Boldness Without Bitterness
by Jodi Detrick
Bold women. Some consider the combination of those two words as oxymoronic — or perhaps the description of a spiritually flawed female subgroup.
If those two words make a few people squirm, it might have to do with their definition of boldness. Or maybe they’ve developed a scriptural perspective that characterizes truly godly women as ultra-soft-spoken, always-compliant, fade-into-the-background people with divinely imposed limits on the range of their ministry callings and spiritual leadership capacities.
But whatever our reaction to bold women, they can’t be ignored. We read about them in the pages of the Bible, in history textbooks, and in today’s news headlines. Bold women stride with gracious confidence, coupled with compelling humility, into some of Earth’s most daunting circumstances. There they use their God-given gifts, honed by training and experience, to make an eternity-shaking difference.
I’ll tip my hand and say it: I love bold women. They challenge and inspire me. They also make me smile. I meet them frequently and love hearing their stories of spiritual derring-do as I travel and speak to various groups in all kinds of settings.
I’ve also learned that boldness is not limited to a certain personality type. Whether an introvert or an extrovert — or somewhere in between — each woman wears her boldness wrapped in a temperament cloak unique to her.
Boldness Brings Courage
I met Denise Dvorscak and Jamie Weflen on a recent trip to North Dakota. Both are pastor’s wives and women in ministry. (Weflen is a credentialed minister who recently stepped into a new role as women’s ministries director for her district.)
But don’t let their softer side and girl-shoes fool you — these women are bold! They are part of a ministry called Dakota Pearls that reaches out to female strip club workers. Dvorscak gets a little teary-eyed talking about the relationships she’s made with the often-young and always-hurting sex industry workers she affectionately refers to as “my girls.”
Something that happened on their long drive to the retreat where I was speaking illustrated to me the boldness of these two women. They were running late as they passed a young woman whose abusive boyfriend, at that very moment, had put her out on a lonely stretch of road miles from the nearest town. Immediately sensing the urgency of the situation, they whipped around their vehicle. Their hearts pounded as they approached the woman and prayed for God’s help. They arrived just ahead of a semi-truck, which had also pulled to the shoulder.
“Get in our car, honey!” Denise urged, wrapping the sobbing girl in a mama bear hug.
The shaken young woman finally relented and climbed into the vehicle that would take her to the safety of extended family and others who would follow up with her care.
“Do you have any idea how much Jesus loves you to send us along at exactly the right time?” they asked her. “Do you realize what a treasure you are?”
No, she didn’t. But through the courageous actions and loving words of these two bold women, she was starting to get a glimpse into God’s heart for her and the hope of a different future.
Boldness Is Not Brashness
Bold can, indeed, be beautiful. I like the first definition dictionary.com gives for this valiant adjective. Bold: “not hesitating or fearful in the face of actual or possible danger or rebuff; courageous and daring.”
Too many of us have come to equate boldness — especially in females — with brashness or a hard-edged, abrasive version of assertiveness. Unfortunately, we’ve all encountered women (and men) with a chip on their shoulders who fit this harsher description.
When I was in my early 20s and working as a dental assistant, a high-powered businesswoman came into our office as a patient. Part of my job that day entailed going over the best practices of dental hygiene with her, something I’d done successfully with hundreds of people. Not so with this woman. She challenged me on every point, scoffing at my instructions and ridiculing me in a very personal manner until I was almost in tears.
Later, as I recounted this incident to the dentist I worked for, he chuckled.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, grinning. “She told me afterward that she’d just taken an assertiveness training course, and she was practicing on you.”
Decades later I can laugh at the absurdity of being an assertiveness training guinea pig — and I’m quite sure not all assertiveness training has intimidation and humiliation of the “assertee” as its intended outcome. But my guess is that this businesswoman was not acting out of boldness (i.e., courage and daring) but out of bitterness. And bitterness most often arises from unresolved, or improperly resolved, hurts.
Life Can Diminish Boldness
Let’s be honest. The emotional and physical bruises individuals, institutions, systems, and cultures inflict on women are real and painful. Even within the greater Church, called and capable women are often limited, and sometimes belittled, when they seek to find roles that allow them to use their God-given gifts and fully live out that calling. I have sat with a number of these women, seeing the pain in their eyes and listening to their frustration as they wondered why the many doors they knocked on remained firmly shut.
In an earlier article, “The Man in the Back of the Room,”1 I wrote about a guy who leaned against a wall in the rear of the room, arms crossed and glaring at me, while I spoke to a group of women who were meeting to encourage one another and study the Bible together. After a few minutes, this uninvited stranger walked forward, grabbed my Bible from the podium, opened it to the verse about women being silent, slammed it back down in front of me, and then stomped out. It was pretty obvious that this man thought it was out of line for me, a woman, to teach from the Bible, even to an all-female group. It would be many years before I could stand before any group, especially if men were present, without remembering that livid man in the back of the room.
