Bitter Bullies

As strange as it sounds, I’ve known since I was a youth that I wanted to work with youth. There are several reasons. It keeps me young at heart. It makes me feel like I’m having an impact on not only young people, but also the future of the Church. Mostly, it’s because I really do love and want to help teenagers.

When I was a teenager, I just wanted someone to be there for me. Someone who obviously cared about me and taught me why God was so great. And I got that.

I want to be that for teenagers now. I want to show them that God loves them and so do I, that society is wrong about them and for them, that they’re both the future and the present leaders of the Church and our world. And I want to tell them all of the things I wish someone had told me at their age.

I’ve told the teenagers at Focus at least once (probably more) that the way other people try to pressure you and bully you does not get better as you get older. I certainly wish someone would’ve told me that.

When I entered the workforce after graduating from high school, I expected it to be a more mature and respectful environment, and it was arguably the rudest awakening I’ve ever received. I found myself surrounded by people older than me who had the maturity of middle schoolers. People who tried to throw their weight around or intimidate me. Even now, I’ll encounter someone who will try to bully me or pressure me into doing something they don’t want to do simply because they don’t want to do it and they think it’ll work.

Adult bullies don’t shake you down for your lunch money or trip you while you’re walking by. They mentally beat you down and try to make you feel awful about yourself.

Obviously no one in their right minds would let such people into their lives willingly, so they’ve got to put on a bit of a show at first. They look like nice enough people. They seem like the sort of people you would want in your life. Then they slowly show you who they really are.

I’ve had friends like this before. I had a whole group of them at one point. At a time when everything was new to me and I needed friends, they welcomed me into their group with open arms. They seemed like they were fun, supportive, loving people. And who doesn’t need that in their lives?

Naturally, I hung out with them every chance I got. And everything was fine for about two months, and then I started seeing them for who they really were. They were judgmental, as if the world in general wasn’t already a judgmental place. They didn’t accept me for who I was and made me feel very uncomfortable when we disagreed on the most trivial of things. I felt like I had to keep hanging out with them, and I dreaded it. I hated it. I wanted out, and I took the first chance I got to leave, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Technically, I can’t say for sure that these people wanted to see me hurt because I don’t know their intentions. But I can say that it felt as if they did, and that’s bad enough.

I honestly believe that everyone who enters our lives does so for a reason. God didn’t put them there on accident. Some are positive energies in our lives, and they’re the ones we should keep around. Others are negative, and those are the ones we should learn from and move on.

The negative ones leave a particular sort of bitterness, one that comes from both them and us. On one hand, they shouldn’t have treated us so horribly or made us look so bad. On the other hand, we were the ones who let them in. How could we do such a thing?

Anyone who can beat you up and then leave you beating yourself up is a grade A bully.

This bitterness is hard to get past because in order to do so, we have to forgive ourselves, and in my experience, there’s almost nothing harder to do than that.

We have high-expectations for ourselves. There are certain things we don’t want to think we’re capable of and other things that we should be able to do without fail. When those standards aren’t met, our opinions of ourselves plummet. We let ourselves down, and it’s a hard thing to let go of.

But you know what? I’ve let God down far worse than that, and He’s forgiven me with no problem. Who do I think I am to pass judgment where He didn’t? Are my standards higher than His? Are my ways better than His or my wounds deeper? Certainly not. I sort of need to get over myself a little.

That’s not only hard to hear, but also hard to do. So much of this world perpetuates and feeds bitterness that it’s hard to get rid of it even if we reach the point that we want to. So how do we do it?

Pray. Pray for God to soften your heart, help you see it from the other person’s perspective, and take away your bitterness. Talk to that person. If you don’t have a sense of closure, the bitterness could come back. Ideally, you’d also apologize. This would work best if the person you were apologizing to was aware of your need to do so, so if they aren’t aware, an apology may not be necessary, but it’d be nice all the same. And forgive. There’s no end to bitterness without forgiveness.

Praying, talking, apologizing, forgiving – all of these things have a healing power to them. And it’s a power that works on both ends. If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself. Don’t let your bitterness hold you back any longer. Let God free you from it. Let Him heal you and those around you. Let Him turn your bitterness into happiness.

By Carrie Prevette

Pity and Disappointment

I originally wondered why I felt compelled to wait and combine the past two sermons into one blog post, and it became very clear to me fairly early on Sunday. What Alan presented as two separate sermons, I view as one complete sermon divided into two parts.

