Mara: bitterness

This wrinkly thing below is bitter melon a.k.a. bitter gourd. It tastes awful. (I think so, and I’d eat almost anything digestible.) Bitter melon is actually quite good for your health.

Here’s the story:

She moved to a difference country with her family. Her husband died. Her two sons died. She had no grandchildren, and only her daughters in law were left. A troubled immigrant who had everything taken from her, with reason to bear sorrow.

She said to her daughters-in-law, “My daughters, my life is much too bitter for you to share, because the LORD’s hand has turned against me.”

When she and one daughter in law arrived back in her home province, she said to those who remembered her and greeted her, “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara,” she answered, “for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has pronounced judgment on me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?” [passages from Ruth, HCSB]

——

It would seem that Naomi is a bitter woman because of her bitter life. It would seem that she has had unfortunate things happen to her, and that she is a victim of misfortune. We are, however, informed of a few things that could suggest otherwise. This happens historically in the time of judges ruling Israel, which is a time when men did whatever was right in their own eyes. There was a famine in the land of Judah, possibly a sign of judgment about the wickedness in God’s people, purposed as a wake up call. Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, moved their family to Moab, a pagan land far away from people who worshipped God, to escape the hard times. Their sons married women who did not worship God. There’s quite a bit of disobedience and lack of faith and trust amongst the family.

The deaths (and the rumour of food back in Judah) ultimately caused Naomi to return to Judah with Ruth. When Ruth ends up marrying well and bearing a son, there is no record of what Naomi says.

——

So the LORD’s plans at the juncture of the deaths and returning to Judah appear to be a bitter hand dealt to Naomi. However much of this was her fault is irrelevant; even if Naomi’s personal sin was not a direct cause of this entire bitter fate, Naomi is also not a mere victim. She was bitter, mara, vexed, provoked, annoyed, irritated, angry. Many years earlier, the Israelites had grumbled to Moses about the bitter water, and the LORD’s lack of provision in the desert. They were tested. They discovered that they needed to obey and trust, and not to complain. [Exodus 15:22-27]

——

At the end of Naomi’s tale, the other women in Judah say to her, “ ‘Praise the Lord, who has not left you without a family redeemer today. May his name become well known in Israel. He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. Indeed, your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.’ Naomi took the child, placed him on her lap, and took care of him.” She has nothing to say now but does seem to treasure what God gave her eventually. Her life was bitter for a time, but hindsight is 20/20. You see things so much more clearly as you reflect and look back than while you were in the middle of it; and yet we hold on to the past as if we knew better.

In time, the Lord who is good will provide, ultimately in eternity but also somehow in the land of the living. In the meantime, we must be blind to take unsavoury situations with annoyance, irritability, anger, vexation or bitterness in our hearts. God is at work, and we must keep up with Him, being ready to change our minds, change our behaviour, and change our desires. Not easy for change-resistant breeds like us who think we know better.

Why is Life Hard?

The overarching reason is always to know and depend on God more than you already do. This applies to people who don’t think ‘God’ exists as well as to those who are devoted to God. Whether a child of God or not, our need should drive us to seek God.

A more specific reason is that the pain and unsettling is used by God to change for the better the conduct and character of those who are his children. (Quoth James MacDonald as perceptive distinction, “Everyone is not God’s child, no matter what you hear on Oprah.”)

I’m writing this, once again, in accordance with the purpose behind this blog, which is to figure things out by putting it into words. Hopefully it doesn’t just help me. My small group at church has chosen to do When Life is Hard by James MacDonald. Initially, I resented doing a ‘book study,’ which seems somehow inferior to a ‘Bible study,’ but thus far this book has been showing itself solid, as each of the two chapters we’ve read are anchored in a significant passage from the Bible that relates to trials. It has already clarified my understanding of one passage in an I-can’t-believe-I’ve-been-so-blind sort of way. (James 1 on wisdom, btw.) I suppose that in a sense, this is a book review, but also a book summary, analysis and reflection. If you get a chance, read this book! The latter half may disappoint (I haven’t finished it yet), but I can tell you the first two chapters are great. Even if you are not currently in a trial, it doesn’t hurt to prepare your perspective because trials will come.

First ideas under consideration (backdrop of Hebrews 12:5-11)

It could be that a trial results from your sin, and the consequences are your correction. It may also be that the trial results from no fault of your own, but God still wills it to improve your character and let you display good conduct in it. That is one point MacDonald makes. Someone in my small group pointed out further that, even if your trials do not directly result from your own sinful actions, it still exposes your sin! So true. Furthermore, in considering trials as “discipline,” we also see that there is discipline for correction as well as discipline for training. Reactive discipline for correction keeps one in line, whereas proactive discipline keeps one in shape. You’re never in a place where you don’t need discipline, however good you are doing, because becoming ‘unfit’ in character and conduct is not an acceptable alternative.

