Beating Back Bitterness
What's it look like to combat bitterness? Pastor and author Stephen Viars explores the power of lament to give voice and resolution to our deepest grief.
About the Guest
What’s it look like to combat bitterness? Pastor and author Stephen Viars explores the power of lament to give voice and resolution to our deepest grief.
Beating Back Bitterness
Beating Back Bitterness
Guest: Stephen Viars
From the series: Overcoming Bitterness (Day 1 of 3)
Air date: December 6, 2021
Dave: So a lot of our listeners, unfortunately or fortunately, know the drama of our ten-year anniversary date; that’s the basis of our Vertical Marriage book. I want to ask you because—you know, I’ve heard you tell this story a thousand times of how you lost your feelings for me—but when you describe what you felt, you say you went from anger to resentment to bitterness.
Dave: Talk about that a little bit.
Ann: Well, it’s interesting because it was different. I remember when I was angry with you, like, “Oh, this is just wrong”; it felt wrong. But then that anger turned to resentfulness—like I’m mad at you—but I’m also now resentful. But then something happened in my heart that became toxic, I feel like—like it was poisoning every part of me—that I didn’t like you at all, and nothing you could do would make me happy. You felt it, because we lived that!
Dave: I’m smiling though, because how could I think we were doing great? [Laughter]
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife—
I mean, I knew you were mad; and you know, we were yelling, often, as I was going to another church meeting.
But when you talk about bitterness—I know that feeling—so I’m like, “That’s deeper; that’s inside.” It’s something that we carry, and I don’t think we know how to get rid of.
Dave: So we’re going to talk about bitterness; but more importantly, how it affects our lives and how we can negotiate it. We have the man to do it with us today; Stephen Viars is with us. He’s written a book on bitterness, Overcoming Bitterness.
But first of all, let me say, “Welcome to Family Life. I think you’re going to help us [Laughter] and a lot of other people today.”
Stephen: Well, and I really hope that’s true. It’s a delight to be here. My goal is just to point all of us to Jesus Christ and point us to the truth of the Word of God. He will never disappoint us; will He?
Stephen: And the great thing is there’s hope in this topic; it’s a sad topic. I think about the men and women, who might listen to this program, and this one hurts. But the good news is there’s a way out, and our sweet Savior stands ready to help us overcome bitterness.
Dave: Yes; even as I read your book—and I know you’re not just an author—you’re actually, I said this at lunch, a very unique blend of: you’re a lead pastor of a church in Lafayette, Indiana;—
Ann: —Faith Church
Dave: —and yet, you have this counseling side and bent; because you lead a counseling ministry. You have/I mean, we sat at lunch and I heard all these amazing things you’re doing in the counseling world.
You’re married; three kids, four grandkids?
Dave: You know, I’ve got to tell you, when I was reading your book, Overcoming Bitterness: Moving from Life’s Greatest Hurts to a Life Filled with Joy, that’s a big move—
Stephen: It is.
Dave: —from hurt, not just to better, to joy.
Stephen: That’s right.
Dave: I told Ann, as I was reading it, I was like, “Wow! The bitterness I thought I was over in my life [Laughter]; it’s still looming there pretty big.”
Let’s talk, because I haven’t seen a lot of books written about this. You see forgiveness books, and you talk a lot about that in the book, but to center on the bitterness that’s in our life. Help us understand sort of the root: “Where does this come from? How does it manifest itself in a person’s life?”
Stephen: That’s one of the things I love about the sufficiency of the Word of God. Scripture doesn’t just call upon us to change things behaviorally—so it’s not simply: “Hey, start doing this,” or “Stop doing that,”—I’m so glad that we have a Savior, who loves us much more comprehensively than that.
As I got into the study in the Scripture of the topic of bitterness, you find it played off in three very separate categories. The first is the one we just talked about: bitter words or bitter behavior. We all know what that feels like. In fact, the Hebrew word, mara, means the poisonous bile from the gall bladder of all things. I love how God is just so picturesque. We know what bitter speech is; we know what bitter behavior is. That’s one category that’s very obvious to us.
But when you start unpacking the Word of God, it uses that word group—mara, in Old Testament; pikrós in the New Testament—the word, “bitter,” [is] in two other categories. One that really surprised me was bitter circumstances. This is why none of us can say “Well, I don’t have any bitterness in my life.” Sure we do, because we live in a sin-cursed world. So bitterness in the Bible is not, first, something I do; it’s first, something I face. I face bitter circumstances every day. Every one of our listeners faces bitter circumstances every day.
