When you have to drink from the bitter cup
The Israelites had escaped the Egyptians and were in the desert at a place called Marah. It was called Marah which means “bitter” because the only water there was bitter. Been there? Been to that place where you’re dying of thirst and the only option available to you tastes bitter? Maybe you’re out of work and the only options available are bad jobs for minimal pay. Or you need a place to live and, like Jesus, there’s really no place to lay your head. Maybe you’re lonely and the only options for companionship are people you don’t really like to spend your time with. You get the picture. You want to be grateful, perhaps, because there is a watering hole…but you just can’t get past the fact that it tastes bitter. VERY bitter. Maybe even undrinkably (totally a word) bitter.
What did the Israelites do in that situation? They didn’t thank God for His provision, regrettably. They did what we usually do (and what we usually do, if we are honest)—they complained. And they told God they didn’t like that cup, they wanted to drink from a different one. Not the one God had provided in bringing them out of slavery to a place called Marah, or even a different one that He could provide. Nope – they asked for the old cup, the one they used to drink from, the one of the past, of slavery in Egypt.
They were headed toward the Promised Land. God had good things in store—“a land flowing with milk and honey.” They just weren’t there yet. Meanwhile, they were at a place of bitter provision. Provision, but it was hard to swallow. Not what they had in mind…any of it. There was the future plan which they had some inkling of, but then there was also the plan for the moment. And that plan involved God bringing them to a hard place and showing them His power to provide for their needs. God’s plan was to change the bitter to sweet. He had a plan to change the substance of the water, not the circumstances that held it. He wasn’t planning to take them to a new, better watering-hole. He was planning to change the water in that hole. What they had right then and there was enough. Like His grace, it was sufficient. He told Moses to throw a stick in the water and it was changed to sweet, drinkable water.
So often we want God to change our circumstances, our watering hole, our cup, so to speak. We want a different option to choose, when maybe God wants to make the bitter option available to us sweet. Maybe we don’t need to be asking for a new option. Maybe we need to ask God to make what we have palatable. Maybe we need to ask God to show us that we “already have everything that we need for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Maybe we need Him to show us that He, His grace and His provision is already sufficient because His power is made perfect in weakness (our own, the weakness of our circumstances, etc.) (2 Corinthians 12:9).
To be fair, the water in Marah really wasn’t drinkable. But that’s no obstacle to God. They weren’t just being spoiled little Israelites who wanted a latte instead of water. (That came later, when they got tired of the sweet bread, manna, that they had every day—and God was gracious and heard their grumbling complaints and responded with quail.) I don’t know if you’re acting spoiled and not being grateful for what you have or if what you have really isn’t palatable in the first place. Personally, I find I fit into both categories at times. It really doesn’t matter. The response we ought to have is the same. Gratitude and petition, as Philippians 4:6 states. We present our requests to God with grateful, humble asking. Grateful for what He gives; grateful for what He can do.
God can change our cups, and sometimes He does, but often, what He wants to change is the actual substance of our water…and the substance of our hearts. He wants to teach us gratitude and contentment rather than giving us the “more” we are asking for. It’s possible that we won’t really appreciate the “more” until our hearts change anyway. Paul learned to be content in all things, all circumstances. Maybe that’s because he learned to ask God to make the bitter water sweet, rather than simply asking for a different cup to drink.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to say, as Jesus did, “Father, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). Sometimes that’s the right thing. I’m just suggesting that first off, we ought not to complain. (Don’t we get that by now???? Why is that so hard?!) And second, if Jesus says, drink from this cup and we find the water bitter, we can ask him to sweeten it. The cup didn’t pass from Jesus, but He endured “for the joy set before Him”. I’m not saying it wasn’t still hard, but certainly, joy is a sweet thing. Sometimes God offers quail and/or takes us into the Promised Land, and sometimes He keeps us where we are and simply sweetens the water. Both are reason for praise and thanks.