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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Representing Christ

The final words of Jesus that are recorded by Matthew are instructions for His followers to carry out while He is away: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

The idea of spreading out all over the world is itself a daunting task, but for many of the early missionaries for Christ, travel and culture shock were only the beginning of their troubles. People were going to HATE them for being Christians: “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19)

This posed a real problem for the early church. Hatred can often lead to violence, and the Roman government had very little tolerance for troublemakers whose religion led to violence. So what could the church do, to maintain its credibility and its political freedom while also standing up for Christ? The book of 1 Peter appears to have been written as an answer to that question.

Peter writes the book specifically to the “aliens” who have been scattered all over the known world for the sake of Christ, and he addresses all kinds of difficult situations that they may encounter.

What if Christ’s people find themselves disagreeing with the governing authorities?
What if a Christian servant finds himself serving an unjust master?
What if a Christian wife finds herself with an unbelieving husband?
What if a Christian finds himself in an argument in which his faith is called into question?
What if there are arguments within the church itself?

All of these situations must have been common for the early church, and any of them could have ended badly for everyone involved, but Peter’s instructions contain a steady theme that runs throughout the book:

Stand up for Jesus Christ, but do so in a way that is above reproach. Do not give them any reason whatsoever to slander your character. Be respectful. Be gentle. Be humble. Demonstrate through your behavior just how beautiful and beneficial your religion really is.

As Jesus said in Matthew 7: “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.”

The world will judge our message not simply by what we say, but also by how we say it, and what we do to demonstrate it. When we argue on behalf of Christ, let us do it, as Peter says “with gentleness and reverence.”

After all, Jesus Himself is our ultimate example. He was unjustly nailed to a cross.   He could have called ten thousand angels. But instead He responded by praying for our forgiveness and entrusting Himself to the Father.