Avoiding Bitterness

“So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard.” (Genesis 4:3-5)

Unfortunately for Cain, the LORD did not have regard for his offering.   We can probably all appreciate to some extent how that must have felt. No one enjoys the feeling of not being good enough. No one likes to put sweat and tears into some effort only to come up short. We want to receive praise for our efforts and our accomplishments so that we can feel proud of what we have achieved. We want to feel good about ourselves. When things do not go our way, and our efforts come up short, it can be quite frustrating.

Of course, this is what happened with Cain:

“So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell.” (Genesis 4:5)

When we get really upset, it is written all across our faces. This was apparently the case with Cain, and his disappointment at falling short and being revealed as insufficient turned to anger inside him. Is this not a temptation that we all face? When we do not get what we want, or when we do our best and no one takes notice, or when those around us seem to tell us by our actions that we are not good enough, are we not tempted to become bitter? When someone else’s life seems to be falling into place while ours seems to be floundering, are we not tempted to become jealous?

In this context, God responds to Cain:

“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.’” (Genesis 4:6-7)

Discouragement, Cynicism, Anger, Bitterness, and Jealousy were no the only options Cain had in response to his personal failures and disappointments. And we all have personal failures and disappointments. When they arise, we can respond in a destructive way that hands the reins over to our negative feelings, or we can take the alternative that God offers. We can rise up in the strength God offers and be master over the sin. We can take the high road. We can resist the bitterness and instead start where we are and resolve to do our best moving forward.

“Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.” (Genesis 4:8)

Something to consider about Cain’s actions is that they certainly did not make his life better. Yes, he was angry. Yes, he may have been jealous of Abel. Maybe he thought that if he could not be happy, he was not going to allow Abel to be happy either. And maybe for a brief moment Cain felt some kind of personal power or satisfaction is lashing out and doing things his own way. But ultimately, the outcome was worse, not better, that what Cain could have expected if he had simply picked himself up and dedicated himself to bringing an acceptable offering to God in the future.

Some have said that my generation was never taught how to deal with disappointment. I think to some extent they may be right. And to some extent this is a problem that all generations face. Things will not go our way. We will be shown to be inadequate when we most want to feel sufficient. Our natural human reaction will be cynicism and bitterness and endless blame. But what we can do, if we accept God’s offer, is pick ourselves up and keep following Him in a way that can make things better, not worse.


Do Not Think of Yourself More Highly than You Ought

Scripture is full of praise for the humble and warnings against pride. A few examples include:

  • “For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.” (Psalm 138:6)
  • “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.” (Proverbs 3:34)
  • “One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor.” (Proverbs 29:23)
  • “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12)

Many of us, when we consider humility, tend to think of godly sorrow accompanying repentance when we have realized our error in regards to a grave or embarrassing sin. But can we be humble without necessarily having any “big” or “serious” sins to repent of?

Perhaps some of us feel as though we would be more than willing to humble ourselves, but we do not see anything in our lives that would require us to repent in dust and ashes.

Scripture makes no mention of which I am aware of any “serious” sin the life if Isaiah when he came into God’s throne room as described in Isaiah chapter 6. But that certainly did not stop him from being humbled in God’s presence:

“The foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke.
Then I said,
‘Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.’”

Coming into God’s throne room, which is open to us through the avenue of prayer, has a way of opening our eyes to just how puny and imperfect we are in comparison to the God that we serve. After all, the life that we live here on earth is a life that Christ “emptied himself” according to Philippians 2, in order to share in. God is above us, and we only have His grace because of His willingness to condescend to our low level.

With this in mind, consider the instruction of scripture in Romans 12:3, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but think of yourself with sober judgment, according to the measure of faith God has given you.” (Romans 12:3)

Many quote Isaiah 64:6 when they need encouragement in humility: “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.” The truth is that none of us measure up to Christ. All have sinned. If we say we have not sinned we make Him a liar. All have fallen short of the glory of God. All are deserving of death. As such, even the best that we can do is woefully inadequate.

