Theology

what Christians mean when they say I’m “bitter”

My great-grandfather was stationed in the Aleutian Islands during WWII. He told us a lot of stories about living there– like being trapped inside the mess hall once because a moose was standing out in the street and no sane person screws around with a moose— but one of the tidbits that stuck out to me the most was an interesting detail about their water. It wasn’t clear, and had a bitter taste to it. When he asked someone why, they explained that the pipes were made out of wood and plants had grown through them to get to the water. Those roots left an oily residue that caused the bitterness.

That was the mental image I carried with me any time I heard a Sunday school lesson or sermon on bitterness. Most often the speaker would turn to Hebrews 12:15 where it uses the phrase “root of bitterness,” and I would think about those wooden pipes in Alaska.

In my experience, “bitterness,” much like “sin,” is one of those terms that get tossed about in Christian culture without a clear, workable definition. In contrast to colloquial use, all those sermons and lessons were pretty consistent about what bitterness is: it’s “unforgiveness fermented.” It’s holding onto a hurt or slight long after you probably should have let it go. It’s resentment.

A while ago I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate reading all those posts and sermon transcripts I’ve linked to above because bitterness was being used, almost constantly, as a cudgel to beat me. I stopped thinking about bitterness entirely, stopped evaluating whether or not I was bitter– and it’s been one of the healthiest, most life-affirming decisions I’ve ever made. If someone called me bitter, I’d mentally shrug it off because I didn’t care whether or not I was bitter. If being “bitter” was what I needed in order to deal with the pain in my life, I was going to embrace it.

It’s been a few years since all that though– conservative Christians have mostly stopped reading my blog, so I’m not hearing “you’re just bitter” every day– and I’m willing to embrace the concept of bitterness again, because I think it can accurately describe something about the human experience. We’ve all had our encounters with people that bring up some incident from their past over and over again and rant about the injustice they faced because of it. Today, though, instead of being worried about whether or not their “well is poisoned,” I acknowledge that I don’t understand their life. Maybe, when they’re talking about that one incident that seems inconsequential to me, it’s emotionally emblematic of how the entire relationship they had with that person was toxic. Maybe they need to hold on to that one moment because it’s a clear reminder to them that what happened to them wasn’t their fault, that they weren’t to blame for the abuse they suffered.

I can’t know either way, so I don’t concern myself with other people’s “bitterness” or lack of it. I know that I often return to a handful of stark moments– highlights that prove I was coerced, that he raped me. In the dark times when the whispers say you’re lying, you’re exaggerating, you’re to blame I point to that moment when I was flat on my back on filthy carpet begging him to stop.

That’s not bitterness. It’s coping. It’s hope.

Bitterness can happen to people. It’s not our job to evaluate how or why, but I think we can self-reflect and say y’know what, self, I think we can let go of that now. It’s done it’s job, and we can have peace about it. I think those moments of self-honesty are important, but they’re yours, and yours alone. It’s no one’s job to tell you when it’s an appropriate time to “let it go,” or “forgive.” You get to decide when all by yourself. For me, the answer for some people is “never”– in the sense that absolution is not mine, cannot be mine, to bestow.

Because, in the end, that’s what it seems many Christians mean when they say you’re just bitter. They mean that you haven’t absolved someone of their guilt, that you haven’t personally allowed the consequences to evaporate. In everyday Christian parlance, “forgiveness” has been confused with “absolution,” and the fact that we’re even daring to speak about an injustice or wrong means we haven’t forgiven them. That’s proof positive that we’re bitter. Heaven help us if we’re still angry about what happened while we’re speaking out.

But, most often, it seems like they’re not even talking about absolution and my refusal to not hand it out like candy. Most often, “you’re just bitter” is evangelical shorthand for “you’re criticizing something I believe is right.”

This insight revealed itself last week when a commenter on my post about the Pulse shooting told me that he’d gone back to read several of my recent posts and had concluded that I was “just bitter” and then preached a sermon at me about it. I responded light-heartedly, all the while thinking whaaaa? How could he have read my recent posts and concluded from those that I’m bitter? I went back and re-read all the ones it was obvious he was referring to, and suddenly what he meant by bitter was as plain as the nose on my face.

