Reading good fiction in the summertime is supposed to be relaxing, right? Then why did my foray into John Cheever’s short stories recently create so much internal work for me? Cheever has this way of painting mental pictures of the human psyche. Describing one character, he writes, “There was not room in her mind for all the injuries that were crowding into it.” I didn’t think much about that sentence at the time. But it must have slipped in the back door and burrowed its way into my soul. A few days later, it’s as if I had popped the top on a bubbling cauldron of bitterness deep within me. Cheever named the pain for me. Many real and perceived injuries were clamoring for space.
Bitterness seems to be the occupational hazard of church people, including clergy. Because we are socially conditioned to be nice, we often swallow our rage when something irritating or hurtful happens to us, all in the name of keeping the peace and taking the high road. The problem comes when we neglect to deal with the anger, either because we dislike confrontation or because life simply moves us on to the next unpleasantness. After we’ve stuffed enough of these insults, slights and injustices, they begin to have a corrosive impact on our souls.
Paul tells us to be sure the sun never goes down on our anger (Ephesians 4:26). That is sound advice, both theologically and psychologically. If we don’t unpack our anger regularly, it will come out at inappropriate times and in inappropriate places. What’s more, the emotional eruption will often be triggered by an event unrelated to the real pain inside us. Have you ever been embarrassed by some tirade (your own or someone else’s) which was totally out of proportion to the event? And then you wondered, “Wow. Where did that come from?”
Continually ruminating on our hurts and peeves creates a spiritual toxin which accumulates over time. The brain keeps sending and resending negative messages. Ponder the word “resentment.” A message keeps being re-sent until it finally overtakes us.
When it was my turn recently to lead the devotional for our staff meeting, I chose to talk about bitterness. I decided to risk vulnerability and tell about a very rude remark made to me by a church member just before morning worship. As I recounted this to our staff family, I could hear my voice getting louder. I could feel my heart racing and my palms sweating. It was clear I had not talked to anyone about this or processed it in a safe place. By the way, that unpleasant Sunday morning encounter happened six years ago! Oops!
As a result of this fresh encounter with bitterness, here are some things I want to work on, in the name of better spiritual and emotional health. First, I want to practice more intentional self-differentiation (healthier boundaries) so that I can worry less about being liked or keeping everyone smiling. I will then be freed up to focus more on keeping short accounts. Second, I want to be able to pray more honestly, having the courage to talk with God about the things that make me angry and wound me. I have a hunch some of the psalms of imprecation might come in handy here!
Third, I want to have enough self-awareness that I can know when it’s time for a trip to the emotional garbage dump to get rid of some stuff. This might be a special time set aside with my wife, who is my most trusted friend, or with my pastors’ peer group, a trusted colleague or even a trained therapist.
This much I know. We simply cannot succumb to bitterness. Life is too short and too many people are counting on us.
Doyle Sager is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo.