Bitterness (and its evil cousin, envy of others) is one of the biggest battles I face as a single woman. Maybe you can relate. You’re on Facebook and you see a single friend has become engaged. The picture of her kissing her fiancé gets over 100 likes. You scroll down the newsfeed and see another friend has taken a family vacation and kindly shared all 587 pictures of the event. Clicking through the photos you note the caption on one: “Oh, how I love my handsome husband and precious children! I’m so blessed!” On Sunday morning your pastor kicks off a 6-week sermon series on marriage by thanking God for his beautiful wife and the many wonderful years they have enjoyed together. Such occasions should evoke mutual joy and praises to God for the blessings He has bestowed on others.
But if you find yourself typing the word “congratulations” under the Facebook engagement picture with gritted teeth you’re not alone. It is quite a challenge watching the dreams of others come true while yours are collecting cobwebs. Elisabeth Elliot once wrote, “If I imagine that I love my neighbor, let me test my love by asking how glad I am that he has managed to acquire what I have long wished to acquire. That he is loved by someone in some way that has never been granted to me.” Difficult words, but so very true. We are commanded to love our brothers and sisters in Christ and “love does not envy” (1 Corinthians 13:4). Indeed the mark of a true Christian is being able to “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15). I know this to be true, but like the Apostle Paul, “…I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19).
And there is nothing quite like bitterness and envy to choke out the joy of your Christian walk, poison your fellowship with the saints, render you useless for the cause of Christ. Your worship is hampered, your praise is restrained, and it feels downright awful. So how do you overcome those dark, unbidden emotions that arise when you see others enjoying what you long to have? The following are practical steps in overcoming bitterness in your singleness.
Admitting and Repenting
It’s an old, tired self-help cliché, but it’s true: The first step to recovery is to admit that you have a problem – or, more specifically, to admit that you have sinned. When I am in the depths of bitterness over my singleness, seething with envy at others who are married, I’m tempted to excuse those feelings by thinking, “Well, if only God would send me a husband…” or “If only those young marrieds wouldn’t flaunt their happiness so much….” – but I’m fooling myself. The problem is not God. The problem is not the young marrieds. The problem is me. James 1:13-15 points this out clearly,
“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
Bitterness and envy is sin. Period. Call it what it is and don’t make excuses for it. Furthermore that sin is not caused by the circumstance of being single. Rather, the circumstance of being single exposes the sin of bitterness and envy that is already in the heart. I’ll use myself as an example. At times, I would characterize my own singleness and childlessness as a trial à la James 1:2-4 and one way God uses trials is to expose sin. My church is teeming with couples in their 20s and 30s who seemed to have done all the right things – married young, started families – and they’re enjoying the benefits of doing so. But even if I were to marry tomorrow, I will never be a “young married” because I’m no longer young. As I see their lives clipping along right on schedule while mine feels like a derailed train, I often wonder, “Why did God put me in this church? Wouldn’t it be easier if I was in a church filled with singles and elderly couples?” But if I was in such a church, the seeds of bitterness and envy that are hidden in my heart….my idolatrous desire to be a young married, my secret wish to be seen as a winner among losers…. would never be exposed to me.
Because Christ has paid the penalty for our sins, the wonderful promise we have as Christians is that if we admit our sins, God will always forgive us and cleanse us from them (1 John 1:8-10). This in no way excuses our sin or gives us a license to keep on sinning (Romans 6:1-4, 1 John 2:1-2) but it assures us that we will not be condemned if we admit our sins to the Lord and repent (Romans 8:1). So admit the guilt of feeling bitterness and envy to the Lord and allow Him to rid you of those burdens.
Closing the Door to Sin
It’s good if you can head bitterness and envy off at the pass and the place where those sins start to grow is in a heart of discontentment. After the Lord saved me a few years ago, I had a strong desire to be holy so I sorted through my personal entertainment inventory to make sure it was free of ungodly influences. I immediately threw away the stuff that was clearly sinful and worldly – the Sex & the City DVDs, steamy romance novels, various R-rated movies, CDs with sexually-explicit lyrics – those were obvious bad influences. But some things are not so obvious. I enjoyed listening to the radio on the way to work so, in an attempt to clean up that area, I switched stations to one that played what’s called “beautiful music”, a format of mood music, easy listening, Muzak, jazz, and Swing Era music. I thought this was a safe alternative to my usual station which played the latest chart-toppers, but soon strange things started happening.