It meant that I disagreed with him, and that wasn’t allowed.

And it didn’t even matter how I disagreed. In some posts I was sympathetic, gracious, charitable, kind. In others– like the one where Joshua Harris described gay men as “those people are so sick!” — I said the words “this makes me angry” and “I’m furious” and that meant that I’m bitter. I disagreed. I disagreed and expressed my emotions, no less.

A woman? Expressing her opinion *gasp* forcefully?! That is not to be borne! Quick, call her bitter!

In the past three years I’ve had a lot of Christians call me bitter, and it only happens when I’m criticizing an issue they happen to think is “correct” or “biblical.” In the early days of my blog when I was mostly just chronicling my life growing up in a deeply abusive church, I had several regular readers who considered themselves conservative Christians, even fundamentalist. I was describing something they could condemn right along with me– pastors abusing congregations, Sunday school teachers telling us to essentially self-flagellate, evangelists being horrifically racist– but then I started critiquing positions they held, and suddenly I was bitter.

The first time it happened, it came from someone I considered a personal friend. She’d been cheering on my writing for the first few months, but when I turned from talking about my specific church background and directed some of my criticisms toward fundamentalism in general, she lost it. She de-friended me on Facebook, accused me “divisiveness” on top of being bitter, and declared she’d never read my blog again.

Don’t let the door hit ya, I thought, but it kept happening. Friends, colleagues, readers, they all started calling me “bitter” once I’d started making the connections, started talking about systems, started explaining to others what spiritual abuse looks like in a big-picture, top-down way.

They loved my blog as long as they got to use it to say “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican!” As long as they got to point to how bad other Christians were, they were happy. The second I said, “well, actually, this thing you do is also pretty bad,” all they had to do was accuse me of being “bitter.”

It’s an “in-group signifier,” used to police their borders and boundaries. It’s a tool used to destroy credibility– they’re linguistically stringing caution tape around my blog, to warn off other Christians like them. “This woman here is bitter, you can ignore what she says. No self-reflection necessary.”

Photo by Craig Sunter
Previous Post Next Post

You Might Also Like

  • Beroli

    I never wouldn’t have

    I suspect a typo.

    The longer I spend online, the harder it is to remember that “bitter” even has a legitimate meaning. From a non-Christian background, it’s still utterly weird to me that anyone would say “you’re bitter” and expect that to stand in for actually addressing what you said, even while I see it all the time: thrown at you, thrown at Libby Anne of Love Joy Feminism, always in the complete absence of even the slightly attempt at an actual counterargument.

  • I didn’t say this in the post since I was already pushing 1,300 words, but there’s also a sexist aspect to this, too. There’s a lot of men criticizing Christian culture out there, and they don’t get accused of being “bitter” as often as women do. Something worth examining there, too.

    • Helena Osborne

      I bet it goes hand in hand with your observation that being bitter boils down to disagreeing with them. How dare your little lady brain think outside the box they constructed?

      • That and women are more likely to be viewed as unjustifiably upset.

        • Melody

          Yep, how dare you use your mind and reasoning to question or have opinions? Very familiar. We’re meant to keep our mouths shut, aren’t we? So, if we don’t…

  • Oh my god, this this this this this!

    I share a lot of your articles, and articles from blogs like yours on facebook. My mother tells me, I’m so bitter and negative, she prays for me. It took me years to give myself permission to understand that what she means when she says I’m bitter and I need to forgive her for her own sake is that she wishes I’d shut up and stop talking about being abused, because she wants to stop having been an abuser, and she can’t forget about it while I’m still “bitter” about it. I used to think that was uncharitable of me, that I needed to understand her more, that she couldn’t possibly be that petty… but of course she is. The more she absorbs herself in fundamentalist subculture, the more she surrounds herself with people like that, the more she feels it’s okay to dismiss someone’s lived experiences as “bitterness”.

    I hope any of that made sense.

    • Sheila Warner

      It makes perfect sense to me. I’m a former Fundie.

