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How to Forgive (…When Bitterness Feels Better): Stephen Viars

Family Life Today / Dave & Ann Wilson, Bob Lepine
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June 25, 2024 5:15 am

How to Forgive (…When Bitterness Feels Better): Stephen Viars

Family Life Today / Dave & Ann Wilson, Bob Lepine

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June 25, 2024 5:15 am

Wondering how to forgive--and if it really makes a difference? Author and pastor Stephen Viars explores how forgiveness can turn bitterness on its head.

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I remember when we were first dating and I... Those were glorious days. Weren't they fun?

Yeah, a long time ago, but they were pretty fun. But one of the sad things to me was... Wait, wait, wait, we're talking about good things.

What do you mean sad? Welcome to our marriage. Here we go. I'm like, let's go deep and feel it.

You're like, wait, let's just stay up here on the surface. Can we watch another movie? Welcome to Family Life Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I'm Shelby Abbott and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at This is Family Life Today. I loved your mom. And one of the reasons I loved your mom was because she had endured so much of divorce, losing a child. She had faced the many affairs that your dad had had, and yet she really was seeking Jesus. But when we first started dating, she would drink at night and then all of the stories came out. And I remember saying to you like, Oh man, your mom is still so lost in the past of not forgiving your dad. Yeah. And you know, it's obviously something I grew up with and her method of dealing with the bitterness and there was bitterness and often covered up. It was just an underlying seething was to drink and to sort of just step into denial.

And to hide the pain. And I watched that. Yeah. And I thought my mom was bitter. I'm not. And then I realized I have a lot of that as well.

Thank God I didn't go to alcohol to, you know, take away the pain, but I needed to figure out how do you take away the real pain? Because we all face it every day. Yeah. And so that's the topic we're going to talk about today.

Again, with Steve Viers, who wrote a book about this. He's a pastor in Lafayette, Indiana, which I love because I'm a college Hoosier and we got him back on Family Life Today. Welcome back. It's a privilege to be here. Thank you very much. Yeah.

We're so glad you're here. I mean, some of our listeners heard us before, but you're a pastor of Faith Church for how many years? 34? 34 years.

Yeah. And also developed a whole counseling center. And I just love hearing what you're doing to help people, equip people not only in their own life with understanding their journey, but to help others. And then as you've seen, and I've seen even, especially in a church as a pastor, there's a lot of bitterness. Well, the sad reality is I don't have to go out into the pew in order to find bitterness in the church. I can find that in the pastor's office because that's something with which I struggle. Steve, what is your story? When we write something, it's usually because it's something that we've experienced.

Well, part of it is God blessed my wife and me with the opportunity to adopt a son with special needs. It's our son, Andrew. He likes to be called the bear. So everybody who knows him calls him the bear. Now, why does he want to be called the bear? You know, it's interesting. Many times, persons with special needs, they latch onto some kind of obsession.

It's just fascinating to watch it unfold. I can tell you right now, my son's is bears. He's all about bears from start to finish. When I get back home, he'll ask me, did you buy me a stuffed bear? And believe me, our house is all about the bears. And so he is blind. And he also had a number of other abnormalities in the development of his brain.

And so he functions like he's about seven or eight. It's been a fascinating, fascinating, sanctifying journey for my wife and me and for the bear. By God's grace, the bear has trusted Christ.

I even had the privilege of baptizing at our church. So there's a lot of great, great things. Please tell me he's not a Chicago Bears fan. Oh, he loves the Chicago Bears. Absolutely.

Especially when they're playing the Lions. But I won't get into that today. I'm ashamed to tell you this, but I will tell you just because you asked about how it's affected me. I remember standing in a Walmart one day. Andrew was about two years old.

We were just starting to learn how significant his disability was. And there was a large family in line ahead of me. Kids completely uncontrolled. They appeared to be low income and shame on me for even judging them in that way.

Very unkempt. And the father was holding a baby about the age of my son, Andrew. And I looked into that child's eyes and thought, the pastor's son's eyes don't work.

