To some degree, bitterness is something that everyone will struggle with in a world that sin has broken. When I think about bitterness, Proverbs 14:10 comes to mind, “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.” So what causes us to become bitter? How can we deal with our bitterness? Steven Viars answers these questions in his new book, Overcoming Bitterness: Moving from Life’s Greatest Hurts to a Life Filled with Joy. Viars has been a pastor and biblical counselor at Faith Biblical Counseling Ministries in Lafayette, Indiana, since 1987. He has vast experience in biblical counseling and approaches this topic with clarity, gentleness, and patience.
Viars explores how the Bible addresses bitterness in the book’s first part. In the Old Testament, the word for bitter is marah, which is also the name that Naomi called herself after going through many trials (Ruth 1:20). In the New Testament, the Greek word is pikros, illustrated as bitter water (James 3:11). So why do we experience bitterness? He explains, “Sinful bitterness occurs when we respond improperly to the hurts, frustrations, or disappointments of life.” His goal in the book is to help readers deal with bitterness so that they may “bask in the sweetness of the Savior.”
There was one phrase in the book that I thought was important. He said, “bitterness is not first a response-it is first a reality.” He described bitterness as a condition or an experience that we go through. Bitterness does not come on us suddenly but grows over time if unaddressed. One way in which he talked about dealing with bitterness is with lament. Lament helps one face the reality of their circumstances honestly, taking it to the Lord who can provide hope.
There was one chapter in which he connected bitterness to the heart, which is the primary way biblical counselors address problems. He says, “Our behavior, including bitterness, flows out a fully functional heart, or inner person.” He further says this about the heart, “It is our control center and includes everything about us that is not material.” I appreciate that he focused first on the heart before dealing with external behavior. For example, he observed that “Sinful bitterness in the heart always begins with misplaced desires. Often they come in the form of unreasonable expectations we set up for the people and situations around us.” That one hurt!
In the second part of the book, Viars takes the narrative found in the book of Ruth to address bitterness. He walks through the book of Ruth through the eyes of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz as a way to provide hope for painful situations. I think he did an excellent job of showing God’s grace and kindness even when we respond to life in the wrong way and how God even surprises us with his blessings. Although not every person can relate to the situation in the book of Ruth, there are some excellent observations on how they responded to life in a fallen world.
If there is one thing I did not like about the book, it would be the title. I think words like “overcome” and “victory” overpromise and do not address future struggles that may occur. The author clarified this was not the intent, but I think words such as “overcome” or “victory” are not always helpful when dealing with heart struggles. For example, one could deal with their current bitterness and then, in the future, face an entirely different situation and struggle again with bitterness. When I think of overcoming, I think of something that I won’t struggle with again, which is why I think the word could be unhelpful.
Viars is an experienced counselor who provides a lot of hope in this book for dealing with bitterness. By pointing to Christ as one’s hope, he leads the reader from a bitter heart to the sweet Savior that stands ready to help.
Hebrews 4:16 “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”