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Elijah sits under the juniper and bemoans the failure, unfairness, and pointlessness of his years of work (1 Kings 19:10). Jonah sits under his gourd and broods over his unwanted success (and God’s unwelcome mercy!) in Nineveh (Jonah 4:1-11). Job sits among his “friends” and agonizes physically, emotionally, and spiritually (Job 2:8, 13).
Then there’s Peter. What was he doing between his denial of Jesus, with its resulting bitter regret (Matt. 26:75), and his decision to “go fishing”?
It probably involved a lot of sitting.
Bitterness tends to be a passive experience. It both encourages and feeds on immobility and inactivity. Battling bitterness, then, involves getting off the couch and doing something.
God redirected Elijah into the activity of training his replacement. He moved Job into a new phase of life and service. He directly re-enlisted Peter to feed His sheep.
As important as stillness and reflection are in the thriving Christian life, too much reflection during bitter times brings only escalating darkness and pain. Unchecked, this kind of rumination brings destruction to our faith, our relationships, and our usefulness to God.
Getting a bit busier instead can help us overcome bitterness in at least four ways.
1. by realigning us with our designed purpose
Human beings were designed to be productive. Well before sin and its consequences, Adam was tasked with tending and keeping the garden. The implication for believers who struggle with bitter attitudes is that productive activity helps us heal and thrive.
Evidence of how powerful this can be shows up in countless small ways in daily experience. After being stuck in traffic for a while, we feel almost reborn when we finally get moving again. After bad weather ruins hiking or picnicking plans, things seem instantly brighter when we finally get started on a plan B. After several unsuccessful efforts to fix some broken thing, there’s nothing quite like the eureka moment when a better idea surfaces.
Whether it’s going somewhere, building something, improving something, or dreaming up something, we are fulfilling the image of our Creator God when we engage in productive activity. With the God-like creative activity comes the God-like opportunity to sit back and think, and feel, “It’s good” (Gen. 1:31).
2. by stimulating personal growth
Scripture frequently illustrates spiritual realities by means of parallels with our physical life. Examples come quickly to mind.
- “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1)
- “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7)
- “Long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow” (1 Pet. 2:2)
- “solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:14)
Growth requires a good balance between taking in and putting out, between absorbing and using. And if there’s one thing we need in the midst of major disappointments, failures, losses or mistreatment, it’s to grow more wise, humble, thankful, and joyful.
That won’t happen if we’re choosing too much introspection and too little action.
3. by adjusting to the new normal
The most persistent and debilitating bitter attitudes are responses to major life changes. We didn’t expect them, we didn’t want them, but they are the reality. Insisting that the situation shouldn’t be is self-defeating. God has planned this, and we need to move on past our unrealized hopes.
Action helps. Action is inherently forward-looking. There’s no way to imagine even an hour into the future without accepting the present as its starting point. As we look further ahead and our plans grow, the mess we’re in becomes an accepted point of departure.
Elijah’s dream was crushed. He was not going to be the instrument to bring in a national revival. Jonah’s hopes were dashed. He was not going to see the oppressive Assyrian empire judged. The pattern is similar for Naomi, and in the NT, Peter.
But Naomi and Peter took an important small step. They stopped sitting and looked forward. Peter’s ambitions are well short of God’s plans for him, but he at least looks forward. His “I go fishing” says “Well, time to get on with something like life.” When Naomi “arose … to return from the country of Moab,” she was making a decision to move on.
The struggle isn’t over for either Peter or Naomi, but they have made a good start.
4. by experiencing the blessing of being a blessing
The song says “There is joy in serving Jesus.” To those who feel like their lives are falling apart, the phrase seems trite at best. But as simple and cliché as it seems, it keeps on proving to be true over, and over, over again.
In our pulpit work, we often frame the decision to stop whining and start serving as a diversion of our attention away from all our woes. In my experience, that’s not primarily where healing power of serving lies. Though choosing to spend some time giving of ourselves to help someone does draw our attention away from our own pain, this kind of activity can—at its best moments—do something far more wonderful.
Just as we were designed and built to be productive in the Adam-in-Eden sense, believers are re-born and re-built (Eph 2:10) to be productive in a whole different way: in the Jesus-in-Gethsemane sense. After agonizing about the ordeal before Him, and feeling the additional sting of unsupportive friends (Matt. 26:40), Jesus resolves to give, and bless. The weakness of even His most dedicated followers gives Him an opportunity to be even more forgiving, kind, and gracious. It makes what He’s about to do that much more beautiful—and He knows it. He heads to the cross and doesn’t look back.
For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)
For Christians who intentionally serve, the benefit to others is often not directly observable. We take it on faith. But at times, we see clearly that we have just helped someone grow or heal, or both. In those moments, we can’t help but be blessed and healed a bit ourselves.
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.