When I was growing up, my mom would often vent to me about her bitterness toward people. My mom was not the kind of person people would think of as bitter. In public, she came across as quiet and kind, and a little bit quirky and eccentric.
What people didn’t realize was that her compassion came from a very sensitive heart. Her heart got stepped on quite a bit, and she was easily hurt. She held in her bitterness, which grew into resentment. Her only place to vent was talking to me. I would come home after school and hear about whoever made her feel hurt that day.
From age three, when I started attending Sunday school, I had been taught to “honor my mother and father.” I was told this was a very serious thing that Jesus wanted me to do. I took it to heart. Unfortunately, I was only given the platitude. I was not taught what honoring looks like in real life.
I came to believe that the best way I could honor my mother was to quietly and submissively allow her to say all kinds of bitter things in front of me. I would just nod my head and try to muster great sympathy. Her bitterness would grow because I kept helping her nurture it.
It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I learned what honor really means. To honor someone is to value that person at her true God-given worth. It means holding that person up as who God created her to be.
If I had truly been honoring my mom, I would not have tolerated her bitterness. I would have let her vent, but then I would have said, “Mom, let’s pray to forgive those people and ask Jesus to take away this bitterness. Because bitterness is not who you are. I want to honor who you are. God made you loving and compassionate with a sensitive heart. I’m so sorry people have taken advantage of that and trampled your heart. That hurts me to see you hurt. But bitterness is not the answer. It is just hurting you more. Let’s ask Jesus to lift that bitterness.”
That kind of confrontation didn’t come easily or naturally to me. I avoided speaking like that to anyone. I tried so hard just to be nice. But as I have come to learn, and as a friend of mine has written so compellingly, “nice” is not a fruit of the Spirit. “Nice” elevates tolerance over truth. In my situation, “nice” dishonored my mom.
Once I realized my sin, I had to repent for how I had dishonored my mom all those years. And I had to repent for the ways I had judged her as “bitter.” Because even though I tolerated her behavior outwardly, in my heart I resented her bitterness. (You can see how easy it is for this kind of pattern to continue generationally.) I asked God to forgive me.
When I finally did have that conversation with my mom about bitterness (in my early 40s), I was terrified. But the outcome was something I couldn’t have imagined or expected. My mom’s heart softened. I may have been one of the first people to acknowledge her sensitive heart and apologize for how people treated her. We prayed together, and she said she felt better.
Our conversations after that were more peaceful. She was still bitter sometimes, but I just invited her to pray with me, and she did. She always said she felt better. I got to see a new side of her during the final years of her life, and she had much more peace. Through that experience, I learned what it meant to honor my mother for who God truly made her to be.