“For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, ‘LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD.’” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

God is on our Side

In the fifth chapter of his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul emphasizes God’s desire for reconciliation with those who are separated from Him.

“Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

Reconciliation between offended parties can be very tedious and difficult work. Many will tell you that unless both parties are truly dedicated to being reconciled, a disagreement or a feud can go on for years or even for life. This is true whether in personal relationships, or in those between whole groups of people or nations.

These words to the Corinthians confirm for us that God, on His part, is dedicated to reconciliation with us, the people of the world. This availability for reconciliation demonstrates to us God’s great love, for as the text says, He is willing to overlook our trespasses in order to restore our relationship. This is astounding considering that we are the ones who rejected God in the first place, and who have rejected Him with our sinful actions too many times to count.

It is a good thing that Jesus supports the concept of forgiving someone “490 times” in Matthew 18. It is a good thing that “God is love” according to 1 John 4, and that love “does not take into account a wrong suffered,” according to the famous love passage of 1 Corinthians 13.

Many people get this picture backwards. They think of themselves as the innocent party who was just minding their own business, when all of a sudden God marched up with a list of unreasonable demands that had to be met or the relationship would be severed. But scripture, as we have seen, just does not fit that picture. God is actually the one who is willing to overlook the past and invite us back into His arms. God is “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance,” according to 2 Peter 3:9.

We are going to have to humble our pride if we are to come to Him. We cannot portray Him as a demanding tyrant who forces us to jump through hoops for His own arbitrary reasons. Rather, God, like a loving parent, knows what is best for us and calls us gently and lovingly to follow the path of life.

The apostles found themselves as ambassadors on Christ’s behalf, literally begging for God’s estranged children to return to Him. God wants us to be with Him! He wants everyone to be with Him! He is on our side! So much so that He would not only overlook our sins against Him, but that He even sent His own Son to die at our hands, who even then prayed “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

God is pulling for us. His invitation to life still stands. In the words of Jesus, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”


Being a Tough Christian

I was amazed recently to hear an interview with a man who is considered by many to be “the toughest man in the world.” The man’s name is David Goggins, who is described by Wikipedia as “retired Navy SEAL and former USAF Tactical Air Control Party member who served in Iraq and Afghanistan… ultramarathon runner, ultra-distance cyclist, triathlete and world record holder for the most pull-ups done in 24 hours.”

I was impressed with Goggins’ description of the first time he had run a 100 mile race. He did this with no marathon training whatsoever. He was not even a runner.

He describes sitting down at one point and being unable to stand back up, so that he had to use the restroom on himself right where he sat. He describes the small bones in his feet being broken, kidney failure, severe shin fractures, and tendon inflammation so severe that he had to tape his entire lower legs into what were essentially giant, unflexing pegs for the last 20 or 30 miles of the race. He describes exactly the kind of intense pain that you would expect from someone who is running 100 miles without ever having trained as a runner before.

As I heard this tale, I had to question whether I was truly aware of my own ability for mental toughness. I thought of 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.”

Maybe when you read this passage, you think it means that God will give you a fairly easy and obvious way out of any temptation you might face. Maybe we want to believe that the paths through our trials will be simply a matter of trusting God and it will all be over in a jiffy.

But all that the text says is that He “will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able.” And apparently, human beings are able to endure tremendous suffering and difficulty.

We are told that He, “with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” This is a sure promise from the LORD. But bear in mind that humans have endured all kinds of long, painful situations such as being prisoners of war or being trapped for days or weeks under rubble before finally finding a way of escape.

You might or might not be physically able to run 100 miles, even if you truly gave it your all. But the temptations you face, with the LORD’s help, you can overcome if you refuse to give up. But do not expect it to be easy.

We will need to draw on the LORD for tremendous strength if we are to bear the tragedies and the ailments that are sure to come our way.