MacDonald gave three principles to keep in mind as related to Hebrews 12:11, presented concurrently here:

  1. The pain is momentary (For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later)
  2. The profit is immense (it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness)
  3. The promise is conditional (to those who have been trained by it.)

Second batch of ideas under consideration (backdrop of James 1:2-8)

We like to ask why things happen. MacDonald deftly categorizes 4 types of why and defines 3 that God doesn’t answer and 1 which he loves answering. God doesn’t answer

  • The EXISTENTIAL WHY (Why do bad things happen to good people?)
  • The ULTIMATUM WHY (Why is this happening to me?!??!?!! Tell me why!!!)
  • The OBSERVATION WHY (Why is this not happening to him/her?)

God loves to answer The PERSONAL WHY of ‘Why did you allow this to happen – what do you want to teach me, do in me, and do through me?’

One stipulation: this fourth why cannot be asked with doubt, but with reckless abandon and willingness to learn and be changed as one who trusts the giver of wisdom to be wise about all that needs to be changed, whether you like it or not. I mentioned an “aha” moment about James earlier, and this is it. For some inexplicable reason, I had never before read James 1:5-8 as specific to trials, even though before it and after it James is talking about trials and perseverance in trials. Going against all logic, I extracted this “wisdom” section from the idea of trials to just mean a general need to be ‘wise.’ Read James.

Meanwhile, “don’t bail!” (I didn’t sign up for this.) “Don’t fold under the pressure!” (Take me Lord, just crush me and let me be with you forever.) Those are two temptations MacDonald mentions are common, along with complaining and/or lashing out. Anyways, I think Charles Spurgeon has a morning or evening devotion about this very cowardice of not wanting to remain under trials. We want to run away from our problems to the safety of death and eternal life with God. This is stupid. We actually need to stand firm and remain under to let God change us at the deepest level. “We think the answer is a new environment when the real answer is a new me.” Random examples I’ll throw out there:

Young adult angst: I want an adventure. I want to make something of my life. I need to go abroad and do something really meaningful.
Relational issues: I just can’t get good relationships going with my family / co-workers / spouse. I’m not ‘going there’ with mom or dad / I need a new job / I want a divorce.

We want to run away. Or we want to withdraw and let circumstances or other people change or pass over. We are like distracted, hyper puppies (“Stay…”) or like hermit turtles (I’m in my shell). It’s so hard to just stay and work yourself out. But how can we refuse God’s wisdom to change us with painful thoroughness yet seek God at the same time? And we ask why we keep having to work on the same things.

Sympathy

A friend and I have recently suffered similar losses. We have both found some comments from lovely and well-meaning people to be maddening. Many a wise thought we acknowledge, understand, believe and even trust, but we do not feel. Sometimes, even those dearest to us and most respected by us cannot sympathize with our state of mind and heart. Or it may be that even if they actually could, we still do not perceive that they can. We only feel akin to those who are in a similar state or can clearly recall being in a similar state. This sympathy is so precious. It also legitimizes the love and thoughts you receive from that person in a way that similar love and thoughts from others cannot compare. They just don’t understand — are not moved in their gut the same way.

That precious gift of sympathy reminds me of the precious gift of sympathy followers of Christ have. We know that our God is perfect and on high, and yet STILL, because he was made flesh like us, subjected to trials and temptations and still found to be perfect, He is a God who can sympathize with us in our weakness. In our moments of self-loathing, of doubt, or of hopelessness over all manner of situations, He understands how one gets to that place, though he emerges perfect through all such trials and temptations. He is not just lofty and immaterial, but also walked the earth and was subjected to its darkness and senseless sorrows, as well as enjoyed its loveliness and joys. The One who judges and has mercy and sacrifices and saves and shows grace is also one who sympathizes and comforts. How worthwhile to follow with loyalty such a leader! And how much more precious His commands to us, given this sympathy.

Hebrews 2:14-18

14 Since therefore the children [we] share in flesh and blood, he himself [Jesus] likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Hebrews 4:14-16

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are,yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

They call it “osmosis”

There you have it: the gummi bear was destroyed by the end, and by something so benign as water.

As we continue considering loss, grief, and any kind of transition in life, there is a point that needs to be made. (Surprise! Haven’t you noticed a theme in recent posts?) When we lose something, we replace it. On a trivial scale, I dropped my phone on the ground recently and broke the speaker. It didn’t make sense to fix it, so I considered it a “total loss” and replaced it with a low-end smartphone. (Hello decade of 2010. Sort of – still no data plan.) I digress. When we lose something, no matter how attached we were, we inevitably let other things fill the void left behind, or else consciously fill the void ourselves, even if it’s gradual and slow.

