At church this morning, someone from the congregation spoke to us about Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and the fishes in Matthew 14:13-21. He noted that the story opens with: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself” (ESV). Crowds then followed Jesus to where he was, and Jesus had compassion for them, healed their sick, and later multiplied the loaves and fishes to feed them.
But the preacher this morning asked a question: What did Jesus hear that caused him to withdraw? The answer is that Jesus heard about the death of John the Baptist. Jesus withdrew because he was sad and wanted to be alone, or perhaps because he thought that Herod Antipas would try to kill him next. The preacher’s point was that, notwithstanding Jesus’ pain, sadness, or troubles, Jesus still took the time to be compassionate towards others and to minister to their needs.
Some of the songs in this morning’s service were along the same lines. We heard one song, “Below My Feet,” which is by Mumford and Sons. I had to read the lyrics a couple of times to understand them, but my impression was that they were talking about Jesus reassuring us, strengthening us, and helping us to serve and to learn. We sang “You Are My Vision,” and it had a line about God being our vision, whatever befalls us. We may be burned out and wounded, but we can still find comfort in God and be compassionate towards others.
I was reminded of a post that I read recently, Sarahbeth Caplin’s “Bitterness: The New Religion B-Word.” The last paragraph said something that especially resonated with me:
“These suggestions aside, I still have unhealthy bitterness in my heart. I pray not to get rid of it, necessarily, but to mold it into something productive. Some of history’s most successful revolutions grew from bitter unrest about the way things are.”
I was wondering if this could apply to my bitterness. Can God mold that into something productive? I can see bitterness about social injustice leading to social change, which is something productive, but what about my bitterness about feeling or being rejected, or loneliness? I believe that God can turn that into something productive, as well: compassion for others. I can feel compassion towards those who are rejected or lonely. Of course, the opposite can occur, too: I can become so absorbed in my own feelings, problems, and pain that I do not think of others. But that is why I need to ask God to mold my bitterness into something productive.
One may point me to biblical passages like Ephesians 4:31, which is critical of bitterness. Does that contradict any idea that God can mold bitterness into something productive? Well, such passages do express a desire for peace among people in the body of Christ. Inner peace is also a desirable goal, plus we should take heed lest we dehumanize others by hating them. I especially need God’s help on that last one! Still, I do believe that God can mold a person’s bitterness into something productive.
UPDATE: Samuel Tee has important reflections about suffering and whether that builds character. See here.