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.

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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.

“It Isn’t Fair.”

The English term “scapegoat” comes from the principle of “Azazel” which originates from the Bible in Leviticus chapter 16.

Azazel literally means “complete removal” in Hebrew, and the unlucky goat that was selected by “the lot for Azazel” had all of the iniquities and transgressions of the people of Israel placed on its head, that it might completely remove them from their midst. It appears that in this way the righteous indignation of God that would have fallen on the Israelites fell on the scapegoat instead. By means of the scapegoat Israel received pardon.

Of course, in contemporary times, the idea of making a scapegoat out of someone is frowned upon. Quite frankly, it is just not fair for one individual to pay the price for that for which an entire group is actually to blame.

We may not know whether God struck down the scapegoat, or simply allowed it to wander around in the wilderness to die on its own, but one thing is certain: that poor goat got the bad end of the deal, and the people of Israel got off easy.

The incredible truth of the gospel is that rather than an unlucky goat, Jesus Christ is now the propitiation for God’s people once for all.

2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us: For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The only sinless man to walk the face of the earth was made to be sin so that we could go free? It sounds like a good deal for us, but it certainly does not sound “fair.”

Realizing this has the power to transform the way we look at the world. Now, instead of demanding that everyone who sins receive the punishment that they deserve so that life can be fair, we can extend to others the undeserved grace that God has extended to us.

It may also be a comfort to us in times of injustice to look at the example Jesus set. Jesus Himself knows how it feels to suffer unjustly what is rightfully deserved by others. In fact, as 1 Peter 2:19 says, “this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.”

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The Serpent’s Deception

When the spotlight was turned on Eve in Genesis 3, and God asked her “What is this you have done?” Eve’s response was “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

While Eve certainly does not get off the hook by simply blaming her actions on the serpent, there is indeed some truth to her statement.  Eve truly was deceived, for surely she would not have sinned if she had only known what the outcome would be.  The serpent had not been honest in his dealings with Eve.  He had emphasized what was desirable about the fruit while leaving out that part about getting kicked out of the garden, into a world of painful childbirth and backbreaking labor.

In John 8:44, Jesus describes that serpent like this:

“He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

  • The simple fact of the matter is that any and every time you and I are tempted to sin, we are at risk of being deceived.
  • He will deceive us by hiding from our hearts the truth about the ripple effects that our sin could have months or years from now on those that we love.
  • He will deceive us by emphasizing to us the short term gratification we can experience while hiding the long term costs.
  • He will deceive us by denying that the behavior in question is even sinful in the first place.
  • He will deceive us by telling us that no one can see what we are doing, as if God Himself could not see, or as if that fact made our actions less somehow less sinful.
  • He will deceive us by telling us that some particular sin is necessary to make us more relatable to the world so that we can witness to worldly people.
  • He will deceive us by not really telling us anything but simply distracting us from the whole internal debate by some distraction such as mealtime or television.
  • He will deceive us by encouraging us to place all of the blame onto someone else who “made us do it.”
  • He will deceive us in many other ways.  As diverse as our situations and personalities are, so diverse are his techniques.

But remember this my friends, temptation places us in danger of deception!  Deception leads us to make decisions that we would not make if we were thinking clearly.  In times of temptation, “trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5)”  When our hearts or minds suffer from temporary impairment from temptation, may we rely on God’s unchanging and eternal words of truth.  When the deceptiveness of the temptation passes, we will be glad that we did.

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