How to Forgive (…When Bitterness Feels Better)
About the Guest
Wondering how to forgive–and if it really makes a difference? Author and pastor Stephen Viars explores how forgiveness can turn bitterness on its head.
How to Forgive (…When Bitterness Feels Better)
Ann: I remember when we were first dating, and—
Dave: Those were glorious days!
Ann: Weren’t they fun?!
Dave: Yes! A long time ago, but they were pretty fun.
Ann: But one of the sad things to me was—
Dave: Wait, wait, wait! We’re talking about good things! [Laughter] What do you mean, “sad”? [Laughter]
Ann: Welcome to our marriage! [Laughter]
Dave: Here we go.
Ann: I’m like, “Let’s go deep and feel it”; and you’re like, “Let’s just stay up here on the surface.”
Dave: “Can we watch another movie?”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife App.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
I loved your mom. One of the reasons I loved your mom is because she had endured so much: divorce, losing a child, she had faced the many affairs that your dad had had; and yet, she really was seeking Jesus.
But when we first started dating, she would drink at night, and then all of the stories came out. I remember saying to you, “Oh, man! Your mom is still so lost in the past of not forgiving your dad.”
Dave: Yes; and you know, it’s obviously something I grew up with. Her method of dealing with the bitterness—and there was bitterness, and often covered up; it was just an underlying seeping—was to drink and to sort of just step into denial.
Ann: —and to hide the pain.
Dave: And I watched that.
Dave: Yes; and I thought, “My mom is bitter; I’m not.” [Laughter] And then I realized, “I have a lot of that as well.” Thank God, I didn’t go to alcohol to, you know, take away the pain; but I needed to figure out: “How do you take away the real pain?”
Ann: Because we all face it—
Dave: Oh, in bitterness!
Ann: —every day.
Dave: Yes; and so that’s the topic we’re going to talk about today again with Stephen Viars, who wrote a book about this. He’s a pastor in Lafayette, Indiana, which I love because I’m a college Hoosier. We’ve got him back on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back!
Stephen: It’s a privilege to be here. Thank you very much.
Dave: Yes, we’re so glad you’re here. I mean, some of our listeners heard you before; but you’re a pastor of Faith Church for how many years?—34?
Stephen: Thirty-four years.
Dave: Yes; and also developed a whole counseling center. I just love hearing what you’re doing to help people/equip people, not only in their own life—with understanding their journey—but to help others. Then, as you’ve seen and I’ve seen, especially in the church as a pastor, there’s a lot of bitterness.
Stephen: Well, the sad reality is I don’t have to go out into the pew in order to find bitterness in the church. I can find that in the pastor’s office, because that’s something with which I struggle.
Ann: Steve, what is your story? When we write something, it’s usually because it’s something that we’ve experienced.
Stephen: Well, part of it is God blessed my wife and me with the opportunity to adopt a son with special needs: our son Andrew. He likes to be called “The Bear,” so everybody who knows him calls him The Bear. He is blind, and he also had a number of other abnormalities in the development of his brain. He’s 28 years old, but he functions like he’s about 7 or 8.
It's been a fascinating, fascinating sanctifying journey for my wife and me, and for The Bear. I’m ashamed to tell you this, but I will tell you just because you asked about how it’s affected me. I remember standing in a Walmart® one day. Andrew was about two years old; we were just starting to learn how significant his disability was. There was a large family in line ahead of me—kids completely uncontrolled—and the father was holding a baby about the age of my son, Andrew. I looked into that child’s eyes and thought, “The pastor’s son’s eyes don’t work. Their son’s eyes do.” You know, that’s bitterness talking.
I’m ashamed to tell you that my heart even has the capacity to think that kind of a wicked thought; but if I don’t deal with that, I’m going to become a very, very bitter man. The Scripture does; it links bitterness with jealousy and envy. Bitterness is a major issue in marriage; it’s a major issue in families; it’s a major issue in the office; and it can even be a major issue in church life.
But the great news is Jesus Christ is a whole lot more powerful than that, so we don’t have to be bitter people. That doesn’t have to have the last say; it doesn’t have to be our story. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book: was to try to point men and women to our powerful Savior and His sufficient grace.
Dave: You know, Ann mentioned the title, Overcoming Bitterness: Moving from Life’s Greatest Hurts to a Life Filled with Joy. Thank you for being that honest, because I don’t think there’s a person who hasn’t felt what you felt. We struggle to admit it sometimes;—
Dave: —you know? And we don’t even want to see it in ourselves when we feel the jealousy.