In the first week, Alan said it is those closest to us who leave us bitter. In the second week, he labeled those who create bitterness Destroyers and identified some of the ways they instill bitterness. This past Sunday, in week three, he discussed family.

Now, I love my family very much. And no one makes me bitter like my family does.

Alan said that he occasionally picks on his little sister, Allie, who is a professional dancer, whenever she isn’t dancing and performing and therefore isn’t working. Being a fan of Allie as both a person and a dancer and being a little sister myself, I sympathize with her a lot whenever Alan mentions her in sermons. But when Alan told us that on Sunday, I could relate to Allie all too well because I’ve been victim to my brother saying awful things about my unemployment as well.

Last summer, after I graduated from college, I looked for jobs and couldn’t get one to save my life. No nearby publishing companies were hiring, and the local newspaper basically forgot about me after they said they’d contact me. Since I couldn’t find a job I wanted, I began searching for a job anywhere. And in the meantime, I got to listen to my brother mock my unemployment to me (“I mean, you’ve got all day to do it. It’s not like you’ve got to go to work or anything.”) and to other people (“She just stays at home and sleeps all day. She doesn’t do anything.”).

I was incredibly hurt by this. Truth be told, it upset me to the point of tears more than once. I spent four years and a lot of money to get a piece of paper called a diploma that proving to be completely pointless. I couldn’t get a job anywhere, despite trying my hardest to find one. And on top of feeling like a failure, my brother came right along and willingly, gladly, rubbed my insufficiencies in my face.

But Derek didn’t know I was feeling that way. He was simply upset and bitter about having to go to a job he hated when I didn’t. Bitterness breeding bitterness.

I have more stories like that, moments when it felt like he was pushing me down as if gravity and life weren’t doing a good enough job of it. What’s even worse is I’m positive he has just as many stories with that same moral and theme about me.

It’s as old as Cain and Abel, as dark and depressing as Esau and Jacob. Whether we want to be or not, whether we intend to be or not, we’re all Destroyers.

Cain’s unprecedented bitterness and its consequences were caused by two people: himself and his brother. Cain was very lackadaisical in his giving to God. Instead of giving his best, he gave what he could scrounge up. I would say that’s pretty neglectful and pathetic. He certainly messed up there, right?

And then he was compared to his brother.

I hate being compared to my siblings. It hardly ever makes me look good. In all the many ways that people talk about and stereotype being the youngest (a spoiled child, a glamorous gig), no one ever talks about how you’re the last act of the show, therefore you better be a good one. After all, no one wants to be or see Nickelback following The Beatles or The Rolling Stones.

Out of the three of us, I would say that I’m probably the closest to being the Problem Child. Sunnie’s very secluded and not terribly spontaneous. Derek keeps busy and sticks to a somewhat vague routine, and he’s less independent than my sister and me. I’m sort of the wild card. Spontaneous, more rebellious, smart-mouthed, and without much here to keep me tied down, I’m more likely to go on an adventure or to question something or to back-sass the wrong person. People are more likely to encounter me than my sister and more likely to dislike me than my brother. If my mom was one who worried, I would be the reason for her worry.

I would argue that had Cain not been compared to Abel, he wouldn’t have killed Abel. If God had said, “Hey, you’re not giving me your best. Do better,” Cain probably would’ve been mad, but not murderous. But because He said, “You’re not giving me your best. Do better. Be more like your brother,” Cain became mad and jealous and thought he wouldn’t have to listen to people or God sing Abel’s praises if he wasn’t around anymore.

God was trying to show Cain the right way to do things, but Cain misinterpreted it. He saw God’s correction as a sign of love for his brother, not as a sign of love for him. He let his bitterness beat him.

Anger and jealousy are huge, common doors for bitterness. If we let them in and don’t show them out, they’ll gladly make themselves at home. As they settle, they turn into bitterness, but not before attracting more anger and jealousy.

Esau had every right to be angry. I get a little mad on his behalf every time I hear or read of how Jacob stole his blessing. How could people so close to him hurt him so? I pity him.

When Esau loses his birthright, or rather, practically gives it away for almost nothing, I have no pity for him.

Pity is a funny thing. We claim we don’t want it, but we really do. That’s why we’re so picky about who we give it to, yet it sounds sort of demeaning to hear that someone has pity on us. It is food for bitterness. The more we hear of how people are sorry for us, the more we think of how we were wronged, and to us, it justifies our hard and horrible feelings.

