The Confusion of Bitterness ~ A reflection from the Book of Ruth

blog bookofruth counseling kevincarson Oct 01, 2020

Have you ever been bitter about something? Are you bitter now?


This week I have been studying through the Book of Ruth. In it, if you are one who currently is struggling with bitterness or has struggled, there is great hope.

In life, we do struggle under the burdens of living. Events, circumstances, and tragedies overtake us that leave our world changed. People get sick. Accidents happen. Contracts get canceled. Jobs change. People disappoint. People sin. Of course this list could go on and on.

Where does that leave us? Often, we respond with disappointment, sometimes discouragement, and in places even bitterness.

The Problem with Bitterness

Bitterness relates to our soul and how we perceive our circumstances. One author defines it, “Pertaining to having an astringent, pungent, disagreeable taste in the mouth” and then goes on to describe it, “anguished, despairing, bitter, i.e., pertaining to a mental state of great, intense distress, as a figurative extension of a bitter taste in the mouth” (“מֹרָא” James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament). 

What tastes incredibly bad to the mouth is transferred to what takes place in the soul. When this term is used to describe the soul, it includes the sense of anguish and misery that is putrid or sour. When bitterness turns toward God and other people, it is forbidden (Rom 3:14; Eph 4:31; Col 3:19; James 3:14).

Although it is forbidden, many followers of Christ find themselves there. Their tough circumstances morph into something more complicated, with greater sorrow, and harder anguish. Bitterness in the soul toward God and other people sours the attitude, spoils everything else, and taints one’s outlook. What a person could see as one thing, once bitter, that person sees it as something completely different. In other words, bitterness of the soul affects the way one interprets everything else in life.

How do you become bitter?

Bitterness typically comes through disappointment. Tough circumstances, continued disappointment, unmet desires, unfulfilled expectations, and unheeded demands work together in some fashion to produce the perfect environment for bitterness. With these things comes a sense of loss, an unfulfilled dream, and the idea of missing out on both present and future joy, which together create increased levels of sadness. If allowed to linger and not dealt with in a biblical way, the effect of these things both continues to plague and increases the pain in the soul or heart.

Think about it this way. You have an unpleasant experience of some sort and respond in disappointment and hurt. From there, if one does not deal with the pain, hurt, and disappointment in a godly fashion, everything gets worse. The struggles, strains, and suffering become heavier, grow deeper into the heart, and get much more complicated. The result is bitterness.

But there is hope.

Consider Ruth

The Book of Ruth is a beautiful story on a number of levels. As it is only four chapters, I encourage you to read it, think about its contents, and let it encourage you.

Naomi, which means “blessed,” moved with her husband and two sons to Moab during a severe famine (pressure). They left Bethlehem and their people to go make a life for themselves in the land of Moab. Once there, both boys found wives and the six of them began to make a new life in Moab. But tragically, although the Bible does not say what happened, Naomi’s husband and both boys died in Moab (increased pressure).

As you can imagine, Naomi is devastated and hurts. She encourages her two daughters-in-law to stay in Moab, but she is moving back to Bethlehem because she heard that God had broken the famine (Ruth 1:1-6). As Naomi seeks to convince her daughters-in-law to stay and let her go back alone, she describes her “bitter” situation (Ruth 1:7-18). In fact, she says to them that God is afflicting her.

But Ruth would have nothing of it. She committed to going with Naomi, living with her, and ultimately being buried beside her. She chose to be faithful to her mother-in-law as an older lady who also was a widow and mother to her own deceased husband.

Realizing that Ruth would not leave her but was committed to staying with her, Naomi took her and they traveled together to Bethlehem.

When they arrived, the women of the city recognized her and with excitement gathered all around her.

This is the way the NET Bible describes the scene:

So the two of them journeyed together until they arrived in Bethlehem. When they entered Bethlehem, the whole village was excited about their arrival. The women of the village said, “Can this be Naomi?” But she replied to them, “Don’t call me ‘Naomi’! Call me ‘Mara’ because the Sovereign One has treated me very harshly. I left here full, but the LORD has caused me to return empty-handed. Why do you call me ‘Naomi,’ seeing that the LORD has opposed me, and the Sovereign One has caused me to suffer?” So Naomi returned, accompanied by her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth, who came back with her from the region of Moab.” (Ruth 1:19-22)

Notice Naomi’s Bitterness

The text explicitly describes Naomi’s bitterness. She says to her friends, “Call me Mara.” Mara is the transliteration from Hebrew to English the word for bitterness. Whereas the name Naomi means blessed, the name Mara means bitterness. She forbid her friends to call her blessed; she identified with the bitterness in her soul.

Furthermore, she identifies the Sovereign One, which is a term for God in the Old Testament that emphasizes God’s control, as the One Who treated her harshly. She interpreted the death of her husband and two sons as God’s harshness, judgement, and displeasure. Whatever the circumstances of their deaths, she interpreted them as God’s lack of kindness.

Plus there is more. Although Ruth confessed that she would be with her until her death, she describes her return as “empty-handed.” In other words, as a result of her bitterness, she interprets the grace of Ruth as nothing. She misses the love, kindness, and sacrificial service of her daughter-in-law toward her.

But the Story Does Not End

The Bible records one last statement at the end of this chapter.

(Now they arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.) (Ruth 1:22)

The story is not finished. There is more. Although Naomi is bitter against God, what we will see tomorrow is that even in the midst of the trials, God never stopped being covenant faithful to her and the people of Israel throughout this story.

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