So, what about the bitterness?

by Jeffrey Hoffman*

Read more in the “So, what about the…” series:

So, what about the Sin?  |  So, what about the Grace?  |  So, what about the Love?
So, what about the Sex?

Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears. — Hebrews 12: 14-17 (King James Version)

Bitterness: an attitude problem?

Jeffrey Hoffman

The passage above, particularly the highlighted phrase, represents one of the most poorly understood,  widely misinterpreted, and often misapplied passages of scripture in the New Testament. Whether the reference is cited by a fundamentalist lay-person reacting to an uncomfortable revelation about institutional wrong-doing, a “Christian counselor” dealing with a victim of abuse or sexual assault, or by a preacher shouting from the pulpit, the message is almost always “you’re just bitter and you need to forgive – Biblically forgive – and forget about the person or persons who wronged you and just move on. There’s a root of bitterness in you. Why can’t you get over what happened to you?” In other words “will you just shut up?”

Bitterness is a popular topic for preaching: a word search for “bitterness” through, the web repository of sermons from churches and schools within the fundamentalist network, revealed over 400 sermon titles. Narrowing those down to sermons specifically addressing this passage of scripture returned 43 hits. I randomly selected two that date from within the last two years – Bitter or Better? by former BJU Dean of Men Tony Miller delivered at a BJU chapel last spring and Backsliding of Bitterness by well-known evangelist and BJU alumnus Jim van Gelderen – to compare. They are notably similar in structure and content.

Twisted Tree Roots in Blarney Castle Grounds - - 596637

Twisted tree roots on Blarney Castle Grounds,
Andy Beecroft, via Wikimedia Commons

The formula goes something like this: both men have counseled “young people” in their work. In the course of this counseling, they have encountered a “young person” who is “apathetic” or “angry.” After the preacher correctly diagnoses the “spiritual problem of bitterness,” the tearful counselee admits to his bitterness, confesses the “sin” and everything is instantly better in her life. This no doubt unwitting “young person” becomes an illustration that presents a pat, perfect example of why the preacher is right. The victim of wrong-doing who is “bitter” is never instructed to pursue justice. In this achingly familiar trope the wrong-doing is turned into “your bitterness problem,” with the remedy being a spiritual “attitude adjustment.”  Give the problem over to God: “vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.” (Romans 12: 19) The not-so-subtle message is that the “young person” is not allowed to hold the one who has wronged him or her to account, no matter how terrible the injury they have suffered. A stream of non sequiturs in both of these sermons glibly dismisses every serious psychological repercussion that a victim might experience in favor of a cruel mind game that demands an introspective “did you forgive them? Did you really mean it?” Instead of seeking redress for harm done and an honest path of reconciliation that starts with public accountability for the wrong-doer, the victim is essentially told to “grin and bear it,” especially if the one who has done the harm is “in the ministry” or some other position of authority.

Jim Van Gelderen suggests that “bitterness” comes when someone “fails the grace of God” and that “bitter people” are either sexually immoral or “profane,” which he oddly defines as someone who might go to church but who “doesn’t care about spiritual things.” Because I wasn’t expecting to hear LGBT+ people mentioned in such a randomly selected sermon, I was surprised when he said “I was preaching last week in the province of Manitoba. I preached on this particular passage of scripture and a man came up to me and said “Brother van Gelderen, … I have worked in the secular field of psychology and my field was ‘sexual deviancy,’ and I have dealt with countless lesbians and homosexuals. I want to tell you that every one of them I have ever met was bitter.” (A licensed psychological professional would not appropriately use the term “sexual deviancy” to describe any LGBT+ person). Van Gelderen goes on to say that “bitterness opens the door to moral failure.” In Van Gelderen’s view, the bitter person has merely “failed to access God’s grace.” I have already addressed the topic of fundamentalism’s distortion of the doctrine of grace in a previous post (here) so I will simply add that, as a believer in the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament of the altar, when I want to “access grace,” I go to Mass. Nearly a quarter century of faithful attendance to the Eucharist has changed me, even when I didn’t want to be changed. My experience of Jesus is that “He who began a good work in me will perform it” (Philippians 1: 6) and “He who called me to faithfulness is faithful to complete that good work.” (I Thessalonians 5: 24) God is faithful, even when we are not.

