I’m reading a book right now, a fiction book which is a rarity for me, and in the book a character comes home from war having lost a leg. He’s very angry as he gets off the train to rejoin his extended family. As he hobbles away, an eight year-old child who is the book’s main character asks the veteran’s nurse, “why’s he so angry?” Without missing a beat, she responds, “He’s angry for the same reason everyone gets angry, at the way things turn out.”
Powerful words. Consider your life for a moment. Bitterness is old anger from how things turned out in your life. Where is there bitterness in your life? Or maybe there are areas of your life, people in your life, that when you think of them, you get angry. That’s anger at how things turned out.
I’m sure we have all known our fair share of folks who are deeply angry or bitter at how their lives turned out. There were setbacks, misfortunes, challenges and difficulties they couldn’t surmount, families that fell apart, finances that were ruined and never recovered, and it leaves them bitter, having previously been deeply angry. This is the way of life: it comes with setbacks, misfortunes, ruinous and calamitous events. Pop Christianity sells a happy go lucky version of our faith that, so long as you love Jesus and trust him, everything will turn out all right.
But Stephen, the first martyr of the faith, recorded in Acts 7, lies dead in the street.
Everything didn’t turn out alright for those in the early church who trusted Jesus. One of their own, a prominent member, a disciple, is dead. This is a setback, a misfortune, a ruinous and calamitous event. It’d make sense to be bitter, angry, and despairing.
But in the middle of it, scattered to the wind, these earliest Christians look to God and say, “what’s next?”
It’s a powerful question in the face of defeat. It’s a question of hopeful anticipation for a new, and probably surprising, direction. For the question “what’s next” assumes that there will be something else, that it’s not over, that the path will continue.
These early Christians show us what it looks like to handle defeat, setbacks, ruin and calamity: it’s to look at God and, with hopeful anticipation, ask “what’s next?”
For God’s not done. God is never done. Setbacks are just God’s opportunity to be creative.
Many of you walked the journey with me when I was deferred, which is the polite way of saying that I failed my ordination exam. Many of you were, like me, very angry. It felt unjust. The setback was hugely surprising. It felt like it came out of nowhere. It was a terrible disappointment.
And it was easy, in my heart of hearts, to tack it on to other disappointments. It was easy for my brain to pick out a pattern, wallow, and declare that life was just set against me.
Those are words of hopelessness. Those are words of despair. Those are words that, if left to sit unchecked, become anger, which turns into bitterness. Through the Holy Spirit, as I experienced those feelings, I knew if I didn’t take them to God, I would be setting myself on a path to bitterness.
So I looked to God and said, “What’s next?”
What could have turned into deep-seated bitterness did not because I looked to God and said, “what’s next?”
When we encounter setbacks and disappointments in this life, when people wrong us and we’re scattered like these early Christians, it’s natural to feel despair. And, it’s damaging to us to tell ourselves we’re wrong for feeling that way. Feelings are never wrong. They’re like illness; they just happen. What we do with those feelings is where we can either move toward health or do damage to ourselves.
And what we do with the despairing feeling that we will all encounter in this life, for life is full of disappointments, makes all the difference in our lives and in our faith.
Our faith should cause us, no matter how desperate and difficult the despair is, to look to God and ask, “what’s next?”
For setbacks, disappointments, are just God’s opportunity to be creative.
God is never overcome. God is never undone. God is never through. God will always find a way.
No matter the setbacks or disappointments, no matter the challenges we face, no matter how dark things get, those moments are just God’s opportunity to be creative.
God will create something new. It will probably be surprising. It will call us in a way that we would not expect. But God will call, God will move, God will provide, God will restore, God will be creative and further the kingdom through us.
If we will let him.
For we can stand against God’s creativity. We can reject God’s creativity. We do that when we decide to get bitter or angry.
It would have been easy for these early Christians to do just that. At the very beginning of their movement, when all was going well and there was the excitement of this great new thing, Stephen is murdered. They are forced to flee their lives and everything they knew in Jerusalem. It would have been easy to swallow a bitter pill for life had provided for them terribly. And to sit in their new homes, wherever that was in Judea and Samaria, and wallow, saying woe is me, life is set against me and I’m done.
When we do so, we stand in the way of what God wants to do. We reject God’s call on us and God’s provision. That’s because we’re taking control of the situation by deciding that we will allow our disappointment and despair to turn to anger and then to turn to bitterness.
The question of faith, the bold question of faith, in those moments of disappointment, no matter how deep, is, Ok God, what’s next?
What’s next for my finances?
What’s next for my business?
What’s next for my family?
What’s next for my cherished relationship now lost?
What’s next for my children who have abandoned me?
What’s next for my parents who have lost their way?
What’s next for my health?
What’s next for my schooling?
What’s next in my life?
That’s the example of these earliest Christians. When scattered, facing defeat, rather than get bitter, angry, or despairing, they looked to God and said, “What’s next?”
When the road is unclear, when life throws a curveball, when there are setbacks and we feel the pull of bitterness, anger, even hatred, we must give God those emotions through the powerful act of faith that is asking, “What’s next?”
For God will answer. The answer will probably be surprising. But the answer will always be this: redemption.
Because that’s what God does; turns our bitterness into the sweet things of life, makes our anger joy, and our despair hope.
If, if, we will give God those emotions and then ask, with all the faith we can muster, “what’s next?”
Will you do that this morning? Examine your life. Where are you bitter? Where are you full of anger? Where are you deeply frustrated about how life has treated you? What things are you avoiding thinking about because you’re afraid they’ll turn you into an angry bitter person?
Bring those things to the light. Talk about them with loved ones. Call me and talk to me. I’m still available for pastoral care.
And then, together, let’s ask God that powerful question of faith that holds deep meaning for our lives: