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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Scriptures and Thoughts on “Self-Control”

What is a Biblical definition of self-control? What is the nature of this virtue?
The English term “self-control” did not appear until the 18th century. Prior to that, words like “temperance” and “sober” were used.

Hebrew:
Matsar – restraint or control

Greek:
Egkrateia – in the sphere of dominion or mastery; self-mastery, self-restraint
Sophosunei – soundness of mind, sanity, sobriety
Nepho – calm, vigilant, sober, free from illustion

(1 Timothy 4:8) compares physical training and spiritual self-control.
(1 Corinthians 9:25) attributes self-control to athletes.
In these cases, we see self-control as submission to a certain code of conduct in order to cultivate a desired outcome.

Jesus, in going to the cross, was the ultimate example of self control:
(1 Peter 2:23) “When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly.”
(Acts 8:32) “Like a lamb before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.”
(Matthew 26:53) He could have called 12 legions of angels.
(John 10:18) He lay His own life down willingly.

Would it not be better to be controlled by God, rather than by my “self?”
(Galatians 5:22-26) shows us that self-control is actually a fruit of God’s Spirit, and that we have it when we “keep in step with the Spirit.” So having self-control does not negate God’s leadership in our lives.

(2 Corinthians 5:14-15) “For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” God does control us, but there is no denying that on some level we have a choice in the matter and must choose “to live no longer for ourselves.”

(1 Corinthians 15:10) “…but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.”

(Romans 1:20) we are “without excuse” because we are accountable as free moral agents.(Proverbs 16:32) refers positively to “he who rules his [own] spirit.” In this sense, we need self-control to submit ourselves to God’s standard.

What role does willpower play in self-control? Is increasing my willpower an appropriate or effective way to grow in self-control?
(Galatians 5:16) “walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.”
(Ephesians 5:18) “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.”

In both cases, the text does not say “try harder,” but focuses on the Spirit. Why is that and what does it mean?

(1 Corinthians 1:25) “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
(Proverbs 3:5-7) “lean not on your own understanding.”
(1 Peter 2:23) Jesus was “entrusting Himself” to the Father. What role does trust in God play in self-control as compared or opposed to willpower?

What should I do in a situation in which I obviously do not have self-control?
Do something, you are in danger!
(Proverbs 25:28) “Like a city that is broken into and without walls Is a man who has no control over his spirit.”

 If possible, avoid the situation! “I am not stronger than Sampson, mightier than David, or wiser than Solomon, so I am not immune to sexual temptation.” Recognize and seek to avoid dangerous situations.

(James 5:16) Confess your sins one to another and pray for each other.
(Matthew 5:29) Make necessary sacrifices to protect yourself.
(Galatians 5, Ephesians 5) Give serious thought to what it means to walk in the Spirit.

(Hebrews 12:5-11) We discipline our children to help them learn ultimately how to control themselves. When the Lord disciplines us, we should be wise and learn from it.

 How can I grow in self-control?
(Galatians 5:17) The Spirit and the flesh are at war in each other, “so that you may not do the things that you please.” In a battle, the stronger one side becomes, the more control it has. This implies that persistence in the fight of the Spirit to control the flesh can help us grow over time.

Think of the illustration of an elephant and a rider. The elephant, like our passions, is very powerful, but unless it is governed by a strong rider who can control it, it will be a force to evil rather than for good.

(Titus 2:11-12) “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” God’s grace can help us to continue to get back up and keep learning.

(1 Peter 1:5-9) lists self control as a virtue, and suggests that if we do not have it, it is a result of us forgetting our purification from our former sins.
(1 Thessalonians 4:3) suggests a lack of sexual self-control comes from a lack of the knowledge of God.

Is there a key to self-control? If so, what is it?
It is clear from the connection to the Spirit (Galatians 5, Ephesians 5) and reliance on God (Proverbs 3, 1 Corinthians 1) that self-control must be a result of our relationship with God.

Beyond this perhaps obvious but important fundamental truth, what would you say is the key to self-control? Trust in God? Submission to His will?

 What areas of life are notable for requiring self-control?
Anger
(Proverbs 29:11) “A fool always loses his temper, But a wise man holds it back.”
Revenge
(Romans 12:19)
Sexual immorality
(1 Thessalonians 4:3) Paul wishes “that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God”
Alcohol
(Ephesians 5:16)

Food!

What other areas of life can be difficult in regards to self-control?

God Help Us

“But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” (John 2:24-25)

Jesus did not need anyone to tell Him that mankind is broken. He did not need anyone to tell Him that we are fickle. That we are so very inclined to put ourselves first and others second. Or that we have a problem with God telling us what to do. Or that we have spent thousands of years killing, hurting, neglecting, ignoring, and cheating our selves and each other in the names of God, country, tribe, clan, race, political party, and most of all, in the name of self.

Jesus did not need anyone to tell Him how rotten we all are. I am not saying anything that is any more shocking or negative than the Holy Spirit said in Romans, chapter 3:

“THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS,
THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD;
ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS;
THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE.
THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE,
WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING, THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS;
WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS;
THEIR FEET ARE SWIFT TO SHED BLOOD, DESTRUCTION AND MISERY ARE IN THEIR PATHS, AND THE PATH OF PEACE THEY HAVE NOT KNOWN.
THERE IS NO FEAR OF GOD BEFORE THEIR EYES.”