As I think about my mom—or so much of our bitterness is relational—
Dave: —a person—there’s the jealousy and the envy of somebody I don’t even know—
Dave: —a stranger in a store. But when somebody hurts you/does something, you identify: “Man, I’m not just hurt; I’m bitter!” Maybe it was yesterday; maybe it was ten years ago: “It’s got me.
Dave: “It’s in there.” I’m trying to overcome it to get the joy, and I feel like I can’t get there. How do you get through the relational bitterness with a family member or friend?—it could be a neighbor.
It gets us, obviously, into talking about: “Do we forgive?” “How do we forgive?” Talk about that journey in relational bitterness: “What do I do?”
Stephen: Yes, and this is one of the things I love about the sufficiency of the Scriptures. You know, in Ephesians 4:31-32, we have a verse that’s very clear: “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you.”
Dave: I think you’ve memorized this; haven’t you? [Laughter]
Stephen: So you have that in 4:31. What’s fascinating is, just a few verses before in Ephesians 4:26, Paul says, “Be angry, and sin not.” So how do those things go together? I think, biblically and theologically, we have to define anger before we can define bitterness; because anger is a God-given emotion, which produces energy, allowing me to solve problems biblically and to solve problems today. God can allow me to use that anger to handle things well. However, if I don’t use anger in a timely fashion—today, before the sun goes down—then it ferments, and it turns into bitterness.
Part of what I do in my heart with bitterness is talk to God.
Stephen: I practice biblical lament. Many persons struggle with bitterness, because they have not learned the discipline of lament/authenticity with the Lord.
The second reason many of us are bitter is because we haven’t learned the discipline of going and talking with other people when we believe that they have sinned against us, practicing the art of biblical forgiveness. You have a passage like Luke 17:3-4, which is a seminal topic on this whole discussion: “If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him.” It’s possible that some of our listeners may be bitter individuals, because somebody mistreated them in some way. The challenge here is even the person, who was sinned against, still has a responsibility in that matter.
All of us may say, “Well, that’s not fair!” God teaches us what He teaches us in His Word because it’s true. So I don’t get to not do certain things, because I don’t think they’re fair; and I also have to remember my heavenly Father loves me. He’s put principles in His Word for His glory and for my good. So, as a person who has been mistreated, whenever it is possible, I have both the privilege and the responsibility to go and speak with that person.
Now, I don’t know for sure how that conversation is going to go; but I do know this: “If I should have, and I didn’t, then I’m, at least, partially culpable for my bitterness.” I know, as a counselor, those are hard words to say; and they are hard words to hear; but God has given us the Holy Spirit, who gives us the power to do hard things.
I have seen this happen over and over in counseling, where a person was embittered with someone else. At the right time and in the right way—I know it’s not always possible, but many times it is—at the right time and in the right way we bring those parties together. There’s authentic confrontation—not to hurt the other person; not to demoralize the other person—but to bring about reconciliation/to bring about healing.
I have seen persons, in some cases, say, “I didn’t even know I offended you. Thank you so much for telling me. And now that you’ve told me, I can think of other people/I probably have others I need to go ask to forgive me.” I’ve seen it work; because God’s Word works, where individuals, after they have been confronted, are willing to ask forgiveness; and then you have that beautiful restoration in a relationship.
And of course, on a church level, that has to be happening in a church all the time! A church has to be a place where we’re authentically talking with one another about the ways that we have sinned, the ways we’ve been sinned against, bringing biblical communication, bringing about reconciliation. And if you don’t, this is where
Hebrews 12:15 gets you again.
Dave: It’s the root.
Stephen: Absolutely! That, and it causes trouble. Bitterness causes trouble in a marriage. It’s not like: “Well, I’m bitter; but it’s not going to do anything.” Oh, it’s going to do a lot! And the passage ends by saying: “It defiles many.” And remember, then the passage ends by going to the poster boy of bitterness: Esau. What a haunting story Esau’s is, because Scripture calls him a “profane” man, a man who refused to embrace his place in the covenant community of God.
One of the ways I demonstrate that I truly am a child of God is by obeying His Word and going and confronting a person, who has sinned against me, with the goal of bringing about reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing. It’s hard, but it’s right; and that’s one of the routes/the paths out of bitterness.
