Life in this fallen, broken world can be very hard, even dangerous at times. Therefore, we all face various kinds of bitter tasting experiences. That’s what we began thinking about in the last post. Today, I draw your attention to two more levels of biblical awareness that will help you to uproot bitterness in your heart.
Be Aware of the Reality of Bitter Tasting Affliction
In the Old Testament, we meet a woman who experiences a great deal of pain and loss. Her birth name is Naomi, but later in life she asks people to call her Mara, which means bitter. Why is that? What bitter tasting affliction brought such pain into her life? How did she get to this point? Before we rush to harsh judgment, let’s try to put ourselves in her shoes.
The affliction begins when famine prompts a man to move his wife and two sons fifty miles east, from Bethlehem to Moab—from the land of promise to the land of pagans. While in Moab, all three men die (Ruth 1:3-4). But before his sons die, they marry Moabite women. The Moabites were descendants of one of the incestuous unions of Abraham’s nephew Lot (Genesis 19:37) who then became the enemies of Israel and corrupted them with their abominations (2 Kings 23:13). Therefore, God’s law forbade their entrance to God’s assembly (Deuteronomy 23:3). The marrying of Moabite women was unwise due to the tendency of unbelieving wives to lead men of Israel into idolatry, the most obvious example being King Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-3). Knowing this, we may conclude that the family’s move to Moab was not a good one. But, as always, the Lord has a bigger purpose and plan in mind. Something beautiful is happening behind the scenes which no one in this family can see. —a plan that will bring redemption out of brokenness, and beauty out of ashes.
With all three men dead, Naomi reverses the direction that she and her husband had taken ten years earlier. She turns her back on the graves of her loved ones and heads home, making a clean break from the tragedy that had befallen them in Moab. On the way, she tells her daughters-in-law to return to their people, for the “hand of the Lord has gone out against me,” and pronounces a blessing of God’s kindness upon them (Ruth 1:8). Though Naomi’s faith struggled, she still knew that God was kind. And even though he had dealt bitterly with her, she ensures her daughters-in-law that he will be kind to them.
Though Naomi’s faith in the goodness and kindness of God toward herself waned, she understood the bedrock truth of God’s sovereignty in her times of trial. She was then able to tell others. However, knowing this is true and resting in it don’t always coincide equally. During bitter experiences, we may still doubt the Lord.
Be Aware of How Bitterness Operates in Your Heart
Naomi’s response to her afflictions reveal three ways bitterness operates inside us.
- Bitterness skews your view of yourself. “Is this Naomi?” the women in town ask the one who now wears a bitter countenance (Ruth 1:20a). “Don’t call me Naomi” (pleasantness, sweetness) Don’t call me Pleasant or Sweetness. Call me Bitter, Angry, the one who chafes under God’s discipline; call me Discontent. “Call me Mara” (bitter), the name given to the place in the wilderness known for its bitter water (Exodus 15:23). Bitterness is now more than Naomi’s experience. It now defines her. “Bitter” with an uppercase B is her new name. The sweet and pleasant woman loved by Jehovah is now the bitter one of Bethlehem because bitterness skewed her view of herself. When bitter tasting affliction overtakes you, it is tempting to let your suffering define you. Naomi took her eyes off the beautiful truth that she is a beloved one of Jehovah with whom God made a covenant. She he decided that what defined her is no longer that she is beloved by God, but her suffering. She allowed her suffering to define her. Are you ever tempted to do the same, to let the pain you are going through define you? But that is not who you are. In Christ, you are a beloved child of God. and who you are in him is what defines who you are.
- Bitterness causes you to forget God’s goodness. We know that Naomi’s response to her bitter experiences is not what it ought to have been because of how her view of herself and God changed. The “hand of the Lord has gone out against me” (v. 13), and the “Almighty has brought calamity upon me” (v. 20). Now the only thing about God that she can see is the pain that he has brought into her life. Her view of God has become extremely narrow. She has lost her beautiful, wide-angled view of God and his goodness, kindness, and purpose in all things. Now, she can only see a God who has brought horrible pain into her life. God is only against me. My suffering defines me. So, I’m going to change my name. Bitter victim is now who I am. She forgot who God is. When you are experiencing bitter suffering, are you tempted to do the same, to forget God’s character and goodness?
- Bitterness will exaggerate your suffering, thus blinding you from seeing God’s blessings. Naomi interpreted her suffering as proof that God was against her, which was not the case. Numerous Scriptures testify to the fact that some suffering enters our lives without any connection to us whatsoever (Job, John 9, 2 Cor. 12). If you interpret your relationship with based upon your experience, you will always go wrong. All you will see is your suffering and not God. This is what bitterness did inside me. All I could see were the wrongs committed against us. My inordinate focus on our pain resulted in my failing to fully appreciate the abundance of God’s blessings that were all around me, such as a family and congregation who loved me.
Naomi’s bitter experience resulted in a bitter spirit because she failed to interpret her suffering biblically. She failed to look at her loss through the lens of God’s goodness and kindness, that though he allows many painful difficulties into our lives, it is for the purpose of showing even more of how much he loves us. And how much he wants us to rest in him. Bitterness will produce cataracts over the eyes of your heart, preventing you from seeing God’s riches all around you. The same is true of us: Bitterness blinds our eyes to the good that God is accomplishing in our trials.
The end of the book of Ruth reveals how God so beautifully works behind the scenes in our times of bitter affliction. The suffering of one family in Bethlehem became the doorway through which the redemptive plan of God is put on display to the whole world would be brought to fruition in the gospel (Ruth 4:17; Matthew 1:1-6). This is the mystery of God’s providence as he works in, around, behind, through, over, and under all the bitter experiences we face in this life. He is so good. So gracious.
Life is filled with bitter tasting experiences, but pain and loss don’t have to define us or turn our hearts bitter. We don’t have to respond like Naomi, who resisted God because his plan differed from hers—because her life turned out differently than she expected. Instead, like Ruth, we can respond in humble, childlike faith and rely on him to provide and show us the way. Our response to life’s turnarounds will make us bitter or it will make us better. The choice is ours.