Question: My spouse hurt me very badly by having an affair. As a result of that we lost many things – a large amount of money, trust, and peace of mind to name a few. Admittedly, I am really struggling. Several friends tell me I’m bitter, but I think I’m in the midst of grieving these losses. I don’t deny I’m angry, but isn’t anger part of the grieving process? How would I know if my grief was degenerating into bitterness? Is there a time limit (expiration date, statute of limitations) or some kind of emotional temperature gauge?
Resources: Here are several resources that can be useful in preparing for of following up with the conversation discussed in this VLOG post.
- True Betrayal: The material for this post was adapted from material in Step 5 of this seminar.
- Taking the Journey of Grief with Hope: If you want to learn more about how to grieve with hope, this seminar can guide you through this process.
- Sin and Suffering Videos: Videos three and four in our Freedom Group leader training curriculum give a more detailed look at how the gospel speaks differently to our struggles when they are rooted in sin versus suffering.
- What Is Emotional Maturity?: This blog provides guidance on and an example of how to differentiate between emotions that are similar in their emotional and physical expression.
Additional notes used for creating this video are included below:
What do bitterness and mourning share in common?
- Both are triggered by an event that is personal and negative.
- Both exist on the unpleasant end of the emotional spectrum.
- Both feel very justified and make sense in light of the event.
- Both feel very natural and like we are not “doing” them but that they are “happening” to us.
- Both involve a high degree of mental repetition.
- Both are seeking to make sense of life in light of the negative event.
- Both begin to shape the way you interpret the events and people around you.
In his booklet Help! My Spouse Has Been Unfaithful Mike Summers describes six things that bitterness does (bold text and bitterness statements only; p. 23-25).
1. Bitterness Disrupts Peace vs. Mourning Makes Peace Possible Again – There is no peace where evil is called good or is overlooked. That is denial and is a pseudo-peace that gives no more “peace juice” than a plastic orange gives orange juice. However, simply looking at a wrong does not bring peace. Thinking about a wrong over and over again is the essence of bitterness. One of the litmus tests for the degree of bitterness is the level of detail in our memory about the offense. This detail is maintained through repetition.
It is mourning that drains a wrong of its emotional power over you. Mourning is only something we do when we feel safe. Soldiers don’t mourn a fallen friend in the midst of a battle; they survive. Once they return home, they mourn. By coming to a place where you can mourn what has happened (hopefully your spouse’s work in the False Love materials has helped with this) you are declaring yourself safe.
2. Bitterness Destroys Joy vs. Mourning Is Foundational for Joy – Bitterness keeps pain in the present. Bitterness knows no boundaries of time. Bitterness does not have memories; it has experiences. If a memory hurts, the offense is responded to as if it is happening all over again. When this is the case joy is an emotional mirage that is attempted to be used as a sedative that disappears whenever a painful thought enters the mind.
Mourning allows pain to be in the past. It may still hurt, but you can see that the past hurt and present pain exist in different time zones. The present loss that you are mourning can be restored even if the past hurt cannot be unwritten. As you mourn, you realize that those things in your present are capable of being good or becoming better. You can acknowledge this without ever going through the self-deception of declaring your spouse’s past sin to be good. This provides a foundation for joy as your present improves without having to play mental games with yourself about the past.
3. Bitterness Depletes Strength vs. Mourning Replenishes Strength – Bitterness is a form of anger and anger requires a great deal of energy. Anger feels strong, but that is because it is pulling from an excessive amount of your bodily reserves to artificially amp up your emotional and physical stamina. The result is an inevitably crash. Bitterness is the equivalent of an emotional parasite that feeds off the life of its host. The longer it resides in your life, the weaker you become.
Mourning is a form of rest. When we mourn we quit fighting to control a pain that we did not cause which is in a time zone we cannot touch (the past). We surrender; not to the evil in our past but to living in the present. This surrender does require including our spouse’s sin in our life story redemptively (that is next chapter), but the ceasing from an unconquerable battle provides the rest that replenishes strength.
4. Bitterness Distorts Focus vs. Mourning Restores Focus – Bitterness cannot think of anything for long without returning to the offense that ignited it. Every subject feels like derivative of our pain. Emotionally our pain feels relevant to everything and when our pain is relevant it trumps anything else.
Mourning is the process that allows current events to stand on their own. Having grieved the losses related to your spouse’s sin, his/her sin does not have to be “relevant” at irrelevant times. Immediately after losing a close loved one everything reminds you of them. It is hard to think of anything else. After grieving you still remember them, but you are able to engage fully in life (even activities of which they were a part) without losing focus.
5. Bitterness Defiles Relationships vs. Mourning Honors Relationships – Bitterness defines a relationship by the painful event. Often bitterness defines an entire gender by the painful event. When we are bitter, cynicism becomes mistaken for wisdom. The guiding questions of life become, “When are you going to hurt me again? How are you going to hurt me this time? How can I stop it?” Even if the marriage is maintained, the environment created by bitterness makes it inhospitable for the marriage to be restored.
Mourning recognizes the painful event as real but sees the marriage as larger. Mourning can see the spouse’s sin as “part” of the marriage; not the whole marriage. The marriage is honored as it is recognized as good, while the sin is grieved as being bad. It is mourning that allows us to make this distinction. Honor is given to someone or something when we recognize they are not defined by their weakest moment.
6. Bitterness Displeases God vs. Mourning Pleases God – Bitterness is a sin (not “the sin”). Like every other sin, it displeases God and creates separation in our relationship with Him. At a time when we are already feeling separated from our closest relationship, this can be particularly hard to accept.
However, God is pleased with our mourning and draws close to us in our sorrow. When we resist the approach captured in the old adage, “It is easier to be angry than hurt,” God approves of the courage represented in our grief. God does not delight in your pain, but He is pleased when you display His character with His strength in the midst of your pain. While mourning may not feel like faith, in the midst of suffering it can be the essence of faith.
To review the other questions addressed in this VLOG series click here.
Note: The VLOG (video-blog) Q&A is a regular series on my blog. If you would like to submit a question, it can be e-mail to Amy LaBarr (firstname.lastname@example.org; admin over counseling at The Summit Church). Please limit your questions to 3-7 sentences. This is not a forum for to request or receive counseling. No responses will be sent to questions other those selected for a video response.