When studying the book of Ruth, the title character often receives much of the attention. But there are some powerful lessons we can learn from Naomi’s story, too.
Her story begins in Bethlehem, which literally means “house of bread”. A great famine seizes the land and we are immediately struck with the irony: famine has come to the house of bread. This, of course, foreshadows the emptiness that Naomi is going to experience.
Though the land is plagued with famine, Naomi leaves “full” – she has her husband, Elimelech and her two sons and she is headed toward a land unaffected by drought and plague. In Moab, her sons marry. But before this happens, her husband dies. Some time later, her sons — both of them — pass away. Naomi’s emptiness begins here — the emptiness of loss.
Naomi, in the span of a few short verses, experiences several of the most profound losses in the human experience: the loss of a spouse and the loss of a child. She makes the decision to return home to Bethlehem, which is no accident. Although the text never makes it explicit, God is certainly up to something when Naomi decides to move back home.
Bethlehem is the place where the kinsman-redeemer (Boaz) lives. Moving ahead in the Story, Bethlehem will also be the birthplace of the Kings, first David, and then Jesus.
Returning home when we feel empty is a natural impulse. But listen to what Naomi says when she arrives: “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune on me.” (1:20-21)
Two things we can say about this:
- Naomi is honest about her circumstances. Brutally honest, we might say. But this is not a criticism. She’s right — she has experienced tragedy and hardship. She has lost her husband, both of her sons, and presumably, because she has no one to redeem her husband’s property, she has lost this as well. I don’t think we should see this as whining. In fact, it’s healthy for us to be honest about our circumstances. She’s not living in denial, not sticking her head in the sand. And we should also point out that this is not a rejection of God. She is still committed to God, despite these hardships. When we go through hard times, God welcomes our honest prayers. Read through Psalms and see how many of them are lament Psalms. However…
- Naomi has allowed her circumstances to make her bitter. This is the problem. It’s one thing to be honest about our situation; often times, there is nothing we can do about these circumstances. But bitterness is always a choice. It’s a choice to dwell in negativity. And this is Naomi’s issue. My mother used to say this, and maybe you’ve heard it before, too. “There are a lot of things that are out of your control; but you can always control how you react in any situation.” This is true. Naomi has chosen the lens of bitterness as a way of seeing her entire life, so much so that she basically changes her name. “Call me Mara” (which means bitter). Bitterness has overtaken her identity. This is the self-destructive danger of bitterness. What do you do when you taste something bitter? You spit it out, right? But what happens when you binge on bitterness? Is it possible that your spiritual “taste buds” get burned out and that all you can taste is bitterness at every turn? That seems to be what’s happened with Naomi.
Can you relate to that? Have you ever been “bitten” with “bitterness”?
How do you know you’re bitter? One of the indicators is, like Naomi, your self-perception becomes skewed by your bitterness. You’ve allowed these circumstances to swallow you whole, so that you don’t even know who you are anymore. You find a way to steer every conversation back toward your bitterness. If you’ve been there, then you’ve been bitten with bitterness.
The Bible has a great deal to say about bitterness:
Bitterness can blind us. Naomi’s bitterness blinds her to two realities:
- Naomi is blessed with a committed daughter-in-law.Naomi says she left Bethlehem full but she’s returned empty. But this isn’t true! She has a daughter-in-law who makes one of the strongest statements of loyalty you’ll find in the entire Bible! That’s why it’s read at nearly every wedding you go to! Let’s read it again: Where you go I will go and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die and there I will be buried. Ruth 1:16-17. Imagine how Ruth must’ve felt, hearing Naomi talk about her emptiness! But Naomi’s attitude does nothing to dissuade Ruth from being absolutely committed to Naomi’s well-being. It can be terribly difficult living with someone who is bitter. Our best advice might be to follow the example of Ruth — who seems to have chosen to love Naomi through her bitterness.
- Naomi is blessed with a committed God. Although Naomi maintains her faith in God, she also holds God responsible for her plight: 1:21, the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me. Deuteronomy 18:17-18: 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. In the OT Law, God makes a commitment to defend the defenseless. As a widow, Naomi would certainly qualify as one of these individuals in her culture. By returning to Bethlehem, Naomi enjoys the benefit of God’s provision in the Law — OT Law to allow widows, poor to glean the fields of the rich. This law is proof of God’s commitment to women just like Naomi and Ruth. But her bitterness has blinded her to the promise of God to stand by her side and defend her cause.
Bitterness grows over time.
The Hebrew writer describes bitterness as a dangerous root: Hebrews 12:15, See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. Often times you can’t see roots; they’re buried deep under the ground. But bitter roots bear bitter fruit. How does bitterness grow in your life?
It usually begins with disappointment / pain / sorrow from the loss of a loved one, a job, a social position, etc. This disappointment gradually hardens into resentment if its not dealt with properly. Disappointment accrues interest and the result is that resentment works its way deep into our heart and turns into bitterness.
None of us is immune to this process.
So what do we do about it?
We take great care to “weed out” bitterness by the grace of God.
When I’m bitter, it’s usually because I feel that I’ve been wronged. I feel that I have the right to hold on to something from the past, maintain a grudge over a past offense.
But grace teaches me that I don’t have that right. If I’ve partaken of the grace of God, then I lay down my right to lord these mistakes over you for the rest of your life.
Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Col. 3:13)
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Eph. 4:30-32)
The New Testament teaches that the key to overcoming bitterness is forgiveness. The sooner you can forgive, the less bitter you will become.
Finally, we can say that Bitterness can lead to sin.
- Bitterness has been called “emotional suicide”. It’s drinking poison while wishing someone else would die.
- But we should deal with our bitterness not only for the physical health benefits it could bring us — but spiritually speaking, holding on to bitterness can lead us into sin.
- Acts 8 – Peter and John travel to Samaria to lay hands on the new Christians there that they might receive the Holy Spirit. Powerful display of God’s power, confirms the expansion of the Kingdom to include the Samaritans — important fulfillment of Jesus’ mission He gives in Acts 1:8.
- But a man named Simon the Sorcerer, who has recently been converted, asks Peter and John for this same power, offering them money in exchange for this gift.
- Acts 8:20, Peter says, “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! V22, Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. V23, For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”
- In Simon’s life, bitterness over not having the same gift as the apostles leads him to being “captive to sin.”
- The same could be true in our lives. The Ephesians passage we referenced earlier is proof of this. When we remain bitter, our hearts are hardened, making it difficult for us to live in love with one another.
Do you need to deal with bitterness today? Don’t let this issue hold you captive to sin. Be quick to forgive. Maybe you need help with this — ask the Lord for help, He will be quick to answer.