean water toxic, a little poison will do the job.
It will poison the well from within and then it will do its work on all who drink from it. The most devastating damage, though, will be on the well itself. It renders it useless for its intended purpose.
We seem to have such a strong appetite for rightness and resentment.
Harbouring bitterness is like taking poison and hoping someone else dies. A bunch of people have been attributed with that quote. Often, the bitterness you hold isn’t even expressed and remains unresolved. The longer the bitterness is held, the more resentment becomes a habit. It ends up being a thought process or ‘truth’ that becomes accepted through repetition.
Sure, someone else may be defiled by your bitterness, but the greatest damage will be done inside you. If your objective is to defile others, they’ll be a very distant second to the damage you cause to yourself. You can do your best to imagine that you’d cried ‘havoc’ and ‘let slip the dogs of war’ on another person, but the havoc you’re concocting is overwhelmingly internal.
A couple of questions it may be worth asking are these: 1) Why do I take offense at these words/this action and what might this say about me? 2) Have I ever been responsible for similar words or actions? The answers aren’t to give you ammunition, they’re to establish how you go about dealing with your bitterness.
The writer of the Hebrews (it would be so much easier if we could just call them ‘Bob’) is zealous in their encouragement to steer clear of bitterness because they are driven by a cultivation of interior and corporate purity. Each will be defiled by allowing bitterness to grow up in even seemingly benign forms.
The antidote to bitterness is fresh water.
While talking about Jesus, relationships, and the Church in the letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks of our sanctification (the purification of our poisoned wells) coming from the ‘washing of water with the Word’.
A part of the root of bitterness is a poor sense of our own identity and a warped view of entitlement. Jesus reminds us that we get by letting go. We receive grace by giving grace. That by relinquishing the cherished power we want to hold over others in our hearts, we find freedom.
Often (ok, almost always), that freedom requires repentance and reconciliation of some sort, but there’s much about the mending of broken things that heals the heart, because it’s an echo of the Kingdom-wholeness that God wants to build in us. A wholeness where bitterness is a stranger and unwelcomed guest.
If all that seems like a relaxed walk-in-the-park-process, you’ve either never been bitter, or you’ve misread what ‘Bob’ said back in Hebrews. It’s a strenuous wholeness and watchful vigilance that keeps bitterness from being indulged.
As with most things sanctification, it’s a lifelong journey. Fuelled by the Holy Spirit, but requiring partnership.
As Petersen renders this verse: “Watch out for the Esau syndrome: trading away God’s lifelong gift to satisfy a short-term appetite.”
Beetroot for breakfast, anyone?