Tony Miller gives an accurate distillation of the Christological themes that the epistle of Hebrews concerns itself with (Jesus is the Messiah, the King, the fulfillment of the old Jewish law, etc.), but then through the very same eisegetical sleight-of-hand as Van Gelderen, lands us at the “root of bitterness,” an attitude problem, being at the heart of the immorality of Esau mentioned later in the verse.

In another sermon on “forgiveness” he delivered in 2009, Jim Van Gelderen recounts the story of a young woman who was “taken advantage of morally by another missionary on the mission field.”  For those unfamiliar with fundamentalist-speak, let me clarify that this euphemistic language is about as close to an accurate description of a brutal rape as one is likely to hear from a fundamentalist pulpit.  Van Gelderen makes no mention of pursuing justice for the victim of this crime, or of suggesting she report to the appropriate authorities. No, he suggests instead that she needs to deal with her “bitterness” and forgive her rapist.

In short, fundamentalists have imposed a behavioral interpretation on this tiny passage… and they are reading it entirely wrong.

Bitterness: a commandment for the Hebrews?

Ss. Aquila and Priscilla with St. Paul,
fresco in the Basilica of St. Paul in Rome
Domenico Tojetti (1807–1892)
(many Biblical scholars believe Priscilla was the author of Hebrews) 

If we want to understand the Epistle to the Hebrews, we need to know a little about its authorship and its original intended audience. It turns out that the audience is easier to pinpoint than the authorship. The tradition of the Church is that this epistle was written around the year A.D. 63 to a persecuted group of Jewish believers  – converts to Christianity — either in Jerusalem or in Rome. Often attributed to Paul, the authorship of the epistle has been in dispute since the earliest days of the Church, which meant it almost wasn’t included in the canon of scripture. Current scholarship suggests that almost certainly the Apostle Paul was not the author, though the author is likely someone who was close to him. The currently leading contender for the identity of the author is Saint Priscilla (spouse of Aquila), a woman!

Bitterness is a recurring theme in the Hebrew scriptures, the Tanakh. For early believers steeped in the traditions of Judaism, bitterness would have been a familiar subject:  the Egyptians made the lives of the Hebrews bitter by enslaving them. (Exodus 1: 14) Bitter herbs were eaten at the Passover. (Exodus 12: 8 and Numbers 9: 11) Bitter destruction was promised to those who worshiped false gods among the nation of Israel. (Deuteronomy 32: 24). Mordecai made a loud and bitter cry against Haman’s plot to have all Jews killed. (Esther 4: 1) Job laments having been given life for his bitter soul in his great birthday curse (Job 3: 20), longing to bring his bitter complaint before the Lord’s throne (Job 23: 2). The prophet Jeremiah entreats the “daughter of my people” to make bitter lament of mourning “as for an only son” (Jeremiah 6: 26), and says the matriarch Rachel bitterly weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted because they are dead (Jeremiah 31: 15).

Since the intended audience of this epistle was almost without a doubt Jewish, it follows that we ought to read the text through the lens of Judaism. A quick Google search for “bitterness in Judaism” brings up this astonishing statement:

“Bitterness isn’t just a tradition in the Jewish community–it’s a commandment.”

Recently, I was invited to attend a Passover seder, my first. For thousands of years, Jews have observed this ritualized dinner party commemorating the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. In fact, Jesus Himself was celebrating Passover with His disciples when He was captured, tried, and executed. The Passover Haggadah contains a very detailed set of instructions for the ritual in the Passover meal. Among them is the requirement to eat bitter herbs (maror) at a specific moment following certain prayers as a sensory and symbolic reminder of the bitterness of bondage in Egypt that the Jewish people endured. In other words, Jews are commanded by God to remember bitterness at the Passover, not to forget. This bitterness in the Hebrew scriptures isn’t just a “heart attitude.” It’s an emotion, a feeling of profound pain and sorrow commemorated in the senses by partaking of bitter herbs in the midst of an otherwise delicious meal.