Their son's eyes do. You know, that's bitterness talking. I'm ashamed to tell you that my heart even has the capacity to think that kind of a wicked thought. But if I don't deal with that, I'm going to become a very, very bitter man.

And the scripture does, it links bitterness with jealousy and envy. And so that's part of it. And then there's just also, you know, a church, especially when you have the privilege of pastoring, all of your weaknesses are exposed, right?

You can't hide from that. Oh, it really is. I mean, you're living it out there.

And then we're dealing with people who are not perfect pictures of Christ just yet, which I love the church. I'm living my dream. I love doing what I'm doing. But there's a lot of hurts. There's a lot of disappointments. There's a lot of struggles in this sin-cursed world. And so bitterness is something that I as a pastor have to wrestle with.

I have to learn how to handle disappointments and challenge as well. But then when you move out into the pews and you move out into the counseling room, there's no question about the fact that bitterness is a major issue in marriage. It's a major issue in families.

It's a major issue in the office. And it can even be a major issue in church life. It's possible for a church, frankly, to be a bitter church. But the great news is Jesus Christ is a whole lot more powerful than that. And so we don't have to be bitter people.

That doesn't have to have the last say. It doesn't have to be our story. That's one of the reasons I wrote the book was to try to point men and women to our powerful savior and his sufficient grace. You know, I haven't mentioned the title, overcoming bitterness, moving from life's greatest hurts to a life filled with joy. And thank you for being that honest, because I don't think there's a person that hasn't felt what you felt. We struggle to admit it sometimes, you know, and we don't even want to see it in ourselves when we feel the jealousy. But as I think about my mom or so much of our bitterness is relational.

There's the jealousy, there's the envy of somebody I don't even know, a stranger in a store. But when somebody hurts you, does something, and you identify, man, I'm not just hurt, I'm bitter. Maybe it was yesterday. Maybe it was 10 years ago. It's got me.

It's in there. And I'm trying to overcome it to get the joy. And I feel like I can't get there. How do you get through the relational bitterness with a family member, a friend, could be a neighbor? It gets us obviously into talking about do we forgive? How do we forgive? But talk about that journey in relational bitterness.

What do I do? Yeah, and this is one of the things I love about the sufficiency of the scripture. So you know, in Ephesians 4 31 and 32, we have a verse that's very clear. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and evil speaking be put away from you with all that.

I think you've memorized this, haven't you? So you have that in verse 31. But what's fascinating is just a few verses before in Ephesians 4 26, Paul says, be angry and sin not.

So how do those things go together? And I think biblically and theologically, we have to define anger before we can define bitterness, because anger is a God given emotion, which produces energy, allowing me to solve problems biblically and to solve problems today. So God can allow me to use that anger to handle things well. However, if I don't use anger in a timely fashion today, before the sun goes down, then it ferments and it turns into bitterness. In fact, it's very similar to apple cider. You know, where I'm from, you know, in the fall, all the apple orchards around us, they'll make this great apple cider. It's absolutely delicious. It's absolutely refreshing if you drink it right after you bought it. But I don't know if this has ever happened to you. I know it's happened to me late in the fall that bottle of apple cider got pushed to the back of the refrigerator. It's a hot day.

I'm out raking leaves or whatever. I come grab it out of the refrigerator after it's been there about a month and now it is fermented. It's putrid.

You spit it out of your mouth. That's what bitterness is. It's fermented anger. And so part of what I do in my heart with bitterness is talk to God. I practice biblical lament. Many persons struggle with bitterness because they have not learned the discipline of lament, authenticity with the Lord. But the second reason many of us are bitter is because we haven't learned the discipline of going and talking with other people when we believe that they have sinned against us. Practicing the art of biblical forgiveness.

So you have a passage like Luke 17 three and four, which is a seminal topic on this whole discussion. If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. And it's possible that some of our listeners may be bitter individuals because somebody mistreated them in some way.

Dave's mom. And your dad never came back and apologized or repented for his actions. The challenge here is even the person who was sinned against still has a responsibility in that matter. And all of us may say, well, that's not fair.

