To observe two human beings engaged in full out war, using proxy gladiators to throw the punches, head down to divorce court. There the legally armed hired mercenaries (attorneys) do battle on the behalf of their clients (the soon to be divorced.) There is usually plenty of bitterness on display but if there is significant property to divide or child custody to arrange then the rage-o-meter (patent pending) will likely peg. I’ve known couples to spend up to $50,000 apiece to end up with a 50/50 split of the assets. They could have had that result without any argument. So what drove them to fight so hard for no real gain? Probably it was spite.
The Bible doesn’t directly examine spite nor does it define it. Instead it goes to the root or cause of it. I’ll get to that in a minute. So what is spite?
A common expression is “to cut off your nose to spite your face.” Poor nose. Not so good for the face either. It is supposed to have been derived from the story of Saint Ebba, the mother superior of a nunnery in Scotland in 874 A.D. Danish raiders were near and it was very likely their intent to rape the nuns (not a lot of money or wealth to be found in the monastery.) Since nuns considered themselves brides of Christ, this crime against their person was magnified intensely. In order to prevent this, Ebba gathered together her nuns and, in their presence, cut off her nose and upper lip. Now she was grotesque and freshly so. All the other nuns followed suit. (How sharp were those knives?) The next morning when the Danes arrived, they were horrified at this nunnery of grisly looking women and reacted by burning down the monastery with all the nuns inside. So was it worth it? They avoided rape but were killed instead. I believe the nuns preferred martyrdom to being despoiled by Danes. Some, however, call this spite.
Spite means to deprive yourself of some good in order to deprive or harm your opponent. The classic example is an experiment where two people are chosen and one of them is given $10. The one with the money must give some of it to the other. If the other is satisfied with the amount he receives the transaction is completed. If not, neither of them get any money. The results showed that the one with the money must give at least 30% ($3 or more) or the other will nullify it for both of them. Since $1 (for example) is better than no dollars, this result is called spite, In other words, the insult of only receiving $1 overrides the value of it. “You only gave me a buck? You cheapskate! Fine, then neither of us get any money.” That is called spite.
I’m not sure that it is. Instead I think the experiment measures standards of honor and generosity as expected by the people involved. “If you are sufficiently generous I will do business with you. If not, I won’t.”
Instead, I believe true spite comes from hate and bitterness. “You divorced me? I will kill you and spend the rest of my life inside a concrete box (prison.)” or “You want the kids? I will fight you for custody even though I don’t have the time nor motivation to raise them. Whatever is hurtful and mean to you, that is what I want no matter what the cost to me.” Some of that is revenge but it is heavily mixed with spite. Divorces can be nasty. It’s one reason God hates them.
God isn’t fond of spite either. He addresses the two motivations from which it arises: the desire for revenge and the swamp of bitterness. Revenge He discusses in Romans 12 19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. (NASB) I am sure that He does repay but He is awfully slow about it, On the other hand, there are people for whom I wished God would exact revenge and, as the years have gone by, I have changed my mind. Plus I wish Him to delay any revenge others wish exacted on me too. Delay it to…forever! Grace for me and, sigh, grace for you (you weasel!)
As for bitterness, a popular quotation says “bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” (Supposedly first said by Carrie Fisher, Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Abe Lincoln or Brian Chronister. Okay, we don’t really know who said it first.) In other words, bitterness is spite without the punch. Bitterness always hurts you and will likely have no lasting effect on the person who embittered you. Avoid bitterness and the desire for vengeance and spiteful actions will not appear. Good idea or as God says it, “see to it.”
Hebrews 1215 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.(NASB)