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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

"Captivating" Review: 91-112, "Healing the Wound"


The core message of this chapter is one I can agree with: God loves you. Jesus loves you.

However, in trying to show women how they can find healing, they make a couple problematic arguments. Unfortunately, everything that is problematic about this chapter isn’t unique to Stasi and John; the teachings they present are extremely common to evangelicalism.

The first one we arrive at is this:

Why did God curse Eve with loneliness and heartache, an emptiness that nothing would be able to fill?  He did it to save her … God had to thwart her. In love, he has to block her attempts until, wounded and aching, she turns to him and him alone for her rescue.

Jesus has to thwart us, too–thwart our self-deceptive plans, our controlling and our hiding, thwart the ways we are seeking to fill the ache within us. … He’ll make what once was a great job miserable, if it was in her career that she found shelter. He’ll bring hardship into her marriage, even to the breaking point, if it was in marriage she sought her salvation.

I believed this about God for most of my life– that God was so irrationally jealous that any time I was distracted by “the things of this world,” anytime I made an “idol” out of something in my life, God would reach down from heaven with a gigantic stick and whack me until I gave him my devoted attention.

When I was a teenager, I developed tendonitis in my wrists; it eventually got so bad that I could not keep playing the piano for church, although I was very carefully continuing to take piano lessons under the watchful eye of my doctor and physical therapist. We explained that congregational playing was too much for my body to handle, but when the pastor and his wife found out that I was still taking piano lessons, but “not using my talent for the glory of God,” the wife came to me and told me that God would punish me. He would take away my talent if I didn’t immediately start playing for church again.

I spent the rest of the night sobbing, and the next six years in terror that God would whack me– “thwart” me– for “seeking life apart from him.” It’s taken me years to undo the damage of believing that this is how God works, and it troubles me that this is the image of God that Stasi and John want us to have.

However, we’re also asked to think of God as our “Defender.”

I have a problem with that, mostly because God doesn’t defend us.

He promised to do a lot of things– love us, never leave us, forgive us, save us, prepare us, mold us– but he never once promised to “protect us from danger or harm.” My life– all of our lives– is living proof that he doesn’t do this. I was abused. I was raped. Even when the abuse I experienced was done in his name, he did nothing to stop it. Believing that God would “protect me from harm” almost shattered any belief I had because it is so obviously a lie.

Today, I believe that I can trust God, but it’s what I’m trusting him for that matters. I trust him the same way I trust my partner: I trust in his character, in who he is. I don’t trust my partner because I believe that he’ll be able to protect me from all harm– and neither do I trust God to do that. I used to– and when he didn’t come through on this “promise” I believed he’d made to me, I was devastated.

Stasi and John also have a problematic view of forgiveness. They say it’s necessary to forgive those who have hurt us for all the typical evangelical reasons– if we don’t, we’ll be become bitter, etc. However, what they go on to describe doesn’t sound like forgiveness to me– it sounds like “moving on.”

I don’t mind what they recommend, necessarily:

This is not saying “It didn’t really mater”; it is not saying “I probably deserved part of it anyway.” Forgiveness says, “It was wrong. Very wrong. It mattered, hurt me deeply. And I release you. I give you to God. I will not be your captive here any longer.”

In a way, they’re describing the process I’ve gone through in recovering and healing from being raped. I had to recognize that it hurt me, that the hurt mattered, but I am working to get to the point where my rapist has no control over my life; I am tired of the nightmares, of panicking when I see someone like him in an airport . . . but I would never have termed this process as forgiveness.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this, but what I see of forgiveness in the Bible has to do with reconciliation and restoration– a process that can only begin when the person who sinned is repentant and seeks forgiveness. Choosing to let it go doesn’t seem to be the same thing to me.

Also, the fact that “ASK HIM TO DESTROY YOUR ENEMIES” is on the very next page is highly confusing to me.

They finish off the chapter by emphasizing, again, just how important it is for women to be beautiful and the only way we can be beautiful is when we’re passive non-actors who are vulnerable and tender and feminine.

Come back next week when we listen to them talk about how desperately women want to be in a relationship– because, after all, no one in the Bible has ever talked about how awesome celibacy is!


the dangers of redemption


During grad school, I enrolled in a class called Poetics. Over the course of that semester, we struggled with questions like “what separates literature from fiction?” or “how could we identify what makes some literature great?” or “is the existence of the literary canon legitimate?”. And while grappling with all of those questions, a common theme sprung up in a lot of our discussions: the idea of redemption. Many of us, myself included, began to sense that –perhaps– part of what makes great literature great is this idea that the author has written a work that redeems a part of the human experience. This idea had almost nothing to do with happy endings, of someone getting “saved,” or the insertion of “Christian” morality into literature. It had more to do with this nebulous sense that the author and the readers reclaimed something; that they took something small, ordinary, human, and transformed it into beauty, or love, or majesty. I had trouble logically grasping the concept, but could sense the transcendent. The idea of redemption took root.