So for example, you have Joseph, whose story comprises a rather significant percentage of the book of Genesis. Well, on his daddy’s deathbed, he [Jacob] gathers all the brothers around; and he starts making these pronouncements about what their lives were like and what their lives are going to be like. When he gets to Joseph, he says, “The archer shot bitter arrows at you.” You talk about an awkward moment; I mean, who’s he talking about? [Laughter]
Stephen: He’s talking about Joseph’s own brothers,—
Stephen: —and here’s what that tells us. Joseph was not responsible for that. Bitterness was not, first, something he did. It was, first, something that he faced. That story also gives us great hope. Joseph did not let the bitter treatment by his brothers make him a bitter person. There’s hope in that.
Another example of that is Hannah. Hannah struggled with infertility. What a terrible thing for a woman to have to face; and yet, the Scripture says that her rival used to mock her about her infertility. She would provoke her bitterly the Bible says. There’s another example of how bitterness is not, first, something that I do; it’s, first/it’s a condition that I face in this sin-cursed world.
We all face situations, where people are treating us in an unjust fashion. Hannah, by the way, you can also add her “Pastor” Eli, who comes alongside her, and sees her praying, and accuses her of being drunk. You have one woman provoking her, because of her inability to have a child; and then you have her religious leader falsely accusing her. But there’s another example of why we can have hope, because that didn’t make Hannah a bitter woman. In fact, in the very next chapter, she is giving this marvelous worship hymn to God. So even though she had been treated in such a terrible way by the people around her, that did not make her a bitter woman.
Ann: And Steve, it feels like, right now in our culture, it feels like there’s a lot of bitterness. It feels like an epidemic.
Stephen: That’s why I think we have to be spiritually authentic. If we just say, “Well, I don’t have any bitterness,” that is not biblically correct; because again, bitterness is not something I do; it’s, first, a condition I face.
Here’s another example, by the way: it’s the children of Israel, where the Bible says that the Egyptians made their work bitter. There’s a lot of people, who are in work situations just like that, day after day after day: their boss is treating them unkindly; their co-workers are treating them in an unjust fashion; or just everything that goes on in a sin-cursed work environment. Again, it’s bitter conditions.
So then, you say, “Okay, Lord; You’ve told me that in the Word of God. Thank You because that broadens my concept; but then, what’s the connection point between bitter circumstances we all face and being a bitter individual that you told us I shouldn’t be?” And the answer is the third category: is our heart. One of the most powerful verses on this topic is Proverbs 14:10: “The heart knows its own bitterness.” That’s where all of this is played out: “What goes on in my heart in the way I respond to unjust treatment?—to the way I respond to the disappointments in my life?” The question is: “How do I process that in my heart?”
The beautiful thing is, through the power of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, I can have a new heart. I have the Holy Spirit working inside of me so, in my heart/in my inner person, I can process these hurts in a way that doesn’t, just in a determinative fashion, mandate that I become bitter. In fact, the Scripture would suggest I can actually be growing in my sweet relationship with Christ, as a result of the hurt, in a way that prevents me from becoming a bitter person. That’s the goal, and that’s the hope.
Dave: So how do we—because I hear you talk about the bitter heart—and I think, sometimes/I’d love to say I have a friend, [Laughter] who can’t acknowledge that he has a bitter heart. There’s times in my life, where I’m, “Oh, I’m good; I’m not bitter about that”; and yet, it will reveal itself eventually. I think it’s, often, we don’t know it.
Dave: Our heart is giving us symptoms—we can feel it—but I think we live in this denial thing, like, “I’m not bitter.” And some of us, as followers of Christ, we think it’s sin to be bitter; so do we live in a denial? Is it always apparent, or is there something that gets triggered?
Ann: I was going to say, Dave, it’s so funny because—
Dave: Are you going to talk about my bitter heart? [Laughter]
Ann: Yes, I might.
Stephen: Turn off the mics! [Laughter]
Ann: I was just going to say—because Dave’s great—like: “I’m fine,” “I’m good.” I know that you feel like you’re really good; because when you were trying to forgive your dad for leaving you, for the alcoholism, for the abandonment of your family, I remember you couldn’t even talk about your dad without having this emotion rise up. I said to you, “You know, I think you need to forgive your dad.”
Dave: She didn’t say, “I think.” [Laughter] I’ll never forget it; and again, I hadn’t been able to identify. We were early in our marriage, so it was the first five or six years; but she literally said one day, “You know, you’re going to need to forgive your dad.” I looked at her like,—
Ann: “I’m fine.”
Dave: —“I did that years ago.”
Then, as I stepped away and said, “Is there truth in what Ann said?” it was, “Oh, my goodness; there’s a hardened root in there.”
