Poor Me

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Poor Naomi.
She said, “Don’t call me Naomi (Pleasant), call me Mara (Bitter), because the Almighty has made my life very bitter (mara). I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi (Pleasant)? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (Ruth 1:20-21 NIV) Life had been hard for her, she’d lost her husband and sons and experienced terrible poverty. She was bitter, she said, and wanted everyone to know it. But her friends and remaining family kept on calling her Naomi, and with their help, with a realization of continuing need for her wisdom and strength, and seeing God’s grace in her life and the life of her loving daughter in law, Naomi survived the bitterness of her soul and overcame it (Ruth 4:14-17).

Poor Job.
He said, “Therefore I will not keep silent; I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” (Job 7:11 NIV) Life had gotten ugly for him, he’d lost his children and property and health, and experienced the cruel words of his wife and friends. He felt abused by God and said several times that he was bitter about his unfair experiences, that he felt helpless and victimized by God and man, despite his own best efforts. When Job better understood the nearness of God and his wisdom, none of his suffering or past misery was thus removed, but he was able to see things from a stronger, healthier, godlier perspective. The grief and suffering were just as real, but the bitterness was swallowed up in awe and repentance (Job 42:1-6) paving the way for Job to help his friends deal with their errors (Job 42:7-10). Job still needed the consolation of loving family and friends (Job 42:11-12), because the grief over hardships he had experienced didn’t vanish, but he overcame the bitterness and worked toward healing damaged relationships.

Poor Esau.
He “burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, ‘Bless me too, my father!'” (Gen 27:34b NIV) Life had slipped out of control for Esau. He felt betrayed and victimized by his brother, and he nursed a bitter grudge against Jacob for what he had done. Jacob’s actions and Esau’s bitter reactions became a wedge of hostility that shaped their future lives.

Poor Me?
Hebrews says,
7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?
10 Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.
14 Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. 17 Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears.
(Heb 12:7, 10-17 NIV)

The equation is presented simply: No discipline, no holiness (Heb. 12:10); no holiness, no seeing the Lord (Heb. 12:14). If we want to see Jesus, we must “endure hardship as discipline.” This isn’t about pleasant experiences, it’s about hard ones, things that truly hurt. The challenge of painful experiences is directly connected to holiness on the one hand, and the potential for bitterness on the other. The writer of Hebrews challenges us to accept hardship as discipline, to stand up straight and watch our step, to learn and grow more holy and godly through difficult experiences. This is directly connected by the scripture to making “every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy.”

Certainly much of the hardship experienced by Christians has the potential for destroying relationships. If we perceive that our problems are caused by someone else, or that circumstances are somehow unfair, in blaming them bitterness may grow, and peace be destroyed. As bitterness grows it causes trouble (between people) and destroys holiness (defiles). And so, bitterness must not be allowed to grow. “I” must not allow it to grow in “me.” Hebrews speaks to each of us and says, “you make this choice, expend this effort, endure this suffering for your own good” (verses 12-13 above).

The person cited as an example of bitterness, one who was troubled (and troubled others), and defiled, and didn’t see God, is Esau. We read in Genesis 27:34 that when Esau learned how his brother Jacob had stolen his blessing by deception he “burst out with a loud and bitter cry” and after that “Esau held a grudge against Jacob” (Genesis 27:41). In the story of Esau and Jacob, the means by which Jacob obtained first the birthright and then the blessing of the firstborn son from his older brother are clearly wrong. Esau had every reason, every right, to be upset. Or did he? Esau could blame his parents for their favoritism and blame his brother for his schemes, and there would have been some truth in his blaming, but what he needed to do was rethink his own values and attitudes, and take responsibility for his own behavior — and change his own reactions. Bitterness often comes through blaming, which is failing to accept responsibility for ourselves, and our reactions to what others do. Others can do what they will, but our reactions are ours alone. Esau set the stage for what happened to him by despising his birthright, which really meant despising the members of his family, parents and siblings. And once things got hard for him, he made them worse by reacting bitterly, remembering past grievances and hardening his own position (Genesis 27:36). Christians are enjoined to choose not to be like Esau, but instead to “make level paths for your feet … make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy.”

In the story of Jacob and Esau, Jacob and his mother Rebekah conspired to obtain Isaac’s blessing for Jacob, after Jacob had already bought the rights of the firstborn from Esau for a bowl of stew (Genesis 25:27-34, Genesis 27). They could rationalize their deceit, but their course of action, ‘trying to help God,’ accomplished their desires with disastrous unforseen side effects. They were wrong, and had to deal with the consequences. But the one who came out worst, from God’s perspective, was Esau. In casting himself as the victim, refusing to accept his own role and responsibility in the events that occurred, he is the one who embraced bitterness it was not forced upon him and let it grow, and received the insightful “blessing” from his father that his heritage would be a heritage of ongoing conflict and dissatisfaction (Genesis 27:39-40). His bitterness came out of hardships, hardships in which he despised his brother’s role, hardships in which he did not perceive his own choices and their impact on the outcome.

It is probably inevitable that everyone will have to deal with hardship and potential bitterness as a part of their life, even if as righteous as Job or as loving as Naomi. Esau surrendered to it and afterwards is characterized as “godless.” Naomi and Job experienced both hardship and bitterness, but found their way past the bitterness and rested secure in God’s grace and blessings, which was reflected in their relationships with friends and family. They didn’t come to enjoy their hardship, but they accepted the discipline and grew in God’s grace, uprooting the bitterness that had begun to grow in them. Consider again that bitterness and its conflicts are presented to us in Hebrews as the opposite of holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.

We must all, as Paul wrote, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Eph 4:31-32 NIV) This is our training for righteousness (Heb. 12:11).

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