Bitterness of Soul
Psalm 73:1-28; Hebrews 12:1-7, 15
I read blogs on a web site where bloggers discuss their social anxieties. They are thinking people who are looking for answers for their anxieties. They are not social misfits. They are real and honest.
One person says: "I can feel it happening [bitterness]. I wake up bitter, go to bed bitter. I still try and manage to be pleasant at work, but anywhere else I feel like yelling at people all the time. In the store, drive-thru, etc. like everyone is out to make my life miserable.’
‘I don’t want to be this kind of person but I feel it happening and don’t know how to stave it off when my life doesn’t change ever."
Another person responds.
"Yeah I can relate. I have gotten very bitter and angry all because of this one person. But I don't know what else to say except try to think more positive thoughts. I know it’s not easy and it's something I'm trying to work on. But you have to be the one to change your life. I keep hoping things will change, but I know I have to be the one to change somehow."
"Bitter is my middle name. It's like I hate everyone around me for being who I want to be.’
‘I was secretly bitter for a long time. It eventually turned into depression which led me to a therapist for my SA [Social Anxieties]. Now that I am starting to see some hope I am much less bitter about life and only mildly depressed. It's amazing what hope can do."
"I always thought life handed me the short stick . . . Now I think I got a long stick many times, but immediately cut it in half."
Sometimes we feel as Job felt when life is not as we think it should be. He couldn’t figure out why God was allowing him to suffer. It seemed as though God was smiling on the schemes of the wicked.
"I loathe my very life;
therefore I will give free rein to my complaint
and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.
2 I will say to God: Do not condemn me,
but tell me what charges you have against me.
3 Does it please you to oppress me,
to spurn the work of your hands,
while you smile on the schemes of the wicked? NIV
Job felt as though he was living as God instructed. He sought God’s righteousness. He saw his life as God’s creation. In his dilemma he felt as though God despised his creation. It seemed as though God was spurning him. Job cries out in bitterness as he struggles in his misery.
20 "Why is light given to those in misery,
and life to the bitter of soul,
21 to those who long for death that does not come,
who search for it more than for hidden treasure,
22 who are filled with gladness
and rejoice when they reach the grave? NIV
Naomi cried out in bitterness as she felt God had short changed her.
20 "Don't call me Naomi," she told them. "Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me." NIV
Do you know what is so awesome and amazing to me? God reveals the troubled lives of those faithful to him. They often blame God for their bitter lives. It doesn’t seem to bother God to take the blame as they work through their bitterness. He is more than willing to work through their emotions to salvage their lives. After all that is what God does. And more often than not he holds their faith up as examples to emulate.
Of course he also holds up examples of those who were bitter—those who never overcame their bitterness. Those who choose to curse God and die. I often wonder if Jonah ever overcame his anger and bitterness toward Nineveh and God. I am certain that King Saul failed to overcome his bitterness. Solomon’s life of vanity finally brought him to the conclusion to fear God and keep his commandments. It was his death bed confession.
Bitterness comes Easy
It is easy to turn bitter when we reach our dead end roads. When life is not what we think it should be. When Moses led his people out of Egypt they began resenting the journey. Their dreams of grandeur faced the reality of the Sinai wilderness. There was only manna to eat. The regret of what should have been set in.
4 The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, "If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost — also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. 6 But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!"
7 The manna was like coriander seed and looked like resin. 8 The people went around gathering it, and then ground it in a hand mill or crushed it in a mortar. They cooked it in a pot or made it into cakes. And it tasted like something made with olive oil. 9 When the dew settled on the camp at night, the manna also came down.
10 Moses heard the people of every family wailing, each at the entrance to his tent. The LORD became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled. 11 He asked the LORD, "Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? 12 Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their forefathers? 13 Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, 'Give us meat to eat!' 14 I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now — if I have found favor in your eyes — and do not let me face my own ruin." NIV
The Hebrews hardships lead them to relish the good old days. Even Moses cries out to God saying "Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth?"
The cries of the mob were drowning out the call of God. Moses begins thinking, "If God called me to lead these people, I shouldn’t have to deal with these kinds of situations. He questions why God gave him the task of leading. I think this is why Moses gives a stern warning to beware of turning away from God in bitterness.
