The Book of Ruth is one of my favorite books of the Bible. Ruth is one of the true heroes of the faith. The fact that the Book is titled after Ruth and that she demonstrates such wonderful faith during a time of trial can obscure some of the other lessons God intends in the account of Elimelech’s family. Possibly the saddest lesson in the Book is the tremendous cost to the believer’s life when they allow a root of bitterness to take hold, dictate their behavior, and affect others(see Hebrews 12). In an account that focuses on the admirable faith of Ruth, the loss of faith and choice of sin and bitterness in her mother-in-law, Naomi, present an ugly contrast. We can learn important lessons from these two women and how they respond to life’s circumstances. Do we choose: Faith or doubt? Trust and hope in the Lord or despair, anger, and bitterness? Believing truths about God’s character or believing lies?
If you are familiar with Ruth, the account begins with Elimelech’s family consisting of his wife, Naomi, and his two sons leaving Israel because of a famine and relocating to Moab. The wisdom of this decision will be the subject of a subsequent post. While in Moab, Elimelech’s two sons marry women of Moab: Ruth and Orpah. Then, the sons and their father all die leaving the women widowed. This is a terrible moment for the three women of the Elimelech clan, not just because of the pain of their loss, which obviously would have been substantial, but also because of cultural/legal consequences. In the culture of the time, if a woman lost her husband, she would be reliant on her grown sons for legal protection and provision. Women were not part of the workforce and generally could not work to make a living. Therefore, a widow who also lost her sons or had no sons, had a pretty bleak future. It is one of the reasons why it was such a big deal when Jesus raised the only son of the Widow of Nain in Luke 7 – the widow would have been left with no obvious means of support. Such is the case with Naomi. She is in a foreign land with no way to provide for herself and her two daughters-in-law, while going through the loss of her husband and her sons. It is a terrible time in her life, and her grief is certainly understandable.
When faced with a great trial though, we always have a choice – turn to God and trust Him in what seems like great darkness or turn away from God and trust our perspective on the situation.
Think about Paul and Silas in the prison in Philippi from Acts. They are innocent men who are beaten half to death in a disgusting Roman prison and chained in a terribly agonizing position. Their choice was to either look around at their circumstances, despair and “curse God and die”(as Job’s wife so eloquently tells Job when times get tough) or trust the Lord- that His plan is being carried out- and praise Him regardless of circumstances. What do they choose? Paul and Silas choose praises, and they are singing worship songs all night long in the midst of an agonizing trial. Then suddenly, the prison doors are opened, the jailer is saved and the entire prison is affected by their trust and praise of the Lord. (If you notice, in the entire prison none of the prisoners leave when the doors are opened). Our God is a redeemer; so let us walk by faith!
Naomi is faced with the same choice when her husband and two sons die unexpectedly – trust in God and praise Him, despite the storm going on, knowing that He will work it out for good or turn inward, despair and turn from God. What does she choose?
When Naomi hears that there are good conditions in Israel, it does appear that she is on the right track, as she decides to leave Moab and return to the Promise Land. Yeah! But unfortunately, it says specifically that her motivation is to get bread. It is not to return to God and the land of her God. Her motivation is for bread. Boo! Her heart attitude is made clear when she returns to Bethlehem and tells the people not to call her Naomi. She asks to be called, “Mara”, which translates as “Bitterness”. Yikes! Her grief and loss have turned inward. Rather than look upward to the love and goodness of God. Instead, she allows bitterness and anger to grow. Reading it on the pages of the Bible, we can see how Naomi loses her way. We might be inclined to shake a finger at her, but honestly, who hasn’t been here at some point. Grief, loss, and suffering do hurt- it is easy to get swept away by the powerful emotions that pain brings into our lives.
Now Naomi has had a tough time; this is clear. People get hurt by the storms of life all the time. It is understandable that the pain of loss would have been immense. But bitterness is never a legitimate response for a child of God.
