FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Bitterness or Boundaries

with Lysa TerKeurst | September 1, 2021
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Unhealed hurt can often lead to bitterness. Lysa TerKeurst charts a path towards forgiveness by setting healthy boundaries, so that even when we are hurt, we don't have to live that way!

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Unhealed hurt can often lead to bitterness. Lysa TerKeurst charts a path towards forgiveness by setting healthy boundaries, so that even when we are hurt, we don’t have to live that way!

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Bitterness or Boundaries

With Lysa TerKeurst
September 01, 2021
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Dave: Hey, real quick, the Weekend to Remember is half price right now.

Ann: That’s a great deal.

Dave: You can go for half the price—; sign up right now—it’ll change your life.

I once read about a wife and a mom who, when her husband left her with another woman—this had been going on for a while, and it was finally the end—there’s going to be a divorce. Her husband calls her—I guess it was a phone call—and literally says, “Hey, sell the house; we’ll split the profit.”

This woman decides, “Okay; we’re going to split the profit?” She doesn’t tell him this—she puts her $500,000 house up for $67,000 and sells it, and split that money with her husband,—

Ann: —just to spite him?

Dave: —just to get him.

Ann: Who was that woman?

Dave: That was my mom.

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 or on our FamilyLife® app.

Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.

We’re going to talk today about forgiveness. We’ve been already talking with Lysa TerKeurst. Lysa, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.

Lysa: Thank you so much. Wow; what a powerful story!

Dave: Yes; I did my dad’s funeral years later, and guess who wasn’t there? Mom never showed up; she was still bitter for decades. That was a part of the atmosphere in my home; and in a sense, there is that in our soul: “I’m going to pay them back, and it’s going to feel good.” We go to movies; and we stand up and cheer when Danzel takes out the villain; you’re like, “Yes!” It feels good. Yet in life, when you carry that around, it doesn’t feel good. There’s something God’s called us to—to be free—it’s called forgiveness.

Again, Lysa, you’re here because you wrote Forgiving What You Can’t Forget. We’ve talked this week about your journey. I mean, what a great title; because there are things you can’t forget; and you think, “I can’t forgive if I can’t forget.” We’ve already talked much about that.

Welcome back; we’re so glad to have you here. You’re a New York Times best-selling author, but we haven’t even mentioned you’re a wife and a mom—five kids?—is that right?

Lysa: Yes.

Dave: How many grandkids?

Lysa: We have three grandkids, so it’s a very full life; and I’m super thankful.

I want to circle back about something you said, with your mom, that she didn’t show up to the funeral because she was bitter. Sometimes, I think it is possible to see a blessing inside of bitterness. Now, this is going to feel very upside-down—and I’m not saying this to justify bitterness; I’m not saying it to defend your mom—I never even met her.

Dave: Yes.

Lysa: What I would say is: she didn’t show up to that funeral, because she was so deeply hurt. She had unhealed hurt there that, over time, turned into bitterness, which turned her into something that she was never meant to be.

I think sometimes when we say the word, “bitter,” everybody is like/we recoil; and we think, “Oh, a bitter person is a cold-hearted person that never dealt with their issues, and they have such limited potential in their relationships.” Actually, the opposite is pretty true. Bitterness doesn’t often visit the cold-hearted person, who has limited potential in relationships. Bitterness often visits that person, who loved deeply; therefore, they got hurt really deeply. Because they didn’t know how to draw boundaries, they started putting up walls; that’s the dangerous part about bitterness.

The blessing of bitterness is it actually shows that that person has great potential for loving relationships, but the burden of bitterness is that bitterness never sits still. It doesn’t just want to be a feeling, it wants to become your only feeling. It leaks out like acid onto everything that you touch. If we don’t tend to our bitterness, our bitterness will turn us into someone we never wanted to be.

Ann: It’s interesting—I thought this chapter on boundaries—I just was underlining everything. One of the things you say is that the people you think need to change the most will wind up changing the least when your efforts are greater than their own efforts. What’s that mean?

Lysa: If you’ve ever done life with someone with an addiction—I’m going to kind of laser in on this, even though there are so many more examples—you can want that person to change all day long; but if you want it more than they want it, then you’re going to work harder on them than they’re willing to work on them. When you get into that kind of cycle, you are not only doing them actually a disservice, but you are probably causing some extreme hardship in your own life.

That was one of my issues. I was working harder on other people than they were willing to work themselves, and I was becoming emotionally exhausted.

Ann: I’m just going to say, we women do this.

Lysa: We do.

Ann: We see problems with our kids or our husbands, and we take it on.

Dave: Hey, you keep acting like we men don’t ever do this!—

Ann: I don’t know, but I’m just—

Dave: —like we don’t have a compassionate heart in us.

Ann: I talk to more women than men. We’re so relational that I think we feel so invested, like: “I’m going to help you,” “I want to help you,”—so we carry this like—“And I am going to be there; we’re going to fix you.”

Lysa: Sometimes, we see a problem—and I agree—it can be men too. It’s that nurturing that comes out of us, you know—or for men, I think it would be problem-solving—“I’m going to fix it.”

Ann: Yes.

Dave: Right; yes. I was going to say: “We’re going to fix it.” I mean, you have a great quote that you’re sort of talking [about] here; I think it’s something like this: “If I’m trying to get a person off the train tracks, and I want them off more than they want to get off, we’re both going to get hit by the train.”

Lysa: Yes; that’s right. If we’re seeing other people’s problems—especially people who are close to us—when we see their problem as our personal assignment, then we have stepped into the role of being savior. Only Jesus is qualified to be the Savior.

You’re right; I tell a story in the book about this thought I had one day. I wrote this whole thing out, because someone I love very much was struggling. It’s a younger person, and I kept wanting to tell them, “I’m not trying to be controlling or manipulative. I’m just trying to save your life; okay?” [Laughter]

Ann: I’ve said that so many times!

Lysa: I have this picture of: “Every time you make a crazy decision/every time you make a decision that I can see is detrimental, or harmful, or not in keeping with what’s best for you, it’s like you’re climbing up on a train track. You’re just la-la-la-la-la, sitting on the train track. I can see the train coming, and I am dumbfounded why you can’t see the train coming!”

Ann: You’re screaming at them, “Do you see the train coming?!”

Lysa: Yes! So I will run up on the track and pull them off. But then they climb back on the track; and meanwhile, the train is coming ever closer. So I run back up on the track and pull them off, and run back up on the track and pull them off. But at some point, the train has arrived; and if I climb up on that track and pull them off, we’re both going to get run over by the train.

This is never going to be a problem to solve; it’s going to be a tension to manage; because every circumstance is so unique and filled with nuances that only you know. The main point is acknowledging you cannot work harder on someone else than they’re willing to work on themselves, because it doesn’t work.

There are a couple things about boundaries that you have to determine ahead of time. You want to make sure your boundary is not a threat; you want to make sure that it is not a control tactic or a manipulation tactic. What you want to establish is: “This boundary is not meant to shove the other person away; this boundary is meant to hold me together so that I can continue to live in honoring biblical realities about my character and about my personality, and just how God wants me to live.”

I want to be kind; but if I’m working so hard on another person, and they’re exhausting me, my kindness is going to start to wane. Over time, it will turn me into somebody that I don’t even want to be in this relationship. A boundary has to be well thought-through in advance.

Ann: Do you do that with people: community, church?

Lysa: You can if there’s a safe other person. Sometimes, I’ll work through it with my counselor or a really trusted, wise friend. Once I establish: “Okay, there’s a need for a boundary here,”—and I think through what the boundary is—then I think through: “How am I going to communicate this?” And I also have to think through: “What are the consequences if they violate the boundary?”—because a boundary, without a consequence, is just a suggestion.

Ann: What are examples of boundaries?

Lysa: Okay, let’s say that you and I are friends; and we love to drive to Bible study together. I am more serious about the schedule; and your concern is more, maybe, hospitality once you show up. To you, your priority is that you want to make muffins before Bible study; my priority is to get there on time, which really means ten minutes early. I want to get there: I want to get my place; I want to get all set up; I want to get something to drink; I want to sit in my place; and I just want to have a moment before we even get started.

But because of your love for hospitality, and your priority is making muffins, and the muffins are always making you run late every week—yes, you have delicious homemade muffins—but I come to pick you up because you want to ride together; and you’re like, “Okay, it’ll just take me 15 more minutes.”

Ann: —and you’re going crazy.

Lysa: —going crazy! So by the time we get to Bible study each week, you’re flitting in on a cloud-bubble of joy, serving everybody muffins. I am seething with frustration; and I’m like, “I don’t even want a muffin, because these muffins made me have to sit over here…” The whole thing is just driving me nuts; right?

Over time—this seems like a silly example—but over time, if I’m not drawing a boundary with you, I’ll start labeling you: “She’s disrespectful. She doesn’t care about the relationship. She cares more about impressing everybody with her muffins than she does about my heart. I’ve told her every time, ‘I’m picking you up at this time’; and every time, she violates that.” You can see how my expectation becomes a premeditated resentment against you.

One of the number one reasons that relationships fall apart is simmering resentments. It’s often not the conversations we have that make relationships fall apart; it’s the conversations we don’t have.

