“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.” (Ruth 1:20)
In the Old Testament book of Ruth, a lady called Naomi (meaning pleasant) returns to her hometown of Bethlehem from a place called Moab, where she and her family have been living for a while. They had initially travelled there as refugees from famine – but the heartache didn’t end there. While in Moab, Naomi’s husband and sons have died. On arriving in Bethlehem (where food is now available again) Naomi tells her old friends there to call her Mara (meaning bitter). She goes on to say, “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 upon me” (Ruth 1:21).
Grief and loss afflict us. The world we live in, for all its beauty, is fallen. Just as a path forks into two, we will probably all at some point have to decide whether we’re going to feel bitter or joyful. If you feel more bitterness than joy due to your circumstances, I get it.
But here’s the thing. Read to the end of the book. God restores Naomi. He does this through her daughter-in-law, Ruth. He provides Ruth with a lovely new husband, Boaz, who happens to be a “guardian-redeemer” of Naomi’s family (Old Testament-ese for someone obliged to redeem a relative who’s in dire straits). Naomi gets to enjoy grandmotherly babysitting duties for Ruth and Boaz’s baby, Obed – “Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him” (Ruth 4:16). Oh, and baby Obed ends up being the grandfather of Israel’s greatest king, David, whose bloodline paves the way for Jesus. (Just saying).
I’m not suggesting Boaz and Obed are substitutes for losing the husband and two children Naomi lost. But it seems like an outworking of the promises of restoration which God makes through Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah: “I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).
God doesn’t make mistakes. I’m convinced he didn’t intend Naomi to experience the unimaginable pain of losing her husband and sons. I’m convinced, too, that he didn’t want me to feel so sad about not having more than one child. The problem, though, is bitterness. Bitterness can spring up reallllly easily and suddenly – just while I thought I was quite cosily feeling nice and sorry for myself – and its consequences can be so destructive (see Hebrews 12:15).
Bitterness causes us to take good things for granted. It blurs our vision so that our eyes can only see what we lack. Any blessings we’ve received seem to just be part of the furniture.
I’ve decided I don’t particularly want to spend the rest of my life entangled in this way. So today I have asked God to keep me from bitterness. Prayerful lists of “blessings for today and “things to be thankful for” can be briliant. God has been very, very good to us and a thankful heart is important. But it’s not just about circumstances. Even on the days when we can’t write “The sun is shining” or “I’m healthy” or “I have three brilliant children”, we can always write “Jesus is alive”.
Jesus is alive.
When the joy/bitterness path forks into two, this is what helps us choose joy.