Help! I’m Living with a Bitter Person
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Stephen ViarsDr. Steve Viars has served at Faith Church in Lafayette, IN since 1987. Pastor Viars leads and equips Faith Church as Senior Pastor with a focus on preaching and teaching God’s Word and using his organizational skills in guiding the implementation of the Faith Church mission and vision. He oversees the staff, deacons, and all Faith Church ministries. Dr. Viars serves on the boards of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, Biblical Counseling Coalition, Vision of Hope, and the Faith...more
Living with a bitter person can feel exhausting, defeating. How can you love them without losing your happiness…or sanity? Author Stephen Viars weighs in.
Help! I’m Living with a Bitter Person
Dave: Okay, one of my big theme ideas in 30 years of preaching had something to do with bitterness.
Ann: Oh, yes; memorable.
Dave: Let’s see if you even know. Does the wife of the pastor listen to the pastor’s sermons?
Stephen: Oh, no!
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!
Dave: One of my big theme ideas in 30 years of preaching—
Ann: Does it begin with the word, “pain”?
Dave: You can start with pain.
Ann: “Pain will make you—
Dave: —“can make you—
Ann: —“better or bitter.”
Ann: Am I right?!
Dave: Yes, something like that. It’s usually trials or adversity—
Ann: —trials; that’s it!
Dave: —depends what the theme is that week. But you know valleys—but really, pain/trials—you have a choice; it’s going to be part of your life one way or another.
Ann: Pain and trials will be a part of all of our lives.
Dave: You can allow God to use it and you become better, or you become bitter. Whenever I preach on that, and I’ve done it many times over the years, I’ll ask the audience: “Do you know more bitter people or do you know more better people?” guess what the answer always is.
Dave: “More bitter.”
Stephen: That’s interesting.
Dave: People don’t handle bitterness well. It could be the exact same trial in one person; you’re like, “How are they better? How are they…?” And this [other] person went through the same thing, and you don’t even want to be near them: and they’re mad at their spouse, they’re mad at their life; they’re mad at God.
Bitterness is a part of all of our lives. We’ve got Steve Viars back with us today. He wrote a book called Overcoming Bitterness. Every person wants to overcome bitterness and actually get from hurt to a life filled with joy.
Dave: —welcome back. Glad to have you here.
Stephen: It’s really been a privilege talking with you folks.
Dave: Your insights on this topic/I mean, they’re life-changing. It isn’t like, “Oh, this is something some people deal with,”—we all [do].
I told you before, when I was reading your book, I’m like, “Oh, my goodness; I thought I was done—[Laughter]—with the bitterness in my life.” And it rose up, like, “Oh, there’s triggers that still come to overcome it.” We’ve got to keep talking about: “How we do we get through it?”
One of the things I love about your book—and I love about you as a pastor in Indiana—Faith Church; right?
Stephen: Yes, in Lafayette.
Dave: —Lafayette, Indiana. You’re married with three kids and four grandkids, so you know life and carrying all that as well.
You’re a biblical scholar. I love the way you use the Word of God to say: “The answers are here; let’s walk through.” I think it would be fun today to walk through a story in Scripture that gives us a model of: “How do we overcome bitterness?”
Stephen: One of the stories is the story of Naomi in the book of Ruth. It starts in a very hard place, because she and her husband and their two sons are facing a famine; so their family decides to go to Moab. Then the sons marry Moabitess women.
Then the Scripture says—and it’s coming in rapid-fire succession because all of this happens in Chapter 1—that both Naomi’s husband and both of her sons died. I realize I might be talking to one of your listeners today, and they know the pain of death; so I’m not just telling a story without thinking. I’m undoubtedly bringing up all sorts of hurt and memories for so many who have experienced death in all sorts of ways.
Now, you have Naomi.
Ann: —which I’m just going to say, as a woman, to lose both of your children and your husband, you are left desolate. This would be the lowest of lows that a person could be.
Stephen: Well, especially in that culture.
Stephen: You talk about being vulnerable; you talk about being in a position of danger.
What’s interesting is Naomi—she was the Jewish woman—so she was the one of those who were left that should have been leading her daughter’s-in-law to some degree of faith. If anybody was going to be the godly person, you would have thought it was going to be Naomi. Because regrettably what Naomi did/she says to her daughters-in-law, “Go back to your people”—and then, eventually, in Chapter 1 [of Ruth] is one of the most important phrases in the chapter—“and to your gods.” She was saying, as a Jewish woman, “God has let me down.” In fact, she eventually says that: “I left Bethlehem full and God’s brought me back empty. Jehovah, the God of Israel, has let me down.”
