Spiritual Abuse: Stop Being so Bitter

Spiritual Abuse, Reputation
Jonathan Hollingsworth

spiritual abuse, Jonathan hollingsworth

This is the fifth blog post referring to an article by Jonathan Hollingsworth, What Not to Say to Someone Who’s Been Hurt by the Church. The article resonated with a lot of people, so I thought it might be a good idea to discuss these unhelpful statements one by one here, and give people the opportunity to share their experiences.

I am working through all six of Hollingsworth’s statements/questions of what not to say to someone who has been hurt by spiritual abuse. The posts are as follows:

Here is the fifth question on what not to say to someone harmed by spiritual abuse, followed by Jonathan Hollingsworth explaining why it is not helpful:

“Stop Being So Bitter.”

People who have been hurt by a church have a right to be angry. Not only is anger an appropriate response to injustice, it’s a healthy response if it’s channeled the right ways.

So why do Christians have such a hard time letting each other express negative emotions? Why do we always have to fish for some deeper spiritual problem like a root of bitterness or unforgiveness?

The other day I heard someone put it this way: “Religion will molest you, then accuse you of being bitter about it.” Do you see the double standard? When victims react to being hurt by someone in a church, we treat them as though there’s something’s wrong with them. This is why abusers are so often exonerated. It’s easier to justify letting the abuser off the hook if both parties are “in the wrong.” Source


by Julie Anne

This topic comes up quite a bit. We are told we need to hurry up and be done with it. If we don’t get over it on “their” timetable, we are labeled bitter. I have difficulty with that. No one can determine another’s heart, the pain someone has gone through, or how long it will take to recover from spiritual abuse.

Maybe it makes them uncomfortable because we represent the reality that: church is not always a healthy place; and there is a wake of sadness, anger, disillusionment left in thew wake. Or maybe they think our grieving will prevent people from coming to Christ – you know – that outward-appearance requirement that we must always look content. Maybe that is true, but then shouldn’t their anger be directed towards the ones who harmed us?

What you experienced someone calling you bitter? How did you respond?

32 thoughts on “Spiritual Abuse: Stop Being so Bitter”

  1. For us, the issue arose because of (1) not adhering to someone else’s expected timetable, and (2) people wanting to entirely skip steps in the reconciliation process.

    Greatly oversimplified for illustration purposes, but essentially what happened was:

    Us: Conflict X occurred, resulting in such-and-such hurt and damage to us and to others.

    Leaders and other people: That’s a shame, thanks for sharing, now it’s time to move forward and put the past behind.

    Us: Um, yes, that is certainly the end goal, but that follows the steps of acknowledgement/confession, forgiveness and reconciliation, which we desire and want to be a willing part of.

    Leaders and other people: Why are you being so bitter? Why are you stuck in the past? Why are you unwilling to move forward?

    Us: ?????

    Ultimately this led to a few years of bewilderment and hurt as we kept trying to initiate a reconciliation process others wanted to skip over and jump right to the endpoint of “business as usual.” This ultimately contributed to our leaving the church, still licking our wounds. We were not alone, over a period of 2-3 years approximately two-thirds of the regular attenders left (for a variety of reasons, some for similar reasons as we left, some for other unrelated or tangentially-related reasons).


  2. Dave, what you describe sounds similar to what people in my church recently experienced. There can be no restoration in a relationship if there is no one taking responsibility for the conflict, acknowledging the harm done, and making some sort of restitution or explain how things will be handled in the future. You are right – they are skipping necessary steps – – the key ones in which the leaders humble themselves and admit their own failures.

    You’d think Christian leaders would understand this process – of all people.

    I’m sorry you had to experience this. Ugh!


  3. Thank you! Calling someone bitter seems to be the ultimate conversation ender, because for those conditioned into thinking that anger and bitterness are evil, calling someone bitter is saying that the matter is over, except for their own feelings about it.

    Also like so see the link between anger and injustice. I think that anger is the appropriate response to injustice, and as long as that injustice is not reconciled, anger is still appropriate.

    And bitterness… I guess my feeling is that there were so many opportunities taken away from me by a constant barrage of worthlessness from my family and church, and those can never be restored. To this day, I struggle with standing up for myself because in my family it was the emotional outburst itself that was punished.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, when I left my abusive church, the only real charge they could level against me was that I complained a lot. Then they offered that if I stayed, they’d be happy to work with me on my “sin”.


