Browsing Tag

bitterness

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
Theology

"How to Win Over Depression" review: 192-211

Thankfully, I think we only have this week and next week and then we’ll be done with this book. One of my biggest complaints today is that this book wasn’t edited– only proofread. There’s not a lot of development to this book, and Tim has a tendency to repeat himself. This chapter– “Ten Steps to Victory Over Depression”– barely contributes anything new to the book.

A few interesting things happen, though. In a previous post I’d mentioned that Tim’s language surrounding his “self-pity” concept echoes how evangelicals typically talk about “bitterness.” However, in this chapter, he just comes right out and says it:

By gaining the ability from Him to forgive her parents, she removed the root of bitterness that had immobilized her for years. (193)

He spends a lot of time talking about bitterness in this chapter– all of the examples he gives are people he thinks of as “bitter,” but, once again, he completely and totally ignores the realities that abuse victims have to face every day. Infuriatingly, he even dismisses one woman’s experience as being imaginary. This woman says that her mother “smothered and dominated” her “every decision,” but Tim overrides that opinion and says her mother was just a struggling single mom who got a little over-protective and she’s just imagining her problems because some guy who took a psychology class told her she had them (200).

I’m not even shitting you. This woman came to him, described an extremely controlling home environment, and Tim says she made it up. I cannot even imagine the re-victimization and trauma that he has put these people through. He has an extremely misogynistic opinion of women: this chapter included examples of five women who were 1) vain, 2) a bad mother, 3) liars, 4) gossips, and 5) nags. He even praised a HR executive for basing his hiring decisions on the submissiveness and gentility of the men’s wives (203)!

The book might have gone flying a few times today, especially when I got to this:

If the individual is aware of your resentment or bitterness, apologize personally if possible or by mail. Admittedly, this is a very difficult gesture, but it is essential for emotional stability. (199)

Oh. My. God. Oh my god.

If I were being counseled by Tim, he’d tell me that I must contact my rapist and apologize to him or I’ll never have emotional stability and “spiritual maturity” (198). This shit is fucking dangerous. I go out of my way to make sure that he can’t find me. I don’t have my location anywhere– not on Facebook, not on Twitter, not on LinkedIn. I don’t connect any of my accounts to my phone number, no matter how much Google and Facebook pester me about it. I ask people who take pictures of me not to tag the location on Facebook. I not only blocked him on every platform I have, I also blocked everyone he knows. I maintain this blocking religiously. I have cut off contact with friends because they were still mutuals with him.

And Tim would tell me I’d have to undo all of that. Sweet mother of Abraham Lincoln.

But, the biggest problem with this chapter is that he emphasizes, once again, that all anyone really has to do to overcome depression is give thanks. If we just inculcate a “spirit of thanksgiving” and maintain a “thankful heart,” then everything will be fine and our depression will go away.

Except that’s just plain not true.

When my rapist ended our engagement three months before the wedding, one of the things he told me (besides “I can’t trust that you’ll be a submissive wife”) is that I am a “persistently negative person.” Believing my rapist to be a better judge of my character than I was, I made it my New Year’s Resolution to find something every day to be thankful for, no matter how small or big. I did this publicly; every day I would post a status update that began with “happiness is” and then finished it with something like “snickerdoodle coffee!” or “buying another bookcase!” or “being accepted to grad school!”

That year was the worst depression I’ve ever had.

This past winter was a struggle because of depression, as well. But Handsome could tell you that at the end of every day when I would be laying in his arms while we watched Gilmore Girls, drinking tea, that I would look up at him and say something about how blessed my life is, about how grateful I am for my life with him, that there were so many moments in my life to be thankful for– even in the midst of gut-wrenching despair and grief. I have never ceased being thankful, mostly for the small things. Vanilla beans and carmelized onions and buttermilk pancakes. Munchkin games. Moonlit strolls in the woods. Soft pine needles. Ocean spray. Swimming pools. Pride parades.

I’m still depressed, though. It’s getting better now that summer is here, finally (thankssomuch seasonal affective disorder), but all through this winter I was thankful, and it didn’t matter. It didn’t change how my body and mind responded to the darkness.

I think if I was ever Tim’s patient and I tried to take him seriously, I probably would have died.

~~~~~~~~~

In much happier news– remember the poll I did before I started How to Win Over Depression and Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love was neck-and-neck with Tim’s book? Well, a good friend, Dani Kelley, decided to take on her own review series. Redeeming Love was one of her favorite books as a teen and young woman, so I’m very much interested in her perspective on the book now that she’s come out of purity culture and fundamentalist Christianity. I didn’t read it until after I was already a feminist and critical of purity culture, so I think Dani’s take on things will be more valuable than mine.

My plan is to cross-post her review series every Monday starting July 6th, and I’ll be reading along with her and adding some of my own thoughts. Comments will be closed on those posts so that we can keep the engagement in one place on her blog (which is fantastic and y’all should be reading it if you’re not already).

Feminism

"Real Marriage" review: 86-106, "Taking out the Trash"

I wish you all could read the entirely of this chapter because it is ironic. One of these days I’ll have to create a whole series of posts dedicated to page 89, where Mark defines repentance, comparing that to his actual real-life behavior, because it is hysterical. Not only does he fail his own list of “pastoral requirements,” he also bombs at his own definition of repentance– and you can read the whole thing here.

Interestingly enough, I actually agree with Mark on almost everything from 88-90. His definition of repentance is pretty comprehensive, and I only disagree with two of the points– that repentance is not “worldly sorrow” and not “grieving the consequences of sin but hating the evil of the sin itself,” but that’s probably because a) I don’t think Christians are better at everything than everyone else and b) I don’t have the same definition of sin.

To me, I don’t have a problem with arrogance in and of itself but because of the consequences that being arrogant can have– it can make me blind to things I’ve done wrong, it can cause me to belittle people I don’t understand . . . and I think this is where Christians can get it backwards. If we focus on an abstract list of things we consider to be “Sin,” it seems like it would be inevitable for us to forget how much damage our actions can cause. As long as we’re not “Sinning,” it’ll be easy for us to ignore how we’re hurting people. That is how Christians can claim to “love gay people” and yet hold and express beliefs that are directly responsible for emotional and physical harm in the LGBTQ+ community, including the deaths of many queer people. We haven’t “Sinned” by talking about how perverted gay people are, so we can ignore that our actions and words have consequences.

After page 90, though, Mark and I start having problems. The bulk of the chapter is dedicated to sections on “Forgiveness” and “Bitterness,” and I imagine most of you just felt your hackles go up. So did mine. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hear the word “bitter” without being mildly triggered or angry because of how that word is thrown at me all of the time. I have never heard someone use the word “bitter” without it appearing in the middle of a demand for silence. Bitter is the evangelical version of “shut the fuck up.”

We’ll get to how Mark uses it in a bit. First, let’s cover his approach to forgiveness.

He starts off with this statement: “When we sin against our spouses, we cause them to suffer.” This is an excellent example of how backwards the whole “hating the sin itself” concept can make us. Causing our spouses to suffer is a sin against them. I cannot stress how important I think this concept is, because it revolutionized my life. When I stopped worrying about “how much sin I had in my life” and started focusing on “how do my words, actions, and inaction hurt people?” everything changed.

The next few pages I have mixed feelings about, mostly because I’m still wrestling with what forgiveness is. Personally, I think there’s a difference between personal healing and forgiveness, but those two seem conflated in Christian conversations. It’s also possible that I have forgiveness and absolution and reconciliation all mixed up inside of my head, and I’m trying to straighten that out.

The one part I do have unequivocal feelings about is this:

Forgiveness is not dying emotionally and no longer feeling the pain of the transgression.
Rather, forgiveness allows us to feel the appropriate depth of grievous pain but choose by grace not to be continually paralyzed or defined by it.

This irritated me because I do not think it is ok for someone that isn’t me to tell me that there is an “appropriate depth” that I can feel my pain at. Healing looks different for every single person, and healing from trauma and abuse isn’t ever pretty. I spent three years trying to experience pain “appropriately” because nearly everyone I encountered had some sort of yardstick for what healing should look like, and the one I heard all of the time was “you’ll know you’re over it when you’re not talking about him anymore.”

Well, I wanted to be “over it,” so I stopped talking about it. For three years. Until I realized that it wasn’t helping, and I was actually getting worse. I’d refused to actually heal from the abuse and the rapes, and my body wouldn’t let me go on that way.

And guess what– I’m still talking about it. I talk about spiritual abuse. I talk about child abuse. I talk about sexual violence and rape. I talk about sex-based oppression in Christianity. My professional life is “defined” by my status as an abuse survivor, and that is not just completely appropriate: it is a good thing. I will never stop being “defined” by this because that is how I help others.

But … moving on to the section on bitterness, and this is where I threw the book.

In order to illustrate what bitterness looks like in a marriage, Mark uses John and Molly Wesley. I’ve been doing off-and-on research on John Wesley, and I think when it comes to his wife at least he was an unmitigated ass. Mark sets this illustration up by talking about how Molly didn’t like it that John traveled so much and John’s justification that he did it because God.

But then we get this:

“I took you first by the arm, and afterward by your shoulder, and shook you twice or thrice … and might have made you black and blue. I bless God, that I did not do this fifty times and that I did nothing worse.” [edited for ease of reading]

That sentence from one of John’s letters to Molly is immediately followed by this:

Her bitterness, made worse by John’s extensive ongoing letter writing to multiple women, caused Molly to become insanely jealous … Their final years were spent apart, as she never once set foot in his personal residence.

What in the ever living fuck is this. John Wesley admits that he could have made his wife “black and blue” (“thank God I did nothing worse”) and the fact that Molly decides she’s not going to put up with his abuse any more makes her bitter?! She couldn’t even divorce him– at the time (this “time” extending to 1923 in England), women could only divorce their husbands if they could prove adultery and could also afford the ¬£1,500 fee. She didn’t have any options, and she was married to someone who ignored her, ignored her requests, disrespected her continuously, and was willing to hurt her. A domestic violence victim is not bitter when they decide that they’re never going to step foot back in their abuser’s house.

So, once again, Mark is making it perfectly clear what he thinks about abuse, and it’s terrifying.