“But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.” (1 Peter 4:13)

“The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” (Romans 8:16-17)


Work and Rest

Many people may feel that work is a nothing but a curse that was imposed upon man as a punishment after Adam and Eve sinned and ate the forbidden fruit in the garden.

It is true that man’s work became frustrating and difficult as punishment for what Adam had done, but the concept of work, in and of itself, is not the concept of a curse but of something divine. How do we know this? Scripture repeatedly uses the word “work” to refer to God’s act of creation:

“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” (Genesis 2:1-3)

Work was not the only thing that became more difficult during the fall. Relationships and childbearing were also cursed. Of course, this does not mean that society should refrain from relationships or from childbearing anymore than from work. Rather than seeing these things as curses in and of themselves simply because they are often difficult or frustrating, scripture would have us see them as beautiful opportunities to join with God in creation.

Genesis seems to emphasize the fact that work is divine in the way that it repeats the word “work” multiple times to describe God’s actions, but scripture is equally clear about another important part of life: rest. All throughout scripture, the Sabbath rest is emphasized and reemphasized and is specifically applied to all people.

Many of us who do indeed look at work as a curse have no problem seeing rest as divine. But as with all things, we must of course strive for balance in our lives. The book of Proverbs gives us plenty of warning against resting too much and too often:

“How long will you lie down, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? ‘A little sleep, a little slumber, A little folding of the hands to rest’—Your poverty will come in like a vagabond And your need like an armed man.” (Proverbs 6:9-11)

Some of us want to do nothing but work, and we have to be reminded of our limitations and our need to step back and recuperate and see the bigger picture from time to time. Others of us want to do nothing but rest, and we have to be reminded that while our work here is often cursed with difficulty, it is in reality a sharing in the work of God as He created this world and sent us out with a commission to “fill the earth and subdue it.”

May we all do some work, and get some rest, this week.


Work Hard for God

The relationship between faith and works is an important Biblical concept that may require diligent study to understand. Paul states clearly that we are saved “not as the result of works,” whereas James insists that “faith without works is dead.” I have thought and written plenty on that subject before, and there are many resources available for those who want to understand what scripture has to say about faith and works.

But there is another, closely related subject that we may not think much about. We might call this subject “our efforts” versus “the grace of God.” This is an important subject because for many of us, once we understand that we are saved by God’s grace rather than earning our salvation through our own efforts, we start to feel that it is somehow wrong or disrespectful to God for us to put forth personal effort. After all, if God is to get all of the glory, then we should not be putting any emphasis on our own efforts, right?

In reality, when we try our hardest and do our best to serve him with diligence and effort, it is often in that very moment that God’s grace is truly working in us. Paul said “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.”

Peter tells us twice in the first chapter of his second epistle to “apply all diligence” in the specific growth we seek in our Christian walk. Those words convey the idea of “making haste,” or as we might say, “showing some hustle.” In other words, do not just sit around waiting for lighting to strike. Get started. Show some effort. God will work through you.

The English Standard Translation of Peter’s words literally says “make every effort.”

In the first chapter of his letter to Timothy, Paul gives this instruction: “I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.”

Timothy had a gift, just as every last one of us has a gift from God. It is time for us to kindle that gift afresh. And we need not be timid about it. God’s children can work each day with power, love, and discipline. If you need an engraved invitation, it is already there in the words of scripture.

Maybe we feel like if the effort comes from us, then it takes the credit away from God. But just as Paul’s exceptionally hard work was rightly seen as a manifestation of God’s grace, so every good thing we could ever do, think, or say, is credited directly to the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

So work hard for God. Rely on Him for strength, look to Him for guidance, and give Him all of the glory. But work hard while doing it.



It is not uncommon to hear someone in the church emphasizing the importance of considering individual Bible verses in their larger context. A prime example of this might be Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.”

