Mara: bitterness

This wrinkly thing below is bitter melon a.k.a. bitter gourd. It tastes awful. (I think so, and I’d eat almost anything digestible.) Bitter melon is actually quite good for your health.

Here’s the story:

She moved to a difference country with her family. Her husband died. Her two sons died. She had no grandchildren, and only her daughters in law were left. A troubled immigrant who had everything taken from her, with reason to bear sorrow.

She said to her daughters-in-law, “My daughters, my life is much too bitter for you to share, because the LORD’s hand has turned against me.”

When she and one daughter in law arrived back in her home province, she said to those who remembered her and greeted her, “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara,” she answered, “for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has pronounced judgment on me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?” [passages from Ruth, HCSB]

——

It would seem that Naomi is a bitter woman because of her bitter life. It would seem that she has had unfortunate things happen to her, and that she is a victim of misfortune. We are, however, informed of a few things that could suggest otherwise. This happens historically in the time of judges ruling Israel, which is a time when men did whatever was right in their own eyes. There was a famine in the land of Judah, possibly a sign of judgment about the wickedness in God’s people, purposed as a wake up call. Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, moved their family to Moab, a pagan land far away from people who worshipped God, to escape the hard times. Their sons married women who did not worship God. There’s quite a bit of disobedience and lack of faith and trust amongst the family.

The deaths (and the rumour of food back in Judah) ultimately caused Naomi to return to Judah with Ruth. When Ruth ends up marrying well and bearing a son, there is no record of what Naomi says.

——

So the LORD’s plans at the juncture of the deaths and returning to Judah appear to be a bitter hand dealt to Naomi. However much of this was her fault is irrelevant; even if Naomi’s personal sin was not a direct cause of this entire bitter fate, Naomi is also not a mere victim. She was bitter, mara, vexed, provoked, annoyed, irritated, angry. Many years earlier, the Israelites had grumbled to Moses about the bitter water, and the LORD’s lack of provision in the desert. They were tested. They discovered that they needed to obey and trust, and not to complain. [Exodus 15:22-27]

——

At the end of Naomi’s tale, the other women in Judah say to her, “ ‘Praise the Lord, who has not left you without a family redeemer today. May his name become well known in Israel. He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. Indeed, your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.’ Naomi took the child, placed him on her lap, and took care of him.” She has nothing to say now but does seem to treasure what God gave her eventually. Her life was bitter for a time, but hindsight is 20/20. You see things so much more clearly as you reflect and look back than while you were in the middle of it; and yet we hold on to the past as if we knew better.

In time, the Lord who is good will provide, ultimately in eternity but also somehow in the land of the living. In the meantime, we must be blind to take unsavoury situations with annoyance, irritability, anger, vexation or bitterness in our hearts. God is at work, and we must keep up with Him, being ready to change our minds, change our behaviour, and change our desires. Not easy for change-resistant breeds like us who think we know better.

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Throwing off burdens (and some spectacular use of grammar in the Bible)

Abel. Enoch. Noah. Abraham. Isaac. Jacob. Sarah. Joseph. Moses. The people of Israel. Rahab. Gideon. Barak. Samson. Jephthah. David. Samuel. The prophets. (Hebrews 11, the list of the faithful.)

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Hebrews 12:1 NIV)

First of all, thank goodness the people included in this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ are flawed to various degrees, just like I am! When I was younger, I used to mistakenly imagine Christians of the past in heaven looking down at me disapprovingly and being disappointed/disgusted – not to mention Jesus or God’s perspective. (Couldn’t even bring myself there.) That sort of watchful ‘accountability’ is terribly disheartening, and resulted in my greatly desiring to let no one get to know me, lest they discover what all these heavenly witnesses knew better. Nevertheless, I know better now: Jesus’ perfect sacrifice is my identity, as with all of those in that cloud of witnesses. None of us could stand before God but for Christ, even if some appear somewhat more righteous than others. (Truthfully though, it also helped my acceptance of this truth to discover how others too were more sinful than I had first assumed, and that I wasn’t too sinful to be forgiven, or too damaged to be made new. Due to the helpfulness of this discovery for myself in making my acceptance of salvation in Christ a joyful thing, it has since been a personal conviction to freely share my dirt as is appropriate to the situation, but regardless of my own discomfort.)

Returning to that verse in Hebrews, the ESV Bible mentions “weight” rather than things that hinder, and the New KJV uses “ensnares” to describe sin rather than entangling. A snare, being a trap, is more active than the action of entangling, which seems more passive. Nevertheless, the idea is the same: we are bound and held captive by sin. Kinda like a slave. Last summer I received a copy of Slave by John MacArthur which I will finish this summer. (On my word, I shall!) It emphasizes the very Biblical but unsung idea of switching loyalties from being a slave to sin to being a slave of the Lord Jesus, and how this second ‘slavery’ is, in actual fact, freedom from sin and the various burdens of a sinful nature.

Recently, at a women’s retreat, I’ve been privileged to be read a list of hindrances by which we may be trapped, and these made me sit up and pay rapt attention.

Hindrances:

  • self-preoccupation
  • false accusations
  • worry and fear
  • bitterness
  • unforgiveness
  • pain of past and present hurts
  • circumstances (health, physical limitations, finances, jobs…)
This made me sit up because as a Christian, I tend to unthinkingly categorize everything negative as sin when not every burden is technically sin, even if it resulted from sin or could result in sin in some way. The point is, though, that both burdens and sin are debilitating to our ability to run the race, to be a new creation, to have the courage to go and be a witness, to rejoice and to worship. Burdens are a yoke of slavery that prevents us from living as those who have been freed.

