Many things can make us bitter against God. A job loss, a failed marriage, a church split, broken relationships, the death of a loved one, or illness. When we experience these, we often think God should have fixed it. He should have helped.
He could have saved us but He didn’t. So we become bitter. We think ill of Him and speak ill of Him. We shake our fists and curse Him under our breath, and sometimes even reach the point of rejecting Him all together.
In Ruth 1, we see Naomi and Ruth experiencing loss to an extreme degree. They are left with no husbands, which, in that culture, meant no security and even no identity. They were on their own, destitute and lost. So Naomi declares her new name to be Mara, which means “bitter.” She says, “for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:20–21).
Like all good stories, though, this one has a twist. It is a twist on our understanding of “bitterness.” Mara doesn’t reject God. She doesn’t shake her fist. She responds more like what we see from Job; though God made her bitter, she did not lose her integrity, give up on following Him, or speak ill of Him. Her bitterness was one of pain and brokenness, but not one that lacked faith. She knew God was God and clung to Him regardless. We see this in her response to Ruth.
Ruth was a reminder of loss. Yet Mara claimed her as a daughter. When Ruth sought her permission to go and find a means of livelihood, Mara blessed her on her way, saying, “Go ahead, my daughter” (Ruth 2:2). This small phrase shows both love and hope.
Mara loved Ruth and kept living life. Her bitterness did not steal her capacity for feeling, faith, or life. It was not the bitterness we so often picture. Such a response to suffering echoes Paul’s words in Philippians 3, where he says he “consider[s] everything to be a loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ” (Philippians 3:8).
Suffering hurts. It brings bitterness to the soul, but that bitterness does not have to rob us of life or faith, even if it robs us of happiness. We can still love, we can still follow, and we can still live.