16 You yourselves know how we lived in Egypt and how we passed through the countries on the way here. 17 You saw among them their detestable images and idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold. 18 Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison. NIV
The ancient world believed their success and failures depended totally upon the God or gods they worshipped. Often the Israelites beheld those worshipping idol gods prosper as they suffered. Traveling in the wilderness the Hebrews longed for the food of Egypt. As they looked back to Egypt they felt as though those who worshipped other gods in Egypt were not eating having to eat manna every day. They became bitter. They felt they were getting the short end of the stick. It is what I feel when I see the undeserving prospering at my expense. Moses knew they would be tempted to turn bitter and turn away from God. Moses says, ". . . make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison."
Too often we hear the advice of the faithful, such as Moses, and think; it is easy for him to tell us not to grow bitter. After all he was a man endowed with great faith. He had special gifts. His face radiated God’s glory as he descended from Mt. Sinai (Exodus 30:33-35). Yet, as Moses writes he is at the end of his journey. He will not cross over into the Promised Land. He is writing from his experience and keen perception of hindsight. He is probably thinking more of his own weaknesses. Like when he struck a rock for water in anger. It cost him a trip to the Promised Land. He is thinking how leading this rabble group could easily make you bitter. It made him question God. He has been in the wilderness for forty years. He is writing as he reflects on his personal failures.
Things are not always as they seem to be. This is especially true when we hurt and are discouraged; when we are betrayed by our closest friends. During these times we must remind ourselves of God’s goodness. This is precisely what the psalmist is doing.
20 Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter,
you will restore my life again;
from the depths of the earth
you will again bring me up.
21 You will increase my honor
and comfort me once again. NIV
God Is Good
In Psalms 73 the psalmist reveals the whole realm of emotions he goes through as he contemplates his bitter experiences. He was hurting. His pain was real. His troubles were numerous and harsh. Things are happening to him he can’t understand. Throughout it all he was determined to trust God’s wisdom. The psalmist reminds himself of God’s goodness. He reminds himself God will turn it all around for his good and God’s glory.
He refuses to build his life around his bitter thoughts. To do so would be insane. Instead he seeks understanding as he seeks sanctuary in God. Listen to him deal with his inner struggles and temptation to turn bitter.
First off he reminds himself that God is good.
Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
Knowing God is good does not ease the pain. There are moments his pain intensifies. His pain becomes more agonizing as he questions God. He almost slipped up as he contemplated what seemed to be the plight of the wicked as he suffered.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4 They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
5 They are free from the burdens common to man;
they are not plagued by human ills.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
the evil conceits of their minds know no limits.
8 They scoff, and speak with malice;
in their arrogance they threaten oppression.
9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
10 Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
11 They say, "How can God know?
Does the Most High have knowledge?"
12 This is what the wicked are like —
always carefree, they increase in wealth.
It is here that we discover the raw emotions of a child of God wrestling with forces of darkness in heavenly realms (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). The darkness is almost overpowering. It gives the illusion of the wicked prospering. Yet, the innocent suffer at their hands. His thoughts are overwhelming and oppressive. His thoughts run wild as he begins thinking his life has been lived in vain.
13 Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been plagued;
I have been punished every morning.
The psalmist is so embittered his heart and mind becomes as senseless and ignorant as a raging beast.
21 When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you. NIV
He dared not speak what he felt as he struggled with his doubts. His struggles were so great. He dared not tell others for fear of the discouraging contagion effect on others. He knew in doing so he would betray God’s children. He knew the bitterness in him would only spread and destroy (Hebrews 12:15). Instead he chose to seek refuge in God.
15 If I had said, "I will speak thus,"
I would have betrayed your children.
16 When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me
17 till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
By-the-way I don’t have to find a temple or a church to find sanctuary in God. I can enter his sanctuary as I mediate on his law day and night (Psalms 1:1-6). I don’t have to write or journal to mediate on God’s ways. Of course you are reading my journal as you read this message, but you don’t have to write. Meditating on God can happen anywhere—I enter God’s sanctuary anywhere I happen to be. It is available 24/7/365. This doesn’t mean I don’t need to meet with those who are having the same troubles. The struggling need to encourage the struggling (Hebrews 10:24).