We like being justified. We don’t like being called out, disagreed with, or changed.

Bitterness is a hard habit to ditch. It’s edgy. It makes us feel better, but not entirely well. And it will never let us down; it will never disappoint us.

Disappointment is the root of all bitterness. It is Point A if bitterness is Point B. There are a few different ways to get from Point A to Point Be: Anger Avenue, Jealousy Trail, Resentment Road. No matter how you came to bitterness, you’re already familiar with disappointment.

In our bitterness and staying true to it, we think it’s the only thing we can count on, the only thing that won’t let us down, and that’s not true at all. God’s mercy, grace, and love won’t let us down.

Lamentations 3:22-23 tells us that God’s mercies never stop and that they’re new every day.

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:8 that God told him that God’s grace is sufficient.

The entire Bible tells us that God’s love always has been and always will be there.

God has an answer for everything. Mercy instead of justice, grace instead of fairness, and love instead of bitterness. He wants to give it to us and asks that we give it as freely and generously as we’ve received it.

Show mercy, grace, and love to your Destroyers because you’ve done your share of destruction too. Deep down (or perhaps on the surface), we all want those three things, and we’ve all been undeserving of them at some point or another.

No one is better than anyone else. God cares for us all equally. He loves you, your Destroyers, and those you destroy all the same. He wants to give us His love, grace, and mercy as much as He wants us to give it to each other. And we would do well to accept as much of it as we can.

By Carrie Prevette

The Bitter Itch

I have one known allergy, and that is poison oak/ivy. I discovered this in high school when I unknowingly came into contact with it for the first time. I say “unknowingly” because I myself didn’t wander around in a patch of it. My brother did, and my forearm must’ve had some direct contact with him or his clothes.

My brother remained unscathed while my arm, or rather an almost perfect oval on my arm, looked like something out of a Sci-Fi movie. I expressed my concern to my mom, who drove me to the doctor’s office where we found out that in addition to my charisma, my temper, and my green eyes, I also inherited my allergy to poison ivy from my dad.

It now seems remarkable to me that I went so long without knowing this because this problem has occurred twice since then. Both of those times were in the summer after I’d been outside, so I initially thought the itchiness was caused by bug bites. Both times it wasn’t on my arms, but my legs. It wasn’t until it spread widely that I realized what it was.

I’m almost positive that out of everyone reading this, at least one of you is sitting there thinking, “But Carrie, why did you scratch that itch?”

Because when I initially scratched it, I didn’t know it would spread and it felt good. It felt relieving. By the time I knew it would spread, I would still scratch at times just to get relief. At those times, I didn’t care if it spread, if it reopened wounds, because I was miserable. I was physically and mentally irritated all the time. I would catch myself scratching my leg in my sleep by rubbing it along my sheets and along the edge of the mattress. When watching TV in the living room, I would discreetly run my leg over the edge of the recliner ottoman, which was covered in a blanket or towel to prevent anyone else from being contaminated. To others, it may seem like a rare form of self-torture, and thinking in the long-term, perhaps those people are right. But to me, those moments of rubbing and scratching bordered on ecstasy because in those moments, I felt so much better.

That sounds to me a lot like how we treat our bitterness.

We carry around this bitterness, and maybe at first we don’t recognize it for what it actually is. We just know that we tend to be sort of negative at times, and we vent a lot, often about the same things. That venting and that mindset give us an odd sense of relief. Yes, it’s fleeting, but it’s something. And that bitterness spreads. Maybe we realize it, but mostly, we don’t. And if we do, we usually don’t care. Misery loves company, right? In our bitterness, we don’t care that we hurt others and make them bitter. Or maybe we scratch our itch and others join in and scratch their itches, and eventually, the only thing that comes of it is more open wounds and itchiness, not a resolution. Yes, it’s fleeting, and no, we don’t care. And man, doesn’t it feel good in that one, small moment!

A great example of everyone scratching that bitter itch at once is when someone says they’ve had a bad day and those around this person immediately try to one-up them. This is one of the most annoying things on the planet to me. Here we have this person who’s in need of a pick-me-up. He or she could just be bummed out or he or she could just be sobbing and forming inaudible words. Regardless of how upset this person is, he or she could certainly be doing better. And instead of everyone trying to make this sad soul feel better, they all try to make themselves feel better by entering a competition to see who can get the most sympathy by complaining and going on and on about how much worse they have it than everyone else.