Interestingly, one of the daughters-in-law, she went back to her people and to her gods/to the idols of Moab. But what is absolutely stunning and filled with hope is the remaining daughter-in-law, Ruth, says, “No.” She makes a statement next that sometimes is used in weddings—and I have to point out to the young couple—“Do you realize the spouse died here? I’m not sure this is really appropriate.” [Laughter] It is a beautiful statement, where Ruth said, “No, I’m going to stay by your side. Your people are going to be my people and your God is going to be my God [Ruth 1:16].”
She saw something in her father-in-law; she saw something in her husband, or maybe even her brother-in-law that appealed—or maybe even in Naomi—we don’t know. But something gripped young Ruth, where she said, “The God of heaven is the only God worthy of my trust. Even if that means I’m going to leave my people and my place, that’s my God.” That goes back to what we were saying: we’re not passive victims; we’re active worshippers. That was an act of incredible worship on the part of this young Moabitess woman.
Dave: How do you do that? Because earlier you were talking about the phrase: “God has let me down.” I think we’ve all felt that at some point; it’s a universal—again, I can’t say 100 percent—but most of us, at some point, have felt that. Often, we’ve never said it; we’re afraid to say it.
Stephen: You’re right.
Dave: But it’s like, “God let me down. I really thought…” And yet, Ruth is like, “That God/I’m going to worship.”
Stephen: Yes, Ruth didn’t have access to the level of truth that you and I do.
Stephen: We have the cross; we have the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Listen, a God who would send His only Son, doesn’t let me down.
You asked, “How?” I think the more I fill my life with the gospel—the more I fill my life with the shed blood of Christ and His amazing grace—the less likely I’m going to be to let a particular trial on a particular day, even if it might be big, cause me to change my view of who this God is. If the only thing He ever did for me was the cross, that’s far more than I deserve. The older I get, and the more I understand my inherent sinfulness, Jesus is the One that I want to worship for sure. I want to be more like Ruth; I want to have that kind of faith.
Naomi says, “Listen, let’s go back to Bethlehem.” So now, it’s Naomi, the Jewish mother-in-law, and her Moabitess daughter-in-law. They go back to Bethlehem. We’re still in Chapter 1. [Laughter] What’s fascinating is what happens next because, as they walk into town, some of the women, who would have known Naomi before, they said, “Hey, aren’t you, Naomi?” You have to ask yourself, “Why wouldn’t they have recognized her?”
Here’s what I believe—and this is just conjecture only—I believe bitterness changes the way you look.
Ann: I agree.
Stephen: I think you can look at certain people over time: “That’s a bitter person.”
There’s no question, because of what happens next. Naomi says, “Don’t call me Naomi; call me Mara [Ruth 1:20].” In other words, “The single word that defines my life the most is the word, bitterness.”
Ann: It’s become her identity.
Stephen: Absolutely, it’s become her identity. Then she says, “God took me out of this country full and He brought me back empty.”
We were talking about Esau in a previous program about how bitterness will make a liar out of you. Just think about what she said—“God took me out full”?—it was a famine. And then think about the other half: “He brought me back empty.” Who’s right by her side?
Ann: Ruth’s like, “Hey, what about me?”
Stephen: That’s exactly right!
Stephen: I wish/that’s one of those: “When I get to heaven I want to have that conversation, and I want to know what Ruth was thinking at that moment.”
Ann: But she was so engulfed in her bitterness that she saw nothing but her pain.
Stephen: The last thing I’m going to do is be Naomi’s judge.
Stephen: That’s not where I want to be at all. But thankfully, the book does not end in Chapter 1; does it? Because then, in Chapter 2, Naomi suggests that Ruth go out and glean. And Ruth/that’s fascinating that Ruth has enough confidence in the Old Testament Scriptures that she actually does that.
Then we know what happens; right? All of a sudden, Boaz comes; and what a beautiful picture of grace/what a beautiful picture of provision. We don’t know all the issues about weights and measurements in the Bible, but when you look at how much barley Boaz provided for Ruth—and what I love about Ruth—remember that first day, Ruth has her lunch. You can see it happening, because she’s been living through a famine; right? All of a sudden, she has food; but then she wraps up the leftovers for Momma. She didn’t become bitter. The Moabitess becomes a woman of faith. She even wraps up the food for her mother-in-law, and she goes back and she tells Naomi what happened. And this is what I love about the story: I think Naomi’s bitter heart started melting right then.