Without any context, someone might conclude that we should never judge anyone over anything. However, if you take the time to read and consider the next several verses, you will find that Jesus was actually warning us against hypocritical judgments in which we apply a harsher standard to others than we do to ourselves. Thus, in verse 5 He clarifies: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Another principle that can be important for understanding the true meaning of a verse or passage is to consider what other passages have to say about the subject in question. Once again, we can apply this principle to the question of passing judgment.

We have suggested that Matthew 7 encourages us to pass judgment, but only when we have first examined ourselves by the same standard. John 7:24 gives us another caution about our use of judgment: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.”

We might conclude based on these two passages that judgment is always appropriate, as long as we examine ourselves first, and take the time to consider the issue carefully rather than jumping to conclusions. But there are even more passages that might expand our thinking on judgment further.

“I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:4-5)

Wait a minute… I thought we were supposed to judge with righteous judgment, so why does Paul say we must not go on passing judgment before the time? It appears (from context) that Paul is speaking of matters in which the motives of men’s hearts are not outwardly apparent. We can judge outward actions, but at least in some instances, only God can see into their heart to judge their actual motives.

Also consider 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges.”

This would seem to suggest that we can only judge people who are members of the church. In that case, is it wrong to criticize the behavior of someone who is not a Christian, or to tell them that they are lost and need Jesus? After all, Paul spent the first chapter of the book of Romans calling out the Gentiles for their wickedness, even going so far as to list specific sins, such as the practice of homosexuality, and saying that they are “without excuse” and have incurred God’s wrath.

Examining the context of Romans 1 shows us that the judgment spoken of here is a kind of judgment that applies to all people: the assertion that their sins separate them from God. On the other hand, the judgment of 1 Corinthians 5, which is only appropriate towards those in the church, is a judgment that results in a period of disciplinary dis-fellowshipping that will enable the person to realize their hypocrisy as someone who claims to follow Christ but rebels against his commands.

It turns out that judgment is a more complicated topic than simply “It is always right to judge someone,” or “you should never judge someone.” The word “judgment” itself can have different meanings in different contexts, and can have a different application depending on who is doing the judging, who is being judged, and what the content of the judgment is.

Judgment is only one example. The moral of the story is that we must examine context carefully and consider multiple passages in order to avoid overcomplicating what God has made simple, or oversimplifying what God presents as nuanced.


The Relevance of the New Testament Today

The Bible is the best selling and most influential book in human history. No matter how many times you read it, you will never stop noticing and learning new things. There will always be more to discover.

Last week each book in the Old Testament was listed, along with one important question that each book answers. This is a similar list for the books of the New Testament.

Matthew: Who is Jesus, from a Jewish perspective?
Mark: What did Jesus do while He was here?
Luke: What do the eye witnesses tell us about Jesus?
John: Is Jesus God?
Acts: What is the church and how did it start?
Romans: What is the gospel?
1 & 2 Corinthians: How should Christians behave themselves when together and in daily life?
Galatians: Does salvation depend on following the Law of Moses?
Ephesians: What is the spiritual significance of Christ’s church?
Philippians: How can we have joy in the midst of troubles?
Colossians: How should we walk in Christ?
1 & 2 Thessalonians: What encouraging words would God give to His church?
1 & 2 Timothy: What is an evangelist, and what do they do?
Titus: What advice does a young preacher need?
Philemon: How does God feel about slavery?
Hebrews:  Should we give up on Christ if He does not seem to be coming through for us?
James: How can we live wisely?
1 & 2 Peter: How should Christians conduct themselves when persecuted?
1, 2 & 3 John: Can we know we are God’s children, and if so, how?
Jude: What does God have to say about false teachers?
Revelation: What do we know about heaven, hell, and how the story of humanity ends?


What Relevance does the Old Testament have to Our Lives Today?

The Bible is a unique book among all of the writings in this world. It is without a doubt unequaled by any other book. The Bible speaks to the central questions of humanity. Sometimes we may not be ready, or willing, or able to hear the answers that it gives, but it does indeed speak to our questions.

