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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Elijah’s Discouragement

The Bible introduces us to the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 17, and we are immediately left with the impression that he is a bold and powerful man of God. The story begins with Elijah declaring to the king of Israel, “surely there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”

Elijah’s following actions include raising up a widow’s son from a terminal illness, mocking 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah as they stand by in embarrassment, calling down fire from heaven on an altar to the true God, and personally slaying the prophets of Baal who flee when public opinion turns against them.

There is not much that could be considered a sign of weakness in Elijah through these impressive events. He seems larger than life. But then things change suddenly.

“Now Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me and even more, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.’ And he was afraid and arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers.’” (1 Kings 19:1-4)

It seems like Elijah had held it together as long as he could. He had tried to stand strong and turn the people to God in a country that had completely gone astray. But he saw no fruit from his efforts, and he saw no one to help him, and he saw no reason to go on. He just wanted to die.

Thus Elijah journeyed forty days into the wilderness to seek God’s answer to this situation. God’s answer must have been so reassuring. He tells Elijah to go and anoint Hazael and Jehu as new kings and Elisha as a new prophet to carry on his work when he is gone.

“…It shall come about, the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall put to death. Yet I will leave 7,000 in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him.” (1 Kings 19:15-18)

Elijah may have felt like all of his efforts had been for nothing, and that death was preferable to more of his worthless, lonely striving. But that was not the truth of the situation. He was doing an important work in a very difficult time for Israel, and there were others, who he had not considered or perhaps had never even met, who were ready to work alongside him and take over when his time really was finished. Though Elijah had said in verse 14, “I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away,” there were actually 7,000 others who were also faithful to God.

Do not be discouraged when your genuine efforts seem unfruitful. It could be that, like Elijah, you are doing an important work simply by carrying on the tradition that many others, who you may never have even met, will carry on.