  • It’s so condescending when they pooh-pooh something that might well be “righteous anger” and belittle it as just bitterness. “Bitterness” is maybe applicable when your reaction is vastly too large for a small wrong you suffered, or when you are unable to let go of something that you really need to.
    But anger is useful. Not mindless raging, or petty whining. Serious deep anger, well focused, is a tool that we need. It drives us, motivates us to work for change. I bet that most or all of the social reformers in history who made positive change in the world took on that task because deep down they were enormously angry about something.

    How dare those christians shame people for having genuine anger! It makes sense from their point of view, though. Authoritarian Fundamentalists never want anybody challenging their grip on power over believers. They very much want to get rid of any anger that their flock may have, because that anger is a threat, so they call it a “sin” and say it needs to be suppressed. Well, screw that!

    • wanderer

      I am not sure I agree with the part about bitterness being applicable if your reaction is vastly too large for a small wrong you suffered.
      First of all, it’s not really my job to decide what others’ reactions should be to a given situation (so how could I know if their reaction is vastly too large?).
      Secondly, if someone seems to be reacting more strongly to something than the situation warrants, their emotions are coming from somewhere. So even if this particular situation is not the source of all their emotion, something is. And it’s not fair to call that source “bitterness”. It’s pain.
      Labeling something bitter (at least to me) sounds like it’s unjustified. But the fact is, that person is responding from pain.

      • Let me be a little clearer. I don’t think anybody should be labeling someone else’s pain as “bitterness” (except maybe their psychologist). I think that was more about when you think about your own personal reactions to your own pain, and whether you might realize that you are sometimes overreacting and holding on to anger where it’s not appropriate.

  • Melody

    “It meant that I disagreed with him, and that wasn’t allowed.”

    I like this ^^^ a lot because it hits the nail on the head. I don’t think ” let’s agree to disagree” or “live and let live,” really has much of (or any) a part in fundamentalism. It simply doesn’t exist. Well, maybe, on the really, really minor things, but not on much else. There is only one right way, one truth and so you’re allowed to call others bitter the moment they disagree with anything substantial. It’s like running into a brick wall again and again because there is no leeway on anything and it’s pretty suffocating.

    Although I’m not in that group or even faith anymore, that kind of thinking still bothers me. I find it hard when people disagree with me on things I find important and it perhaps has something to do with never actually learning to practice “live and let live,” because that wasn’t at all possible or high on the priority list. It was about getting everyone in line and the ones who didn’t comply eventually were booted out. That’s what shunning is for, isn’t it? (And that sounds awefully bitter, of course.)

    • I have also realized that when people react so absurdly, illogically or in ways that seem out of proportion, it often means that what was said has hit on a nerve that leads straight to something that is a part of their identities. That is why the emotional response kicks in, as clear of a “non sequitir” as it appears to people who have learned to step outside that particular issue and see it for what it is.

      Long way to say “sacred cows,” but it merits the longer take because often I don’t think we all realize exactly what ours are.

      • Melody

        Yes, and the emotional response makes it harder to stay calm and rational and will sooner result in name-calling or accusations. I like how you connect it to identity because perhaps that is why these discussions can become so emotional. I’ve had many discussions with my father (mostly in the past, though they still happen occassionally) about the role of women in the Bible and church and it was usually highly emotional on both sides.

        Perhaps being a ‘Biblical’ (literal) Christian meant in many ways more to him than to me, whereas being a feminist and believing in actual equal rights meant more to me, even though I was a very firm believer myself. I disliked those Bible texts so much and wanted to be a good believer but also believed religiously in equal rights making me much more open to interpreting them as culturally bound texts and rules of behaviour (which was mostly not done in our church.) We kept clashing on this and couldn’t agree as we both won’t budge.

        Now, I’m a closet atheist and I don’t see the Biblical arguments as valid (to me) anymore so it doesn’t matter much what the Bible says about women. I don’t have anything to do with it and so the strong emotion of having to fit both of them together in a way that I can stomach is gone on my part. I don’t have to get my dad to see my Christian perspective anymore and can let him have his own opinion. I still disagree but before I so wanted to have him come over to my side to be both a Christian and a feminist. He is sensitive enough to some of these issues but the Bible is and stays no. 1 in all discussions and I’ve found (and find) that frustrating, just like he probably finds it frustrating that I can interpret the Bible in several ways and don’t take everything literally anymore.