In the midst of it all the psalmist struggles to see the unseen. He begins to reason with himself through the eye of faith (2 Corinthians 5:7). Psalms 1 is actually an introduction to the book of Psalms. It is what we find the godly struggling to do throughout the psalms. The book of Psalms is filled with tears of those struggling with the forces of evil. Bitter tears are shed as the writers experience bitter trials. Tears of joy are shed as the begin to see God through their tears of bitterness.
Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers. NIV
It is easy to join the wicked in their scorn as we wrestle with our pain. As the psalmist thoughts were driving him to the point of insanity, he forced himself to find sanctuary in God. He forced his crazed mind to find sanctuary by mediating upon the reality of God. It was there he regained his sanity as he gave careful thought to the reality of God’s presence. And he reasoned thus with himself:
18 Surely you place them on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
19 How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!
20 As a dream when one awakes,
so when you arise, O Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies.
He knows this is true although his grief is driving him to the brink of madness.
21 When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you. NIV
He regains his good sense by reminding himself of God’s faithfulness despite all that is happening to him.
23 Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
27 Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds. NIV
He chose to meditate upon God’s law. It was there he realized he stood firm (Psalms 23:1-6). It was there he understood the plight of the wicked.
Trusting God does not mean only good things come to people of faith. It doesn’t mean that every hurtful thing that happens to me is good. Suffering may allow us to see God more clearly, but the pain is no less real. It is evil, agonizing and genuine.
His grief and experiences are severe and personal. His trials were excruciating. He wrestles with it over a long period of time. It may have taken him years to work through his thoughts. Some days he felt like giving up as he maneuvered his way through the troublesome valleys. When he eventually ascended the mountain peak he only saw the long troublesome valleys ahead.
The most natural thing to do is to get upset and turn bitter. It is the supernatural act of God to work within these emotions to reveal himself to us. It is the most supernatural thing for God to simply tell us to come to him. It is the most supernatural thing for God to salvage a life in the midst of trouble.
The psalmist determined that he would:
Keep on asking despite his complaints against God.
Keep on seeking despite his bitter perception of what was happening to him.
Keep on knocking until the door of understanding opened.
Throughout the Bible there are resounding questions reflected in the lives of biblical characters. Solomon sums up the struggles and disappointments of mankind in the book of Ecclesiastes as he struggles to find answers. Amazingly the questions he raises continue to reverberate in our minds today.
Why does my life seem so pointless?
Where am I to find my significance in life?
How can I fit into God's plan?
How can I find meaning in the midst of struggle?
How can I be real when I worship God?
What is the real value of wealth and money?
Why do I have both adversity and prosperity in my life?
What are we to do when our vision is not 20/20?
How can I find joy in a world of death?
How should I approach my work and my job?
How can I get the most out of life?
What does God want me to do? (Dr. Daniel Hill, Ecclesiastes, An Old Testament Study, Download, athttp://www.realtime.net/~wdoud/homepage.html)
These questions haunted the wisest. Solomon was obsessed with them. They are the ones resonating in our thoughts throughout life. The uneasiness of these questions presents a real danger when the answers are long in coming. As Solomon chased life down dead end roads of pursuit to find the answers he became cynical. He proclaimed all is vanity. It shouldn’t seem strange for us to have the same feelings as we pursue life and God.
Navigating the bitter roads is no easy task.
The words of the Hebrew writer serve as a final exhortation as we struggle with our bitterness. He encourages us see our hardships as a form of God’s discipline to allow us to rise to greater heights.
12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, [review Hebrews 11 to see the cloud of witnesses and their bitter experiences] let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons:
"My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
6 because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son."
7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8 If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. NIV
If you are looking for personal testimonies of those who have struggled, read the Bible. Read Hebrews chapter eleven. Go back in the Old Testament and study the lives of each person mentioned. It should give you a new perspective in your struggles. This book is filled with stories of those who have preceded us. God reveals their greatest struggles. He reveals their moments of insanity. Their testimonies are the kinds on which you can stake your life. Their trials and struggles are as real as it gets. Allow God to draw you to himself through their experiences as you allow their experiences to become yours.