The people were parched and weary. After three days of walking in the Wilderness of Shur, they still hadn’t found water. Finally discovering a small spring, they stooped eagerly to scoop the refreshing liquid into their dehydrated bodies, not caring if it ran down their beards or soaked their dirty robes. But, there was a problem: “they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah. And the people complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ 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.” (Exodus 15:23b-25a, NKJV)
The Israelites’ first reflex always seemed to be negative, despite the miracles they witnessed and God’s constant provision for them. Any time they experienced a difficulty they reacted with grumbling. The water they couldn’t drink at Marah was bitter, just like their attitudes.
Conversely, we see God demonstrating His patience with them each time Moses cried out with humility asking for help. God took their bitter water and made it sweet. There is no mention of the Israelites showing gratitude to God for performing this miracle.
This story illustrates a truth we can apply to our own lives: living through seasons of hardship can make us bitter people or better people. The choice is ours, but the decision affects all the people in our lives. Each stop on a journey through the wilderness presents a new opportunity to learn, grow and trust God, if we are willing. Priscilla Shirer explains, “This is what God does when we cry out to Him, displaying our vulnerability during seasons of distress and giving Him our need for emotional healing in the face of disappointment. He is the One who can turn the bitter into the sweet.” (One in a Million, p. 65)
I can think of no better example of God making bitter things sweet than Corrie Ten Boom’s classic tale The Hiding Place. It takes place during World War II and tells the story of two unmarried Dutch sisters in their mid-fifties who are sent to Nazi concentration camps after being caught hiding Jews. There are times when I’ve been reading the story aloud to my son that I’ve paused to blink back tears and swallow the lump in my throat. I’m in awe of the example set by Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom.
At one point near the end of the book, the sisters are moved to Ravensbruck, a notorious women’s extermination camp in Germany. As they are ushered into their quarters in Barracks 28, they discover a cavernous room housing four times as many women as it was designed to hold. Corrie describes the scene: “Our noses told us, first, that the place was filthy: somewhere plumbing had backed up, the bedding was soiled and rancid. Then as our eyes adjusted to the gloom we saw that there were no individual beds at all, but great square piers stacked three high, and wedged side by side, and end to end with only an occasional narrow aisle slicing through.” (The Hiding Place p. 208)
As the sisters attempt to settle into their new living situation, Corrie laments to her sister, “Betsie, how can we live in such a place?” It takes Corrie a moment to realize Betsie’s answer is a prayer: “Show us. Show us how.” (p. 208) Within moments Betsie remembers a familiar passage of Scripture and realizes it is the answer to her prayer: “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all. See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14-18 NKJV)
The two sisters marvel at how fitting the passage from First Thessalonians is for their situation and feel it is God’s Word meant especially for them. Rather than being bitter about their horrific circumstances, they begin to thank God, naming specific things for which they can be grateful. First they thank Him that their captors have not separated them and that they are able to endure their trials together. Next, they thank Him for the tiny New Testament they were able to smuggle into the camp. They also thank Him for their cramped living quarters, which will give them ample opportunities to share the hope of His Word with their bunkmates. However, when Betsie suggests they even thank God for the fleas in the bunks, Corrie says “There’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.” (p. 210).
Their first night in the barracks, the two sisters listen in distress as “among exhausted, ill-fed people, quarrels [erupt] constantly.” Betsie clasps Corrie’s hand and prays: “Lord Jesus, send Your peace into this room. There has been too little praying here. The very walls know it. But where You come Lord, the spirit of strife cannot exist…” (p. 211).
Over the subsequent weeks the sisters begin sharing the hope of God’s love with anyone who wants to listen. They hold nightly worship services where women gather around their bunk eagerly awaiting the next portion of the New Testament they’ll read aloud. The atmosphere in the barracks slowly changes as Betsie’s prayer is answered and the women replace their quarreling with love and support.
The two sisters are cautious about advertising their nightly “church service,” fearing they’ll be found out by their Nazi captors. However, they grow bolder as the days pass and they realize the bunkroom never seems to be patrolled. They are mystified but grateful for their freedom in the barracks.
One day, Betsie discovers the reason none of the Nazi guards will enter their quarters: it’s because of the fleas. Corrie says “My mind rushed back to our first hour in this place. I remembered Betsie’s bowed head, remembered her thanks to God for creatures I could see no use for.” (p. 220) Realizing that God deserves thanks even for the fleas leaves Corrie in awe of His attentiveness to every detail.
The Ten Boom sisters could waste their time lamenting their circumstances and being angry with God for allowing them to be arrested for their good works. Yet, they choose to thank Him in the midst of their trials. Rather than turning inward to fixate on self-pity or simple survival, they choose to participate in expandiing God’s kingdom in a place that would rival hell itself. They care for the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of their fellow prisoners. They even pray for their ruthlessly cruel guards.
It’s humbling and inspiring to read about these two women. What an incredible impact they had because they chose to become better people instead of bitter ones in the midst of their trials.
Between the example of the Israelites and the Ten Booms, it seems clear that grumbling and negativity lead to an attitude of bitterness that infects others. Conversely, gratefulness and a positive perspective are blessings to others and expand our opportunities to have a positive impact on them. The Apostle Paul describes this in his letter to the Philippians:
“Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” (Philippians 2:14-16, NIV)
In spite of their horrific wilderness experience, Betsie and Corrie Ten Boom shined like stars in their generation as they held firmly to the word of life. I’d like to do the same in my generation, how about you?
Laura Story’s Song “Make Something Beautiful” captures the essence of letting God use our hardships to honor Him and bless others. Click on the link below to enjoy the song.
Shirer, Priscilla; One in a Million: Journey to Your Promised Land; Lifeway Press; 2009, 2014.
Ten Boom, Corrie (with Elizabeth and John Sherrill); The Hiding Place; Chosen Books; 1971, 1984, 2006.