        • Thank you for sharing this experience. It seems like an honest articulation of the process you and your dad have had on both sides.
          One thing I am fearing moving forward is how, regardless of how little I take things the Bible says seriously (or how I view Christianity now), I still know how my words will sound, and how devastating they will be to my family.
          I guess in a way, I wish I could transfer my own dispassionate feeling about my words to them! If only.

          • Melody

            Yes, if only. The knowledge that my family will think I will go to hell and how much that will hurt them, makes me stay silent on this subject. I don’t want to hurt them and they will really believe that I’ll be doomed whereas I don’t believe that anymore. So most of the pain will be on their side in that regard and I just can’t do that to them. They know I’m much more critical of Christianity nowadays and a bit of a skeptic but I can’t do that to them.

  • The handling of bitterness. Well, thank you for this post. I especially appreciated the perspective on leaving it to the individual to decide the appropriateness/length of time of their bitterness. I have a hard time extending that grace to other people.

    But if I do, and I adopt that grace for myself, it does put me in a position where I also have the responsibility to examine my bitterness…es… and them as indicators for where I’ve been wounded. Why am I bitter about X? Why am I holding on to that? Should I?

    In some cases, that seems pretty clear cut. I can’t fathom telling someone that they’re just bitter about being raped. But I can certainly be bitter for things of much, much lesser impact than that. It’s good to ask what I’m getting out of holding on to that bitterness and if that’s healthy or not in a particular situation. What would need to happen in order not to be angry about this, anymore?

    In some cases, the answer is appropriately, “Nothing.” But there may also be cases where my bitterness is a blind spot that’s actually destructive to me and others, and that can often look like righteous anger. And like the Big Book says, “Righteous anger is best left to more stable people.”

    Do you have any thoughts on how to find that balance? How do you personally distinguish between instances where the appropriate response is always going to be anger and those instances where the anger is actually a red flag for an issue I need to resolve?

  • Jean

    Thank you for providing clarity on the way in which the accusation of being ‘bitter’ is used to shut down discourse. It’s an abusive tactic that is used to dismiss objections and belittle natural emotions. For the longest time, I repressed certain emotions because I thought they were unspiritual or sinful. But the emotion of feeling anger – hurt- betrayed – humiliated – those ‘negative’ emotions are necessary and even healthy in processing our experiences. I do think it is exacerbated in a patriarchial/misogynous circles when women can be accused of being ’emotional’ rather than ‘rational’ and further dismissed. (Because, obviously, if you are so upset that you have to cry or yell…you’re really not thinking clearly about the subject, right?)

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    The whole bitter thing in church culture just drives me nuts. It’s one of those thought terminating cliches. As soon as a person says “You’re bitter” they have stopped listening to you, and identified you as the problem.

    • Beroli

      Now I’m wondering if, in a few years, there will be long word-salad articles written by “moderate” evangelicals about “how to show proper Christian sympathy to bitter people without actually letting anything they’re saying enter your consciousness.”

      • Kevin

        Do you think Evangelicals who have had the “bitter” label thrown at them or at their friends(at least when they agree with their friends or went through the same experience) are less likely to lecture people on being bitter?

        • Beroli

          Probably. More likely to think about the word rather than to use it for reflexive silencing. Depending on how good they are at applying epistemic closure to the sets of “my church’s claims” and “not-my church’s claims”–which unfortunately is taught as a skill in churches that encourage the “you’re bitter and that’s a problem for you to deal with and I don’t need to listen to anything a bitter person says” approach.

    • Sheila Warner

      Yes! This! Thank you for better expressing what I did in my comment.

  • Sheila Warner

    I found that being accused of “bitterness” is not only a way to attempt to shut me down, it also tries to invalidate my emotions. My reaction to being treated badly is ignored as somehow beneath anyone to even think about. It still infuriates me. The person who cries “bitter” is refusing to engage in dialogue. Dialogue could result in changes that are healthier for those involved. It’s the equivalent to saying “you don’t matter so just STFU”.