While this list may be guilty of oversimplification, it is my attempt to identify a main question that is addressed in each of the books of the Old Testament. Expect a similar list for the New Testament next week!

Genesis: Who is God, who are we, who is Satan, and where do we all fit?
Exodus: What is the nature of our deliverance from bondage?
Leviticus: What is the nature of sacrifice?
Numbers: What is the importance of faith?
Deuteronomy: How can society be blessed, rather than cursed?
Joshua: What happened to the Jewish people in their early history?
Judges: How do humans tend to behave?
Ruth: What is an accurate and pure definition of love?
1 Samuel: What does the LORD desire?
2 Samuel/1Chronicles: What is God’s heart like?
1 Kings: What was Israel like at it’s all time high, and how did it decline?
2 Kings/2 Chronicles: What happens when we forsake God?
Ezra: Where to start when thing are in shambles?
Nehemiah: How should we go about doing important work?
Esther: How can we be brave in dire circumstances?
Job: Why do we suffer?
Psalms: How should we pray and how should we sing?
Proverbs: What is true wisdom?
Ecclesiastes: What is the meaning of life?
Song of Solomon: What does God have to say about courtship, marriage, and sex?
Isaiah: What should concern us, and what should give us hope?
Jeremiah: What does God say to those who know and love Him, but then drift away?Lamentations: Is there any hope for those who suffer the grave consequences of sin?Ezekiel: What are God’s past, present, and future plans for His rebellions people?
Daniel: How can we remain faithful in a world that does not share our beliefs?
Hosea: How much does God love us?
Joel: What is “the day of the LORD” and how should we feel about it?
Amos: How should we feel about injustice?
Obadiah: What happens to those who hurt others?
Jonah: What if I don’t like God’s instructions?
Micah: What does God say to a nation that is corrupt?
Nahum: Just how bad can things get when we stray from God entirely?
Habakkuk: Why does God let injustice happen?
Zephaniah: What does it mean that God’s people are a remnant?
Haggai: How can we give God first priority in our lives?
Zechariah: How can God’s people prosper?
Malachi: What is the nature of acceptable worship?


Confessing the Sins of a Nation

There are many great examples of humility and repentance in scripture. One of those examples is found in the opening chapter of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah is a man of Jewish heritage who is in exile in Babylon. He has just learned that the city of Jerusalem, the center for worship to the LORD, is in ruins. The scripture tells us that Nehemiah “sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven,” with these words:

“‘I beseech You, O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses. Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.’ They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand. O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man.’ Now I was the cupbearer to the king.”

It is interesting to see that Nehemiah mentions not only his own sins but also “the sins of the sons of Israel” which “we” have sinned, including “I” and “my father’s house.”

Normally we think of confession as something that we would only do for ourselves. Passages like Ezekiel 18:20 teach us that sons are not responsible for the sins of their parents, nor parents for the sins of their children. If this is so, what is the benefit of confessing sins that other people have done, as if they could gain forgiveness based on our confession instead of their own, or as though we bore the guilt for what they did in ourselves?

One benefit that might come from confessing the sins of our forefathers and of the communities in which we live, is that it can help us to recognize how pervasive and serious the brokenness of the world around us really is.

This might also help us to recognize how we got in such bad shape and what must be done to turn things around.

Furthermore, in attributing these sins both to “I” and “my father’s house,” Nehemiah may also be articulating the fact that he learned a lot of his bad habits from the culture and the environment into which he was born, and thus rather than “inheriting” their sins automatically, he has nonetheless adopted their sins into his own life and replicated them for himself by his own free will.

We tend to think of past generations as being the backward ones, while our generation has learned from the mistakes of the past. But often times, we are making our own mistakes that may be superficially different, but are in many ways analogous to the sins of those before us.

Isaiah said “Woe is me! I am ruined! I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” Before we point the finger solely at our forefathers or at the world around us, maybe we should make sure that we ourselves are not doing the same kind of things.