Praise God; there’s hope in this. It’s not like I say, “I’m a bitter person, and I’m going to die that way,”—that is not true—a bitter person’s heart can change. All of a sudden, Naomi is starting to see the provision of God: “God’s keeping His promises. God is being good to us. God is providing for us.”
Then, of course, she comes up with this outlandish plan: “Why don’t you go down to the threshing floor?” “Naomi, how did we get from being a bitter woman, who has no trust in God, to the threshing floor and just believing in the process that God has placed in His Word to care for widows?”
Ann: And I’ve got to come back to this and say, too, “Good for Ruth!” because here’s Naomi, this bitter woman. It would have been so easy to walk away from her. I think it took time for Naomi’s heart to begin to soften; but Ruth continued to love her, to serve her, and to take her advice.
Stephen: Yes; and I think there’s a teaching point there, because some of our listeners may say: “Listen, I have to live with a bitter person every day, so I’m constantly hearing the negativity. I’m constantly hearing the doubt. I’m constantly hearing the disobedience to the Word of God.” You can still be a Ruth; you can still be a sweet person. You can still exercise faith, even when you’re surrounded by people who are bitter.
Ann: —or your spouse!
Stephen: Oh, absolutely. What ends up happening—right?—the threshing floor experiment turned out really good; because God is a faithful God.
I love the way the book ends, because God gives Boaz and Ruth a baby. What’s fascinating is who’s lap was that baby on when that book was done? It’s not Ruth’s—it’s Momma-in-law—right? Naomi is bouncing; in fact, the women say, “God gave a baby to Naomi.” They’re saying that right there; it’s like: “What?” “What?” “What?” Then you read the punchline—just like the Bible so often does—the punchline when it gives the genealogy at the end and explains that that little baby was in the line of Christ.
Somebody might say: “Well, maybe God didn’t know what He was doing during the famine,” or “Even maybe God didn’t know what He was doing during….” “God doesn’t know,” “God doesn’t know,” “God doesn’t know.” Read the final pages of the book of Ruth. God knows exactly what He was doing, and He designed that so that that baby would be in the line of David and would be in the line of Christ.
You see Naomi; she’s not a bitter woman anymore. We can all picture this happy grandma, bouncing this little baby on her lap, rejoicing in the provision of her God. What that means is a bitter person can become a joyful person as we grow in our faith in God and His provision.
Ann: That is such a sweet story. It makes me cry of thinking of the transformation that happened in the most unlikely way, and through the greatest loss that anyone could experience; and yet, God still comes through when we trust Him.
Dave: I think the lie sometimes we believe is: “Naomi could get out of her bitterness because the circumstances became better, and that’s what let her [change].” But it’s not always the case—the circumstances can never change, or may not change, or may not become hopeful—you can dig out of bitterness; you can overcome and get to a life of joy. Whenever I preach that simple thought—“Trials make you better or bitter,”—I always said, “The choice is yours.”
Stephen: That’s right.
Dave: We have a choice. Some people choose bitter; some choose better. The circumstances did not change, but there’s a joy that fills [their] heart because of a choice they make; right?
Stephen: Yes; and the great thing is that, if we’re Christians, we’re in Christ. So it’s not a choice I have to make by my own strength, my own wisdom, my own power. In Christ, I can choose to do, and think, and believe, and want what He desires in the moment. There’s a power inside of me, because of who I am in Christ, that helps me choose well.
Dave: I do think—tell me if I’m right or wrong—when you’re Naomi/when you’re living in bitterness, the voices you’re listening to are critical. You need Ruth in your life. You need to choose them and push away the other bitter/the people, who are saying, “Yes, you should be in the…” You’ve got to stop listening to those voices, because they’re going to influence where you end up.
Stephen: Well, this is a hard thing; but one of the bitter voices you often need to stop listening to is your own.
Dave: There we go.
Stephen: Many times, my hardest counselee is the guy I see in the mirror in the morning—so I need to stop listening to me if I’m saying words to myself that are not informed by the Word of God—many times, they’re lies; they’re twisted. That’s why it’s so important to surround myself with godly people; why it’s so important to be in the Lord’s house on the Lord’s Day; that’s why it’s so important to check whatever it is I’m thinking with the truth of the Word of God; to check whatever I’m wanting with the principles of Scripture.
Sometimes, I need to tell myself to be quiet. Since I’m in a radio format, I’ll just use the phrase, “Be quiet.” I can think of other things I really need to tell myself, from time to time, or else I’m just going to lead my own self down the path of bitterness.
Dave: Yes, it’s the self-talk/the negative that’s in there.