God teaches us what he teaches us in his word because it's true. So I don't get to not do certain things because I don't think they're fair. And I also have to remember my heavenly father loves me and he's put principles in his word for his glory and for my good. And so as a person who has been mistreated, whenever it is possible, I have both the privilege and the responsibility to go and speak with that person.

Now, I don't know for sure how that conversation is going to go, but I do know this. If I should have and I didn't, then I'm at least partially culpable for my bitterness. I know as a counselor, those are hard words to say and they are hard words to hear, but God has given us the Holy Spirit who gives us the power to do hard things. And I have seen this happen over and over in counseling where a person was embittered with someone else and at the right time and in the right way. And I know it's not always possible, but many times it is. At the right time and in the right way, we bring those parties together.

There's authentic confrontation. Not to hurt the other person, not to demoralize the other person, but to bring about reconciliation, to bring about healing. And I have seen persons in some cases say, I didn't even know I offended you.

I didn't even realize I was, thank you so much for telling me. And now that you've told me that I can think of other people, I probably have others I need to go ask forgiveness. But I've seen it work because God's word works where individuals, after they have been confronted, are willing to ask forgiveness. And then you have that beautiful restoration in a relationship. And of course, on a church level, that has to be happening in a church all the time.

A church has to be a place where we're authentically talking with one another about the ways that we have sinned, the ways we've been sinned against, bringing biblical communication, bringing about reconciliation. And if you don't, this is where Hebrews 12, 15 gets you again. Just the root. Absolutely. And it causes trouble. Bitterness causes trouble in a marriage. So it's not like, well, I'm bitter, but it's not going to do anything.

Oh, it's going to do a lot. And the passage ends by saying it defiles many. And remember, then the passage ends by going to the poster boy of bitterness, Esau. What a haunting story Esau's is. And because scripture calls him a profane man, a man who refused to embrace his place in the covenant community of God.

Well, one of the ways I demonstrate that I truly am a child of God is by obeying his word and going and confronting a person who sinned against me with the goal of bringing about reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing. It's hard, but it's right. And that's one of the roots, the paths out of bitterness. So Esau should have gone to his brother, Jacob, and talked to him about stealing his birthright? I actually think Esau should have done more than that, but he at least should have done that.

First of all, he shouldn't have sold it. Right. That revealed a lot, didn't it? Well, absolutely. It revealed that he was valuing the red stuff.

I love your phrase. What's the red stuff? The red stuff is what Hebrew is for that red stew.

Typical man, right? It's been like three hours since he ate. I'm going to die. I'm going to die if I don't eat. And therefore I'm going to forsake my place in the covenant plan of God. I'm going to give up my birthright for stew.

And we kind of chuckle at that. But then when we start thinking about all of the things that we're willing to sin for, for the exact same, it's red stuff living. I didn't get my way and now I'm bitter. That person didn't commend me like I wanted them to. Now I'm bitter.

That person got, now I'm bitter. It's red stuff living and I'm forsaking my place in God's covenant plan for some idol. It's idolatry of the heart for sure. And so to answer your question, Ann, I believe he should have spoken to his brother about it, but even more powerful than that, he should have admitted his own culpability. And this is a hard point for all of us to hear, but it's true. Bitterness makes us liars.

And here's why. How did Esau tell the story later? He said, my brother stole my birthright.

That's not true. And here's what bitterness does. I replay the story over and over and over in my head. And every time I play it, the other person gets a little bit worse and I get a little bit better.

So true. So when the Bible says bitterness will cause trouble and defile many, one of the persons that'll defile is me by making me a person who's not being honest about the ways I sinned. That's why it's so important to deal with it and to deal with it right away.

You're an expert on this. You know better than anybody, even Matthew 5, where Jesus says, if you have a conflict with your brother, don't even leave your offering. Go get reconciled. Go make this right and come back. So here's the question.

What if I do all that? I'm obedient. I go. I confront. I say, man, what you did hurt me. I've been bitter for days or years or decades. Which you did with your dad. And I need to talk this through with you and I want to forgive you.

So respond. And they say, what the blank you've been bitter about? I did nothing wrong. So they don't own it and they don't understand you're hurt. So it doesn't go the way you want on that side. You're doing what you do.

