Bitter Hearts and Sweet Water

The local church I love and serve has been meeting online for 30 weeks. 30 Sundays preaching to a camera. 30 weeks of uncertain concern over the spiritual health of church members. 30 weeks of unfolding grief over many plans and hopes we carried into this year.

30 weeks in, and I find a new (for me) sinful attitude grasping for a foothold in my heart. Bitterness threatens to eclipse thankfulness, cloud my hopes for the future and shorten my temper.

But thanks be to God! Because of his gospel I can deny bitterness any foothold, running instead to the LORD for hope and joy. I know that God is using this trial for the good of those who love him.

He’s done it before.

Bitterness and Blessing

Thanks be to God! Because of his gospel I can deny bitterness any foothold, running instead to the LORD for hope and joy.

In Exodus 15, the elation that Israel felt at the scene of God’s great victory over Pharaoh by the Red Sea wilts into worry and despair as they are led through the desert for 3 days without water.

Three days without water threatens the young and the frail and tests the faith of the people. When at last they find water, relief turns to despair as the water is marah, bitter (15:23).

And by the marah water, the marah hearts of the Israelites flow out in grumbling against Moses and the LORD: “what are we to drink? (15:24)” How quickly God’s people forget the one who moved an ocean for them.

How then does God respond to their lack of faith? Not with due anger or marah of his own. He responds to their bitterness with blessing.

A glimpse of Eden-like blessing comes in an etz (“a log”, in other places translated as “tree” and connected to Tree of Life imagery throughout scripture) which Moses casts into the water to make it sweet (15:25a). The LORD then tests the people, calling them to pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees (15:25b-26). If they do, they will enjoy the blessings of relationship with Jehovah-Rapha, “the LORD who heals you.” Finally, God provides an even greater Edenic blessing, settling the people at the oasis at Elim, by twelve springs of sweet water and seventy palm trees (15:27). Bitter human hearts are met with blessing from God’s hand.

This brief story reveals a deliberate, carefully crafted test for Israel by a God resolved to bless them.

It is no accident that the people travel for 3 days without water, only to find bitter water which exposes their bitter hearts.

This etz at the waters of Marah is not only God’s instrument of blessing, but also his instrument of testing. In Eden, the etz of Life stood next to the etz of Knowing Good and Evil, the tree of testing.

The oasis at Elim is a fleeting taste of the abundant riches on offer to Israel if they trust the LORD.

God is testing his people.

Why Does God Test Us?

Perhaps, like me, you wonder: why does God test his people? Why does God test me?

Does he not know what his people do in these situations of testing? Does he test us to perform a quick health check, or to assign a grade to our faith?

When God tests you and me, it’s for us … ‘There is no University for a Christian like that of sorrow and trial.’

Thank God, that is not what he is like. Indeed, the outstanding feature of this narrative (and others like it) is the intentional, expert, patient grace of God to test his people in order to grow them.

It’s for them. God’s testing, as arduous as it felt for these people and feels for us, is an expression of his intimate, enduring, fatherly love.

Spurgeon wrote of Exodus 15:

Israel gained by education. The Lord was not going to lead a mob of slaves into Canaan, to go and behave like slaves there. They had to be tutored. The wilderness was the Oxford and Cambridge for God’s students. There they went to the University, and he taught and trained them, and they took their degree before they entered into the promised land.

And though the experience often blinds us to the meaning, when God tests you and me, it’s for us. Spurgeon concluded: “there is no University for a Christian like that of sorrow and trial.”

This year of pandemic-plagued ministry and life has included many unexpected new tests. Each day, each zoom call, each lonely Sunday, each frustration and disappointment presents a new test of faith.

But friends, don’t despair. God is working all things for the good of those who love him!

Testing and Transformation

I have seen God working good in my heart through the testing weeks of lockdown.

I have seen God working good through the weeks of lockdown … slowly, gently, God has been testing and working on my heart

Through the early months of the pandemic, I found myself distracted from God, more likely to find my mind occupied with Tiger King or daily case numbers than with the LORD. But slowly, gently, God has been testing and working on my heart, showing me the futility of distractions and drawing my heart closer to his.

I feel more desperate for God’s nearness and solace now. I find more comfort in his word now. I love my family better now.

As (recently-gone-to-glory) J.I. Packer wrote:

When we walk along a clear road feeling fine, and someone takes our arm to help us, likely we would impatiently shake him off; but when we are caught in rough country in the dark, with a storm brewing and our strength spent, and someone takes our arm to help us, we would thankfully lean on him.

God tests us that we would lean on him and find in him all we need. Treasure these words from James chapter 1:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

We meet testing with joy because we know that this is God’s chosen method to sanctify us.

We can meet testing with joy! Nothing could be further than the bitterness which took hold of the Israelites and threatens us.

We meet testing with joy because we know that this is God’s chosen method to sanctify us.

And we meet testing with joy because in our testing, we participate with Christ, the one whose own testing achieved salvation for us.

In his passion Christ endured loneliness, abandonment, ridicule and even death. Yet for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame to win salvation for us. In Christ’s moment of great testing, God was working with great power. And in our moments of great testing, God works in great power in us and through us.

So we can respond to our tests with joy. Not with marah bitterness, but with joy. Not with anger, but with trust. Not with despair, but with hope.

Friends, don’t lose heart, and don’t indulge bitterness. Instead, consider it joy as we face this trial together. Our Jehovah-Rapha, the Lord who heals us, is testing us, and he is doing it for our good.