Ann: So Esau should have gone to his brother Jacob and talked to him about stealing his birthright?
Stephen: I actually think Esau should have done more than that; but he, at least,should have done that. First of all, he shouldn’t have sold it.
Ann: Right. That revealed a lot; didn’t it?
Stephen: Absolutely! It revealed that he was valuing the red stuff.
Dave: Yes, I love your phrase. What’s the “red stuff”?
Ann: —the stew; yes
Stephen: The red stuff is what Hebrew is for that red stew—a typical man; right?—it’s been like three hours since he ate: “I’m famished; I’m going to die!”
Dave: “I’m going to die.”
Stephen: “I’m going to die if I don’t eat! Therefore, I’m going to forsake my place in the covenant plan of God. I’m going to give up my birthright for stew.”
We kind of chuckle at that; but then, when we start thinking about all of the things that we’re willing to sin for—for the exact same—it’s red-stuff living:
“I didn’t get my way, and now I’m bitter.”
“That person didn’t commend me like I wanted them to; now, I’m bitter.”
“That person got…now, I’m bitter.”
“Now, I’m bitter.”
It’s red-stuff living, and I’m forsaking my place in God’s covenant plan for some idol! It’s idolatry of the heart, for sure.
To answer your question, Ann, I believe he should have spoken to his brother about it; but even more powerful than that, he should have admitted his own culpability. And this is a hard point for all of us to hear, but it’s true: bitterness makes us liars. And here’s why: “How did Esau tell the story later?
Stephen: He said, “My brother stole my birthright.” That’s not true! And here’s what bitterness does: I replay the story over, and over, and over in my head; and every time I play it, the other person gets a little bit worse, and I get a little bit better.
Ann: So true!
Stephen: When the Bible says bitterness will cause trouble and defile many, one of the persons it will defile is me, by making me a person who’s not being honest about the ways I sinned. That’s why it’s so important to deal with it and to deal with it right away.
Dave: You’re an expert on this; you know better than anybody. Even Matthew 5, where Jesus says if you have a conflict with your brother, don’t even—“leave your offering; go get reconciled,”—go make this right, and come back.
So here’s the question: “What if I do all that? I’m obedient; I go; I confront. I say, “Man, what you did hurt me. I’ve been bitter for days,” or “…years,” or “…decades.
Ann: What you did with your dad.
Dave: “And I need to talk this through with you. I want to forgive you, so respond.” And they say, “What the blank are you bitter about? I did nothing wrong!”
Dave: So they don’t own it; they don’t understand your hurt. It doesn’t go the way you want on that side; you’re doing what you do. What does that person do?
Stephen: This is where Romans 12 is such a helpful passage in the Word of God; because Paul says in that passage, “If it be possible, as much as lieth within you, live at peace with all men.” I am so thankful for the comprehensive nature of the Word of God. “If it’s possible”—well, if Paul said that, that has to tell us there are some situations, this side of heaven, where it’s not—where you can do everything you’re supposed to do; and that person either won’t repent, if they’re the one who sinned; or they won’t forgive if you’re the one who sinned and you’re there to repent.
But it’s not always possible, but we’re only responsible for us: “…as much as lieth within you, live at peace with all men.”
Dave: So what’s the difference between bitterness/forgiveness? Is there a difference? Because I hear you saying that, and I’m thinking, “Okay; it’s my responsibility to live at peace, and I need to deal with my bitterness; they didn’t repent. Should I forgive?”
Stephen: Well, I think we have to do the exact same thing that Jesus did on the cross, where He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Now, that doesn’t mean that everybody within the sound of Jesus’s voice was forgiven. There was another thief in that story, who would have heard those words, who certainly did not spend his eternity in heaven; so we’re not universalists.
However, Jesus was praying and expressing His—I would call it a forgiving spirit—saying: “Lord, I don’t want to be bitter. I don’t want to continue to rehearse all this person’s failures. I want to be a forgiving person; I want to pray for that person’s repentance. I want to get through this if it’s possible in this situation. But if it’s not, I’m not going to continue to dwell on their failures. I’m not going to continue to dwell on the hurt, because there’s something more powerful in my life; and that’s, my forgiving Savior. If my Savior has forgiven me of all of the ways that I have failed, and if His Father has placed Christ’s righteousness on my account, there’s so much in the gospel that fills up my heart and life every day. I just don’t have time to dwell on all the failures of everybody else.”
