Anger and bitterness

Anger and bitterness November 10, 2010

Fierce Kitten

My friends at No Longer Quivering and I are frequently accused of unforgiveness. The blog Steadfast Daughters was deliberately set up to accuse Hillary MacFarland and other “Quivering Daughters” like myself of holding bitter grudges against our parents and churches for the abuse we suffered. The two most common denunciations we receive, actually, are these:

  1. “We’re not all like that. You’re overreacting.”
  2. “You’re bitter and angry. You’re just selfish and hate your church. You’re just blaming others for your own bad attitude.”

One of the great misconceptions of my work and that of the writers at No Longer Quivering is that we were merely hurt by abusive people twisting religion (in my case, the Message) to suit their own evil purposes. That is not entirely wrong. Many of us were involved with abusive people who might have been the same with or without religion. But that is not all of the story. Most of the time, we were hurt by good people, people whom we loved, people who broke our hearts with our own best interests in mind. And for me, it was the Message itself that broke my heart.

I was not hurt simply by friends or family members misusing the Message. The Message itself hurt me. What William Branham said about women made me wish I had never been born. I went to a relatively good Message church, one that constantly emphasized unconditional love and grace, but it wasn’t enough to counter the words of hatred that rained on me from Branham’s own sermons.

The emotion I feel most strongly when I think of those I left behind is sorrow. I am sad that they will never know me except through the lens of a rebellious defector. I am sad that I didn’t get to spend more of my life with them. Above all, I am sad that they think I abandoned them, because it was not them I escaped – it was the Message. I left because I needed to survive. I couldn’t do it in the Message. The Message carved out a little box for me, a box of submission and homemaking, and my heart did not fit in that box. I don’t resent those who taught me the Message – I resent the Message for separating me from them.

The Message tells us that we must avoid being bitter at all costs. My pastor used to tell us, “If you have a scratch of bitterness in your heart, you’re in danger of missing the Rapture.” We constantly searched our hearts for anything we’d ever held against other people and fought to eradicate those feelings. We practiced a kind of forgiveness that meant the sin itself was erased – not only did God forget we’d ever sinned, we were to forget others had “trespassed” against us. We were to die to ourselves so that Christ could reach them through our softened spirits. We were not to be angry, unless we were angry on behalf of the Lord. If someone hurt us, we were to forgive like God forgave: a “drop of ink in a tub of bleach” – we were to be so full of love and forgiveness that you couldn’t even find the sin or hurt when you looked into our hearts. I still believe in forgiveness, but not that kind.

Forgetting the hurt (or pretending to) only enables the people who hurt us to keep doing it. They never face the consequences of their actions. They know we’ll keep taking it, so they keep dishing it. The more they hurt us, the more it wears away our energy and will to live. But we are so focused on keeping the “root of bitterness” from lodging in our hearts that we can never say, “Enough is enough. I won’t allow you to treat me this way.” Taking a stand like this doesn’t mean we don’t forgive. It means we need space in order to get far enough away from the pain to really forgive. Sometimes forgiveness means knowing when you need to separate yourself from someone or something in order to stay healthy and happy.

Anger, too, is not the enemy of forgiveness. Anger is a natural response to hurt. It energizes and gives us the power to get away from the hurt, like adrenaline helps us get away from dangerous situations. It’s also a response to injustice: we can be angry not only at the pain we suffered, but at the pain others are suffering from the same source. Anger is a useful tool, one that we shouldn’t fear. It’s also a normal part of grieving the pain, loss and frustration we’ve felt in our experiences in the Message. It will run its course; it does not need to be pried out with forceps or a crowbar. There is no Rapture to be missed. There is time to work through the pain. And it doesn’t go at once – sometimes the anger comes back when the memories resurface. When we’ve faced so much pain, it’s normal for memories to get buried and suddenly flare up when our minds are able to process them in peace. The five stages of grieving don’t come sequentially: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance fluctuate continuously, often catching us by surprise. There is no program to follow, no clear trajectory – only honesty with our hearts and minds.

There is freedom in allowing ourselves to feel whatever it is we’re feeling. We were told all along to deny our anger or sadness – we were to reject those “lying vanities” and profess that we had the “joy of the Lord.” We were to rebuke the demons of unhappiness and call on the Holy Spirit to deliver us from the rebellious spirits of discontent. And all this time we denied what was always natural and normal: we were told that we had to be something we were not, and it made us angry. It made us sad that we couldn’t fit in or live up to the expectations of the Message. It made me envious of the little boys who grew up without being told that they were destined to serve and obey their spouses, without being told to deny their dreams and plan for a life of homemaking. But these were invalid emotions: we were not allowed to feel that way. What kind of a testimony were we sharing with the world, right?

Now that we’re out, let’s not race to rid ourselves of all the traces of pain. Sometimes the anger gives us energy to right the wrongs that were done to us and to extend a helping hand to those behind us. Sometimes the sadness reminds us that our hearts were bruised because we cared. We are not less valuable because we are angry, or even bitter. Even bitterness can run its course in time and we can find peace. If there is a God who created us, did not that Person design us to feel? To love? To recoil from pain and hate injustice? We do not need to have a testimony: we do not need to pretend that nothing that happened bothered us or that we have found all the answers. Let us revel in the fullness of being human, in having the right to express our pain, to rage and howl and curse if we need to, so that we may better love and soothe and heal with hearts cleansed by release.

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