Inevitably, we all face the painful realities of life in this broken world. It might be illness, mistreatment, unjust circumstances, financial strain, or some other painful trial. When these things happen, it’s only natural to bristle at the situation. It’s okay to be honest about the ways you are hurting and even the ways you are wrestling with anger.
But when you are dealing with the bitterness of affliction—an outward circumstance that involves emotional or physical suffering—it’s important to watch out for the development of a bitter spirit—a resentful, acrid inward response to these trials. No matter the source, suffering has a way of revealing what we believe about God and his providential care for us. It can shape our perspective and make it difficult for our faith to embrace the reality that God is up to something good amid the bad. As you encounter adversities—and you will—it is helpful to be aware of what bitterness may look and feel like so that you are prepared to face affliction well.
Guarding Against Bitter Responses
Bitter afflictions have the potential to distort our thinking and cloud our remembrance of the heavenly Father’s love, faithfulness, and good purposes. As it was for the bereft widow Naomi in the book of Ruth (see Ruth 1), profound loss can cast a shadow over the eyes of our heart and leave us vulnerable to the temptation to resent God because life turns out different from what we expected. Therefore, we must grasp an important principle: A bitter experience may produce a bitter spirit when we do not interpret suffering biblically or respond to it humbly. Naomi’s response to her affliction illustrates three ways bitterness may steer you away from trusting in the Lord.
Bitterness skews your view of yourself.
“Is this Naomi?”, the women in Bethlehem ask the one who returns to her homeland from Moab wearing a worn-out, bitter countenance. “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara,” she said, “for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20). Naomi’s self-talk sounds like this: Call me Bitter, Angry, or Grieving. But don’t call me Pleasant. Bitterness has become more than Naomi’s experience; it now defines her.
Bitter, with an uppercase B, is her new name. In the wake of the unspeakable loss of her husband and sons, Naomi temporarily lost sight of how deeply Jehovah loved her and instead focused only on her pain.
Are you ever tempted to do the same? When affliction is overwhelming, it’s easy to let our past trauma or present suffering define us. For example, the pain of loss or the upset of a medical or psychiatric diagnosis may overtake your mind and encourage you to see yourself only through a darkened lens. Perhaps you think your trial defines you, but that is not who you are. In Christ, you are loved beyond measure and have received a new name: Beloved Child of God (1 John 3:1).
Bitterness causes you to forget God’s goodness.
Amid her affliction, Naomi’s view of God became nearsighted. “The Almighty has brought calamity upon me,” she testifies (v. 21). She lost her wide-angled view of the breadth of God’s goodness, kindness, and purpose in all things. Now, she sees a God who has only brought horrendous pain into her life. God is only against me. “Bitter” is now who I am. But God hadn’t turned away from Naomi. He was about to show her his love and care in the most amazing way.
Is this also happening in your life? Is bitterness about your current struggle giving you tunnel vision—obscuring your view of the ways you have experienced God’s love, tender mercy, and provision?
Bitterness exaggerates your suffering.
A bitter response blinds you from seeing God’s character and trusting his plan. Naomi interpreted her suffering as proof that God was against her. “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Ruth 1:21). In her pain, she could not see the blessing standing an arm’s length away. I went to Moab with a husband and two sons, and now I’ve come back alone! But she was not alone. She had Ruth, a brand-new believer in Jehovah, with a tender heart of devotion. What a gift she was to the suffering Naomi! Yet bitterness grew cataracts over the eyes of Naomi’s heart, thus preventing her from seeing God’s mercy and provision.
As the drama unfolded, neither woman knew what God was up to backstage—bringing good from bad. Unbeknownst to them, the suffering of one Bethlehem family would become the doorway through which the redemptive plan of God took a step forward. An older relative named Boaz redeemed the widowed Ruth, and the book ends with their infant son resting on Naomi’s lap. Who is this boy? Obed, the son of Boaz and Ruth, the grandfather of King David, through whom was born Jesus our Savior (Ruth 4:17; Matthew 1:1–6). God certainly was up to something good!
Realigning Your Heart with a Loving God
Life can be bitter. Unforeseen turnarounds and unspeakable sorrows have the potential to leave us feeling beat up and confused, thus preparing the garden of our hearts to become a seedbed for bitterness. But Scripture re-centers us; it realigns us with our loving God and his promises. His grace in Christ strengthens our inner person to accept his plans by faith and to forgive others so that we can move on.
Are you struggling to let go of bitterness? Remember that God shows how deeply he loves you by sending his Son to save you (Romans 5:8). Realize how much Jesus wants to help you walk in the freedom that he purchased and be encouraged that the Spirit is praying for you (Romans 8:26). He who endured the greatest injustice of all—being punished for sins he did not commit—is also the One who left an example of how to respond when we are treated unfairly. By handing over our injustices to the Judge of Heaven, we can let go of bitterness and walk in the newness of life.
Will you entrust yourself and your hurts to the Lord who delights in you?
Adapted from Bitterness: When You Can’t Move On © 2023 by Paul Tautges. Used with permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.
Bitterness: When You Can’t Move On
It’s easy to recognize bitterness in others—but not so easy in ourselves. Pastor and counselor Paul Tautges helps readers see how bitterness skews our view of ourselves and God and negatively affects our relationships. You can learn to move from heartbreak to hope as you turn to God, lament to him, ask him for help, and choose to trust him in the midst of pain. No matter what our struggle with bitterness may look like, the Bible speaks the truth and hope of God’s goodness and good plan to sufferers.