The sun was shining brightly, but the freezing air made tiny ice crystals on my teared-up eyelashes. I was with family, gathered around the coffin of a loved one at their graveside. It was early January and 2021 was not giving any reprieve from the pandemic. After almost three weeks in the hospital, this loving and godly man had passed away.
After fifty years of marriage, loneliness will be one of, if not the, toughest challenges of this new widow’s life. But from what I know of her and her relationship with God, she will be OK—eventually. I say that because I know she knows how to choose what’s better than bitterness.
Bitterness is a hazardous waste for the soul. Lysa TerKeurst of Proverbs 31 Ministries said, “Bitterness isn’t just a feeling. It is like a liquid acid seeping into every part of us and corrupting all it touches.”
One of my favorite Bible characters, Naomi from the Book of Ruth, struggled with bitterness at nearly turn of her widowhood. Her story can show us safeguards from the acid of bitterness.
Better: She Survived—Somehow
Naomi suffered A LOT! She lost her house, hometown, and extended family in Bethlehem when her husband decided they would move to Moab. Then, after all the upheaval of moving, her husband died! Naomi and her two sons were trapped; they were strangers in a strange land. It was so hard to return to her hometown Bethlehem on her own that she might as well have lived on the moon! However, she chose the better part, not bitterness. It was hard living as a widow in a foreign land, but she chose to survive. Some people don’t understand how difficult it can be just to take that next breath when you’re widowed. But since she had sons to support, that’s what she did.
She could have easily been bitter. Can you imagine the loneliness and racism she experienced? Moabites weren’t too fond of Israelites. There were no welfare programs for foreigners. Women had no opportunities or legal rights. Whatever business plan her husband had in mind for them to run in Moab, Naomi and the boys would have to pull it off and make a living.
Better: She Loved What Was Left of Her Family
Naomi probably fought off bitterness over and over. Within the next ten years, her sons married Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. Think about the implications of this: both her sons married outside of their faith. Also, according to Middle Eastern customs at the time, as the mother-in-law, Naomi might have had to help contribute to a costly bride’s dowry. In another blow, then both of Naomi’s sons died! Yet, I believe that, once again, Naomi chose the better part. She loved her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth. In return, these girls loved Naomi and did not leave her.
The Bitter Breakdown
Eventually, Naomi returned to Bethlehem with Ruth. It’s an epic and fascinating journey. Once the two widows arrived, Naomi broke down and gave in to full-blown bitterness. As the villagers gathered around her and gawked in astonishment at her return, she cried out, “Call me Mara!” (Ruth 1:20) The name “Mara” means bitterness, and to Naomi, it was the exact picture of God’s affliction on her. She was full when she went away from Bethlehem, but God brought her back empty (even though Ruth faithfully stood right next to her!). Naomi blamed God for all her pain.
I think the villagers were speechless and didn’t know what to do! When you read the rest of the chapter, you will see that the villagers didn’t even do the one thing Naomi asked of them. For once, I am glad people did not listen to the widow! When Naomi told them to call her Mara, nobody did. We do not remind a widow to be bitter.
But what about God? How did He respond to Naomi’s bitterness?
Naomi’s feelings of bitterness were not God’s reality. God’s love for her had not failed. He did not waiver or take His eyes off of her for a moment. God warns us to not let bitterness take root, but He has a remedy for this toxic acid.
“For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14). He knew a path beyond her bitterness. With tender compassion and mercy, God knew she needed rest. Naomi’s journey back to Bethlehem had been at least fifty miles, all on foot. She had walked for at least five days through a mountainous wilderness, slept under the stars, and carried everything she owned, including food, water, and her many, heavy heartaches. When she walked into Bethlehem, she was physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted.
Better: She Gets Some Rest
God is far more patient with us than we are with each other. If you read the rest of the story, you won’t hear much about Naomi. I believe she’s resting. But she works behind the scenes, match-making a good marriage for Ruth. God is gently working in Naomi’s heart, replacing bitterness with hope. We even see her begin to be thankful and praise Him. The power of gratitude and rest neutralized the acid bite of bitterness.
Better: She Receives God’s Gift
Naomi’s story doesn’t end there, though. Near the end of the book, we read, “Naomi has a son.” The child, Obed, was Ruth and Boaz’s baby, but Scripture endowed him to Naomi as her kinsman-redeemer. Naomi’s response was significant. She could have chosen to be bitter and reject her role as caretaker for her grandson, but note what Naomi does: she decided to care for the baby boy. This boy, Obed, was King David’s grandfather. Naomi’s choice for love instead of bitterness had an impact that lasted for generations.
We always have that choice to wallow in self-pity. Naomi could have sulked because this baby wasn’t from her own son, or because her husband wasn’t there to be the grandpa, right? Yes, dear reader, I know those are real and bitter temptations; I’ve experienced them, too. But, instead, we can follow Naomi’s example: open our arms and receive the good gifts God places in front of us.
It will be Easter in only a few weeks, a time when we think about God’s Son, Jesus, our heavenly Redeemer. Naomi had a grandson to receive who restored her life. (Ruth 4:15). But we have a far better Son to receive--our Savior, Jesus.
Bitterness: it’s an awful acid that eats at our soul. God knows and understands we are sometimes too weak to resist it, but our weakness is not His reality. He loves you. Receive the gift of redemption He provides. It’s so much better than the hazardous acids of bitterness.
To learn more about widowhood, order a copy of “Postcards from the Widows’ Path – Gleaning Hope and Purpose from the Book of Ruth.” It’s a gentle, biblical guide for widows that has many saying, “This is the best I’ve ever read!”