There once lived an Israelite woman in the strange land of Moab. She and her family were driven there by famine (Ruth 1:1). She could have been happy there, with her husband and two sons. But then her husband dies (Ruth 1:3), and within ten years her two sons die (Ruth 1:5). Who would provide for her? Who would take care of her?
In those days, women were taken care of by husbands and sons. Now Naomi has neither. She is a foreigner in a new land with no family to turn to. Her last connection to Moab is her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. They have stayed to grieve with her and care for her.
But now they must figure out how to take care of themselves. Three women by themselves. Naomi knows she will barely be able to feed herself, much less two extra mouths. So she encourages them to return to their own families, deciding she had nothing to offer them (Ruth 1:11-13). She doesn’t think the Israelites will welcome these foreign women when she returns home, so she tells them to “go back … to your mother’s home” (Ruth 1:8). Back to their first home, where they have a chance at a new marriage and a hope of a future.
Orpah leaves (Ruth 1:14), turning away from the woman who has cared for her for ten years. But “Ruth clung to her” (Ruth 1:14). Maybe because she didn’t have a family waiting for her. Maybe because without Naomi she was alone in the world. Or maybe because in their ten years together Ruth came to love Naomi.
And maybe Ruth didn’t want to leave Naomi alone in her depression. Naomi took her loss very hard – “it is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me” (Ruth 1:13d). She was mad at God. She didn’t want to be the survivor of her family. She wanted her husband and sons back. She wanted her family to grow and to see grandchildren come along. She wanted to be happy, which meant being part of a couple or being a parent. And within a decade all of this was taken away from her. She saw herself as having nothing left. And her heart grew bitter. Her devotion grew cold. Her thoughts grew harsh.
There was no hope for the future. There were no thoughts of a new life. There was no care about having two devoted daughters-in-law. There was the bleakness and void of today and the hopelessness of the future – “Turn back, my daughters, go—for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, if I should have a husband tonight and should also bear sons, 13 would you wait for them till they were grown? Would you restrain yourselves from having husbands? No, my daughters …” (Ruth 1:12-13).
She was bitter. And she brought that bitterness, along with Ruth, back to her homeland of Bethlehem. When she arrives, her friends greet her with excitement. But she cannot meet, match, or handle their happiness and joy. So she tells her friends “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 I went out full, and the Lord has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?” (Ruth 1:20-21).
She is so consumed by her unhappiness that she tells her friends “do not call me pleasant”. Naomi the pleasant one has been buried in Moab with her family. Naomi the pleasant one does not exist anymore, for she has been overcome and absorbed by her grief. No longer am I Naomi, the woman of God. Now I am Mara, the woman of bitterness. Now I am Mara, a woman of sorrow. Now I am Mara, a woman consumed by loss.
And I realized driving down the interstate last night that I could be called Mara. Just like Naomi. My pain is not as all-consuming. My grief is not as all-encompassing. But I am bitter. It was a hard truth to realize, but it is truth. I am bitter, which is not making me better. I am bitter, which is not making my relationships better. I am bitter, which is stagnating my emotional and spiritual growth.
And the more I say it, the sooner the healing process can begin. Because as long as I cling to my bitterness, I will not get better. As long as I continue to root the bitterness in my heart, I will not grow or change. As long as I rehash the wrong, the bitterness will continue to grow and blossom, suffocating all the good emotions, thoughts, and habits.
So I am Mara. I am bitter. I am holding grudges against my coworkers for not being perfect. For constantly accusing me of things I feel are inaccurate or outright wrong. For choosing to have confrontations instead of conversations, which only led to more frustration and hard feelings. For putting up the walls of “I’m always right” and “you’re always wrong” and staying firmly behind them, never admitting error or fault. For taking sides and not making the tension better. For conviction without facts. For a lot of little things that went unaddressed.
And here’s what I realized this morning. Bitterness doesn’t do anything for me except keep me down. Bitterness doesn’t produce the things I need in my life – “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control” (Ephesians 5:22-23).
Bitterness overrides love to focus on me instead of others.
Bitterness steals joy by focusing on wrongs instead of blessings.
Bitterness destroys peace by consuming us with regret, anxiety, and pain.
Bitterness keeps us from enduring through the trials to find victory on the other side.
Bitterness prevents us from being kind to people, especially when they need it most.
Bitterness stops us from seeing God’s goodness in our lives and sharing it with others.
Bitterness impedes our faithfulness to forgive and be obedient.
Bitterness hardens our heart so we cannot be gentle and patient with others.
Bitterness blocks us from keeping ourselves in line and being God-focused with our reactions, habits, thoughts, and emotions.
Bitterness is not God’s best for us. Bitterness is not God’s purpose for us. Bitterness is not God’s future for us.
So what happened to Naomi? God loved her and brought her back to Him through her daughter-in-law Ruth. Ruth took care of her and provided for her, loving her back to life. And in the process, Ruth found and married one of Naomi’s relatives, Boaz. And when Ruth has her son Obed, Naomi is redeemed from her bitterness: “13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and when he went in to her, the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a close relative; and may his name be famous in Israel! 15 And may he be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her bosom, and became a nurse to him.” (Ruth 4:13-16).
God redeems her bitterness for blessing, giving her the family she thought she lost through Ruth. The woman declared to be “better to you than seven sons”. The woman who could have left Naomi truly alone in Moab but chose instead to walk with her instead of away from her. The woman who chose to love Naomi like a mother despite their differences.
And because Ruth chose to stay with Naomi, God restores Naomi’s faith through her grandson Obed. Naomi becomes his nurse, taking care of both him and Ruth, and probably thanking God each step of the way for not leaving her.
For even in our bitterness God is waiting for us. He is waiting for us – with open arms – to throw it down and run to Him. To let it go and embrace Him instead. To choose something better than the pain of the past.
So are you bitter? Are you ready to work on it, like I am? For I want to blossom with God’s fruit instead of being bogged down with bitterness. For bitterness won’t make me better, and I want to grow and change into the great things God has planned for me. So I will continue to walk with Him, and with each step I will leave Mara behind.
Marie Fremin, 1/10/16