The Bitter Root of Suffering

John Bailey

Many biblical figures go through horrific circumstances, so why does God bring his people through incredible pain? 

Everybody loves the story of God bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. We’ve got all of the plagues and these dramatic signs of God’s power, then nearly two million slaves are set free. The pharaoh of Egypt changes his mind about letting them go last minute and chases them to the Red Sea, then God splits the sea in half, and his people escape through it only to have these walls of water smash in on the Egyptian army pursuing them. It’s an epic story!

There’s an important verse before all of that, which we often miss. “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8, ESV). Joseph was an Old Testament archetype of Jesus Christ, and here we have a nation’s ruler who didn’t know him. It’s a hint that there’s a whole generation of people who didn’t really know Joseph and, through him, the God that he served. We’ll come back to that. It’s important.

So the nation of Israel is set free in epic style, but then the narrative gets a little confusing for some people. God promised all of these people who had been slaves all of their lives a beautiful land that would be their own. He promised the lead them to this place; they wouldn’t even have to find it on their own. Before that, however, he made them wander in the desert for 40 years.

You see, he needed to get the culture and spirit of Egypt out of his people before they came into the place he’d promised them. If he hadn’t, the Israelites would’ve walked into the promised land with all of the habits and culture and beliefs of a generation who had forgotten Joseph and didn’t know God’s nature. The same is often true for us as modern day believers. This life of the Holy Spirit is the life that we’ve been called to as followers of Christ. However, if we try to bring the lifestyle and ways of pharaoh and the world into our dealings with God, we’re going to run into trouble.

Often God leads us into hard places in order to work out problems in our view of him and life. 

Let’s look back at the people of Israel. Right after they left Egypt, the Bible says, “Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (Exodus 15:22-24).

I go maybe three hours without water and realize how thirsty I am; I can’t even imagine going three days without water in a hot desert. The first pool of water they come to, I’m sure they got excited; but it turns out to be poisoned, spoiled water. Now if you’re already thirsty and mad, imagine where you’d be at this point. Imagine the disappointment and frustration. Sometimes we think God has a dark sense of humor; but in those situations, I find he’s usually trying to deal with some serious issues in our lives.

Even more importantly, look what the people of Israel did next. They complained against Moses. He’s over 80 years old now, and he’s been walking right along with them and having no water for three days too. He was probably saying, “You think I’m not thirsty too?” That’s what happens, though, when we find bitter pools inside of our hearts. We start blaming and fighting with other people, and some of those people may not have any real fault in the situation. Instead of looking to God and asking, “What are you trying to teach me here?”, we blame other people for our difficulties.

I’ve seen how this issue pops up in marriage counseling. There’ll be two young people fighting and blaming one another, and they’ll both tell me that the ‘real problem’ in their marriage is the other person. Once we start digging into the issues, though, I often find that there is bitterness and undealt-with pain in one or both of them that stretches back into their history with family or other people in their lives. Instead of feeling the pain of their situation and asking what God wants to reveal to them, they blame the nearest person. 

Look at how Moses responds to the crisis with Israel. “And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log (or a tree), and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet” (Exodus 15:25). This is actually an incredible picture of the cross, and the power Christ has to bitterness and worldly thinking in our lives.

When you process the issues of life through the cross, that’s when God takes away the bitterness and gives you peace.

There’s another story in the Bible that brings this idea even closer to a personal level. In the book of Ruth, we hear about a woman named Naomi, and her husband dies, and then her two sons die. I don’t know if you’re someone who has lost a spouse or a child, but there’s probably no deeper hurt than this grief. To make matters worse, if they humanly could be, a widow in that culture who had lost her sons had also lost her protection and livelihood. Her daughter-in-law Ruth stayed with her, but the way Naomi began processing this grief was asking herself “Who is my enemy? Who is causing me this pain?”

We see her answer here: “So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’ She said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’” (Ruth 1:19-21).

Sometimes our bitterness can be directed at the Lord. Now I believe in the sovereignty of God and that, as horrible as these circumstances in Naomi’s life had been, God wanted to bring her back into his promised land and bring her daughter-in-law into a new kind of life. When you’re trekking through life’s hardships, though, it’s hard to see even the possibility of a bigger plan. We become bitter at God. Like Naomi, we start to look back at our lives and interpret all the events in it as God punishing or being cruel to us.

We might start thinking, “God, why did you let me marry this man or woman? Why did you bring me to this miserable job? Why did you make our wonderful neighbors move out and now there’s hooligans living next door? God, why did you take me to this terrible place?” 

In those moments, we have to remember that God never leads us to a place unless there’s a plan he wants to make us part of or something very important that he wants to do in our lives. If you know the rest of the story in Ruth, you know that Ruth meets Boaz who is a wealthy man. He marries Ruth, and Naomi starts to see glimpses of the plan God had in mind all along. She starts to see her life through a different lens, one of God guiding and providing.

Maybe God is working through the hard events of your life to reveal something important about himself that you need to hold in your heart.

I think every one of us could talk for hours about all the times that we were treated unfairly or found ourselves in the middle of brutal circumstances. There have been times where I’ve said, “Hey, why are you marginalizing me? Why are you defining me by my past or my hurts or the mistakes I’ve made?” When I was in my twenties, especially before I was a believer, I struggled with bitterness for my family and the way that I was raised. I had to realize that the people in my life who didn’t have time for the kid down the hall were dealing with a lot of pain in themselves. In one way or another, we’ve all been there.

Can I tell you, though, that there’s so much relief in letting the cross fall into that bitter lake and make the water sweet? God, if you let him, will work through some of your darkest experiences, memories you struggle to return to without pain. Out of them, he will forge something so rich and pure in you. 

I love the end of the story of Ruth. She married Boaz and had a son, then we read, “The women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.’ …And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David” (Ruth 4:14-17). This boy was the grandfather of King David, another archetype of Christ in the Bible. God led Naomi through her pain and affliction into this redemption story of the Messiah.

No matter how difficult and bitter the past has been, God can do a miracle and bring us through if we will just process our pain through the light of the cross.