Read the series so far.
Bitter attitudes hinder worship, strain relationships, and generally drain all the joy out of life. Apart from the initial pain of loss, mistreatment, disappointment or failure, bitterness does us no good.
Fortunately, Scripture and the wisdom of experience show us multiple ways to beat bitterness. Previously, we’ve considered how the attitudes of worship crowd out bitterness and how a quick escape from bitter thinking can keep it from pulling us in for a long ride.
A third approach is to confront the narrow focus and loss of perspective bitterness brings.
In all its forms, bitterness has a way of narrowing our focus down to an almost microscopic level. All we see is ourselves, our pain, and whoever or whatever we believe is to blame. What we need to do is zoom our inner camera out to a wide field of view, look at the big picture, and put our pain in context.
The Context of Others’ Suffering
By the law of averages, most us don’t actually suffer more than anyone else.
By the same law of averages, some of us definitely do! Either way, comparing our sufferings to those of others—unlike comparing our character to others (2 Cor. 10:12)—can go a long way toward putting things in the proper perspective.
Part 1 of this series focused on the forms bitterness takes and considered several biblical examples of bitterness. The article, meant to simply examine the bitter experiences of Esau, Job, Naomi, Hannah, Peter, and others—left me unexpectedly encouraged. I wondered why.
The answer seems obvious now. When we pause to consider what others have gone, and are going, through, we gain one of two things—either a sense that our suffering is a much smaller thing than we thought, or simply a sense that others have hurt in very similar ways.
In the case of biblical examples, we also gain a sense that God doesn’t view these experiences as trivial. He went to the trouble to preserve them for the ages in Scripture (see Rom. 5:14 and 1 Pet. 5:7).
What I often need during bouts of bitterness is simply to remember that I’m neither alone nor particularly special. Often enough, I need to recognize that my sufferings and struggles are nothing compared to what so many others have endured and are enduring.
Understanding other’s bitter experiences helps us zoom out so that what was formerly in focus shrinks as the context grows larger.
The Context of God’s Plan for the World & for Believers
Some years ago, my wife and I took a group of teens to a Christian camp in the Rocky Mountains. The darkness and clarity of the sky provided a night time view of the heavens unlike any I’d seen before or have seen since. Space looked truly three dimensional, vast not only in breadth but in depth. I felt myself and my life shrink. My problems aready seemed small to me back then, but they managed to shrink further in the context of something far bigger than I could comprehend.
To put our bitter life experiences in proper perspective, we really need to zoom out all the way.
Few passages do this better than Romans 8.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (ESV, Rom. 8:18–25)
Unpacking this passage is probably the work of a lifetime! For now, a few observations:
- The plan is sufferings followed by glory.
- All of creation is hurting with us in anticipation of God’s grand climax.
- As believers, we are personally center stage in that glorious climax.
- The gospel itself is the expression of this plan (8:24).
- We are called to wait with endurance.
The thematically similar passage in 2 Corinthians 4 puts the situation somewhat poetically.
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. (2 Cor. 4:17)
Note the parallelism:
Looking at our losses and sufferings in the context of God’s grand plan of redemption also satisfies the “why?” question that surfaces so often in bitter moments. In the throes of bitterness, we wonder, “Why is my life like this? Why is the human experience like this? Why is the world like this?”
The answer is that God is working out a vast, ages-long story of creation, fall, and redemption in which He reveals His glory—by transforming sinners into “holy and blameless” beings and by freeing the earth and its inhabitants from sin’s curse. God has broken the world so that He may fix it.
Context Through Imagination
Backing away from our experiences and looking at them in their larger context is an exercise of the God-given gift of imagination. Imagination can be hypothetical—as in, “Imagine how your situation could be worse!”—or revelational—as in, “Imagine how the reality of your situation is what God has revealed it to be, rather than what it appears to be.”
The former is a perspective-correcting exercise in wisdom; the latter is something much more powerful: faith, the “conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:2).
It’s what Joseph was doing, probably for years, before he put the invisible truth into words: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). It’s what Peter was calling believers to do when he urged them to “gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” It’s probably what David did when he stopped grieving after the death of his child: “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:22).
This correcting of perspective by imagining the unseen may have been what Job was doing in Job 19:25-26 (“I know that my Redeemer lives … . in my flesh I shall see God”). It was certainly what God was helping Job do in Job 38-39, as God confronted him “out of the whirlwind” with question after question in reference to matters mere mortals cannot comprehend. It all adds up to, “Job, what I’m doing is so, so much bigger than you and your recent difficulties. So much bigger than you can understand.”
Before & Between
My own experiences—relatively benign though they have been—raise an objection here: “But it’s so hard, almost impossible, to think this way in the middle of things falling apart!”
Yes. It is. That’s why it’s so important to think this way when we’re not in the midst of some failure, loss, disappointment, or injustice. The most important time for deeply correcting our perspective on the pains of life is probably when things are going mostly OK and we feel pretty much all right.
Figuring out how to swim when you’re overboard in the middle of a storm is great (beats drowning!), but it’s a whole lot better to develop those muscles and skills before the storm hits, or between the last storm and next one.
“Big picture” thinking is a powerful, healing thing in bitter times. It’s also a discipline we should be developing even in the best of times.
(Note on the NASA image. A large—and really cool—annotated version appears here: http://go.nasa.gov/2mBb5tK)
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is Information Coordinator for a law-enforcement digital library service.