Dave: Then the question—and I know we’re going to get there eventually; we don’t need to get there immediately—but: “What do I do with that?”
Stephen: I think there’s several very important biblical answers to the question: “How do I win the battle in my heart with these bitter circumstances?” One of the biggest answers from the Word of God is to learn to practice lament/that’s the discipline of lament between me and the Lord.
I don’t know, when you’re talking about one book, you ought to recommend somebody else’s [Laughter]; but my friend, Mark Vroegop, who is a pastor up at College Park Church in Indianapolis, wrote a book called Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy on the topic of lament. I quote it rather extensively in that section of my book. One of the things that he points out is that, at least, a third of the Psalms in the Bible are lament psalms. That’s pretty fascinating when you think about it, because Psalms/that’s our worship hymnal.
Now, if you read the Psalms honestly, it’s amazing how you hear God’s people. They’re practicing spiritual candor/authenticity. They’re bringing their hurt right to the throne of grace; they’re bringing their questions. In fact, it’s pretty close to they’re bringing their complaints right to the throne of God.
I think we have developed, in an evangelical culture, the belief that: “Well, you don’t do that. You don’t ask questions. You don’t act as if there are some things that are troubling you. You just put on a plastic smile on a broken heart and act,” or “Men don’t admit that they’re hurting,” “Big boys don’t cry,” “Just rub some dirt on it,” etc., etc.
Now, if we’re going to let the Bible be our guide, we ought to follow the example of the psalmists. We ought to learn how to practice biblical lament. I’m convinced, in my life, Dave, that one of the reasons that I struggle with bitterness is because I’m not as honest with the Lord as I ought to be. And I’m a 61-year-old man. You start wondering, “How many more years do I have to get this right?” Thankfully, my identity is not wrapped up in me getting it right; but ultimately, it’s wrapped up in my identity in Christ. But I want to spend the remaining years of my life being more honest with the Lord, immediately with the pain, the hurt, the disappointment; so that it doesn’t turn into bitterness. Again, that’s the whole point of Hebrews 12:15: “See to it that you don’t fall short of the grace of God. Don’t let this root of bitterness spring up, cause trouble, and defile many.”
One of the ways I can do that—as a pastor, and as a father, and as a husband, as a friend—is walk very quickly from bitter circumstances to the very throne of my God and cry out to Him: “Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer.” When my heart is overwhelmed: “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I (Psalm 61:1,2).”
There may be some of our listeners who—the truth of the matter is—they have become bitter people. That’s just the honest truth. In fact, like one woman in the Bible named Naomi, she started looking bitter. I really do believe, if you don’t handle this area in your life, it will affect the way that you look. One of the ways that I can prevent that is by very quickly going to the throne of God. Some of our listeners may say, “The reason I’m a bitter person today: I’ve never spoken honestly to the Lord about these hurts.”
Ann: It’s interesting; I took some women on a trip to Israel. We were doing just a lot of conversations and talks. I talked to this one woman—she was in her late 50s—and she said, “I cannot forgive my mom.” As we talked about it, I said, “Do you feel like it’s affecting you?” She said, “Absolutely”; and then she said, “and I will not forgive my mom.” She had told me: “The reason I can’t forgive my mom is because, every single day of my life, she would take a broom and she would beat my sister and I with the handle of this broom.” She said, “How do I forgive that?”
She has this experience. I said, “Okay, can you just picture yourself in your mind? Use your imagination.” She said, “Yes.” I said, “I want you to tell your mom how she harmed you.” She had never done that before. She starts going on and on to her mom—angry/like yelling—angry of what this has caused her. Then I said, “Now I want you to take that; I want you to tell Jesus what that has meant and how it has affected you.” So again, she’s crying; she’s yelling.
I’m wondering: “Was that lamenting?”
Stephen: Oh, I think it was. I just look back on my life; I view that kind of conversation as being disrespectful to the Lord.
Stephen: I’m not supposed to complain to God, as if He doesn’t know about the situation that I’m already facing already. It really results in a shallowness in my relationship with God if I’m not practicing authenticity. Perhaps, many of us would do well to spend more time in the Psalms, especially those lament Psalms.
I had the privilege, recently, of working with some counselees. I encouraged them to write a psalm of lament—so to follow one of the lament psalms, either one of the shorter ones or one of the longer ones—but to actually write their own and tell their story to the Lord; and then, just pray that back to the Lord. And when they would think about that event/that hurt from the past, then they can start factoring in: “But God knows about that. I’ve been talking with the Lord about that,” and “I have found His grace to be sufficient.”