From the obvious, violent crimes such as physical assault and murder, to the subtle effects of indifference and self-centeredness, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

I say all this to emphasize one simple point: we must look up. We must listen to the God who is above us; submitting to His instructions. We must “humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord,”(James 4:10). We must accept His boundless, scandalous grace (Ephesians 2:8-9), and then we must walk in His light (1 John 1:7). We must continually rededicate ourselves to His service (Romans 12:1-2).

We cannot intellectualize ourselves out of wickedness in the academy. We cannot legislate ourselves out of wickedness on Capitol Hill. We cannot bomb ourselves out of wickedness on a battlefield. We cannot lock up all of the wicked people in a jail somewhere. We cannot spend our way out of wickedness at the mall. We cannot diet our way, or entertain our way, or sanitize our way out of wickedness in our homes.   For that matter we cannot even discipline our way out of our own wickedness if we will not look up.

Man cannot help us.

God, help us.

A Story About a Sheep

When Nathan came to David as recorded in 2 Samuel 12, he came to a man guilty of lust, adultery, reckless endangerment, and murder. And yet David seemed totally oblivious to any of this. For your convenience, here is an overview of David’s recent actions, for which he showed no sign of guilt:

  • David stayed home when he should have been out protecting his people (2 Samuel 11:1).
  • He saw a woman bathing, and decided to sleep with here even after being informed that she was his friend’s wife. (3-4).
  • When she became pregnant, David tried to cover it up, but it did not work because of his friend’s own sense of duty and honor (5-13).
  • Ultimately David staged his friend’s death, sending the plan of action in his friend’s own hands. (14-17)
  • David put countless others in mortal danger in the process, all the while making it look like an accident (18-25).
  • David then saw fit to take this woman to be his wife (26-27).

The incredible thing about David’s state of mind after all of this, is that a made up story about one man butchering another man’s sheep enraged him enough to pronounce: “As the Lord lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die (2 Samuel 12:5).”

Adultery and murder were one thing, but the idea that a poor man’s beloved sheep might be butchered and eaten by his neighbor was simply too much to bear. In this way, I believe our society is a lot like David was in 2 Samuel 12.

Every day we legally put an end to thousands of precious human lives in their mother’s wombs, and millions of people see no problem with this. On the other hand, a U.S. felony conviction for “possession, sale, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter, transport, export or import, of any bald or golden eagle, alive or dead, including any part, nest, or egg,” will result in a fine of up to $250,000 or two years in prison.

The law protects an eagle’s egg, but not an unborn child. What rationale could possibly justify this discrepancy?

Someone might suggest that it is important to protect the eagle because it is endangered, while humans are not. This is to suggest that the worth of a human life is inversely proportional to how many humans are currently alive. Surely human worth and dignity are not determined by “how many of us there are.”

Or maybe the eagle is important to the ongoing health of our ecosystem, while another human is not. This is to suggest that a human’s worth is based on their utilitarian value. Have we really come to believe that if a human is not really necessary to the preservation of our own comfort, then they no longer have any worth? Do we really want to live in a world where people only dignify each others’ existence to the degree that they find it personally useful?

Of course, eagles are only one example among thousands that reflect our cultural understanding of the worth and dignity of animals. Just as abortion is only one way among many that we undermine the much greater worth and dignity invested in human beings. What an incredible state we find ourselves in when we are willing to treat human lives in a way that evokes our outrage when applied to animals.

Yes, it is natural to feel affection for cute, fury creatures. And yes, it is right to go to great lengths to preserve the pristine dignity and beauty of God’s natural creation. But do not neglect your fellow man, woman, or child, born or unborn, “useful” or “not useful,” in the process. He or she was made in the image of God.

For the record, the story about the sheep brought David to his senses. Will we come to ours?

Ewe Lamb

Make Me White as Snow

The gospel is a message of good news for all people, and as a result, much of God’s word is written in such a way that the common man can easily understand it.  The Bible is full of illustrations that are drawn from everyday life experiences that we can relate to.  As winter arrives and a snow blankets the ground, I am reminded of one of those illustrations.

In Isaiah 1:18, God invited His people to come back to Him:

“Come now, and let us reason together,
Says the Lord,
Though your sins are as scarlet,
They will be as white as snow.”

David echoed this concept in Psalm 51, when he begged the LORD for forgiveness after committing both adultery and murder.

“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”

There is something beautiful about looking out across a field that is covered in a blanket of clean, glistening snow.  The flawless white surface conveys simplicity, peace, and above all, purity.  Sometimes we almost hesitate to walk through the yard because we hate to mess up the surface, leaving evidence of our presence with the imperfections we leave behind.

And of course, once snow is made dirty, it is impossible to make it look perfect again.  Once dirt, grime, and sludge from city life have turned it black, or we traipse across that pristine field with muddy shoes, there is no going back.

This is an excellent example of what sin does to our lives.  When we look back at our lives we see dirt, mud, grime, and sludge being tracked all over what started out so perfect.

What God offers us through His Son in the gospel seems almost too good to be true.  He offers to restore that pure white, glistening field to its original condition.  Though our sins are as scarlet, He is willing to make them as white as snow again.  In fact, according to David, He will make us even whiter than snow could ever be.

This is what has been referred to as the scandal of Grace.  This is the outrageous and wonderful nature of our forgiveness.  This is why it is called the gospel, or literally, the good news.  “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

He did what we could never have hoped to do in making us as white as snow once more.  The purity that belongs to Jesus Christ Himself is imputed to us, and day by day we are being transformed into His image.

Snow