  4. I wonder if church people interchange “bitterness” and “anger”.

    I’ve been accused by a minister of inappropriate anger (by his authoritarian appraisal). I understood that he was bullying me to silence me.

    Over decades, there have been numerous intimidations/false accusations by church, Re/Ed institutions, religious counselors. I was silenced so quickly due to my insecurities. Now, I’m certain they were ready to criticize me of holding bitterness/anger if I tried to stand up to them. My ex was an abusuve minister; member of the good ole boys club.

    They will never have another opportunity to bully/falsely accuse me because I stay as far away from church, etc as possible.


  5. I don’t disagree with the article or your analysis of it.

    The one thing I do feel needs to be considered is forgiveness and what it means.

    I’ve heard it said that not forgiving those that hurt you is “like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies”.

    Forgiveness doesn’t mean you are not angry or hurt but that you don’t let the situation that occurred control you.

    Forgiveness also doesn’t mean you are attempting to reconcile. That may not be practical, healthy or safe.

    Forgiveness also doesn’t mean you set yourself up for more abuse.


  6. No, we are all supposed perfectly accept that priests have the right to rape children with impunity.


  7. I spent over a decade in the IFB church being told what to think and say in every situation. I was told I should be happy about everything, even horrible things, because “God has a plan “. You’re damn right I am bitter! Furthermore, I have the RIGHT to be bitter. I have the right to think and feel whatever I want. This flies in the face of everything I was brainwashed to believe. The church leaders don’t WANT you to think or feel anything. They just want mindless robots.


  8. I wonder if church people interchange “bitterness” and “anger”.

    Celeste, I think this is something that comes up but it’s also more than that. Women who disagree with anything are often called ‘angry’ or ‘bitter’ as a way of dismissing them, imo.

    Anger and bitterness are feelings, not actions. When people are attacking your feelings and not your actions, or addressing their own actions, I think that is a red flag.


  9. Many years ago my brother who was 21 at the time, disappeared. He was missing for 7 months when his body was found. About 8 yrs later I was attending a Christian small group gathering that was focused on traumatic, life changing events. I shared that horrible event calmly and crying just a little. The leader spoke with me afterwards and said, “I detect bitterness in your voice.” Apparently, many Christians believe it’s their duty to point out what they perceive to be bitterness and unforgiveness instead of showing compassion and empathy to victims. Maybe my experience is a little off topic since it didn’t take place in a church setting, but I think it’s relatable.


  10. I think Lea got it. The Evangelical church has spent centuries trying to understand how emotions fit in with theology, and, by and large, their answer is that they don’t. Correct emotions are somehow a byproduct of correct theology, and when someone has strong emotions (or any emotions, for that matter) then there MUST be some sort of sin.

    So, I learned to suppress my emotions. The first person to show emotion in an argument is the loser. The first person to break down in a confrontation is wrong… The most exuberant person in the worship service is showing off.

    So, it’s no surprise that someone who is still emotional from experiencing trauma gets labeled as angry or bitter.

    It’s such a corrupt system, it’s hard to even know where to start in trying to make a difference.


  11. Joel, forgiveness is another thing that is poorly understood. I like how Cloud and Townsend describe it in Boundaries – in terms of how we see our forgiveness in Jesus. First of all, we ask God to remove the burden from us, then we are able to offer forgiveness to the other person, but just as with us and Jesus, just because forgiveness is offered doesn’t mean that it is granted without repentance, and only when there is repentance is there the hope of reconciliation.

    The problem is that the church (as said above) wants to skip repentance and conflates “forgiveness” with reconciliation. So, if we aren’t “buddy buddy” with the person who hurt us deeply and refuses to repent, then somehow it is OUR sin OUR bitterness and OUR lack of faith.

    Cindy, spiritual abuse doesn’t have to be just in a church setting. Much of my spiritual abuse was hearing the same abusive message from my parents and pastor.


  12. It absolutely is relatable, Cindy. Where did this come from – – the idea that Christians cannot experience pain, loss, anger, sadness? Did they remove the Psalms from their Bibles? This is so bizarre. I’m very sorry to hear about your brother’s death. How sad!


  13. The leader spoke with me afterwards and said, “I detect bitterness in your voice.”

    I am so sorry. All the words I have directed at this man are expletives.