Ann: It’s the conversations in our head.

Lysa: Exactly.

Ann: Yes.

Lysa: So a boundary would look like me coming to you and saying:

I love you, and I love riding to Bible study with you; and I appreciate the fact that you want to bring homemade muffins. Now, here’s my hardship: on time to me means getting there ten/fifteen minutes early; on time to you is getting there whenever it happens to occur to you to get there; right? That doesn’t make you bad and that doesn’t make me good—and it doesn’t make you wrong and me right—it means we have different priorities.

To honor the priorities that I have, if you cannot agree to the time and actually be in the car at the time, then we need to stop riding to Bible study together. It’s not an indication that I love you less; it’s an indication that I need this so that I can keep from having simmering resentments in our relationship.

Ann: You’re saving the relationship, ultimately.

Lysa: Yes; so much of it is communicating—instead of expectations—it’s needs and desires. One time, my counselor helped me understand, “Lysa, you have all these expectations, but it’s setting you up for premeditated resentments.” Instead of saying, “I expect you to be on time,”—do you hear the edge to that?—[you say,] “I need to be on time, because this is a priority for me,”—totally different conversation.

Ann: “This is my thing.”

Lysa: It is.

Ann: Yes; what’s that look like in a marriage?

Lysa: Well, I think, in a marriage, the complicating factor is sometimes you wait too long to have these conversations. Over time, in the depth of an intimate relationship—even though you don’t physically see a relationship contract—the relationship contract is there.

What happens is—if you change the contract of: “Hey, we’ll just show up whenever we show up,” or “Hey, now I’m going to expect you to be on time,”—the minute you start changing the contract is the minute that there’s going to be resistance, because that’s not the way we’ve done it. The longer you wait to have these communication opportunities about: “Hey, we need to communicate about this, because I have a different need and desire than what’s happening right now,”—the key is really communicating early.

If it has gone too long, and there’s too much resentment buildup, you probably need to get a third party in there to help untangle some of those realities. Then, put the needs and desires of both parties on the table and see where the commonality can be cultivated.

Dave: For a follower of Christ, boundaries have been a very difficult thing to enforce; because we think: “I’m supposed to be a grace-giver; I’m supposed to forgive. Just keep walking all over me,” “…keep breaking, in a sense, the vows we’ve made in our marriage; and that’s okay, because I’m going to forgive you,” rather than, as you said earlier: “It’s not to push you out of my life; it’s actually to protect”; right?

Lysa: Yes; think about it: Jesus was a perfect match of grace and truth, and Jesus had boundaries. He didn’t give intimate access to the whole world. He gave 12 that kind of access; and even amongst the 12, He had boundaries, where sometimes He only took 3; and then there were other times He would just be 1 on 1.

Also, when we look at Jesus’ life, He got up early in the morning; and He went to a place of solitude so that He could spend time with the Father. He had boundaries. I mean, He made it a priority to spend time in prayer. He wasn’t allowing complete access to everyone all the time.

I think it’s important to look—if Jesus was perfect grace and truth, and He was—and even He established what was necessary for Him, it’s okay. He demonstrated that it’s okay to have needs; it’s okay to have a personal desire, especially when it’s a reflection of a priority that’s really important.

Sometimes—when we’re beating ourselves up, and we’re saying, “I want to be a person of grace; therefore, I don’t have boundaries,”—you’re actually contradicting yourself. So many times, a boundary is the most grace-filled thing you can do; because a boundary isn’t set up to destroy the relationship; a boundary is set up to protect the relationship.

Dave: Hopefully, God intervenes because of that boundary you set up in [regard to] that other person. It could be a turning point in their life, to say, “The train is coming! How could I not see this? I didn’t see it until So-and-so put up a boundary and said, ‘You’re not going to be able to walk into my life that way anymore.’” It’s like—right?—

Lysa: That’s right.

Dave: —God often uses that to make Himself known.

Lysa: Yes, He does. If we look at the Lord’s Prayer, so much of the way Jesus taught us to pray—think of all the topics!—this is the ultimate prayer. He made almost half the prayer around forgiveness, and confession, and forgiveness. So many of the words of the prayer are centered around keeping our hearts swept clean; and therefore, it just makes sense that, if you are working through forgiving someone, then you’re obviously needing to communicate how to change that relationship. Forgiveness is not going to instantly fix the relationship; but over time, well-communicated boundaries will; because they establish where the parameters of freedom are.

I think we have to shift our mindset. Instead of saying: “Boundaries shut people out,”—no! A boundary actually welcomes them in and gives them a free space to run in the relationship. Everybody’s communicating, and it’s actually one of the most wise and beautifully bonding things that can happen.

