This week, we take a little tangential detour from the main story, and focus on the inner workings of one our our key characters, Naomi.
(A) How it happens/who it happens to: bitterness comes from how we reason through circumstances, Christians are not immune from it (Ruth 1:19-21)
As we have learnt from previous studies and Ruth 1, Naomi and Ruth come to Bethlehem after many things have happened -- the death of their husbands, and after Orpah leaves them. Naomi had originally moved to Moab due to a famine in Israel, but now with the deaths and the need to survive, she moves back to the home of Elimelech, who we are told was from the tribe of Judah in Bethlehem. Verse 19 record for us the response of the town to their return.
How does Naomi react? Here, we learn that a common tool that Bible writers use to ascribe additional meaning to Bible people through their names. Names are important in some narratives, as they often carry aspirational dimensions to it. It is not that much different from us today. For Naomi, her original name meant "pleasant", carrying with it connotations of life’s beauty and even fullness and blessing (Ruth 1:20a). Yet, after he suffering she no longer saw her life and herself as such, choosing instead to rename herself ‘Mara’, which means "bitter" (Ruth 1:20b). It is not hard to see that this reveals her posture and attitude to life – for Naomi, her identity was wrapped up in her suffering and bitterness. In fact, in verse 21, she explains her sorrow. To her, she left Bethlehem full, but has now she has returned empty. Naomi's words of sorrow are powerfully represented in the setting changes in Ruth 1, from a life to death, and harvest to famine.
Naomi refers to God in specific ways in verse 21, referring to him as "the Almighty" and "the LORD". In the former, she sees his sovereignty and rightful authority over all things and all events, and indeed it is this kind of God that has brought calamity into her life at this point. To her too, the LORD has "testified against" her, and delivered a verdict on her life as a judge would. Here, we get a hint of Naomi’s admission of her own sin as a possible cause of her suffering.
The main lesson we learn about bitterness here is that Naomi’s bitterness arose because she was not interpreting her life neutrally. Was her life bad? Probably, and she had gone through great hardship. But as we are led to see, her bitterness arose from despair and blindness to the blessings she had. Her bitterness sprung up and took root not because of the objective occurrence of certain events, but developed and grew more as a result of her subjective interpretation of these events. How are you interpreting the events of your life? Could God be using your suffering for something in His purposes and plans? Or are you miserable because the events of your life are not following your purposes and plans? What’s the real true story here? How have you interpreted your life?
This of course leads to another theological question. Some of us might wonder, that if God is almighty and sovereign, why does He allow His people to suffer, and even become bitter? The Bible generally records for us two kinds of bitterness, each with their own cause and purpose with a certain outcome.
Bitterness from sin (c.f. Isa 38:17). There is a cause and a purpose -- sin. It is meant for loving discipline. It is meant to lead to repentance, and therefore works out ultimately for our good!
Bitterness not from sin (c.f. Job). There is no cause but there is a purpose! It arises out of mystery but is meant for loving sanctification, to make us holy. It is meant for our refinement, like how metal is purified through a fire! It leads us to solace in God and draws us closer to Him.
Whatever the type of bitterness that you are struggling with today, Naomi's story remind us, that Bible people dealt with suffering and pain like we do too.
(B) Why it’s deadly: bitterness blinds and maims us to relationship and hope (Ruth 1: 22)
If we look at verse 22 and consider the reality of the situation, is Naomi's circumstance utterly helpless and without hope? For a start, she was not alone! She had Ruth, who stuck with her and pledged allegiance to death even though she did not need to (Ruth 1:15-18). In her bitterness, she focused on the things that she had lost, and was blind to the person that she still had. Naomi shows us that when we interpret life and our circumstances through bitter lenses, we are also blind to the people and relationships that God has put around us as good and perfect gifts from above.
The last part of verse 22 also mentions the barley harvest. In a contrast with the famine that marked the opening verses of Ruth, this harvest signaled the beginning of hope. Naomi could not see that she has returned to a place to which fullness is also returning to!
Bitterness blinds us, and it also takes root in our hearts and clogs it and leads to other related diseases -- self-justifying sin (rationalising it with "why me" or "haven't I done enough, God?", alienation, hatred of others and resentment (comparing with others, especially on social media these days), cynicism and doubtful of anything good. Indeed it is a serious sin. What is God saying to you today through Naomi's story in the book of Ruth? Whatever you are going through, do you see that God has still blessed all our lives? Matt 5:45 reminds us that the rain and sunshine are common grace gifts that God pours out onto this world!
Verse 22 also signals to us, that despite her bitterness and struggles, in God's great plan of redemption, not only for the world but also for her life and heart, Naomi was brought back to Bethlehem specifically in this allotted time and period, so that she can reach out and find him. As the story progress, we'll see more of the wonderful work that He is doing in all their lives.
(C) How to respond: receiving grace that truly heals
In this study, we watched a video of a sharing done by Joni Eareckson Tada, titled "A Deeper Healing". She shares her struggle living as a quadriplegic and cancer survivor. She wanted so much to be healed, to be like the man by the pool in John 5, but God seemed to say no, and bitterness set in. Along the way, however, God began to show her that He was interested in a deeper healing -- healing her heart instead.
In our struggles, we may feel that God is distant, or like Naomi, we think that He is against us. When He says no to us, we may take it to mean that He does not love us or understand us. The cure for our bitterness, anxiety, disappointment and cynicism, is not resolve to think happier thoughts, or to work harder. It is to pause and consider the objective truth that God has sent His Son into our world, to live and suffer, and bear the judgment for our sins on the cross in our place. He loved us enough not to leave us in our sin and road to destruction, and He loved us enough not to send anyone else but came down Himself. Our security in this love and grace is not just for eternity, for that day in the future when we see Him again, but is also for today, in the struggles of this broken world. What if we are left in poverty? But we have Christ! What is we live a life of mediocrity, not achieving much in the eyes of the world? But if we have Christ, what more do we need? What if He calls you to a life of singleness? Christ is more than enough!
May our struggles drive us, not to blind bitterness and resentment, but deeper love and knowledge of jesus Christ, as we learn to share in the fellowship of His suffering.