The law of osmosis: when high concentrations of solvent molecules move through a semi-permeable membrane to regions of higher solute concentrations. The lack of solvent molecules in one region of solution is an open invitation to other solvent molecules to creep in. 

The period of grief poses a sad but simple time when you can really feel all the words like “blessed be the name of the Lord” and “all is well with my soul” and “fix your eyes upon Jesus.” It’s emotionally hard to bear the pain but emotionally easy to rely on the love of God. After the most intense moments of trial have passed, emotions stabilize and are easier to bear, but it becomes harder again to feel the passion of your complete abandon to God.

This time-of-trial VS time-of-ease conundrum of drawing close to God is a most common concern I’ve heard amongst Christians. In the case of grief+loss it is easy at first to fill your loss with the comfort of the presence of God, but as the pain lessens and as life resumes, other things begin to take precedence. That vision of devotion once so clear becomes more clouded. In considering this, I’ve been reminded of a principle I just read in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus speaks regarding the Sabbath.

[23] One Sabbath he [Jesus] was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. [24] And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” [25] And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: [26] how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” [27] And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. [28] So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

(Mark 2:23-28 ESV)

The command to keep the Sabbath day holy is not a restriction from lifting a finger on the day of rest at all costs, but a call to honour God consciously with strength of discipline. ***

Similarly, with loss, it’s not that you can literally have nothing in your life but Christ. The idea is that as life continues and activities and people begin to fill our lives again, we will have grown some and will consider our motivations in how we fill our lives and to what end. We shan’t be passively filled by our convenient environments via osmosis, but filled by contending in the faith, working out our salvation in a spirit of submissive but eager obedience to follow a good and faithful God who called us before the creation of the world. Hopefully filling our lives in a way that reflects being a good and faithful servant cognizant that our Master will return and that the pleasures of the world shall pass.

*** (For my own benefit and for yours if you are interested, here is an article about rest and how to rest by Tim Keller that I want to remember: http://theresurgence.com/2012/07/11/5-practical-thoughts-on-rest)

Throwing off burdens (and some spectacular use of grammar in the Bible)

Abel. Enoch. Noah. Abraham. Isaac. Jacob. Sarah. Joseph. Moses. The people of Israel. Rahab. Gideon. Barak. Samson. Jephthah. David. Samuel. The prophets. (Hebrews 11, the list of the faithful.)

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, 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.” (Hebrews 12:1 NIV)

First of all, thank goodness the people included in this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ are flawed to various degrees, just like I am! When I was younger, I used to mistakenly imagine Christians of the past in heaven looking down at me disapprovingly and being disappointed/disgusted – not to mention Jesus or God’s perspective. (Couldn’t even bring myself there.) That sort of watchful ‘accountability’ is terribly disheartening, and resulted in my greatly desiring to let no one get to know me, lest they discover what all these heavenly witnesses knew better. Nevertheless, I know better now: Jesus’ perfect sacrifice is my identity, as with all of those in that cloud of witnesses. None of us could stand before God but for Christ, even if some appear somewhat more righteous than others. (Truthfully though, it also helped my acceptance of this truth to discover how others too were more sinful than I had first assumed, and that I wasn’t too sinful to be forgiven, or too damaged to be made new. Due to the helpfulness of this discovery for myself in making my acceptance of salvation in Christ a joyful thing, it has since been a personal conviction to freely share my dirt as is appropriate to the situation, but regardless of my own discomfort.)

Returning to that verse in Hebrews, the ESV Bible mentions “weight” rather than things that hinder, and the New KJV uses “ensnares” to describe sin rather than entangling. A snare, being a trap, is more active than the action of entangling, which seems more passive. Nevertheless, the idea is the same: we are bound and held captive by sin. Kinda like a slave. Last summer I received a copy of Slave by John MacArthur which I will finish this summer. (On my word, I shall!) It emphasizes the very Biblical but unsung idea of switching loyalties from being a slave to sin to being a slave of the Lord Jesus, and how this second ‘slavery’ is, in actual fact, freedom from sin and the various burdens of a sinful nature.

Recently, at a women’s retreat, I’ve been privileged to be read a list of hindrances by which we may be trapped, and these made me sit up and pay rapt attention.

Hindrances:

  • self-preoccupation
  • false accusations
  • worry and fear
  • bitterness
  • unforgiveness
  • pain of past and present hurts
  • circumstances (health, physical limitations, finances, jobs…)
This made me sit up because as a Christian, I tend to unthinkingly categorize everything negative as sin when not every burden is technically sin, even if it resulted from sin or could result in sin in some way. The point is, though, that both burdens and sin are debilitating to our ability to run the race, to be a new creation, to have the courage to go and be a witness, to rejoice and to worship. Burdens are a yoke of slavery that prevents us from living as those who have been freed.

