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How to Neutralize Bitterness

The human body has several defense mechanisms to protect us from injury or illness. But few are more underappreciated than the small, yet powerful, taste buds.
Read Time: 4 minutes

While I’m from the United States, I’m sure I can speak for many around the globe when I say we have forgotten about the protective purpose of tastebuds.

Too often, we only picture our taste buds as a means of enjoying good food. But it’s not the tongue’s ability to detect sweet or salty that makes it useful in defending our bodies. Rather, what makes our tongue so valuable is its ability to detect bitterness—and if you usually drink coffee with cream and sugar, you know how quickly your body reacts if you forget to add it.

ancient civilizations were quite familiar with bitter-tasting foods

Without the ability to taste bitterness, we are more susceptible to ingesting natural poisons found in plants. Yet bitterness isn’t always bad, as it’s found in leafy green vegetables, such as broccoli and kale, that provide the body with antioxidants.

When looking for a simple definition of bitterness, I came across a word that summed it up well—”unsweet.” People tend to avoid bitterness to the same extent that they pursue sweetness. Not only that, the definition of “unsweet” acts as a hint about how to fix bitterness in your cooking.

It turns out that using either sugar or natural fat helps to take the edge off bitterness in food. That’s why the most common things people put in their coffee are sugar and cream. Although sweet doesn’t completely neutralize bitterness, it removes just enough of the edge to form a more complex taste that some appreciate more than simply sweet food.

While modern agriculture has largely eliminated bitterness from vegetables through selective breeding, ancient civilizations were quite familiar with bitter-tasting foods. The most wellknown feast in the Bible featured a bitter plant as an essential component of the meal.

Listen to God’s instructions to Moses about the Passover in Exodus 12:7-13:

“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.
In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover.
For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.”1

The Passover seder is a symbolic meal that commemorates God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt’s oppression. Each part of the meal symbolizes a different facet of Israel’s experience in Egypt that God wanted future generations to remember.

It’s no coincidence that Israel was often called “the land of milk and honey.

To this day, when Jewish people celebrate Passover, they first eat what they call “maror,” bitter herbs, a symbol of the bitterness of slavery. Later in the evening, they dip the bitter herbs in a sweet dip called “charoset,” (pronounced “ha-RO-set”) which represents the sweetening of their burden of bitterness and suffering through God’s deliverance.

Just as the bitterness of food can be offset by sweetness and fats, the bitterness we endure in life can be offset through seeking to taste of God’s promise of salvation. It’s no coincidence that Israel was often called “the land of milk and honey.” (Exo 3:8, 17; Deut 6:3).

The food eaten during the Passover meal reminded everyone about God’s promise of salvation tied so closely to the land. David encouraged others to seek these blessings out for themselves in Psalm 34:4-10:

“I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.
Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack!
The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.”

You and I may not have been slaves in Egypt, but we’ve likely experienced bitterness. Maybe you were looking for support from others, and no one stood by you. Or perhaps someone you looked up to let you down and made you doubt your judgment. That bitterness may also come from feeling like your life isn’t what it could be. This could leave you resenting some of your life decisions.

bitterness is an acid that will consume us from within

Whatever the cause, you can still recognize how unsweet that sensation was or continues to be in your life. It’s human nature to experience those emotions, especially ones that feel outside your control. But we need to be careful not to cultivate those feelings because that bitterness is an acid that will consume us from within.

While none of us can change our past, or eliminate the causes of bitterness in our lives, we can discipline our actions going forward. We can choose to show God’s mercy and forgiveness instead of seeking our vindication. We can choose to break the cycle. We can choose to taste the sweetness of God’s promise in His Word. The promise that what lies ahead is so much better than what’s behind.

So, the next time your coffee tastes off and you go to pour cream and sugar in to get it right, remember that God invites you to do the same for your life.

He invites you to recognize the bitterness you feel in your life, the disappointment, the resentment, and the hurt you feel. These are some of the reasons to pursue the example of God and His Son more eagerly, because to the extent that we avoid bitterness, we should pursue sweetness.

To close, I’d like to reflect on Romans 8:18, a simple reminder that whatever is unsweet will soon be offset by the sweetness found in the Kingdom of God:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

Sam Taylor
Paris Avenue, OH

1 All references taken from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless otherwise stated.


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