Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Root of Bitterness ::

I am the man who has seen affliction
by the rod of his wrath.
He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light;
Even when I call out or cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer.
He has filled me with bitter herbs
and sated me with gall.
You have covered yourself with a cloud
so that no prayer can get through.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3

Disillusionment may entail a bitter response but does not necessarily end there. Bitterness, on the other hand, can be a spiritual black hole that devours the soul and consumes faith. The writer of Hebrews urges us to give special care to those who, in their pain, turn a hard face against God: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:15). Rather, we are to consider Christ’s suffering so that we do “not grow weary and lose heart.” This was Teresa of Avila’s advice to those who encounter difficulties in prayer: embrace the cross.

In my conversations with disillusioned persons, I perhaps err at times on the side of encouragement and confrontation. When I see bitter herbs growing in the garden of a person’s spirit, I want to reach down and pluck them out. My mentors have cautioned me about this tendency, but I know what devastation a root of bitterness can wreak.

For five long years I was not on speaking terms with God because I was so bitter. I didn’t recognize it as bitterness at first, but, I thought of my dryness in prayer as a grief reaction to what I perceived as mistreatment. Although I told myself that others have had far worse experiences than mine and have emerged with faith intact, in honest moments I held God responsible for this injustice and felt betrayed. It was an arduous journey for me, including therapy for depression and panic attacks, before I was able to connect this experience with my childhood and see a pattern of revictimization in my life.

Eventually, I instinctively did what Teresa of Avila advised: I embraced the cross. When there were no satisfactory answers to my angry “why” questions, the incarnation and death of Christ took on a new meaning.

Embracing the cross,
Let us follow Jesus,
He is our way and light
Abounding in consolations . . .


God did not help me to make sense of my world but entered into its senselessness with me. While I could no longer trust in the theologically tidy God of my youth, I could trust this God who entered fully into the messy quandary of human existence and death. God has never looked the same since, and I never want to go back to that black hole again.

Rescuing others from their bitterness can be like helping a butterfly out of its cocoon. The results can be harmful, if not disastrous. I’m learning to face this propensity to rescue others for what it is: a lack of faith that God is present and active even in the darkness and an idolatry of my own need to be needed. Nothing gets me into my own shadow like being with people in their darkness.

What, then, are we to make of experiences that defy any semblance of divine order? What about tragedy? What about oppressive, diabolical abuse? Dark faith makes no excuses for God; dark faith holds nothing back from God. The danger lies not in our anger over our victimization, but rather in allowing the victimization to become our identity. By taking on the identity of a victim, we unconsciously destine ourselves to experience the victimization over and over in order to confirm who we are as a victim. Victimization becomes revictimization: an insidious root of bitterness.

Naomi, in the book of Ruth, lost not only her husband but her sons as well. Left in dire poverty, she changed her name from Naomi, or “pleasant,” to Mara, which means “bitter.” “The Almighty has made my life very bitter,” she lamented. “I went away full, but the Lord has
brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me” (Ruth 1:20-22).

Thérèse of Lisieux struggled her life long with victimization and a pervasive feeling of being unloved and abandoned. Having lost her mother at the age of four, she was extremely insecure and hypersensitive to any slight. She transformed her own sense of victimization through her faith in the merciful love of God and her desire “to be His victim of love,” perhaps reminiscent of Job’s statement of faith, “though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15). Like Job, and in spite of her own persistent dark night and a religious climate that emphasized the punitive nature of God, Thérèse asserted that “God knows only how to love and be loved.”

Some persons have the depth of spirit to find a piton of faith on the sheer cliffs of despair. Like Bunyan’s pilgrim faced with death in the dark dungeon of Doubting Castle, they find within themselves the key to their own release. It is at such times that the faith gifts we’ve received along the way become golden.


Blogger Mike Dinkins said...

Great treatment of a crucial issue spreading like an epidemic in our day and very timely for me. I'm loving your posts, all of them. Sending to a friend. Blessings!


8:34 PM  

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