How to rid yourself of ministry bitterness; ‘pour out your heart to God’.
[‘encouragement’, ‘exhortation’, for life and ministry]
‘Will I be bitter for eternity because of what has happened to me in Christian ministry?’
I was asked this question by an old minister at a conference. It relates to a common problem in ministry, the bitterness that grows from how other people treat us or what they say to us, or don’t say to us, their expectations of us, their neglect, opposition, their attacks, their slander, how we have to live and work with the consequences of their mistakes, the conditions under which we work and live, their desire for control of the church or ministry or us!
Those who embitter us may include people to whom we minister, fellow workers, colleagues, our council or committee, those who appoint us, supervise us, disappoint us, or remove us from a ministry, organisational or denominational leaders. It may be those who demean us, don’t respect us, manipulate us, gossip about us, or criticise us. It may come as a result of other peoples’ bad ministry, laziness, laxness, immorality, excessive control, or neglect of their ministry, when we are left to pick up the pieces and try to repair the damage. Sometimes people ‘shoot the messenger’ when we pass on God’s word. Those who like controlling the church or organisation might attack us to keep control. People who are guilty may attack us. And anger is a very volatile emotion, and we sometimes suffer the anger that people feel towards others, but dare not express to them. We are often embittered when we suffer the bad consequences of inefficiency, neglect, or unreasonable demands. We may be damaged by a church, an organisation, a denomination, or by a group of people, or an individual
Those who work in ministry are inevitably liable to hurt and bitterness. The wife or husband of someone in ministry will also be liable to become bitter at the treatment their spouse receives. And that wife or husband of the person in ministry is in a more painful situation, because they have no power to defend the person under attack. They have the added strain of having to continue to be polite to those who are attacking their spouse. The wife or husband of someone in ministry also often has complaints about their spouse, or demands of their spouse made directly to them, which is very damaging to them. This triangulation can cause great hurt and pain for that person.
Those who work in ministry may also become bitter because of the negative impact of their role on their children. When ministry is difficult, ministry children are often negatively impacted. If ministry involves moving location a lot, this can also cause problems for ministry children, and consequent bitterness for those in ministry. When we move to a different church, our family often loses church, friends, home and local community.
The situation is more complicated if attacks are made publicly, because it is not always possible or appropriate to make a public response.
And it is often the case that there are only a few people with whom we can share this situation: people who will maintain confidentiality, and who will not attack those who have attacked us!
These trials either drive us away from God, or they drive us to God. I often remind people of Paul’s wonderful words about God in 2 Corinthians 1: ‘the Father of mercy, and the God of all consolation’. And ‘all’ includes whatever kind of consolation we need, and also however much consolation we need. Our Father of mercy has all consolation, and gives it generously to us, and then enables us to console others with the consolation he has given us.
When I was a student at Ridley College, I preached in Chapel on 1 Samuel 1, and especially on the words of Hannah, ‘I was pouring out my heart to the LORD … praying here out of my great anguish and grief.’ [1 Sam 1:15-16].
Hannah’s anguish drove her to God, and to pour out to God, to tell God, to explain to God, all her anguish and grief. Of course God knew it all. But he loves us to depend on him, to turn to him, to talk to him, and to share our lives with him. He loves us more than anyone else, he cares for us more than anyone else, and he can comfort us more than anyone else. It is the same as when a small child is upset: we want them to tell us all about it.
To pour out your heart to God in these situations is to tell it like it is, to recount all the wrongs, all your reactions, and all the emotions you feel. It is to say, this is what happened, this is what I felt, this is how I responded, here is my pain, suffering, anger, disappointment, despair, loss, frustration, fury. ‘Name it and tell it’.
It is to say to God, ‘I am pouring it out to you because holding it in is too painful, and is damaging me too much’. And it is to say to God, ‘I want to pour it out to you because you are: full of compassion, full of love, full of understanding, full of patience, because I trust you, and because you know my heart, my actions, my reactions, my self, my life.’ [You may find it helpful to write out your complaints to clarify and objectify them, and then read them to God in prayer.]
While you may feel that it is too painful, too tedious, too demeaning, or too trivial to pour out your heart to God, it is not. If suffering, anger, frustration, pain and disappointment is present inside you, it is better to get it out by telling God. God has infinite patience and infinite time. He is more impatient with us when we don’t turn to him in prayer, than when we do!
We find the same theme elsewhere in the Old Testament. Ps 42:4: ‘These things I remember as I pour out my soul…’. Psalm 142:2: ‘I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble’. Lamentations 2:19: ‘Arise, call out in the night … pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord.’
Hurt lasts a long time, and you may need to do this again and again, and as often as these bad memories flood back into your mind, as often as you start ruminating on them yet again.