What's that person do? Well, and it's such a powerful question and I'm sure that many of our listeners will say that's what happened to me. And you know, you started that question with Matthew 5, which is pretty hard for pastors even to talk about.

We don't bring it up. Worship is the most important thing, like, especially if you're giving because Matthew 5 talks about if you're offering an offer, don't be messing with the offering time, right? Just give the money. But what you said is right. Jesus says there's something more important than worship.

Right. And that is getting things right with your brother. And so leave your gift at the altar and go make things right with your brother first.

And then you said, well, what if I try to make things right? And the other person either won't repent if they're the one who sinned against me, or if they won't forgive me if I'm the one who sinned against them. This is where Romans 12 is such a helpful passage in the Word of God because Paul says in that passage, if it be possible, as much as lieth within you, live at peace with all men.

I am so thankful for the comprehensive nature of the Word of God, if it's possible. Well, if Paul said that, that has to tell us there are some situations this side of heaven where it's not, where you can do everything you were supposed to do. And that person either won't repent if they're the ones who sinned, or they won't forgive if you're the one who sinned against them and you're there to repent.

But it's not always possible. But we're only responsible for us as much as lieth within you. And you think back to the whole Esau-Jacob story. Esau was not responsible for Jacob's trickery or his mother.

That was one really messed up family. So Esau was not responsible for everybody else, but Esau for sure was responsible for him. As much as lieth within you, live at peace with all men. So what's the difference between bitterness and forgiveness?

Is there a difference? Because I hear you saying that and I'm thinking, okay, it's my responsibility to live at peace and I need to deal with my bitterness. They didn't repent.

Should I forgive? Well, I think we have to do the exact same thing that Jesus did on the cross, where he prayed, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Now, that doesn't mean that everybody within the sound of Jesus's voice was forgiven. There was another thief in that story who would have heard those words, who certainly did not spend his eternity in heaven.

And so we're not universalists. However, Jesus was praying and expressing his, I would call it a forgiving spirit, saying, Lord, I don't want to be bitter. I don't want to continue to rehearse all this person's failures. I want to be a forgiving person. I want to pray for that person's repentance.

I want to get through this if it's possible in this situation. But if it's not, I'm not going to continue to dwell on their failures. I'm not going to continue to dwell on their hurt because there's something more powerful in my life. And that's my forgiving savior. And if my savior has forgiven me of all of the ways that I have failed, and if his father has placed Christ's righteousness on my account, there's so much in the gospel that fills up my heart and life every day.

I just don't have time to dwell on all the failures of everybody else. Part of that is illustrated by the Passover meal. You remember at Passover, the Israelites were instructed that every year they were to have a Passover meal after they left Egypt. What was the basis of that meal? And the answer is bitter herbs. Not just any lettuce. That wasn't a salad.

Bitter herbs. And what's fascinating is that was a lettuce that was indigenous to Egypt. So God wanted them to eat Egyptian food year after year. That's why lament is so important.

We have to be authentic about the pains of our life. But aren't you glad it wasn't just a meal of bitter herbs and that was the end of it? Because you've got that bitter taste in your mouth, and then next comes the unleavened bread. I mean, who among us doesn't like fresh baked bread? And of course, baked like that to show the rapid nature of the redemption of God. So now, the sensations are different because now you've got the unleavened bread, but what's that preparing you for? And it's the sweetness of the Passover lamb. You talk about a direct path to the cross and the empty tomb.

You talk about a direct path to the gospel. And so I don't need to spend time thinking about the failures of others, even who have not chosen to repent. I'm going to have a forgiving spirit toward them because my heart and life is consumed with how my wonderful Savior has chosen to forgive me through his shed blood. Yeah, and it's beautiful to hear that because it gives us hope that even though they don't respond the way we want, they may never repent. They may never own it. There can be peace in my heart.

There can actually be peace between us as it depends on me. They may never respond the way we want. When I said to my dad, you know, I've wrestled with this for years and I'm a man, I'm actually in my mid 30s, he literally looked at me and said, what the blank for?

