In the first five verses of the book of Ruth, unfolds a story of devastating pain and loss suffered by a woman named Naomi.
A severe famine forced Naomi, her husband and their two sons to leave their homeland. Starting over as refugees in a foreign land is hard enough, but Naomi’s husband has passed away. Fortunately, she still had her sons, who eventually married non-Jewish Moabite women, considered foreign. It was not the future she dreamed of for her boys, but she was comforted by the prospect of having grandchildren to ease her grief over the death of her husband. Then her two sons died, taking with them her last hope of protection and sustenance in her old age, and leaving Naomi destitute.
Naomi blamed God for the circumstances of her life and was so embittered that she changed her name from Naomi (sweetness) to Mara (bitterness). She decided to return home and tried to send her daughters-in-law back to their mothers. One of them agreed, but Ruth stubbornly refused and, in one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, declared her allegiance to Naomi and the God of Naomi. (Ruth 1:16)
Naomi embraced her bitterness instead of Ruth and refused to speak to Ruth during the 10-day trip to Bethlehem. When they arrived, Naomi said to the women who greeted them, “Call me Mara because the Almighty has made me very bitter.” Three times she told them it was God’s fault and said, “I left full and the Lord brought me back empty.”
Naomi’s story is dramatic, and while few of us have so much drama in our lives, none of us have escaped pain and loss. Most can relate to Naomi’s fear for her future and her reaction to blaming God. Eventually, Naomi moved from anger and blame to seeing that Ruth was the blessing that came from difficulties.
In the book of Ruth, the story of Naomi is a subtext, but it contains powerful lessons for those of us going through a dark time in life.
God is always at work in our lives even when we are paralyzed by grief and despair. As Naomi sulked and refused to speak to Ruth, God moved ahead of her creating a new life that included a husband for Ruth, and eventually a baby who would become Naomi’s long-awaited grandchild. Each of us can be comforted as we navigate life’s struggles knowing that God is far ahead of us, working to restore us.
Naomi began to heal and move from grief to hope as she recognized Ruth’s sacrifices and cared for Ruth’s needs. She came to a place of love when she opened herself to caring for Ruth. When we are in pain, our pain is overwhelming and it’s hard to see beyond someone else’s need. Being able to see the needs of those around us helps us see the blessings in our lives and, by acknowledging those blessings, gives us hope.
We cannot control the fact that bad things will happen to us. They always will, and one day we will know why. We can stay bitter or, like Naomi, we can get better. We can stay angry at life and at God and never move on or, like Naomi, we can leave the pain behind and allow God to bless us with a life filled with beauty and hope. Even in the most bitter circumstances of our lives, we can trust that God is there and will grant us blessings to help us find a new beginning or a way back.
In addition to being Executive Director of FISH, Peggy Morache is also a Stephen Commissioned Minister and Lay Minister of The United Methodist Church.