The proscribed Passover scripture readings mirror the passages from the Old Testament  read by most Christian denominations during Holy Week and the Easter Triduum (Exodus 12 and Psalm 118, for example). The story of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery becomes, in Christianity, a foretaste of the entire world’s deliverance from the bondage of slavery to sin through Jesus Christ. The ancient tradition of the  Office of Tenebrae during Holy Week in the universal Church further ties the Christian narrative to Israel’s bitterness by selected readings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, where the prophet evokes the taste of the bitter herbs wormwood and gall to mourn the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in the Babylonian captivity. One of my favorite musical settings of this text to perform during Holy Week was composed by Sir Edward Bairstow (1874-1946), longtime organist and choirmaster at Yorkminster Cathedral. You can listen to it here:

the Jewish Annotated New Testament suggests that this passage in Hebrews is referencing Deuteronomy 29: 18

In my quest to understand the imagery used by the author of Hebrews, I turned to my recently acquired copy of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, a new and ground-breaking work of Biblical scholarship edited by Vanderbilt University professor Amy-Jill Levine and Brandeis University professor Marc Zvi Brettler, which offers new insight and commentary on the New Testament texts from within the Jewish rabbinic tradition. The annotation for this phrase “root of bitterness” suggests an allusion to Deuteronomy 29: 18 which reads “Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood;(KJV)  Wormwood (a bitter-tasting herb historically used to de-worm livestock and as a flavoring agent in distilled spirits like absinthe, bitters, and vermouth) is mentioned exactly seven times in the Tanach (Rabbinical scholarship considers such numerical puzzles when interpreting texts). Gall was a bitter, slightly poisonous melon (colocynth) used as a purgative in the ancient world.

The source of the bitterness, its root, is idolatry or turning away from God.  The Passover Seder contrasts bitterness with sweetness as a physical reminder of pain and suffering. The bitterness of captivity leads Israel to repentance, which gives way to the sweetness of joy when freedom comes. Bitterness and sweetness mingle together. Such is life. Such is the summation of our lives. A Jewish friend of mine once summed up the Jewish holidays thus: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”

If we return to Hebrews chapter 12 and read this phrase about a “root of bitterness” now with this understanding gleaned from Judaism and within the hortatory context of the entire chapter, we find that this passage is not, in fact, a direction to individual believers about their attitudes; it’s not meant as a psychology primer for “Christian counseling” at all.  The anonymous author of Hebrews is addressing an entire community of believers about nurturing and preserving each other in the midst of a time of trouble (the external persecution these believers were enduring).  Verses 12 and 13 specifically mention ways in which believers and the Church are responsible to help each other: clearing paths of obstruction and easing the journey to healing. (The Revised Standard Version renders it as “make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put of joint, but rather be healed.”) This echoes important New Testament themes about the mutuality of the faith community from the last part of Matthew 25  (feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and comfort prisoners), James 1: 27 (take care of widows and orphans), and Galatians 6: 2 (bear one another’s burdens) among other passages.

Bitterness: a prophetic word?

The Bible is full of calls for repentance and justice. As we have seen, the Old Testament prophets, particularly Jeremiah in his Lamentations employ the imagery and the sensation of bitterness as a call to repentance.

It is no secret that these are bitter times for Bob Jones University. Enrollment is down. Entire majors have been cut. Long-time faculty are being downsized into early retirement. A series of bad decisions over many years has led to a lot of recent negative publicity for the administration. There is bitterness at BJU.