You may find God’s gracious gift of a loving, stable, confidential and prayerful friend with whom you can share some of your pain, and who consoles you with God’s consolation. What a wonderful gift of God. ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ’ [Gal 6:2].
If you are married, no doubt you will share some things with your spouse. But be careful not to over-load that person, especially because, as I pointed out above, it may be too painful for them.
Professional supervision can be a helpful regular practice for people in ministry, can assist in dealing with ministry difficulties and pain, and in other ways too. You might need professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist. If you need it, please get it!
And if you are holding the hurt in, then it is difficult to move to the later questions you need to ponder in due time, such as: ‘Could I have responded better?’ What can I learn from what happened?’ ‘ In what ways did I contribute negatively to the situation?’
Why not get some training in dealing with conflict, bullying, abuse; with work conditions, work contracts, and work-life balance; with godly assertiveness and appropriate self-care?
In due course, it is productive to reflect on those whom we have hurt in our lives or ministries, either intentionally or unintentionally. There may be sins you need to confess, and personal transformation you need to ask God to achieve in you, and work on yourself.
Be kind and compassionate to one another, Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you’ [Ephesians 4:32]. ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’ [Matthew 6:12]. ‘Father forgive them …’ [Luke 23:34].
Forgiving those who hurt us is also part of the healing process for us, for them, and for the church or organisation. Maintained unforgiveness damages everyone, and not least the person who refuses to forgive, who ‘maintains the rage’.
Forgiving someone is not saying that what they did does not matter. It is not to minimise the damage and hurt they have done, the sins they have committed. Forgiving someone is not saying that we are not hurt or that our hurt does not matter. It does!
As forgiveness is costly for God, so it is costly for us as well. But eventually, we need to forgive others as God in Christ forgave us. In the words of CS Lewis, ‘To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in others, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you’. I remember Bob Hawke saying ‘we forgive, but we never forget’. Christians hope that healthy forgiveness will lead to healthy forgetting, and, we hope to reconciliation.
The ideal of course, is that repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation all come as part of a process. Forgiving doesn’t always lead to reconciliation, but there may be an ongoing need to manage a difficult relationship where forgiveness has been necessary. We should aim to be as reconciled as possible, with two clear conditions: ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone’ [Rom 12:18].
For some people who have struggled with bitterness, a sense of lack of justice has been part of their struggle. The encouragement that God will one day put all to rights and bring perfect justice can sometimes help with this struggle. ‘Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord [Rom 12:19].
In all this, ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ [Rom 12:20].
Especially in cases of abuse, forgiving is often a very long process.
If you experienced psychological, physical or sexual abuse, it may take you years, if not decades, to forgive, because the hurt and damage are so deep. But it is good to work towards forgiveness, even if it takes a long time. Again, forgiveness is not excusing or diminishing the significance of what has happened. Small steps towards forgiveness are the clue. The question is, ‘Am I working towards being able to forgive this person, despite the horrendous damage they have done?’ Again, you may well need professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist. Remember that forgiveness was also costly for God.
You may also need to report what has happened.
Here in Victoria, Australia, every adult is a mandatory reporter for sexual abuse. In our roles as ministry workers we are all mandatory reporters of any kind of abuse. This requirement is most obvious when someone else is the victim. But it means that there are good systems in place for us to report any abuse when, as ministry workers, we are the victim.
We can forgive someone and also report them. Psychological, physical or sexual abuse and work-place bullying needs to be reported or a complaint made to the relevant authorities in church, Christian organisation, independent complaints handling organisations, as well as to the police if appropriate.
We report abusers for the benefit of others, to protect people from such behaviour, and for the welfare of the community and also the church or Christian organisation. Both the church and the state have a responsibility before God to punish and restrain such behaviour, so they need to know that it has occurred. In addition, we want to do our best to ensure that others are not damaged in the future, and we also want any others who have been damaged to come forward and report what has happened to them.
We should remind ourselves that in suffering unjustly, we are following in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus.
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth’. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly [1 Pet 2:21-23].
Christ dignified unjust degradation and suffering for us.
My answer to the question, ‘Will I be bitter for eternity?’
[I received many valuable insights from Natalie Rosner in writing this article. Thank you, Natalie!]
‘If some bitterness still remains at the end of your life, then when Jesus says, “Well done, good and faithful servant”, God will wash away all tears from your eyes, and all bitterness from your life and memory.’ [Based on Rev 21:4].
Useful ministry resources.
Marjory Foyle, Honourably Wounded: Stress among Christian Workers, Lion Hudson, 2009., and also available as an ebook. [This focuses on missionary workers, but is also relevant more widely.]
With warmest good wishes, beloved friends and fellow-workers.
See CS Lewis, Fern-seed and Elephants, London, Fontana, 1975, pp. 39-43. ↑