On bitterness and how grace turns bitterness to sweet

As the nation of Israel traveled from Egypt to the Canaan, they came to Marah. For three days they had wandered about in the wilderness of Shur and found no water. When they came to Marah, they found water, but the water was bitter. When they could not drink the water, they began grumbling against Moses – the usual human reaction when life disappoints us. The Hebrew word for bitter is Marah, which means bitterness, angry, and discontented.

As you journey through this wilderness called life, there is one thing you are looking for. Experience, your family, peers, and relationships have told you that once you get that thing, you will have the best life now. That all your dreams will come true. You will live life happily ever after. That one thing could be marriage, sexual fulfillment, wealth, power, kids, career, success, real estate, power relationships, ministry, business, etc. And so you have been searching for this one thing. 

Eventually, most of us will get that one thing. We will get it. But life, as cruel as it is, plays us. When we get that one thing, eventually, that thing will turn bitter. This is what happened in this story. The Israelites found what they were looking for, but it turned out to be bitter. The same happens to all of us. If it’s kids, they will disobey you. If it’s a spouse, they will disregard you. If it’s a job, you will lose it. If it’s an education, you might not be employed. If it’s wealth, you will lose it. If it’s a car, it’s value will depreciate. If it’s a ministry, you might not become the mega preacher you envisioned yourself to be. If it’s business, when the economy tanks, as it’s doing now during this COVID-19 season, you will lose it all. That one thing you are looking for will Marah on you and make you angry and discontent. 

I remember after I got married, I really struggled because I had bought into the lie that my spouse will be perfect, obedient, and submissive to me and my vision. I had believed the lie that if I just get the right person, this right person would be overwhelmingly supportive of my dreams. And so when Jenny disagreed or wasn’t so enthusiastic about my life and plans, Marah set it. I started getting angry and discontent about life and marriage. I wanted out of my marriage for the first two to three years. I was angry and discontent. I had gotten my one thing, spouse, but didn’t expect that getting that one thing comes with pain and discomfort. And because I didn’t plan for pain and discomfort, I became disillusioned.

This is the truth, and this truth is terrible news.

Now here’s the good news

The story gives us a solution. 

Did the people grumble and complain? Yes, they did. Who did they grumble against? Moses. Let’s start here. It’s fine to grumble. Read the book of Job, the Psalms, and the prophets and discover how Job, David, and the prophets because of the difficulties of life, grumbled against the Lord. Go even further and read what Jesus did towards the end of his life. At the garden and on the cross, Jesus grumbled. The pain was too much. He cried out. The Christian faith does not just tell us to be stoic when we face difficulty, and nor does it tell us to succumb to pity and victimhood. The Christian faith is the only faith that shows you that even the most prolific Christians grumbled.

Moses in this story is the go-between God and the Israelites. We have one greater than Moses, the man Christ Jesus who is our mediator—go-between (1 Timothy 2:15, Hebrews 9:15). When we grumble to him, he cries to his heavenly father on our behalf. 

Exodus 15:25 (NKJV)
So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree. When he cast it into the waters, the waters were made sweet. There He made a statute and an ordinance for them, and there He tested them,

Man, this is so good.

The Lord showed Moses a tree and when he threw the tree into the waters; the waters became sweet. The Hebrew word for sweet is mataq, which means to suck, by implication, to relish. Picture a baby sucking on his mother’s breasts and relishing the milk. Or remember when you were young, and they gave you a sweet. Remember the feeling? The sweetness? The pleasantness? That’s what happened here. 

The tree

In the Christian faith, we study the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus and his grace. In bible typology, the tree is a type of the cross. The tree represents what Jesus did for us—the finished work. The tree is a dead thing that was used to bring to life a dead thing.  

Why a tree?

Of course, this is counterintuitive. Moses should have used some sweetener to solve the bitterness. Or some chemical to clear the water (if they had chemicals then) I’m sure they had some natural remedies, but God showed him the tree. It is very usual for God to use uncommon things. The Christian faith teaches us that God uses foolish things to confound the wisdom of this world. Conventional wisdom says, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When life is bitter, go surround yourself with positive people and positive vibes. Leave that negative spouse. Resign and leave your bad boss. Sell your property.  Kick your kids out of the house. Emigrate to another city or country. Do plastic surgery. Exercise and diet. Work harder. The gospel of grace says, when that one thing is Marah, throw in the tree. 

Is it wrong to go for that one thing? Not at all. You and I have to live life to the fullest (whatever fullest means to you). But because we live in a fallen world, eventually that one thing we are looking for will Marah, will become bitter. This is where you need to throw in the tree. The gospel of grace – what Jesus has done for you is the antidote to the bitterness. It will turn marah into sweet waters. 

More good news 

On the cross, Jesus grumbled against the Lord. Remember this? My God, My God why have you forsaken me. Unlike the Israelites, he didn’t have a mediator. Heaven turned its face and ignored him. Second, while Jesus was on the tree, he became thirsty and instead of sweet water, they gave Him sour wine. Finally, he died. Why did he go through all these? He did it for us. God ignored his cries so that God could hear our cries when life becomes bitter. He drank the sour wine so that when life turns bitter, we could drink sweet waters. Like the dead tree, Jesus died so we could live. It’s his death that gives us life. 

Your bitter situation could turn sweet if you throw in the tree. Throw in the gospel of grace to your bitter situation. Doing this will go against every sensible grain in your life. But just as the bitter waters became sweet for the Israelites, your bitter waters will become sweet too.

That’s what grace looks like

Photo by Samridhhi Sondhi on Unsplash