It’s not just me and the person who offended me, or me and the person who hurt me; now, it’s my lovingly heavenly Father. We’re continuing to have conversations. I would actually get to the place—and this is really hard—but when I can get to the place of saying, “It was good for me that I was afflicted.” That’s a hard place.
Ann: —as Joseph did.
Stephen: Absolutely: “You meant it for evil,”—but that’s not the end of the sentence—“but God meant it for good.” “It was good for me that I was afflicted that I might learn thy statutes.” You know, we’ve mentioned Hebrews 12:15, which is one of the seminal passages on bitterness. The context is crucial; that’s a context about our heavenly Father’s discipline in our life, and we don’t like that. We don’t like it at all,—
Stephen: —because we don’t like God to be sovereign; right? We want God to be Santa Claus. When we start to understand God loves us too much just to give us everything we want—God always gives us a blend of blessings but, also, challenges—in order to help conform us more to the image of Christ. So when I’m factoring the sovereignty of God into my hurt/into my pain, it helps me to start viewing: the bitterness is melting away, and the looking for opportunities to become more like Christ in the midst of that challenge or as a result of it.
But when I can get to the place of saying: “God’s working that for good in my life,” I can’t acknowledge God’s sovereign work in my life, helping me become more like Christ, and be bitter simultaneously. You cannot hold those two truths; so you’re getting rid of one in your heart; and you’re embracing one that is far, far sweeter.
Dave: Well, talk about what that woman ended up as she took it to Jesus.
Ann: As she lamented to Jesus, you could feel—at first, there was such anger—and the more she talked, it was almost like a healing balm came over her. I said, “I want you to bottle up all the feelings that you have, and even the bitterness, and just picture yourself handing it to Jesus.” She didn’t want to at first. “It was the first time,” she said, “that I’ve handed him all of that.”
As she handed it to Him, she had all these images and remembrances of what her mom told her about her own upbringing, of how her mom had been beaten and abandoned. “My mom was only reacting out of what had been given to her; and now, I have a choice that I can either pass on my bitterness or I can allow God’s healing to begin to renew me and to renew my spirit.” And it’s not a one time: “Oh, it’s all done”; I’m sure process.
Stephen: No, it’s not. I’m glad you said that; you’re right.
Ann: Because many times, it takes years to unpack some of that. But you could tell there was a lightness about her that she hadn’t had in a long time.
Stephen: Isn’t that powerful to know that it’s a choice?
Dave: If I’m a listener right now, and there’s an action step, I think it’s obvious. It’s a day to lament. It’s a day to maybe get a journal out and write your own. I don’t know what the percentage would be; but when I read through the Psalms, and I see the laments, often, those Psalms end in a totally different place.
Stephen: They absolutely do.
Dave: When they’re honest and they don’t hold it back, it’s like: “God, I’m struggling with this. This is where I am. I don’t understand.” And then you get to the end often—even Psalm 73, one of my favorites, where he’s just complaining about the prosperous of the wicked—and then he says, “I entered the sanctuary of God.”
Stephen: That’s right.
Dave: It’s like: “When I finally was honest with my struggle, I got a different perspective.” And again, it’s not a magic wish; but man, if you today took the bitterness you’re feeling, and put it pen to paper, or get your phone out and digit, or just pray it.
I mean this, Stephen, when I read that section on lament in your book, I was like, “We don’t do that enough.”
Stephen: I agree; I don’t do that enough.
Ann: We don’t either.
Dave: Yes; so I would encourage the listener, “Today’s your day to start the journey toward, as you call it, a life filled with hope. It starts with maybe a lament today.”
Bob: Most of us don’t have to be convinced about how toxic bitterness, anger, resentment can be for a relationship. We know that these are issues that need to be addressed in our own hearts, but we don’t know how to do that. Sometimes, it feels like, if we confront the bitterness, we’re going to be unsafe. That’s why I think the book that Stephen Viars has written, that Dave and Ann Wilson have been talking with him about today—the book, Overcoming Bitterness—is so helpful/so practical for so many of us.
Especially, I’m thinking about the holiday season ahead. I’m thinking about relationships that maybe you are apprehensive about engaging with family members, people where there is resentment or bitterness, where there’s a hard heartedness. Stephen Viars’ book, Overcoming Bitterness, is a great resource for you to process through/to pray your way through. We’ve got copies of it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, to get your copy; or call us to order at 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call 1-800-358-6329 to request your copy of the book, Overcoming Bitterness, by Stephen Viars.
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to hear about how we begin the journey toward dealing with bitterness and resentment in our relationships: “How do we move toward forgiveness?” Stephen Viars will be back with Dave and Ann Wilson tomorrow. We hope you can be back as well.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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