Many of Bob Jones University’s wounds are self-inflicted. This is a college whose chancellor once remarked to a journalist that “We’re unusual in our objectives to teach the student what he believes. Most schools would be appalled at this statement, but committed as we are, we don’t throw a bunch of theories to them about the religions of the world and philosophy and this sort of thing.” (Bob Jones, III to Robert Sherrill, quoted in Gothic Politics in the Deep South). That same journalist cannot be blamed for noting the large number of honorary degrees and the home-grown nature of most terminal degrees among the faculty and administration. Alumni who have recently discovered that a notable administrator who taught counseling courses in the seminary never even completed a college degree, though we all knew him by his honorary honorific “Doctor,” cannot be blamed for holding this fraudulence in contempt.  Others who note that the current chair of the psychology department — he who recently described Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a “worship disorder” and denied its existence to a roomful of military chaplains — cannot be blamed for calling the university to task for employing such a person, who lacks the usual academic credentials in such an important role.  The pastor, alumnus and board member who notoriously demonized a childhood rape victim on his personal web-site (though her rapist was later convicted on evidence from his personal notes at the trial), vigorously defended when a Christian woman inquired of the Chancellor as to why such a man would be kept on the BJU board, sparked an alumni petition and student protest. And the long-standing racial segregationist history of the school, an embarrassment to most alumni and of which the current administration ought to be deeply ashamed, well that has done more harm to the University’s reputation and to the larger “cause of Christ” over many years than probably anything else.

It is likewise no secret that a large and growing group of alumni (graduates and former students) has banded together in recent years to call for Bob Jones University to repent of its past and to undertake substantive reforms. As a prophet is often without honor in his own country, this group has been labeled “bitter,” “disafffected,” and “haters.” BJU loyalists and others, who have trouble perceiving a world in which BJU can be wrong, make the equation that criticism is hatred and that calls for repentance and change signify malicious intent. “The Disaffected” or, as I prefer, “the Disinfected and Disabused” are the subject of heated diatribes in internet forums, blog posts and even chapel rants.

I left Bob Jones University nearly a quarter century ago. I found a home in the Church catholic and a vocation as a church (and synagogue) musician within a larger career as a composer and conductor. I’ve lived in New York City for most of those years, where I have a busy professional life and a fulfilling personal life. I’ve been through therapy and spiritual counseling to deal with and heal from my childhood and adolescence at BJU. Only recently have I personally shared my story in this forum and on other public venues like Facebook. I’ve mentioned the struggle of growing up gay at BJU and wanting to follow Jesus the way the Jones family said I should.  I’ve talked about the abusive home environment in which I and my brothers grew up because our BJU loyalist mother never had appropriate psychotherapy for the abuse she herself had endured as a child and adolescent. I’ve talked about my late mother’s medical misdiagnosis and lack of proper treatment for an anxiety disorder at the hands of a university-employed doctor, about the counseling that kept her from getting appropriate help until a medical crisis forced her into psychiatric care — chemically dependent and undergoing life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. I’ve shared the tears and pain of the last years of her life and the aftermath of her untimely demise, not least because she believed as she was taught that psychological illness doesn’t exist and that psychological pain is caused by “unconfessed sin.” I’ve mentioned that I was molested by an adult I loved and trusted as a child growing up in and around BJU and its network churches. These memories, always with me, are a bitterness that lingers even on my happiest days.

Last year, BJUnity and its predecessor site began publishing the often painful personal stories by a number of BJU alumni whom we support (there are many more who have yet to feel comfortable telling their stories publicly on this site). We also launched an online petition calling for BJU to moderate its rhetoric about its LGBT+ students and alumni.

A few months ago, one of BJUnity’s founding board members, Rich Merritt, published Spiritual Probation, a novel based on a true story in which Bob Jones University was named in a  lawsuit (click the hyperlink to read the legal briefs) for the wrongful death of an aviation student. The novel details the system of fear-based spiritual meritocracy that has always existed at BJU, whereby students who have displeased the administration — no matter how petty the offense may have been — are placed on “spiritual probation” and their lives become the subjects of intense scrutiny.