  • leagpage.wordpress.com

    “It’s an “in-group signifier,” used to police their borders and boundaries. It’s a tool used to destroy credibility– they’re linguistically stringing caution tape around my blog, to warn off other Christians like them. “This woman here is bitter, you can ignore what she says. No self-reflection necessary.” This is exactly what happened in the small town where we lived and where my daughter was bullied. I was “bitter.” Which meant that I had no right to my story, my anger, or, even, my bitterness. Thank you for this post.

  • I’ve had this accusation hurled at me before as well, and one time I tossed aside all pretense of politeness and said, “Yeah, damn right, I’m bitter. I’m recovering from an abusive relationship, and my father is dying of cancer. I think I’ve earned the right to be a little bit bitter.”

    • Beroli

      There are a number of things that can never not be incredibly rude to say, no matter how delicately you phrase them. “Your perspective is invalid because you’re bitter” is one of them.

  • Lauren C

    My mom didn’t want to deal with my drama when my very sick childhood puppy needed to be euthanized when I was 14, so she took her out of my room to the vet while I was still asleep. She didn’t give me the chance to say goodbye. Having just said goodbye to my children’s childhood pet – I made sure that they had the opportunity for whatever closure they needed. This memory has a taste – and it is bitter. I don’t bring it up to hurt my mother, she was only doing the best she could, and I was a drama-queen before there was a word for it. But some situations lack closure and linger like the taste of bitter foods, especially when there is no road to go back and shut the door. I felt incredibly responsible for my dog dying because I was holding her when she wanted down and fell from my shoulder onto concrete causing a brain hemorrhage, and I never got to tell her I was sorry.

    Am I bitter at my mother? No. I can forgive her for not letting me understand that it was the right thing to do, and not memorializing her in any way, but I cannot go back. I can learn from it and channel my feelings into compassion for others grief.

  • Lora Williams

    Right. Well said.

    I daresay that, in the evangelical world, the opposite of “bitter” is “nice.” Just be nice (a.k.a., sweet). It’s the stuff girls are made of, no less. I could go on all day about the ramifications of what that boils down to (women should be soft, sweet, without sharp thoughts or emotions, childlike, sexually available, spineless…). Gross.

    Thanks for your writing, Samantha.

  • Jackalope

    “We’ve all had our encounters with people that bring up some incident from their past over and over again and rant about the injustice they faced because of it. Today, though, instead of being worried about whether or not their “well is poisoned,”
    I acknowledge that I don’t understand their life. Maybe, when they’re
    talking about that one incident that seems inconsequential to me, it’s
    emotionally emblematic of how the entire relationship they had with that
    person was toxic. Maybe they need to hold on to that one moment because it’s a clear reminder to them that what happened to them wasn’t their fault, that they weren’t to blame for the abuse they suffered.”

    I know this isn’t your main point here, but this jumped out at me because I just had a lovely aha! moment last night on this very point in my own life. I have a specific memory about my adolescence that has stuck with me all this time, and has taught me many life lessons, and this is part of what I realized about it last night: one of the reasons this one sticks out is exactly what you said. This is a clear-cut, obvious example of the toxic relationship I had with one of the people involved, and the problematic way in which the other person involved chose lack of conflict and outward harmony over standing up for me and looking out for me (which as an Adult In Charge of My Life was their responsibility). I can remember other little things here and there, but last night I realized that this one was The Incident for me in a lot of ways. So what you said makes so much sense.

    (I would also add that I feel that I’ve mostly moved on in active bitterness feelings on this one, but it took a) getting to a point where I could limit Toxic Person’s access to and power over my life as an adult, and b) realizing as an adult that what happened was not just hurtful — which I realized from the beginning — but also wrong. The best moment was when I looked back on this after years of working off and on with kids and teens and thought, “I would NEVER say something like that to a kid I’m working with. None of the parents/teachers/volunteers I respect for their work with young people would say something like that. It was WRONG.” So the moment of realizing that actual wrongdoing happened was the moment where I could stop being upset with myself for “overreacting” and deal with the actual situation.)

  • Richard

    Thank you Samantha. I recently served on a church board and when I disagreed with the pastor and resigned from the board I was accused of being bitter. The pastor actually sent me a “bad christian” email and quoted Hebrews 12:15. I no longer attend that church.