I became very unhappy with singleness, more than usual. I started sitting in the back of the church assembly, sulking and glaring at all the happy couples. I stopped doing my daily devotionals. My prayers began to contain less adoration for God and more complaints about why God hadn’t found me someone to marry. I even considered not attending church anymore because it was “too hard, too painful being single when everyone else was married.” I couldn’t figure out what was going on, why this dark, angry cloud seemed to be hovering over me constantly, until I noticed the music I was listening to on my commute to and from work. Here are some of the song lyrics:
“You’re nobody until somebody loves you; you’re nobody ‘til somebody cares….”
“Tell him; tell him that the sun and moon rise in his eyes. Reach out to him and whisper tender words so soft and sweet. Hold him close to feel his heart beat. Love will be the gift you give yourself.”
“Love is a many splendored thing….love is nature’s way of giving, a reason to be living, the golden crown that makes a man a king.”
“But kisses and love won’t carry me ‘til you marry me, Bill….I got the wedding bell blues…..please, marry me, Bill….I got the wedding bell bluuuuuuuues…….!”
No wonder I was so depressed and angry! Bombarding my mind with this worldly, overblown view of romantic love was making me extremely discontent with where God had me at that moment in my life. That discontent was like an open door into which the sins of bitterness and envy entered into my heart. There’s nothing wrong with romantic love – it can truly be “a many splendored thing” as the song states – and there’s nothing wrong with desiring it. But listening to songs like these over and over made me start thinking that romantic love gave life it’s only meaning, that I had no purpose or reason to live because nobody loved me, and that I had to find that special someone to make my life complete.
Are happy families a little too much for you? A change of perspective is probably in order.
I completely lost track of the truth that Jesus Christ is our reason for living, whether we are married or not. He is the source of and the reason for all created things, including marriage (Colossians 1:16). Contentment is found not when all my dreams come true or when I have everything in life that I want, but when I know that God has and will give me everything I need in this world to glorify Christ. This is why the Apostle Paul could say “godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:6-9). That statement can apply to the desire for romantic love as well. Wanting it, yearning for it, dying to have it….can plunge a single Christian woman into many temptations, snares, and sins.
Incidentally, discontent is not just a problem for single women. Married women can become discontent with areas of their lives as well and fall into bitterness and envy of others. A friend from church who is happily married with children confided to me that even she must monitor the worldly messages she receives from movies, television, and songs on the radio. They often create images of an ideal romantic relationship in her mind which cause her to be irritated and dissatisfied with her own husband, since their relationship does not always live up to this standard of blissful perfection.
Don’t let discontentment over singleness lead you down the sinful, dark road of bitterness and envy. Guard your heart in Christ Jesus by dwelling on the things above, not the created things of this earth (Colossians 3:1-3).
Don’t be like this woman.
Adopting God’s Perspective
In 2 Corinthians 5:14-16, Paul says that because Christ died for us, and we no longer live for ourselves but for His sake, “we regard no one according to the flesh.” Always see others, especially your brothers and sisters in Christ, from God’s perspective, not from a worldly, selfish perspective. When I see others at church and compare myself to them in a worldly way, when I see their spouses and children and wish I had what they have, I begin to envy them. And when I let that envy and jealousy fester I even become embittered against them. It is a horrible, ugly state of mind – one that is miserable to be in and that God despises.
But when I see them from God’s perspective, when I fill my mind with God’s Word, when I allow the Holy Spirit who is in me to guide my thinking, then I see them as those dearly loved by God, so precious to Him that He sent His Son to die for them. When I take on the same attitude of Christ who humbled Himself to the point of death on the cross, then I no longer esteem myself higher than my brothers and sisters (Philippians 2:3-8). It is then that I begin to love them from the heart as God desires me to (1 John 4:7-12). And when my perspective is godly, my actions follow. I type “congratulations” under all the new wedding announcements on Facebook and truly mean the words. I happily click through all 587 pictures of a friend’s family vacation and sincerely thank God for blessing her with such a beautiful family. I rejoice with the pastor and his lovely wife as they praise God for their marriage. Without the heavy burden of envy and bitterness I am free to receive gratefully all that God has given to me and feel heartfelt gladness for all He is doing for others.