Redemption, to me, is an integrally loving act, and I’ve come to see it as something unlimited by Christian definitions. I look at how “redemption” is commonly used in American evangelical and Protestant circles, and I find their use of the word troubling. Redemption, in many ways, has been corrupted by over-simplification; it now means little more than “absolution for sin.” That word, absolution, is important in a Christian context, because its primary meaning of “release from punishment” has come to be an essential part of the Christian meaning of redemption.

This limitation of what redemption means frightens me, because, in action, when someone searches for “redemption” in many Christian circles, what they’re looking for is “escape from consequences.”

I’ve been struggling for months with what I think an ideal form of redemption could look like in action. If the church, the representation of Christ on earth, is intended to extend mercy, compassion, empathy, and ultimately redemption, what should that truly be? Some of the most beautiful stories in our mythos are ones of redemption — stories like the Prodigal Son, Ruth, Paul– and ones where we seek for redemption but cannot find it are some of our most heart-wrenching, like Judas or Esau. Christianity is filled with stories of the redeemed– in some cases, that’s how we refer to ourselves. It’s in our songs, our hymns, our poetry. In some way, I could make the argument that Christianity is the redemption narrative.

For that reason, I understand why we, as Christians, seek to offer redemption whenever we can.

However, we’ve cheapened it. We’ve sullied it. We’ve turned it into something it was never intended to be: a way for abusers and oppressors to manipulate us.

Handsome and I have spent the last several months periodically trying to work through this. I’m horrified that abusers have found a way to infiltrate and hide in our churches so that they can continue victimizing the people around them without fear of punishment, and he’s horrified by the idea of a church becoming so suspicious and unloving that we refuse to extend compassion to those who desperately need it.

How do we strike a balance? Can there be balance?

Something I’ve slowly come to think could be a good place to begin is in caution. Very often, it seems like the Christian community (especially online) throws its arms open wide the moment someone “repents.” If that person also has a huge and influential platform, we seem willing to extend our olive branch preemptively. This is why I wish I could go to the gatekeepers of online communities and beg them to practice more discernment, more caution. Please, wait. Give him or her time to demonstrate what we want to believe is true.

But what about in our physical churches? Should we even think about the idea of excluding people? Personally, I don’t have many qualms about anyone entering my church to worship there– we all have our histories, our mistakes, our intentions to harm another. But giving someone who has a history of abusive behavior the opportunity to speak, to lead, to give that person power? That makes me uncomfortable and nervous. But then I’m reminded of Paul, who actively persecuted the early church and sought its annihilation, and he became one of its leaders. Or Peter, with his temper and his acts of violence. Or Matthew, the tax-collector, which meant he was probably a part of (and benefited from) the oppressive Roman system. Or all the disciples, who wanted to rain down fire from heaven on an entire village that denied the Messiah.

I think of all of that, and I’m still terrified of the idea that an abuser could be given the chance to lead my church, to become a part of its public face. Because how in the world do we determine that someone who used to be an abuser is no longer?

And the answer is . . . we can’t. Not really.

Which brings me back to caution. To discernment. To tentative, action-based trust. To openness, honesty, transparency. To examination, and the willingness by everyone involved to be questioned and criticized. Because redemption isn’t about removing consequences, and if we try to make redemption and forgiveness equal with tabula rasa or memory loss, it’s not redemption at all. It’s intentional blindness. Jesus himself reminded us that we live in a broken, ugly world– a place filled with wolves. And in that world he tells us to be as cunning, as wary, as shrewd, as wise as the snake all while being as innocent and harmless as a dove.

When we deliberately decide to cloak an abuser for what he or she was– or what he or she could be now— when we decide to ignore what they have done, or to hide it from the people they could hurt? What we’re doing is choosing ignorance, and we’re choosing it for everyone. Keeping people in the dark, refusing to give them the opportunity to protect themselves isn’t love. Giving someone with a history of abusive behavior an easy, convenient way to remain unchanged, unaffected isn’t loving. Science, history– it all tells us that abusers rarely change, and they only do so when compelled– and even then it takes time. That’s what I think it means to be as “wise as the snake.” It means being prudent, being aware of possible dangers. It means being watchful, and patient.

But we’re also asked to be as harmless and innocent as the dove. Even Jesus was aware of the necessary balance we have to strike as humans, and he was aware of how difficult it was when he said that we are like “sheep among wolves.” But we can’t neglect one action for the sake of another– we have to be both.