Ann: As we close up our time together, I’m still struck by the fact that you spent probably over a thousand hours studying in Scripture about forgiveness. The way I visualize it is you’ve had a choice—where you’ve been shattered, betrayed, crushed, I would say, in spirit—not only spirit, but physically you’ve gone through a lot with cancer, with different illnesses, surgeries—you’re crushed, and you’re broken.

That’s when a lot of us/we can feel like, “God, You’ve left me too. You haven’t answered my prayers. I’m living a life that I never wanted to live.” I think a lot of people can run from Jesus. But as you said, you’ve spent these hours with Him; you’re praying in the middle of the night. How would you encourage people to go there?—to run after Him instead of running away from Him? What would you say to those listeners?

Lysa: Well, first of all, I would say you’re not alone. Please hear me: “I don’t do this perfectly.” Just because I’ve written a book called Forgiving What You Can’t Forget doesn’t make me a forgiveness expert; it makes me a forgiveness sojourner. I’m on this journey with you, so I understand. I still have some of those middle-of-the-night things. This isn’t a fix-all Band-Aid® that suddenly makes everything okay.

Remember, when we cling to the promises of God, a lot of times, we only want the promises that feel good to us. We also have to remember Jesus said—it was almost like a promise—“In this world you will have trouble, but take heart; I have overcome the world.” Because of that, it’s almost like: “Pay attention to what Jesus was saying here. He promised/He said, ‘In this world you’re going to have trouble.’ Instead of letting it catch us so off guard, remember that He also provided for us—even in the midst of the trouble, even in the midst of the hardship—He provided us a pathway to peace and good.”

You won’t always feel it; and you will get angry, and hurt, and frustrated, and mad. But here’s the secret:

Just because you’ve been hurt doesn’t mean you have to live hurt.

Just because somebody has made you angry doesn’t mean you have to live angry.

Just because you feel disillusioned doesn’t mean you have to live disillusioned.

Maybe the pain placed on us was not our choice—and oftentimes, it’s—but it is our choice where we go from here. It can truly make us more compassionate, or it can make us more hard-hearted—that part is our choice.

Dave: Lysa, thank you. These programs, and your book, your life, your honesty, your vulnerability has given people—given us—a road map with Jesus to healing, and to be a healer, and to be a forgiver. Forgiven people forgive people, and we can’t do it without Him. So thank you.

Lysa: You’re welcome.

Bob: Are you living hurt? Are you living angry? Are you living with disillusionment? As Lysa TerKeurst just said, that’s a choice we make. Even if we’ve been hurt, even if someone has provoked anger in us, the decision of how we’re going to live is a decision that rests with us. We may need prayer; we may need help; we may need coaching or guidance to know how to get there; but God, through His Word and by His Spirit, can bring us to that place, where we’re living with freedom and with joy.

Lysa talks about this in the book she’s written called Forgiving What You Can’t Forget: Discover How to Move One, Make Peace with Painful Memories, and Create a Life That’s Beautiful. It’s a book that we’re making available this week to FamilyLife Today listeners. You can order it from us online at, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get a copy. Again, the website is; the number to call is 1-800-FL-TODAY; 1-800-358-6329 to get a copy of Lysa TerKeurst’s book, Forgiving What You Can’t Forget.

If you find yourself needing help with knowing how to forgive, and how to bring healing into your life and into your marriage, let me encourage you to carve out a weekend this fall and join us at one of our upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaways. This two-and-a-half day getaway for couples has been attended by millions of people over the years, who have told us it gave them the help they were looking for and the hope they needed for their marriage. Most of the couples who come would say they’re in a good spot in their marriage; they’re coming to do some marriage maintenance. But there are couples who are coming, who are stuck and are looking for biblical help to know how to move forward in their marriage relationship; and they find it at the Weekend to Remember marriage getaway.

Wherever you are in your marriage/whatever your circumstances are—I know what kind of a year-and-a half/two years it’s been for many of us—a getaway right about now sounds really good. Again, we have 30 events happening this fall in cities all across the country. If you sign up today for an upcoming getaway, you and your spouse will save 50 percent off the regular registration fee, so there is no better time than right now for you to register for an upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaway. You can do that online at, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY and register over the phone. We hope you will join us this fall at one of our Weekend to Remember marriage getaways.

Now, tomorrow, Dave Wilson is going to share with us how we can make sense of some of the confusing and sometimes controversial things we find when we read Ephesians, Chapter 5, that passage on marriage that talks about things like submission and laying down your life for your wife. Dave Wilson unpacks all of that tomorrow. I hope you can tune in for that.

On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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