“Well, you’ll never guess what happened to me today.”
“Yeah, my bad day started with a headache right when I woke up.”
“This jerk on the drive to work…”
“My boss was nagging me…”
“My girlfriend was nagging me…”
“My mom called to tell me…”
“My professor told me after class…”
Well, this…
Well, that…

Well, stop! By no means am I belittling whatever you’re going through. I’m sure it’s a great deal. Everyone’s fighting something. And I’m not saying you’re not entitled to a bad day because you most certainly are. You’re entitled to talk about it and to want and get sympathy for it. You can have a bad day on the same day your friend has a bad day, but you shouldn’t turn it into a competition and make your friend feel even worse. That’s bitterness breeding bitterness.

One day in my junior year of college, my best friend and I both had a terrible day. It was awful. We talked on the phone around noon and discussed how bad our days were and decided to actively make our days better. We decided instead of being miserable together that we were going to have fun together. When my friend got out of class, we went bowling. Then we went to Roses and goofed off, trying on funny hats and sitting on the patio and lawn furniture. Would you believe that when I think of that day, I don’t think of how bad it started out but about how much fun it ended up being?

I could’ve been grumpy and bitter. My day was bad because the dream I had right before I woke up was one where my dad was still alive. Then I woke up in a world where he wasn’t. And I wanted to be at home, but I couldn’t. I could’ve spent all day scratching that itch. Instead of scratching, I found a remedy.

A lot of people think the remedy is revenge, but it’s not.

“Revenge” is such an angry word, and it suits the bitter because anger births bitterness. Phonetically, it’s violent and aggressive due to the “r,” “v,” and “g.” In the literary world, the repeated use of such sounds is called a cacophony. Cacophony is discording, clamorous sounds. It’s the opposite of euphony, which is pleasing sounds. In addition, “revenge” has a very dark connotation. When we hear it, we know there’s hurt and that there’s going to be more hurt. We know that hate or pain or bitterness will not only multiply, but also cycle.

We think revenge will cure our itch, but it’s really just a long, elaborate scratch. The relief you feel isn’t permanent; it too will pass. The guilt you feel, however, has a stronger staying power. Basically, you’ll end up with even more bitterness and, more than likely, some guilt as well. Not a pretty picture, is it?

In Romans 12:14-21 (NRSV), Paul says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

When I was a kid and my brother tormented me and my parents found out, it was fantastic. I watched the scolding and the punishment. The justice felt great coming from a higher power.

Things were less great when I tried to give out my own justice. It didn’t seem to feel as good, and I got in just as much trouble as my brother did.

Imagine those scenarios on a much grander scale, and that’s what Paul’s talking about.

If you want to be avenged, leave it to the God who is most powerful and all-knowing. If you want to make someone mad, show love when your first reaction is to show hate.

When I was a teenager, I wore a Duke shirt after every basketball game. Every single one, win or lose. It was an act to show that I still supported my team. When I did it after they lost, the ceremony of it all meant more to me. I didn’t even think about what it would mean to others.

As it turns out, it made those who hated Duke mad.

They would talk about missed shots and missed opportunities, a lagging pace and a lacking defense. Their voices would actually rise and sometimes they would become rather animated. Meanwhile, I defended my team – stats, facts, rematches, whatever was in my arsenal – and visibly showed pure adoration for whom the score of the game called losers.

In a weird way, it’s similar to what Paul’s saying. Instead of our kindness or niceties showing devotion to a team, it shows devotion to our God who told us to love everyone.

We think if we don’t seek revenge, that makes us a doormat and everyone can just step all over us. That’s not what it is at all. There’s a difference between being assertive and being aggressive. Our aim in being assertive is to defend ourselves. Our aim in being aggressive is to hurt people. By not seeking revenge, you’re not being a doormat. You’re simply leaving it up to a God who knows what He’s doing.

No one’s a stranger to bitterness. We all have it at some point or another. It’s an itch we all love to scratch. It brings a relief we crave no matter how temporary. Revenge will relieve it, not remedy it, and eventually the bitterness will return with a vengeance of its own. The true cure is to love despite our pain and leave the rest in God’s hands. After all, His hands have the cure for everything.