He had no idea. And I'm not kidding, three years later, and I had dealt with it because my wife told me I had to. But I got on this journey where the bitterness, it's like it just floated out of my life. Not easily. It was work.

It was real work, but it was gone. And I remember saying to him one day, did you ever regret the divorce with mom? We'd never talked about this, by the way, never. And immediately he's like, yes. With this, like he's thought about it forever. And he said, and I said, why? And he said, I missed out on my relationship with you. And I thought he, in his best way, he knows how.

He's saying, I'm sorry. That's right. You know, and I didn't need that, but it was nice to hear that. But it was like, there was the truth that do whatever it takes to live at peace with all men. As far as it depends on you, I did everything I could and there's peace.

And that's what you're saying. I wonder if your dad would have ever gotten to that place, had you severed the relationship and said, okay, because he's not saying it the way I want him to say it right now. I'm never talking to him. I'm not going to spend any time.

We're not going to go to ball games. But you gave him space. You did your part. You did Romans 12 and then you left the rest of the Lord. And isn't it fascinating how God can work in the hearts and lives of people apart from us, right? I want to be the heavenly payroll clerk.

I want to be the one who makes it right by the end of business today. And yet if we'll just do what God wants us to do, he may not do it all in this lifetime. He absolutely may not. But on the other hand, it would be wrong for us to think, well, if the person didn't repent today in my way, he's never going to repent.

That is not true. God can work in miraculous ways if we'll give him room to work and bitterness isn't giving him room to work. And I will say, Dave, as a result of that conversation and the work that you did in forgiving your dad, you became a free man because you were plagued with anger. There were so many things that were bottled up and I watched you become free.

And isn't that what we all hope for? Because Jesus said, I came to set the captive free. Dad, I would say freedom starts today with a phone call.

It could be an email. It could be a driving over and do whatever you can and you can't control the result, but you can control your heart. You can overcome bitterness. You can literally get to what you say, a life filled with joy. It's a journey and it's it's worth whatever it takes to start that step toward the journey started today. Bitterness is not giving God room to work, and that means to work in your heart. You know, just like Dave, I had to give God the room to work in my heart when I was on a journey to forgive my biological father for abandoning me when I was 13. It took me a long time to get there, but once I finally wrote a letter of forgiveness to him, after 30 years of bitterness in my heart, I experienced that kind of freedom they were just talking about. And FYI, my father didn't respond well to the letter, but it didn't matter because it was what God was calling me to and bitterness no longer had a grip hold on my heart. So what's going to be your story related to this topic?

Ask God to help you find out. I'm Shelby Abbott and you've been listening to Dave and Anne Wilson with Stephen Viers on Family Life Today. Stephen has written a book called Overcoming Bitterness, moving from life's greatest hurts to a life filled with joy. You can get your copy right now by going online to or you can find it in our show notes. Or just give us a call at 800-358-6329.

Again, that number is 800-F as in family, L as in life, and then the word today. You know, today is the last day for something special. Did you know that Family Life offers an annual marriage cruise? Well, it's happening in February of 2025. The Love Like You Mean It Marriage Cruise is a getaway for married couples looking for relaxation and romance and renewal and lifelong memories.

But more importantly, it's about reconnecting with one another and with God. And right now, today is the last day that you can book and save with our special promo. That's right. If you use the promo code SEAS25, that's S-E-A-S-2-5, when you're booking your stateroom, you can save big. But again, the sale ends today, June 25th. If you want to learn more, you can head over to and click on the Love Like You Mean It cruise banner.

Or just give a call to our guest service team at 800-358-6329. Again, that number is 800, F as in family, L as in life, and then the word today. So what's it look like to combat bitterness, to actually fight it? Well, tomorrow, pastor and author Stephen Viers is back again with Dave and Ann Wilson to explore the power of lament to give voice and resolution to our deepest grief. That's coming up tomorrow. We hope you'll join us. On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I'm Shelby Abbott. We'll see you back next time for another edition of Family Life Today. Family Life Today is a donor-supported production of Family Life, a crew ministry helping you pursue the relationships that matter most.
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