Ann: I think, too, I’ve just talked to two women this week, where their husband was caught in an affair; and they’re just struggling with bitterness. I’m thinking of another woman that I just talked to whose husband continues to battle, and he’s trying to win over pornography. I was talking to her, and just feeling her heart become so bitter, like, “How many times do I need to forgive this man?”
I think, every single day, we’re all faced with those decisions and the voices that we hear in our head. I think it’s really important to take those thoughts captive.
Stephen: Absolutely, absolutely. You know, even when you give those little vignettes—I mean, our hearts break—that, this side of heaven, men and women are facing. We’re not minimizing the pain in any way, shape, or form; but we’re saying: “It doesn’t have to determine the outcome. Christ is more powerful than that.”
Dave: In your own life, you’ve mentioned it a couple times, the journey to overcome bitterness. I know this isn’t an autobiography book [Laughter]; but you’ve, obviously, journeyed through that. Do you still today find it creeping in?
Stephen: Absolutely; I think there’s the opportunity for it every day. All of us travel, so that means it won’t be long before I’ll be on another airplane in another airport. Anybody who travels understands it doesn’t always go/I mean, who knows what the rest of the day is going to hold when it comes to airline travel. We’ve also been in those situations and watched bitter people make situations really bad. But the other side of it is, we’ve been on airplanes, or in that situation, where you can see somebody have the right kind of response—
Ann: —the beautiful grace-givers.
Stephen: Absolutely; absolutely!
So do I face it? Absolutely; I do, as an imperfect man in an imperfect world; yes! But praise God; we’ve got a way to overcome it so that we’re not bitter people.
Dave: Can I ask you to do this? I’m thinking of a listener that’s just stuck. They’ve been listening through all these programs with you and their still just like, “I just don’t know how to get out of the muck/the mud of this bitterness I’m in.” Could you pray for them? I’d love to hear you just pray that they could find a way to overcome bitterness.
Father in heaven, I thank You for every person who is listening to this prayer and though, this side of heaven, I will not know most of them, You know each person who is listening right now. You know every detail about their life; You even know the number of hairs on their head. Father, we thank You for Your sovereignty; and we thank you for being a good Father.
Lord, I would pray for the person, who is stuck in bitterness right now. Some, who don’t know Christ as Savior and Lord, I pray that they would admit their need, even in this hard time, and would choose to trust Him.
Lord, for those who would say that they’re Christians, but that they’re just stuck, Father, some/they need to lament. I pray that they would learn the discipline of coming to You directly and authentically and speaking to You.
Others have a situation in their life where they need to go and confront another person, but they’ve not done it. Lord, I pray that You would allow them to bring others around their life that would give them the direction and the courage to take that step. I pray—though it’s totally in Your hands—I pray that, in many cases, there would be genuine repentance and true forgiveness as a result.
Lord, though it’s hard, I pray that You would help all of us to think about the times that we are bitter; but it really has to do with some sin that we committed, and we’ve compounded it because we’ve lied about it. Lord, that’s so hard to think about; but where sin abounds, grace does much more abound. We thank You that You give us forgiveness, even when we have sinned.
And Lord we thank You, ultimately, that Jesus is a sweet, sweet Savior. I pray that the more we come to love Him and know Him, the less room there is in our heart for even a hint of a root of bitterness.
We pray these things, worshipping You for making it possible in Christ’s name; amen.
Bob: Because we live in a fallen world, we will always have opportunities to deal with resentment, bitterness, un-forgiveness—that’s going to be a part of life—but let’s purpose to be people who don’t allow bitterness to take hold in our hearts/people who can release bitterness as soon as we feel it coming our way. That’s really what Stephen Viars was talking about with Dave and Ann Wilson here today: “How can we be people who are not overcome by bitterness?—who are characterized by love, and joy, and peace, and patience, and kindness, and gentleness, all of the things we know about from the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians, Chapter 5.
Stephen Viars’ book, Overcoming Bitterness is so helpful in helping us, not only deal with specific areas where we may be harboring resentment toward someone else, but also in helping us be the kind of people who are not bitter people, where that doesn’t become characteristic of us. We’ve got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go online to FamilyLifeToday.com to request your copy, or call to order at 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the title of the book is Overcoming Bitterness by Stephen Viars. 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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We hope you can join us tomorrow. We’ve going to hear about what we do in a marriage when we’re going through a tough season, because all of us go through tough seasons. It doesn’t matter who you are, circumstances are going to come your way that are going to test your resolve in marriage. Dave and Meg Robbins are going to join us—David’s the president of FamilyLife—and talk about how we navigate tough seasons in marriage. I hope you can join us for that.
On behalf 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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