We are chosen out of the world, despite our sins, for an eternity with Him. Regardless of how bad it is now, this life is just a vapor compared to eternity. Naomi is still breathing, has two women who love her, and as we see when she returns to Israel, is accepted back into the village along with her foreign daughter-in-law. She also has God, who has not abandoned her.
With God, all is never lost. But we have to choose to trust in God and not allow resentment, no matter how justified we feel. Choosing the alternative leads to terrible decisions and can inflict significant collateral damage on those we love.
When Naomi makes the decision to return to Israel, does she turn to her only remaining family in the world? Does she encourage Ruth and Orpah to cling to the only True God, Yahweh, who will redeem them as He promised? Does she beg them to come back to Israel and the God of Israel where she now realizes they never should have left to begin with? No, tragically, she says just the opposite. Because she feels abandoned and she feels pain, she tells them to return to their original families’ homes and leave her. Naomi is not truly abandoned, God will never leave her or forsake her. In her loss and pain, she feels badly emotionally and she chooses to blame God for it. She chooses to believe lies. She projects these thoughts and feelings onto those around her.
Based upon the fact that there are tears from Naomi’s decision, it appears these women genuinely love each other and want to stay together as a family. Both daughters-in-law initially refuse to leave Naomi, but after some additional begging on Naomi’s part, Orpah eventually leaves them and returns to her Moabite family. Do we realize that Naomi is begging Orpah, her son’s wife to return to a life of paganism-a life that ends with no relationship with God? In her pain and bitterness over her own fate, Naomi begs Orpah to abandon her relationship with Israel and with God and return to a life in a nation that were largely idol worshippers.
Orpah could surprise us, and we could meet her in heaven one day. But at the very least, Naomi has made the odds of that happening much lower than if she had encouraged her to continue back to Israel and trust in God for provision. Instead, out of her own bitterness-stained wisdom, she effectively leads Orpah to walk away from God. Naomi even acknoweldges it: And again they wept together, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye. But Ruth clung tightly to Naomi. 15 “Look,” Naomi said to her, “your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods. You should do the same.” Ruth 1:14-15
Naomi had lost her own trust in God, allowing circumstances to define God, and it tragically impacts a young Orpah, who was going to continue with her back to the Promise Land. In her bitterness, in her time as Mara, she caused great damage.
In our lives we are presented with the same opportunities on a small and sometimes larger scale every day. Jesus told us that we are going to have great troubles and sorrows. This is not yet heaven; we will face pain.
We have a choice. How are we are going to deal with that pain? Are we going to trust and praise God like Paul and Silas in the prison at Philippi when circumstances are unpleasant and testify to our Savior? Are we going to be like Naomi, “Mara”, and choose our bitterness?
What do we choose–in the little and big things? When we are stuck at the supermarket checkout line and a lady breaks out her checkbook only after all the bags are packed, and asks for the total 64 times, do we bemoan the circumstances or trust God? In terrible traffic with an important meeting fast approaching–do we trust God and circumstances or sing his praises?
Or when something truly terrible happens, like the loss of a husband and children as with Naomi, do we trust that God is truly who He says He is? Or do we curse Him? Do we believe He will do what He says or do we trust ourselves and our emotions? Do we trust in His faithfulness or become angry and filled with bitterness? When life doesn’t go as planned, do we trust Him? These are simple enough questions, but how we answer them defines our relationship with God and effect how we live life–by the Spirit or not. It can also push people around you either towards God or back towards the pagan-worshiping world that we came out of.
We know from the rest of the Book of Ruth that God was faithful to Naomi and Ruth. Through Ruth’s faithfulness, they are redeemed by Boaz, a man who presents a picture of Jesus in the Old Testament.
When we are trusting and faithful, we trust that Jesus is our advocate and redeemer. We trust He is sanctifying us and conforming us to His image. Remember that in the dark and difficult days of life- God is faithful, righteous, and trustworthy. Believing that truth enables us to be faithful and strain forward towards the joy that is set before us.