Embattled, not embittered

Christ and St Mena

In recent years I have twice become deeply bitter about how I have been treated by others. I was certainly not without fault – and I was treated unjustly and with a lack of kindness that hurt deeply. In both situations I became angry, and the hurt and anger transmuted into resentment and bitterness…

Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.

Nelson Mandela, attr.

…and then into a desire for revenge.

Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.

I became consumed by wanting to get my own back on those who had hurt me.

Slowly I came to see that these feelings were doing me serious harm. I still think I was treated shamelessly, and my anger was a reasonable and healthy response, but the bitter poison of resentment was killing me.

I found a way back from this precipice to a more level landscape. What helped?

  • Awareness: seeing what I was doing to myself was the first and most important step.
  • Kindness: being kind to myself; learning to accept the kindness of others, again, and again.
  • Trust: remembering, again, to trust that nothing can separate me from the love of God, which always remains, no matter what.
  • Nurture: embracing often the places in this body where I feel that love and trust.
  • Will: self-talk and, frankly, just choosing to stop.

I am not completely clear yet. I still catch myself rehearsing old complaints, but I have moved on, and I am still moving.

In spiritual direction, I hear a lot of anger towards the church, much of it, though not all, from ministers of various denominations. They feel embattled. This anger is a reasonable and healthy response to unjust, hurtful situations:

  • about a managerial style of leadership more appropriate to a business;
  • about humiliation and hurt done to anyone who is not heterosexual;
  • about humiliation and hurt done to women;
  • about a lack of championing of the poorest people in our society;
  • about a lack of worshipful space in which there can be mystery and silence;
  • about a lack of challenge of simplistic or worldly – and therefore idolatrous, and therefore damaging – theology;
  • unsupportive, obstructive, undermining colleagues and bosses who are supposed to have your back.

They are right to be angry. There is much that is wrong. Anger is healthy. The danger is when their anger turns into resentment, bitterness, depression, or self-hate. They become embittered.

When I hear this, I get it. I feel love and sympathy – and I feel fear for them. I want to issue a warning and together find a way to honour the anger while steering clear of the poison.

To want to know, love, and follow Jesus; to have a calling, a passion; and to be able to follow: this is a blessing, a joy and a delight, and the best of all possible lives. But, to have a calling is to live aslant to the usual concerns: getting and spending; success and failure; conformity and being thought well of; as Ignatius would say, “riches, honour, and pride” (Exx.142). You will be misunderstood, misrepresented, advised that you are not being sensible, and possibly experience contempt and rejection. This is to be expected. Jesus knew this.

Maybe our anger is because the life into which we are called by the Spirit is ignored or ridiculed by those around us, especially when by our sisters and brothers in Christ. Confusingly, Jesus suggests that we are blessed by this.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

Luke 6.22


Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5.10

So, whilst it may be right and healthy to be angry, don’t let this anger turn into resentment, bitterness, depression, and self-hate.

These are my questions:

  1. What is our anger about? What feelings is this anger protecting? What resonances are there with earlier situations in your life?
  2. To what extent is our anger the work of a disturbing God who is always counter-cultural? To what extent is this the Spirit trying to speak to the Church?
  3. What are we to do with our anger?

What if, instead of allowing our anger to lead us into resentment, bitterness, depression, and self-hate, we were to see rejection as a necessary corollary of being called by God into the fullness of life? True life in God is always aslant to the world.

More Ignatius: for those choosing to stand with Jesus:

There will be three steps: the first, poverty as opposed to riches; the second, insults or contempt as opposed to the honour of this world; the third, humility as opposed to pride. From these three steps, let them lead [us] to all other virtues.


Strong stuff. Not comfortable. Not immediately attractive. But it points to a truth. Those who give themselves to anything truly worthwhile, who follow their star, will find friends, but also nay-sayers.

So, now to the important question: How are you to be embattled without becoming embittered?

You will be angry. As you should. It’s healthy. How can you turn from anger to kindness whilst retaining your calling to be aslant? How can the energy of that anger flow and be the spring of creativity, not stagnate and fester into bitterness? How can you speak the truth with love? How, finally, can you see through the behaviour that makes you angry, to the hurting heart or the wounded soul, the vision of which will sow in you the seeds of love and compassion?

First, trust yourself. If you have been doing what you think and feel is right, stick to that. (Ignatius: Do not change a decision made in a time of consolation. Exercises 319) If you have been hurt, it is right to feel angry. There is no need to berate yourself for being human. Rather, be kind to yourself. Be tender with your hurt and angry self. This, surely, is how God is with you.

Seek out friends who are kind and sympathetic, and who don’t get pulled in by your anger.

Find a way to stay connected with God. God is not diminished by the Church or by idolatry. Learn to trust that God’s love remains for you and that nothing can separate you from that love.

As a frequent practice, embrace and nurture the places in your body where you feel love and trust. These are your birthright.

And, yes: Make a positive choice to step back from the brink of embitterment. Give yourself a talking to and choose love.

Now, how is the Spirit speaking through your anger? How might you use the energy of your anger to express the concerns you have in skilful ways that can be heard?

7 thoughts on “Embattled, not embittered

  1. Good, honest article, Julian. I value your humility and insight. It’s all easier said than done, of course. Eric Hutchison, a psychotherapist in Cambridge, once told me that the devil gets into us by rubbing salt into our wounds. Thus anger turns to bitterness. But I think if we allow ourselves to feel the feelings that we are using anger to protect ourselves from (usually frustration at not being understood and hurt at not being accepted), then the opposite can happen. Christ the Wounded One can speak to our wounds, and hearing his words of love and acceptance, we can be healed.

  2. Wise words, but when the actions of something in the past, affect the future in such a sad and bad way, it’s so so hard to do the things you suggest. Not impossible, but hard and painful. I’m slowly learning, eventually, that in forgiving someone, it’s yourself you are setting free.

    1. Thank you, Fiona.

      You are right. It is so hard. I am still on the journey.

      If I am honest, I am not sure I know much about forgiving, so thank you for what you have offered me about this. It is helpful. I am trying to forgive myself, I think, before I am able to forgive others.

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