It doesn’t help to deny the stings that come our way, or to pretend that gender bias is a thing of ancient history. At the same time, it’s so important not to allow our wounds to fester and infect us with bitterness — which could easily end up being the most limiting thing of all.
Hebrews 12:15 offers a strong caution about bitterness: “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (ESV).2
If I am going to be a woman who courageously lives out my calling in spite of the obstacles human or spiritual forces put in place, I must consistently weed my heart of any roots of bitterness growing in past pain. God is responsible for dealing with those who may wrong me. I am responsible for maintaining the landscape of my heart.
God in Us = Boldness
God’s grace received and extended, in each moment and every circumstance, is our best source of boldness without bitterness. For those who choose to live as called, courageous women — unimpeded by the leaden weight of resentment — here are a few things to consider:
God loves bold women. Scripture is replete with the stories of daring women who stepped forward, spoke up, and acted courageously. Rahab (also listed among the faith heroes in Hebrews 11), Abigail, Huldah, Deborah, Ruth, and Esther are just a few of the bold women we read about in the Old Testament.
In the New Testament, Jesus honors Mary of Bethany for her daring choice to take a seat with the men to learn at the feet of their great Rabbi-Messiah (Luke 10:38–42).
The Gentile woman in Matthew 15:27 responds to the seeming rebuff from Jesus with an unflinching counter: “She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table’” (ESV).
Rather than rebuking her for her boldness, Jesus said, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire” (verse 28, ESV), and answered her appeal by healing her daughter.
And who can forget the Acts 2 account of the women who were part of the Upper Room gathering on the Day of Pentecost? Verse four makes it clear that “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues.” Later, the text explains that when these Spirit-filled believers spilled out into the streets (3,000 became believers after hearing Peter preach, so it’s apparent that they didn’t stay in the Upper Room), those gathered from many nations heard about God’s great works in their own languages. You can be sure the Spirit-filled women didn’t remain in the Upper Room doing the dishes but that they were a part of those bold proclaimers. It makes no sense that God would give them this special language gift and then refuse to let them use it.
Peter confirms that women were, indeed, a part of the public expression of Pentecost by twice mentioning both genders when he explains (in verses 16–18) that the crowd was witnessing the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy. … Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17,18).
Go ahead. Be courageous in your Spirit-filled service to Jesus, my sister. God is smiling.
Boldness must always be tempered by humility. It’s true that a woman who is bold in her calling will always rankle some who mistake strength for stridency. Our culture often calls men who speak up leaders, while labeling women who do so as pushy or aggressive.
The misperceptions of others do not let us off the hook, however. God expects us all to walk in humility (Philippians 2:3–8) and requires His servants, both male and female, to speak with graciousness toward others (Proverbs 16:24; Ephesians 4:29), even when we disagree. Don’t speak to a group in a mean-spirited way out of bitterness toward one. Don’t let troubled souls make you a troubled soul.
So, my bold sisters — and brothers, too — be aware of what you are projecting. Realize that believers with different views on gender issues are still brothers and sisters you should treat with kindness. Don’t stoop to the level of those who demean and disrespect others because of their views. Paul makes it pretty clear in 2 Timothy 2:24: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.”
Speaking up doesn’t mean you are bitter. Jesus made a point of using a bold, insistent widow who cried out for justice in one of His parables that encourages us to be persistent in prayer (Luke 18:1–8). She was the protagonist of the story — someone to emulate.
There are times when we can and must speak up, with conviction, about the scriptural truths regarding the full inclusion of women into ministry and leadership. But even then, it’s important to do so with the right spirit and the right intention.
Bitterness seeks blame. Boldness seeks solutions. Bitterness often uses inequities as an excuse not to keep trying. Boldness doesn’t wait for ultimate resolve to find ways to serve God and others. Bitterness can narrow our focus to one issue: gender inequality. Boldness keeps a broader ministry focus, preventing us from getting stuck exclusively on gender matters. (Personally, this is one reason why I make it a point to write, speak, and teach on many topics and resist letting all my energies go into this one issue, even though I care about it greatly.) The world and the Church need to hear Spirit-empowered female voices on so many crucial matters, not just this one.
Let Jesus remove any bitterness and refine your boldness. Forgive those who have bruised or limited you, and let the Great Physician heal your hurts. Realize that everyone deals with roadblocks of one kind or another, from cultural biases to physical limitations. But God has never needed ideal circumstances or perfect people to accomplish His purposes on this planet. Let Him define your significance. Beautiful boldness is always the next trusting step forward, the next “yes” to Jesus.
And on some days, it might even mean making a U-turn on a lonely road to break the cycle of pain and bitterness in someone who has suffered abandonment and loss of trust — maybe even a broken woman who needs to know that Jesus loves her, boldly.
1. Jodi Detrick, “The Man in the Back of the Room: and Other Issues Facing Women Preachers,” Enrichment journal 18, no.1 (Winter 2013): 56.
2. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Scripture quotations marked ESV are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, © 2001, Wheaton: Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.