Part of that is illustrated by the Passover meal. What was the basis of that meal? The answer is: bitter herbs; bitter herbs. What’s fascinating is that was a lettuce that was indigenous to Egypt, so God wanted them to eat Egyptian food year after year. That’s why lament is so important! We have to be authentic about the pains of our life. But aren’t you glad it wasn’t just a meal of bitter herbs, and that was the end of it? Because you’ve got that bitter taste in your mouth, and then next comes the unleavened bread; but what’s that preparing you for? It’s the sweetness of the Passover Lamb.
You talk about a direct path to the cross and the empty tomb. You talk about a direct path to the gospel. I don’t need to spend time thinking about the failures of others, even [those] who have not chosen to repent. I’m going to have a forgiving spirit toward them, because my heart and life [are] consumed with how my wonderful Savior has chosen to forgive me through His shed blood.
Dave: It gives us hope that, even though they don’t respond the way we want—they may never repent;—
Stephen: That’s right.
Dave: —they may never own it—there can be peace in my heart. There can actually be peace between us as it depends on me.
Dave: They may never respond the way we want.
When I said to my dad, “You know, I’ve wrestled with this for years.” I’m a man; I was actually in my mid-30s. He literally looked at me and said, “What the blank for?”
Dave: He had no idea! And I’m not kidding, three years later, and I had dealt with it because my wife told me I had to—[Laughter]
Dave: —I had gone on this journey where the bitterness just floated out of my life. Not easily! It was work; it was real work, but it was gone.
Dave: I remember saying to him one day, “Did you ever regret the divorce with mom?” We had never talked about this, by the way; never. And immediately, he was like, “Yes,”—
Dave: —with this [look] like he’s thought about it forever. I said, “Why?” And he said, “I missed out on my relationship with you.” And I thought, “He, in the best way he knows how, he’s saying, ‘I’m sorry.’”
Stephen: That’s right; that’s right.
Dave: And I didn’t need that, but it was nice to hear it; but there was the truth of: “Do whatever it takes to live at peace with all men as far as it depends on you.” I did everything I could, and there’s peace. That’s what you’re saying.
Stephen: I wonder if your dad ever would have gotten to that place—
Stephen: —had you severed the relationship and said, “Okay, because he’s not saying it the way I want him to say it right now, I’m never talking to him. I’m not going to spend any time. We’re not going to go to ball games.”
But you gave him space; you did your part. You did Romans 12, and then you left the rest to the Lord. It would be wrong of us to think, “Well, if the person didn’t repent today in my way, he’s never going to repent.” That is not true.
Stephen: God can work in miraculous ways if we’ll give Him room to work, and bitterness isn’t giving Him room to work.
Ann: Yes; and I will say, Dave—
Dave: Are you going to say something nice?
Ann: Yes. [Laughter] As a result of that conversation, and the work that you did in forgiving your dad, you became a free man.
Ann: Because you were plagued with anger. There were so many things that were bottled up, and I watched you become free. Isn’t that what we all hope for?—because Jesus said, “I came to set the captive free.”
Dave: Yes; and I would say, “Freedom starts today with a phone call. It could be an email; it could be driving over; do whatever you can. You can’t control the result, but you can control your heart. You can overcome bitterness. You can literally get to what you say: a life filled with joy. It’s a journey, and it’s worth whatever it takes to start that step toward the journey.
Dave: “Start it today.”
Bob: I know there are some of you, who are listening, and you’ve been hearing this; and there’s been a resonance in your own heart. You’ve heard God’s Spirit saying to you, “This is for you; this is about this relationship, this bitterness, this unforgiveness that you’ve been harboring. I brought this to you today, because it’s time to deal with this. It’s time to follow what My Word says and move toward reconciliation, forgiveness, rebuilding trust in a relationship.”
The path we follow is outlined for us in the book that Steven Viars has written called Overcoming Bitterness. It’s a book we have in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. It’s the book you may need. You can order your copy from us at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY is our number. Again, the title of the book is Overcoming Bitterness by Steven Viars. You can order online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY,” to get your copy.
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And we hope you can join us, again, tomorrow. We’re going hear from Steven Viars about what we do when we’ve reached a point where it feels hopeless in trying to bring reconciliation to a relationship. Is there a point where we give up hope? We’ll hear about that tomorrow. I hope you’re able to join us.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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