Eat Bitter

Jul 29, 2008 |Carolyn McCulley

When situations seem unfair or even disastrous, we can only swallow the injustice and bitterness if we focus on the unflinching promise that our times are in His hands.

Even at highway speeds, I could see the drivers in the opposite lanes smiling, singing, chatting on their phones. Sealed in their air-conditioned vehicles, they could not hear any warnings even if I had screamed at them.

"Turn around! Don't go on! Horrible traffic jam ahead!"

In only a matter of moments, they would discover what I had already seen: miles and miles of vehicles at a dead stop, about a dozen fire trucks blocking the highway, one charred van, and no escape. They had no idea of what lay ahead, but they were about to encounter a miserable morning.

I wonder how many sat in their cars and steamed, cursing the traffic jam and complaining into their mobile phones. This is Washington, D.C., land of the hyper-ambitious and the overscheduled — I would venture 90 percent.

We Americans have been blessed in numerous material ways. Though there is plenty of room for improvement, our government, economy, and communities run fairly smoothly — especially in comparison to many developing nations. I wonder if those blessings can be taken for granted, creating an expectation of a hassle-free life. I know this attitude is revealed in my heart when I'm the one stuck in the unexpected traffic jam. Faced with any small trial, I am tempted to meet it with a stream of complaints.

Contrast this with what people learn in other cultures. The Chinese, for example, have a phrase: "eating bitter." They are taught that enduring hardship — "eating bitter" — is as valuable as overcoming it. Too often I don't think "eat bitter" — I think, how can I change this circumstance to my liking?

In my job, I often have to document hardship and difficulty. I've filmed post-Katrina loss in New Orleans; squalid, isolated poverty in rural Bolivia; teeming roadside beggars in Ethiopia; and drug cartel gang tags in the urban war zone of Juarez, Mexico. What stands out to me in these memories is how quiet and uncomplaining the children are in developing nations. Oh, I'm sure they can throw a temper tantrum as well as any American child, but the frequency must be far less. I have hours and hours of footage with children from other nations quietly watching our interviews. They are the silent spectators on the sidelines, observing the conversation but never busting the take.

To be honest, that would be nearly impossible back home. The sound of little voices crying and whining is the soundtrack of our lives. I wonder if that's because we do not learn to "eat bitter." We are taught to fight back, to stand up for our rights, to make a difference.

On the surface, those are true and noble ideas — when the cause is justified. Unfortunately, as I examine this tendency in my own life, I tend to exercise those values in defense of myself, my convenience, and my perceived rights. I'm prone to make waves, to defend myself, to change what I don't like. I especially don't like repetitive, intrusive noises — a rattling blind, a squeaky shopping cart, a loud walkie-talkie issuing a stream of inane conversation, the chest-thumping bass of the passing car's music. I'm quick to require change, to fix the rattle, to roll up my car windows, to switch carts.

My boss once asked me why I have to control the exterior landscape around me. Why don't I try control my interior landscape, so to speak — the way I choose to respond to these situations?

Umm ... because it's easier to kill the buzzing light?

Without a doubt it's easier! It's a huge effort to master my own responses, instead of attempting to master other people or situations. I'd much rather smack a buzzing fluorescent light and be done with it, rather than work on ignoring it and calming my rising irritation.

Mastering my reaction — maybe it's a baby step in "eating bitter." Maybe it doesn't even really qualify. How about just "eating irritation and distraction"? Bitter carries the whiff of injustice, of being sinned against, of withstanding trials and difficulties like natural disasters.

Swallowing such hardship connotes stoicism, resignation, muffled loss. But Jesus told us to love our enemies and do good to them (Luke 6:35). Paul told us to be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer (Romans 12:12).

Even more specifically for us women, Peter proclaimed that unfading feminine beauty is found in the quiet and gentle spirit (1 Peter 3:4). The Christian perspective is not just a command to absorb loss and difficulties, but to meet it with love, faith and joy. Thus, a quiet, gentle spirit is not a personality issue. Boisterous women can have quiet, trusting hearts. Reserved women can have hearts seething with anger and sinful judgment. I've seen both. Appearances deceive. Only God knows the true heart.

A few years ago at Christmas, I received a card with the picture of a rural African woman on the cover. Her head is slightly bowed and her hands are together, palms up, as though she's about to receive a gift. The text reads: "I trust in you, O LORD. My times are in your hands." These are verses from Psalm 31. I've posted that card on my wall so that I can meditate on that beautifully illustrated truth.

But I trust in you, O LORD;
     I say, "You are my God."
My times are in your hands;
     deliver me from my enemies
     and from those who pursue me.
Let your face shine on your servant;
     save me in your unfailing love.
Let me not be put to shame, O LORD,
     for I have cried out to you;
     but let the wicked be put to shame
     and lie silent in the grave. (Psalm 31:14-17)

When situations seem unfair or even disastrous, we can only swallow the injustice and bitterness if we focus on the unflinching promise that our times are in His hands. We are called to an active trust that God will work over time to defend us, to protect and provide for us, and to bring us to a joy-filled future in eternity.

All this is secured for us because in His great mercy, the God of truth did not hand us over to our Enemy, but sacrificed His Son to secure our reconciliation. We have no reason to fear the future or be upset about the present because God saw our affliction under the dominion of sin and rescued us.

In the traffic jam, in the news of a feared diagnosis, in loss and devastation — our times are in His faithful, nail-scarred hands. Our lasting defense was secured at the cross. In light of that, we need to give Him time to work on our behalf. What is swallowed now may seem bitter, but it will definitely be sweet in time.

In the meantime, there's the hard work of quieting a stormy heart and opening our hands to receive the trials and misunderstandings that come our way. Like the rejected squeaky shopping cart, I'm usually tempted to exchange what I don't like for what I prefer. I agitate for change, voicing loud complaints. I've had to learn to wait quietly, to wait for the Lord to defend me or to provide for me. I'm still learning. Some of those young children I filmed are light years ahead of me. They are not consumed with discontent or complaint because they are not busy ordering their lives around them to their own preferences, as I am.

What an ever-present temptation it is to complain. I waste my words sinning and then heap discontent on all those who hear me. But God invites me to voice my cries to Him. "Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help" (v. 22b).

If I'm not complaining, I am sinfully judging others. I forget that God opposes this kind of pride in my attitude toward others. "The LORD preserves the faithful, but the proud he pays back in full" (v.23).

Even if I manage to hold my tongue, if I haven't replaced my sinful thoughts with meditations on the truth of grace and forgiveness, my attitudes will seep out in various ways. The truth of the matter is I often put my hope in changed circumstances, rather than in the God who has saved me. "Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD" (v. 24).

To some degree, it does matter what people think of us and what kind of circumstances we endure. I'm not advocating for a detached stoicism, nor for passive acceptance of everything that comes our way. But there's a continual churn in the hearts of those who have not learned that God is at work even in the circumstances and situations that are so disheartening to us. Enduring hardship means we find protection and assurance in God's plan for our lives. Whether in the weeks and years ahead of us in this life or in the bliss of a sin-free eternity, we can trust that God is working all things for our good.

This is the Christian view of "eat bitter." It's not mere endurance; it's joy-driven trust that tempers the impatience of a self-centered view with sanctified patience of a God-centered perspective that these inconveniences and afflictions are part of the "all things" that He is working together for our good and His glory.

Copyright 2008 Carolyn McCulley. All rights reserved.

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