Over the years, the stories of mistreatment and abuse that have trickled out of Bob Jones University and made their way into my awareness have turned into a flood. There is so much pain; there is so much bitterness:

  • the unemployed alumna who can’t be certified in her field in her state because BJU’s degrees  are unaccredited. 
  • the alumnus, a life-long friend, who  was jettisoned by the university amidst an allegation of sexual abuse in order for the university to avoid an investigation of its child care practices and facilities, his life ruined, though he was completely exonerated at trial.
  • the person I know who was molested by a parent, who sought counseling at BJU, only to be told to keep the story private and never tell. 
  • the young woman who was sexually assaulted by her youth pastor and no one believed her when she told, who was counseled badly by BJU administators.
  • the childhood sexual abuse survivor who, when counseled at BJU was told that “even God can’t help you;” that person who recently said

Yes, you see I cannot kid myself into thinking that just because it’s “over” for me, there aren’t many little girls and boys just like I was back then.

…. I might take comfort in knowing that its “over” for ME.
…..I was rescued. I made it out ALIVE! 

But, here’s what is the truth. Here’s what my brain and heart can’t handle.
…..How am I supposed to remain mute when I of all people am not oblivious that it’s a long way from being “over” for a multitudes of children right now? 

Yes, even in 2013?

You see, because of my past, I’m don’t have the luxury of naivety that what happened to me isn’t currently going on. 

With the invention of the internet, it’s more widespread.
THAT is the reason why I do what I do what I do.

Like me, dislike me, like my methods, dislike my methods it’s far from “over”…. 

  • the fired faculty members who dared to speak out about injustice.
  • the student expelled nine days before he was scheduled to graduate.  
  • the young woman repeatedly sexually assaulted by her youth pastor in multiple states, including while visiting BJU.
  • the women I know who, while students at BJU, were sexually assaulted by their BJU boyfriends, now pastors, never prosecuted. 

Bob Jones University has done something right in hiring an independent investigator, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, to hear these and many more stories; to evaluate the need for and to make appropriate suggestions for changes at Bob Jones University and Academy. All of these people I mentioned above are participating in the G.R.A.C.E. investigation, and by doing so they are a prophetic witness calling for repentance and redirection at BJU.

Bob Jones University has done something right by hiring G.R.A.C.E. to conduct an independent investigation

Do you have a bitterness similar to the ones mentioned above that you need to talk about? If you have ever been a student at Bob Jones University, Elementary, Junior High or Academy, you need to take the confidential online survey. G.R.A.C.E. wants to hear from you. This is an opportunity for you to be a prophetic witness in the call for repentance and change. Your participation in this survey is completely confidential. If you have a story of abuse (sexual or otherwise, whether it was you or someone else you know and love) that involves Bob Jones University or someone employed there (or you reported abuse to anyone associated with BJU), you need to take this survey.

Let the professionals at G.R.A.C.E. determine how your story is relevant to their investigation (even if you think it isn’t relevant, they might think it is).

As of this publication (April 29, 2013), there are but twenty-four hours remaining to fill in the confidential online survey and participate in the investigation.

Bitterness is not the final word. The root of bitterness, that which turns precious children of God away from their Savior, can be rooted out at Bob Jones University. The story of Passover is that the Children of Israel were brought through the Red Sea on dry land and into the Promised Land. The story of Easter is that Jesus suffered death and harrowed the gates of hell so that believers do not have to be slaves to sin. The story for BJU could be that repentance, born of bitterness, can mean a reconciliation. The choice will be up to the administrators of BJU, but we can be the prophets who call for the repentance.

 *The opinions expressed in this post are the author’s alone. BJUnity and its Executive Director embrace all of our constituents — of any faith or no faith — with equal love and compassion. We affirm everyone’s dignity and autonomy, we respect all viewpoints and we celebrate and support the lives of all those of the LGBT+ and straight affirming community who have been affected by Christian fundamentalism. You are not alone. You are loved.

Read more in the “So, what about the…” series:

So, what about the Sin?  |  So, what about the Grace?  |  So, what about the Love?
So, what about the Sex?

So, what about the bitterness? comment

  1. Michael Fawcett says:

    Excellent, Jeffrey. So glad to learn more about what you’re doing here.