    Christians, or perhaps evangelicals, have a serious problem with the entire concept of emotions at the moment. I do think this is gendered to some degree, but not entirely.


  14. The first person to show emotion in an argument is the loser.

    Mark, this has been thinking a lot of things. I have learned in the past that lack of emotional display can be used as a type of weapon against anger, because it works well (depending on what you are trying to achieve) by making the other person angrier. That does feel like a win in a weird way? But it’s not, in reality of course. Arguments are merely expressions of disagreement, and sometimes there is a right and wrong position and sometimes there is simply a disagreement in which no one is right or wrong. How you deal with a disagreement or argument depends very much on the interpersonal dynamics and I don’t believe in forcing everything into some sort of hackneyed debate mode, in which there are winners and losers. The object should be understanding on both sides. Sadly, that is sometimes not achievable and that’s when boundaries go into place.

    [I should say that this is my natural response to yelling and big displays of anger so I sort of learned it sideways. And in confrontations with generally good natured people this can be calming, but with other types of people it is absolutely not so most of this is more observation than deliberation. But your comment made me think of it]

    What drives me crazy is when someone is having a normal conversation and gets accused of emotions as a way to shut down conversation…


  15. Joel raised a good point – there doesn’t have to be a relationship after harm is done. But it’s important that the person doing the harm owns his part in causing the harm, understands fully how it harmed others.

    I’m studying about conflict right now and one of the important parts of making things right is for the perpetrator to explain how he plans on doing things in the future to prevent it from happening again. Obviously, this shows someone who has felt the weight of what they have done.

    Of course, after this, it’s up to the victim to decide whether to have a relationship with the perpetrator. If the victim decides not to, that is a natural consequence of the harm done.


  16. I’ve got a sixth item to add ‘ You only want money’. I’ve heard this from a priest. Would someone expose their pain and embarrassment to the world for money ?


  17. I forgot to say that my brother who was missing had been murdered. My brother’s killer is serving a life sentence. By God’s grace I was able to forgive the man and haven’t been bitter toward him. However, I did have some anger and bitterness toward the police because they didn’t take my brother’s disappearance seriously and didn’t look for him.


  18. Cindy – My brother’s killer is serving a life sentence. By God’s grace I was able to forgive the man and haven’t been bitter toward him.

    I think that, especially in the circumstances of your tragic loss, this is one of the most noble things any human being ever does in this life. I feel quite moved just reading that sentence.


  19. Dear Cindy,
    I too, am so sorry for your loss. May the memories of your shared lives be blessed and comforted by those who understand and still love you for being human. So appreciative of your powerful testimony as it gives us hope.

    All too often, I am discovering that many folks believe in “cookie cutter grief” and “cookie cutter forgiveness,” which bears no resemblance to the Biblical truths presented by our Savior.

    Thank-you again Cindy for sharing here as your words have ministered to many here.


  20. Cindy,
    You have my deepest sympathy on the loss of your brother, and for the terrible crime that was committed against him and your whole family. And I’m sorry for the disgraceful way you were treated by that Christian small group leader. She had the opportunity to hear of your sorrow with tender ears and a compassionate heart (like Jesus), and instead she chose to be a critical, pompous ninny inflicting more harm. I’m sorry you had to experience that, but thank you for sharing.


  21. Daisy, even removing emotions from that discussion, facts are useless unless they form a repeatable pattern, i.e. knowledge and even then don’t apply universally. It may, for example, seem like a fact that we are required to forgive when given a prooftext or two, but knowledge says that the word is used differently in different places, and wisdom says that forgiveness is often used as a gateway to spiritual abuse. I think emotions can help us understand these types of situations.


  22. What happens is people who haven’t experienced spiritual abuse often want a happy ending. Maybe they’re used to those pat answers and carefully-crafted (and often untrue) little 10 minute anecdotes with the happy endings that pastor uses to tug the heart strings at the end of the message–you know, the ones where he gets all “sincere”, lowers his voice like he’s talking just to you, real meaningful-like, and his voice goes all dramatic and quivery (this usually comes right before the call to prayer and maybe a second passing of the offering plate).

    Church-goers get fed a steady diet of this, and it’s almost like church becomes a series of 30 to 60 minute TV episodes, where it all gets resolved each week in the end. They figure that’s God, it has to work out clean and neat, all packaged up. They get so used to it, they get conditioned to expect it. And while their own lives never seem to match that carefully-packaged working out of everything each week, they surely come to figure that’s just THEIR problem, THEY’RE defective, that’s why it doesn’t work out just so for them like preacher makes it out to be.

