When the Bitter Things Become Sweet


A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. – Juliet

Trying to convince her family that Romeo’s lineage didn’t matter, young Juliet proclaimed this familiar quote. But is it really true?

When I was pregnant with our third girl, I wondered about this concept as Paul and I contemplated names. I couldn’t help but ponder over the relationship between names and legacies in the Bible. Jacob means deceiver, and that was his destiny until God broke his heart and changed his name to Israel. Abram became Abraham, Simon was called Peter, and on and on. The reason for my consideration was that our two young daughters, ages 2 and 4, were both very …ahem…dramatic, you could say, which left me dreaming of a peaceful 3rd child. I wondered if I could give our new baby a name to encourage that attribute.  After searching countless name websites, I still couldn’t find one that resonated. Then, somehow, I started thinking of the name Mary. Hmm. Sounds peaceful. The hubby agreed.  However, being students of the Bible we knew that Mara- the root word- meant bitter. Maybe you know the story. In the book of Ruth, Naomi’s husband and two sons had died causing her to raise her voice crying,  “Call me Mara- for I am bitter!”

No, I thought. This can’t be true.

I mean, what about Mary at Bethany, the woman that sat at the feet of Jesus?

Obviously peaceful.

And then there was Mary the sister of Martha, the one who just soaked in Jesus’ presence.

Sounds peaceful.

And last but obviously not least, there was Mary, the mother of Jesus. We have all seen the pictures. She looks positively serene!

So we named our forthcoming baby Mary and hoped for the best.  As her due date passed by with no baby in sight, we continued to wait in anticipation, until finally, she was born seven days “late” yet right on time, as if just to confirm her name. Yes, our Mary was BORN ON CHRISTMAS!

However, 10 years later, with a daughter named Mary that I wouldn’t necessarily describe as “serene” I had another thought. Maybe God didn’t pick a quiet, reserved, “peaceful” woman to raise his Son. Maybe God in all His sovereignty knew that this chosen woman would need a little spunk to walk the path carved out for her. Maybe she would need more spice than usual to endure a weight too great for a typically timid lady. She would be maligned, misunderstood, and mistreated as she watched the Christ-child grow into a man, wondering if the words she heard as a young woman would ever come true. Where was His throne, and why was there a cross?

One day I spoke with a woman named Mary I had known for decades. This Mary was notorious for her smile and joyful disposition.  As I shared with her the story of my own Mary’s name, she could relate. She shared with me that knowing her name was related to bitterness used to really bother her until she learned another fact that brought everything into focus. The same root word is also used for the herb myrrh. Myrrh is bitter, this is true, however it is only bitter until it is broken . After it is broken it brings forth a sweet fragrance. This special herb also has a unique response to heat. Instead of liquefying and melting, it blooms and expands. Another translation for the word “bitter” is strength. Yes, Mary, the mother of our Savior, would require much strength. She would experience deep brokenness,  and come forth sweet. The heat would be turned up beyond belief, yet instead of melting and disintegrating she would be called to bloom and expand.

While Mary’s position was unique, this same strength is available to us all.

Maybe you have heard Jesus referred to as the balm of Gilead. This balm was an aromatic, medicinal substance made from the same plant from which myrrh is derived. The Bible uses the term “balm of Gilead” metaphorically as an example of something with healing or soothing powers.

Jeremiah 8 records God’s warning to Judah of what Babylon would do to them. Upon hearing the news, Jeremiah laments, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” (verse 22). His question is a poetic search for hope—a plea for healing.

Jesus is our healing.  If your life feels broken, He will make it sweet. When the heat is turned up, He will keep you from melting away. Yes, the joy of the Lord is our strength.

How lost was my condition
Till Jesus made me whole;
There is but one Physician
Can cure a sin-sick soul

There is a balm in Gilead,
To make the wounded whole;
There’s power enough in heaven
To cure a sin-sick soul.

Next door to death he found me
And snatch’d me from the grave,
To tell to all around me
His wondrous power to save.

The worst of all diseases,
Is light compared with sin-
On every part it seizes,
But rages most within.

At length this great Physician-
How matchless is His grace-
Accepted my petition,
And undertook my case.

First gave me sight to view him,
For sin my eyes had sealed-
Then bid me look unto him;
I looked and I was healed!!!!

A dying, risen Jesus,
Seen by the eye of faith,
At once from danger frees us,
And saves the soul from death.

Come then to this Physician,
His help he’ll freely give;
He makes no hard condition,
’Tis only look and live.

There is a balm in Gilead,
To make the wounded whole;
There’s power enough in heaven
To cure a sin-sick soul.- John Newton 1899

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