By Carrie Prevette

Your Surroundings

John 17 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. It’s simple in that not much happens. In fact, only one thing happens: Jesus prays. But it’s what Jesus says when He prays that makes the chapter so remarkable.

Throughout Jesus’s earthly life, we see Him interact with a lot of people, every sort of person from lepers to Pharisees to rulers. And we know He interacts with God. (I would imagine that’s a fairly big part of being the Son of God and the Messiah.) But in John 17, we see Jesus sharing an extremely intimate moment with His Father. We see Jesus praying, talking to God.

It’s a big deal because we’ve read where Jesus prayed, but those prayers aren’t like this one. First, it’s much longer than Jesus’s other recorded prayers, which means that something is really resting on His heart here. Second, much of the prayer is specifically for what will happen in the future, both near and far. It’s not such an immediate issue like most of His prayers. Third, Jesus’s prayer is for multiple people. We usually see Jesus pray for or perform a miracle for one person at a time, but here He prays for many. He prays for His disciples and for future believers.

John 17:6-24 (NLT) says, “I have revealed to you the ones you gave me from this world. They were always yours. You gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything I have is a gift from you, for I have passed on to them the message you gave me. They accepted it and know that I came from you, and they believe you sent me.

“My prayer is not for the world, but for those you have given me, because they belong to you. All who are mine belong to you, and you have given them to me, so they bring me glory. Now I am departing from the world; they are staying in this world, but I am coming to you. Holy Father, you have given me your name; now protect them by the power of your name so that they will be united just as we are. During my time here, I protected them by the power of the name you gave me. I guarded them so that not one was lost, except the one headed for destruction, as the Scriptures foretold.

“Now I am coming to you. I told them many things while I was with them in this world so they would be filled with my joy. I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to this world any more than I do. Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth.

“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

“I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began!”

Jesus’s love is so evident here, both for His Father and His followers. What He says is so protective, and the way He says it is so caring and respectful.

What I want to focus on is verses 13-18, where Jesus is saying that He’s leaving, and He wants God to protect and watch over His disciples, to make them holy and teach them the truth.

It was very clear to Jesus that His followers would stand out from the rest of the world, and the world has never liked people who stand out. Jesus knew that better than anyone. But as much as the disciples stood out from the world, they couldn’t physically stand apart from it.

Jesus knew that there were many people the disciples would be around, some by force and some by choice, and He wanted God’s help in keeping them away from the world and those who would try to drag them into it. He understood the power of what surrounds someone.

What you surround yourself with is important because it influences you, and that includes your family and friends.

A few years ago, I surrounded myself with some people I thought were my friends. And I do truly believe their intentions were good, but it wasn’t terribly long until I realized that they were bad for me. They thought they were guiding me in a positive direction and helping me grow. What they were actually doing was judging me and trying to change who God made me to be.

In short, I was miserable. Where my heart should’ve been filled with love and happiness, there lived anger and bitterness. When I should’ve been gaining confidence in who I was, I was developing even more insecurities.

I can’t say I regret my experience because some good came from it, and that good is immeasurable. I can say that I’m thankful God helped me get out when He did because it would’ve been awful otherwise.

The real question is: Have you put yourself in a position to grow and prosper or are you surrounded by people and things that are holding you back?

God has you where you are for a reason. But are you choosing the spiritual nutrients and vitamins you need and those who’ll help you get them over what’ll ruin you?

Your life is yours alone, and when you stand before God, you will be the only one responsible for how you lived it. The atmosphere of than dingy bar that provoked you to drunkenness and later alcoholism won’t be there. That alluring, seductive person that caused you to cheat on your spouse won’t stand. Your fun, rebellious friend’s charm that sent you speeding down the wrong path will have zero effect on anything. Even the judgmental jerk who claimed to be a Christian and ultimately turned your heart into a lump of bitterness won’t make a difference. It’ll all fall to you.

So it’s now up to you. Consider the things and people you’ve surrounded yourself with. Are they good to you? Are they good for you? Do they promote growth? Where would you be without them, better off or worse for wear? If the answers give a negative report, is keeping them around worth jeopardizing your relationship with God?

I’m moved every time I read John 17. The idea of Jesus praying for me melts my heart, let alone reading the prayer He prayed. To be aware of His heart’s desire, His concern for us, and to disregard the legitimacy of it or the cause behind it would be foolish. We need to be aware of who and what surrounds us and be sure that they’re really worth keeping around.

By Carrie Prevette

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