  • wanderer

    I wonder if that tendency to police others’ “state of heart” is because they are afraid their OWN ideology will derail. KWIM?
    Like this: let’s say something abusive happens to me and I’m a fundagelical. If I let myself “go there” in terms of letting myself really feel the pain of what happened and think about the hard questions (why would my supposedly loving god and community let this happen to me?) it is like pulling a thread that could lead to a WHOLE helluva lot more questions.
    It’s way easier to silence myself (or others) from even starting the questioning/feeling process by barricading those things behind a “Bitterness” sign.
    Does that make sense?

  • Mandy PS

    I hate the word “bitter.” I’ve had it used against me often in two instances.

    When I was single in the church (which was until very recently), if I pointed out that the Church didn’t know what to do about single people or how the Church idolizes family, well I was just “bitter” because I didn’t have a husband. (I ranted about this to my now husband when we were dating and he said “well if we get married you won’t have to worry about that anymore, and I was like “NO. If we get married now I can fight for the rights of single people in the church without being accused of being bitter.”)

    And then of course my mom throws “bitter” at me all the time. Always in scenarios where she views me as holding on to something in the past. Which I think relates to what you were speaking of in the post.

    I feel like in the Church, people throw around the word bitter anytime you express discontent or present a criticism. After all, the church doesn’t really have a problem with single people, you’re just a bitter single person. (Ugh)

    • Chuck Geer

      Unfortunately, in far too many churches, single people ARE second-class citizens. And as you accurately point out, this is largely because of the American idolatry of the nuclear family.

      I know this problem quite intimately being a lifelong male bachelor.

  • Chuck Geer

    I read this blog about a week ago, but have been unable to respond until now.

    I am reminded of this time last year, when Josh Duggar was revealed to be the serial sexual abuser he was. On a personal level, I lost my faith in Evangelical Christendom, between Duggar and the controversies surrounding Doug Wilson. The church to which I attended until last year had quite aggressively defended Wilson, largely because of his sympathies with the League of the South.

    Over a period of years, I have seen women being taken advantage of by men, usually men in spiritual leadership. Duggar had hit a really raw nerve with me and I decided, no more. No more will I sit idly by and let these men do their thing.

    Christian men are supposed to, at least in principle, exercise self-control. Men who cannot control their sexual impulses should not be in spiritual leadership in the first place. (This happens much too often unfortunately.) If my expecting Christian men to exercise self-control makes me a bitter man, then I am one bitter man.

    Especially as it relates to the Duggar situation, I think you’re right when you said that far too many Christians confuse forgiveness with absolution. We were supposed to think and believe that all Josh Duggar had to do was do a half-hearted confession to the cameras and we were supposed to pretend that nothing ever happened. Only one problem with that. This did actually happen, and it had tremendous ramifications. As Bruce Gerencser pointed out at the time, the public response of most Christians would have been completely different if he had molested boys instead of girls.

  • The other label I have encountered besides “bitter” is “unforgiving.” My wife and I went through a fairly awful period 14 years ago when we lost our (foster) son while our church unraveled.

    The marked indifference to what we were going through was crushing. After three years of wandering, we finally found a new church and started to settle into it. Another year after that, members of our previous church wandered in, joined. One of the former associated pastors actually got fastracked into a leadership position. A few months ago he was named the pastor of the campus we’ve been most active in.

    To my knowledge, one person on the entire pastoral team finally gets why it makes me feel sick to this fellow in a position of leadership or teaching. To anyone else, I’m just bitter about something that happened years ago, or just flat-out unforgiving. Which ironically makes me unqualified to lead.

    I like your description of what it actually means when we’re called bitter about things that have done to us. I suspect that much of percevied bitterness would disappear and those unforgiving hearts would melt if people actually acknowledged doing something wrong and sought forgiveness. Meantime I’m trying to figure out what it means to forgive when those things haven’t happened.

    Maybe there should be a blog ring called “Bitter Christians.”

  • Jennifer Gates

    I’m late to reading and responding–but I am so glad I found my way to your blog. Your words give me hope and speak to me just where I need them so often. This is one of those times. Thank you.