At the beginning of the book of Ruth, Naomi was bitter. No doubt about it. She said she was bitter. She changed her name to “Bitter.” (That’s what “Mara” means.) Preachers and writers often point to her as an example of sinful bitterness.
When many preachers and writers talk about Naomi they say that she—and you—should instead be like Joseph in the book of Genesis. After he was betrayed by his brothers, he said, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”
But there are a couple of problems with this way of thinking. For one thing, when we look at the word bitter elsewhere in the Bible, we can see that the majority of the time, it’s talking about grief. Naomi was grieving. (Untwisting Scriptures talks about what grief really is and how a lot of people don’t understand it and don’t want to acknowledge it.)
And there’s another important point we should observe about Naomi in contrast to Joseph. When Joseph said those words filled with faith, he was at the end of his story.
At the end of his story, Joseph could look back over his life and see how God had worked even in the midst of evil events. But in the messy middle of his story, he experienced the bitterness of betrayal by family members, fetters on his feet and a collar of iron around his neck (Psalm 105), the bitterness of a false accusation, and then years of unjust imprisonment.
When the book of Ruth started, Naomi was in the messy middle of her story. She had just lost three family members. She couldn’t even see through the dark cloud of grief.
Here’s a direct quote from Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind:
In the middle of Naomi’s story, Ruth came as an unlikely heroine to walk beside her and help her hold out hope for something better than the bitter experiences Naomi had endured. By the time she came to the end of her life, Naomi was able to see true redemption come to her family, in the most unlikely of ways.
Naomi couldn’t have predicted that the son of Ruth and Boaz she held in her arms would one day be the grandfather of David, the greatest king of Israel, and an ancestor of Jesus Himself. She couldn’t have predicted that her son-in-law Boaz would one day be seen as a type of Christ. She couldn’t possibly have known how far, far greater the plan of God was than the perspective she was able to have.
But I do think that at the end of her life, she, like Joseph, could look back over the whole story, the love story of Ruth and Boaz, and see how God had held her, even through evil events, right to where she was at that point. Like Joseph, she could say, “God meant it for good.”
When someone is grieving and struggling, far too many people (one is too many!) jump to the conclusion “You’re bitter” without understanding what Biblical bitterness is, and then rebuke them for sin.
Instead, let’s recognize that they’re in the messy middle of their story and walk with them through it, the way Ruth did for Naomi. Let’s trust that even in the pain, the Lord has better things ahead for us.
The days of this bitterness will pass. This story is not over.