Anyhow, imagine a hot air balloon, the pictorial theme of the retreat weekend. Being tethered to the ground prevents it from soaring, but soaring willy-nilly is dangerous. Like us, when the balloon is tethered to Christ as a guide, then it can soar freely in safety.

But I don’t always feel like I soar, or am safe!

Where is Christ then? And there, something that John Piper said brought comfort: One of the greatest heartaches of the Christian walk is our slowness to change.

Didn’t Jesus wash me clean? Aren’t I free now? That certainly is a heartache of mine.

The following verse is so wonderful I’ll state it twice, in different versions:

“For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14 ESV)

“…because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (Hebrews 10:14 NIV)

I promised spectacular grammar in the title of this post, and there it is. That Jesus “has made perfect” is stated in present perfect tense, which deals with a past event that has present relevance. (E.g. “I have lived in Vancouver.” I can call myself a West Coaster, but Eastern Canada is my home now.) On the other hand, “those who are being made holy” is in present continuous tense, which deals with events that are in progress now and will be in progress for an unspecified time yet. These two different time tenses happen in unison. Perfect. Holy. Finished and still in progress.

The good news, as I was reminded that weekend, is that “being on the way is proof that we have arrived.” Are we there yet? No, but yes. So keep going, whether the way is slow, tortuous, or quite circular at times. Take heart in the good news of the gospel of grace, and our sanctification that follows. “Our fight against sin is not simply to become perfect, but because we are.”

The funny thing is, when we are weak and struggling through little fault of our own, it is easy to turn to God and rely on Him. In stark contrast, when it is our folly, our lack of self control, our empty purpose, our pig-headed stubbornness, our self reliance, our apathy, our resentfulness, our bitterness, our unwillingness to forgive or anything else like that which has caused us to stumble, struggle and be faint, or even caused others to be hurt, it is harder to rely on God. “Do I have a right to?” subtly comes to mind.

Yes. Most assuredly so. You didn’t earn the right, but Jesus earned it for us, and at this time, you need to rely on the one who sanctifies us. You just gotta suck in your pride and look upon glorious, undeserved grace.

My favourite image from that hot air balloon themed retreat was that of the fire in the burners. In those times of fire and trial, our dependence on and closeness with Christ in the uncomfortable environment of hot air gives us lift to soar that a mild and cool environment does not. It’s like the special treat of trials, almost like a consolation prize, except that it’s much more, and conversely, is really the point of the trial, I would say. It’s hard to complain about difficulties when you see that God is bringing you closer to Himself through these things.

One last scribble that I took from just the first talk of the retreat: Living for Christ – waiting for our emotions to catch up.

Doing Hard Things

In the second year of university, I decided I would begin to try doing hard things.  The reason was relatively simple: prior to that I really wanted to succeed in anything I attempted. It’s an obligation to get a job well done, to pull something off. In saying that, I don’t mean that I was successful at a whole lot, just that if I didn’t succeed, I would try not to think about it and either not tell anyone or make like I thought it was funny and that I didn’t care if I did talk about it.

Now, this next paragraph is not going to be me saying that I’ve now overcome that anxiety to perform because I’ve placed my trust in Christ. Hah, wouldn’t that be easy? In truth, I have placed my trust in Christ, but it is still hard to do hard things. That will not go away while I still walk this ground and breath this air. But these truths are the silicone oven mitts to the searing flames of anxiety:

1 Kings 2:1-3

1 As the time approached for David to die, he instructed his son Solomon, 2 “As for me, I am going the way of all of the earth. Be strong and be courageous like a man, 3 and keep your obligation to the Lord your God to walk in His ways and to keep His statutes, commands, ordinances, and decrees. This is written in the law of Moses, so that you will have success in everything you do…

Deuteronomy 5:29

If only they had such a heart to fear Me and keep all My commands always, so that they and their children will prosper forever.

Isaiah 45:7

I form light and create darkness, I make success and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.

In the face, body, and internal heat of difficult situations, we are not asked to overcome and succeed. Our obligation is to fear the Lord and keep His commands; He makes success and disaster. It may even be disaster after disaster that comes first however well you carry out your obligation to obey.

2 Timothy 4:5-8

5 But as for you, be serious about everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. 6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time for my departure is close. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 There is reserved for me in the future the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that day, and not only tome, but to all those who have loved His appearing.

This too is Paul’s attitude. Keeping the faith. It is the name of a strange Edward Norton, Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman movie in which the characters don’t keep the faith; hence, more so, keeping the faith means what it did in the OT. Our obligation is to trust in the gospel and to attest to the truth of the gospel. To know the greatness of God and make his greatness known. The hard thing in this is … you don’t want to be anywhere near greatness or mention greatness when you feel small.

Good grief. A poor excuse not to try doing things.