    Of course, that seldom seems to be the case as anyone goes through life, it was seldom the case in the Bible, it was seldom what Jesus encountered. There was a lot more struggle and ambiguity, a lot of unhappy endings, a lot of things that just wouldn’t be worked out in this lifetime–and of course, that’s a key reason, I have to suppose, why our trust has to be in Jesus and Him alone. he will make it right, but in the meantime, this world will be messy.

    So the biggest problem with the crowd who get spiritually abused–sometimes it feels more like a violation of your soul–is they’re not falling into line with the myth so many churches promote. They’re just being real. Like Jesus was.


  23. Re: Mark’s JANUARY 17, 2019 @ 3:39 PM post.

    I posted a link to the article because too many people – in the context of political or religious debate or reasoning – discount emotions completely, and they shame anyone who becomes emotional over certain topics.

    They behave as though all humans should act like emotionless robots at all time, even when discussing controversial subjects, but if someone does show emotion, the anti-emotions person accuses them of being irrational, illogical, and discounts everything that person has to say – even though what the person is saying may be true or correct.

    (It’s kind of like KAS’ insufferable Tone Policing, where he will discount WHAT you say based mainly or only on HOW you say it, totally ignoring the substance of what you are saying.)


  24. Hey Daisy – You’re very right. One thing you got from Jesus as He walked among us was a good, honest expression of His feelings on a regular basis–and He didn’t seem prissy about them. He said vigorous things in vigorous ways, to quote Mark Twain. The one thing one tends to see from cultists and abusive personalities is a steady pounding down of the normal range of human emotions. It’s just another form of abuse. Be very careful of anyone who talks of facts being the locomotive and feelings the caboose; be wary of those who always seem to be denying people their emotions, who demand smiles on all faces, who are dismissive of those who want justice. God affirms our humanity–Pharisees deny it.

    Anyone who consistently acts as the tone police, smahimg people, I assume they’re the ones with the biggest wad of hatred inside them just ready to boil over, and what they’re likely doing in denying people the right to express anger or sadness or frustration is very possibly just pure projection.


  25. truthdetector142 quoted, “Anyone who consistently acts as the tone police, smashing people, I assume they’re the ones with the biggest wad of hatred inside of them just ready to boil over, and what they’re likely doing in denying people the right to express anger or sadness or frustration is very possibly just pure projection.”

    Excellent statement truthdetector and a spot on analysis of the “complementarian paradigm” lived exclusively in legalistic c’hristianity apart from Jesus Christ! If our LORD Jesus, Master and Teacher, were living today and walking amongst us gathering His sheep as He ministered, how many of the so-called c’hristian experts in the visible c’hurch, would call out Jesus as bitter, angry, and a lunatic for daring to show us what raw emotion looks like?

    I believe the apparel (outward appearances) of mankind have changed somewhat from Jesus’ day, but that hatred towards Jesus’ sheep who dare to follow Him apart from the business model c’hurch, was cemented in concrete long ago. Men’s hearts have not changed, and when top down, so called theologians, are losing their religious poker game, they fold with the words “bitter and angry spirit” to the truth seekers who have exposed their abusive spiritual games.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. @truthdetector142 – agreed, and especially anger. I think anger is the emotion that tells us that the status quo is not acceptable. Something needs to change. Sometimes, what needs to change is our own attitudes, but that is not always the case, and often, anger is a sign that we are being deprived our basic human rights.

    So, our culture is very keen to repress anger because the powers that be don’t want change, and they don’t want to acknowledge that things may need to change. It’s easier to simply deny and point the finger back at the victim or the offended party and tell them that their emotions are out of line.

    The more I study the practices of the modern church in light of what Jesus did, the more I see that life is not meant to be lived in monochrome. Those who insist on suppressing emotions are not doing Jesus’s work. Finally got to see Spotlight (thanks Netflix), and it was someone who was “angry” that finally broke the comfortable cycle everyone had fallen into.


  27. I think anger is the emotion that tells us that the status quo is not acceptable.

    I read some sort of study, Mark, that what people say or feel in anger tends to be more true. I think in that sense it can be a way to break through the common politeness, or emotions we are suppressing.


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