Bitter Truths: How the Fear of Bitterness Affects the Church

(estimated reading time 5 minutes)

A couple of months ago, my mum told me that a colleague had confided a shocking secret to her: a man they both knew, who was well-known and respected in our community, had sexually abused this colleague decades ago when she was a child. Although shocked, my mother had believed this woman’s account straight away, and had never doubted it.

I didn’t say so, but my horror at hearing that this man was a child abuser (thankfully now tried and found guilty) was mixed with my pride in my mum for believing the victim. I wasn’t proud of her just because she believed the woman, but also because of the reason she gave for believing: “She came across as a very bitter person.” It might sound odd to say that I’m proud of her for that, but it’s because too often, someone’s bitterness is used as a reason to dismiss them out of hand. An example that springs to mind is that of televangelist Lori Bakker insisting earlier this year that most of the women who participated in the Women’s March on Washington had been abused as children:

“Most women like that have been molested, they’ve been abused, they’ve been whatever in their life. You just have to go back to, typically, early childhood and things like that. And they just need the healing of the lord.”

Her husband Jim threw in his two pennies, claiming:

“I looked close, I looked at them, I looked them all over. They’re hurting. They’re broken. They’re beaten down. They’re not even healthy. So many of them weren’t healthy looking, even. They looked like they’ve been through a war, some of them.”

Of course, being right wingers and Trump fans, the Bakkers weren’t saying “Hey, these women have been through something terrible at the hands of men in a misogynistic society that allowed bad things to happen to them – so let’s listen to them!”. Rather, they were using these miraculous insights into the lives of total strangers to dismiss and belittle their current concerns (under the guise of concern for their immortal souls and inner struggles, of course). The women in question couldn’t possibly have been angry because the president was a climate change denier, a self-confessed groper, a crooked businessman and a compulsive liar, ready to snatch away their bodily autonomy; no, they were simply angry about something totally unrelated to anything currently happening in the world. They simply needed “the healing of the lord” for their overwhelming bitterness.

I used to fear bitterness like nothing else. “Bitter” was the worst thing you could be. Other emotions like anger or jealousy might have been undesirable, but nothing held the promise of destruction like bitterness did. Hebrews 12:15 noted the destructive capacities of bitterness:

“See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”

Bitterness was uniquely dangerous because the concept of forgiveness is central to Christianity. In the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-25, Jesus laid out the deal that God was willing to strike with his human creations: I will forgive your sins, but only if you forgive others for sinning against you. Meaning that if you couldn’t forgive every and any bad thing done to you, and you allowed that dreaded root of bitterness to grow, well, sorry, but no eternal salvation for you! Down you go to that terrible dark pit where teeth are gnashed and worms apparently can’t turn for some reason. Nothing but unforgiveness AKA bitterness could cause a Christian to be turned away at the pearly gates. So we took it very seriously. If you felt that you might have some inner bitterness, you had to deal with it and deal with it fast – because if it took root in your heart? Then you were in real trouble.

It’s an odd little paradox that the accusation of bitterness could be used to both establish that someone had, at some point, been wronged – and yet at precisely the same time, could be used to discredit them and their concerns. This is because supposedly, bitterness taints and skews everything. In certain church organisations, the accusation of bitterness, therefore, is a particularly handy weapon in the armoury of abusive power structures and individuals. It’s the bus under which you can shove your critics: “You’re still bitter about what so-and-so did, but can’t you see that they are sorry and they are doing great things these days? God forgave them – but he won’t forgive you if you hold a grudge against his anointed ones!”. And back to business as usual. This is one of the reasons why so many abusers end up back in church leadership despite having caused a ton of damage in a congregation. Take Pastor Mark Driscoll. This is a man who has caused a huge amount of suffering to so many of his former congregants in Seattle, and yet feels empowered to begin his godly grifting once again in Arizona. Whenever someone speaks out against his new endeavour, there are always apologists asking why they can’t simply forgive and move on. What’s with the ungodly bitterness?

Something that atheists experience from time to time is accusations that they are only atheists because they are bitter against God, or the church, or an individual Christian. A fictionalised example of this is the character of Professor Radisson in the movie God’s Not Dead, a movie I mentioned in my previous post. Professor Radisson is an arrogant shit who scoffs at God and anyone who believes in him, and treats his philosophy classes as atheist indoctrination sessions. During a conversation with the film’s Christian protagonist Josh, it turns out that Radisson doesn’t really disbelieve in God; in actuality, he is just extremely angry at the God he secretly believes in for allowing his mother to die when he was a boy:

I’d really recommend watching this movie if you have a couple of hours to kill, partly because it’s a great insight into how the world looks through evangelical Christian eyes, but also for its sheer comedy value. If you haven’t got the time to watch it in full, here’s a hilarious, very NSFW five-minute summary that reproduces the movie’s ideas pretty damn accurately.

In God’s Not Dead, Professor Radisson’s arguments are easily refuted by Josh, stripping bare the bitterness against God that is the true underpinning of Radisson’s atheism. Belief in God is criticised by atheists, the film asserts, for no other reason than bitterness. Meanwhile, in another fictional account, the Book of Revelation, Satan is described as being “filled with fury because he knows his time is short” – yes, even the devil is opposed to God because he is bitter about his forthcoming demise.

In real life, however, it can be frustrating when you give actual reasons for your atheism that you’ve thought about quite a lot and get nothing but “Why are you so bitter?” in response, as though bitterness invalidates everything else. Perhaps an effective way to deal with this would be to respond: “OK. Let’s say for the sake of argument that I am bitter. I mean let’s just say that I am incredibly, incredibly bitter. In fact let’s say I’m the world’s bitterest person. Does that somehow refute the points I’m making?”

Sometimes, people are right to be angry. They are right to have an ongoing sense of injustice or resentment, as in the case of my mother’s colleague, who was subjected to so much pain by a man who was esteemed, rather than punished, for so many years. It may not be pleasant or productive to be bitter, but this world isn’t always a fair or pleasant place and people are often justified in feeling the unpleasant emotions they feel. The trouble comes when those who want to defend their worldview at any cost, dismiss pain at genuine injustice as mere unchecked, irrational bitterness. Abusers are empowered when bitterness is seen as more damaging than the very worst sin. I’m glad my mum didn’t dismiss her colleague as merely a bitter liar. There are many who could learn from her.


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