Anyhow, imagine a hot air balloon, the pictorial theme of the retreat weekend. Being tethered to the ground prevents it from soaring, but soaring willy-nilly is dangerous. Like us, when the balloon is tethered to Christ as a guide, then it can soar freely in safety.

But I don’t always feel like I soar, or am safe!

Where is Christ then? And there, something that John Piper said brought comfort: One of the greatest heartaches of the Christian walk is our slowness to change.

Didn’t Jesus wash me clean? Aren’t I free now? That certainly is a heartache of mine.

The following verse is so wonderful I’ll state it twice, in different versions:

“For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14 ESV)

“…because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (Hebrews 10:14 NIV)

I promised spectacular grammar in the title of this post, and there it is. That Jesus “has made perfect” is stated in present perfect tense, which deals with a past event that has present relevance. (E.g. “I have lived in Vancouver.” I can call myself a West Coaster, but Eastern Canada is my home now.) On the other hand, “those who are being made holy” is in present continuous tense, which deals with events that are in progress now and will be in progress for an unspecified time yet. These two different time tenses happen in unison. Perfect. Holy. Finished and still in progress.

The good news, as I was reminded that weekend, is that “being on the way is proof that we have arrived.” Are we there yet? No, but yes. So keep going, whether the way is slow, tortuous, or quite circular at times. Take heart in the good news of the gospel of grace, and our sanctification that follows. “Our fight against sin is not simply to become perfect, but because we are.”

The funny thing is, when we are weak and struggling through little fault of our own, it is easy to turn to God and rely on Him. In stark contrast, when it is our folly, our lack of self control, our empty purpose, our pig-headed stubbornness, our self reliance, our apathy, our resentfulness, our bitterness, our unwillingness to forgive or anything else like that which has caused us to stumble, struggle and be faint, or even caused others to be hurt, it is harder to rely on God. “Do I have a right to?” subtly comes to mind.

Yes. Most assuredly so. You didn’t earn the right, but Jesus earned it for us, and at this time, you need to rely on the one who sanctifies us. You just gotta suck in your pride and look upon glorious, undeserved grace.

My favourite image from that hot air balloon themed retreat was that of the fire in the burners. In those times of fire and trial, our dependence on and closeness with Christ in the uncomfortable environment of hot air gives us lift to soar that a mild and cool environment does not. It’s like the special treat of trials, almost like a consolation prize, except that it’s much more, and conversely, is really the point of the trial, I would say. It’s hard to complain about difficulties when you see that God is bringing you closer to Himself through these things.

One last scribble that I took from just the first talk of the retreat: Living for Christ – waiting for our emotions to catch up.

Memories

Thanksgiving Day (Canada) affords some extra time to do things like read past entries in your journal. One particularly stood out to me, and is the least personal or identifying of the ones that stood out, so I will share it here. It just also struck me as a record of God’s prompting. For some reason it sounds unlike my writing voice, but I’ve googled quotes from the entry and haven’t found matches, so I guess it must be my writing.

To preface, I was singing in a musical revue (collection of favourite musical songs put to an original storyline – “A form of theatrical entertainment in which recent events, popular fads, etc., are parodied. Any entertainment featuring skits, dances, and songs.” – from Ninjawords.com). One of the songs was from Mamma Mia, so the words must have been stuck in my head. I might have also borrowed my roommate’s copy of Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening to read and quote after she shared a bit with me? Here it is as I wrote it on the day.

—————

Feb 16

Mamma Mia

“I was angry and sad when I knew we were through
I can’t count all the times that I’ve cried over you…”

A song from the musical, VIMH.

Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening (see the entry)

Philippians 4:11

“For I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”

Yes, time and distance allows scabs to grow and cover wounds, but Hush, Christian child. Hush the murmur of discontent and take care to cultivate the grace that God has sown in you. We think sometimes that we have learned — it will take more pain before we learn more, and more to be content.

So put away the words “inconsiderate” “wish you were miserable too” “hate” “abandoned” “rejected” “cheated” “deceived” “blame” and more.

hush the murmur.

For you are loved, sought, redeemed, forgiven, shown mercy and grace, rejoiced over with singing, and quieted by his love. *

Thoughts on Exodus

Here are some mental links:

Passover — ‘ready to travel’ — just the sandals on your feet — ‘strangers in the world’ — eat all of the lamb or burn it don’t pack it for later — yeastless dough — Pharisees are yeast

God sometimes leads the indirect but better route (13:17) — Paul’s journeys — salvation not mechanization

Crossing the Read Sea is like:

a) moving to a new stage of life
b) starting at a new school/job
c) doing something you’ve never done before
d) asking God for something you believe he wants you to ask, but not getting it
e) being pushed to drastic situations by uncontrollable circumstances
f) diving
g) any other example you can come up with

Dead Sea (not Red Sea, but geographically close)

As you face the waters...

At the Red Sea… [insert trouble here]

As [Pharoah] approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were [the Egyptians] marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were [no graves in Egypt] that you brought us to [the desert to die]? What have you done to us by bringing us out of [Egypt]? Didn’t we say to you in [Egypt], ‘Leave us alone; let us [serve the Egyptians]’? It would have been better for us to [serve the Egyptians] than to [die in the desert]!”

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The [Egyptians] you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” — Exodus 14:10-14

When you begin to panic, do not be afraid. This comes up a lot in the Bible. My conclusion (from reading this and personal experience) is that we are ‘afraid’ a lot; most often we’re not scared-afraid so much as worried/bitter/discontent-afraid.