It was a new day at Grace Church. A new pastor was coming, and this would be his first weekend. People were excited, and they needed to be. Grace had gone through an ugly split that had left a lot of angry, hurt, and confused people in its wake. A pretty solid plug of people had started Faith Church down the road and had contacted the outgoing pastor from Grace to help them get started. Some people had left for other churches. Some people had quit attending anywhere.
One of the walking wounded was a former associate pastor – Chris Naylor. Chris had received “the right foot of fellowship” from the previous administration. Though he had found other opportunities for Kingdom service, Chris was still a member – at least on paper – at Grace.
That’s why I was a little surprised when I asked Chris and his wife Rachael if they were going to hear the new guy that weekend, and both immediately, categorically said, “No.”
Ooh. Sorry I asked.
“My friends think I’m bitter,” Chris added.
“Are you?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied honesty. “How do you balance the fact that on the one hand I love the church and wish nothing but the best for them, but on the other hand, have absolutely no respect for their system of leadership or the choices they have made?”
“I don’t know.”
Chris was just getting warmed up as Rachael was tearing up. “How do you wish the new senior pastor well, but sincerely pray that God destroys every underpinning of manipulation, deception, inbreeding, materialism, control, bitterness, and pride?”
“This is a church we’re talking about?” I asked semi-sarcastically.
“How do you move on and accept the fact that you’ve been rejected, and yet still want to be open to whatever God may have for you in the future? Is it okay to say, ‘It’s just too painful for me to be here right now?’ Is it okay to focus on being mentally, spiritually and emotionally healthy and quit lingering?”
“Well, it is important that you’re moving toward healing, wherever you go and whatever that looks like.”
Rachael chimed in: “Why would we want to stay there? We’re not getting fed, it’s hard to worship, and we have no respect for the people in authority. Does that mean we’re bitter toward them? Does it mean we have an unforgiving heart? Hey, we stayed around longer than a lot of people.”
“That may be true,” I replied. “But it isn’t wise to evaluate your heart by comparing yourself with other people.”
A Repeated Conversation
The conversation above – which is fictionalized – is a composite I have had with dozens and dozens of people over the last 35 years. Never have I seen more spiritually homeless or church-wounded people than in recent years. Sometimes it’s because they’re in search of something they can’t find this side of heaven. Sometimes it’s because Church World has dramatically changed over the last 20 years, for better or worse, and they feel left behind.
But most often, it’s because the place they once called (and felt) home deeply disappointed or wounded them.
And I don’t care.
I don’t mean I’m not sympathetic. Hey, I get it. Been there, and have drawers full of t-shirts to show it. The “fellowship of the forgiven” can be a brutal place sometimes.
But my primary concern isn’t, “You poor thing, who did this to you?”
My primary concern is, what are you (and I) doing with the hurts? Regardless of what you do on Sunday mornings, are you, with God’s help, moving toward healing? Or are you just hiding in a cave of self pity or shame? Or hurling a lot of anger stains on other people – sometimes the people you most care about? Or holding it all in with a stone-cold, bitter heart?
How Can You Know?
The tricky thing about healing is that it sometimes engages in similar behaviors as bitterness. Sometimes you actually may need to withdraw from a painful environment or say good-bye to toxic relationships for the sake of healing – yours or someone in your family. A man once told me, “When your wife has to take a tranquilizer just to make it through Sunday morning, it’s time for a change.”
Yes, it is. But because the heart is easily fooled, it’s important to remember – just because you’re not drinking any more of the poison doesn’t mean it’s no longer in your system. And make no mistake about it – bitterness is a poison.
So that’s the difference between bitterness – an ongoing sin – and moving on through a grief process or whatever is healthy? Evaluate your experience by these five differences:
1. Bitterness moves me away from God. Healing moves me toward Him.
It’s one thing to pull away from toxic people or places. It’s another to pull away from God. The Lord invites you to bring your pain, your sorrow, your burden, even your sinful anger to Him. That was the secret of so many men and women in the Bible. They had their share of betrayals, rejection, and disappointment. But they continued to bring them to God.
2. Bitterness seeks to justify myself and my behavior. Healing is always teachable.
Bitterness makes you a permanent, innocent victim. You’re never wrong when you’re bitter – it’s always somebody else’s fault. Healing is different. If you want to see a great example, check out Psalm 73. After railing and whining at God like a jackass, the psalmist shut up and got teachable. “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you,” he says. Do you suppose there is something you need to learn?
3. Bitterness alienates me from other people. Healing moves me toward people.
Bitter people begin having a tainted view of all relationships. Everyone is suspect. Nobody can be trusted. Churches are all the same. Men are all the same. Women are all the same. White people or people in authority or you-name-it kinds of people are all alike. Healing, on the other hand, recognizes the value and need we all have for relationships. It’s wise enough to recognize that while they are no substitute for God, other people can and should be instruments of his love.
4. Bitterness seeks more reasons to carry an offenses. Healing deals with issues, and seeks closure.
Bitterness has a way of keeping the mental files open. The radar stays on alert for more evidence, more gossip, or (best yet) more bitter people to commiserate with. Anything to justify the rage and keep the poison flowing. Healing seeks change. Resolve the issue. Change the situation. Change the attitude. Change the location if necessary. But all for the sake of restoring your heart’s ability to give and receive love.
5. Bitterness seeks revenge or pain for those who offended. Healing seeks the grace to forgive.
Bitter people live for the day when their offenders hurt as badly as they have been hurt. But here’s the problem – revenge or “justice” may bring a certain amount of satisfaction. But it doesn’t cure the heart of its sour, hostile disposition. Only forgiveness will do that. And let’s be clear: forgiveness is not natural. It’s supernatural. It is a work of grace, performed by a God of grace, in a heart of faith. It rarely happens just once – it’s an ongoing process, as is 99% of the healing you ever experience. But it’s as faithful as the God behind it to restore what people’s meanness or stupidity have taken from you.
Hurting hearts are tricky, dangerous things. They face an ongoing series of forks in the road – one leading to bitterness, the other toward healing. This is a case where you may, indeed, want to choose the road less traveled. It will make all the difference. But choosing the road less traveled doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. You have a Faithful and True Companion, who promises rest for the soul’s burden you carry.
Don’t you think it’s time to take Him up on that offer?
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