Naomi's Response to Suffering
The Book of Ruth has been dubbed as one of the greatest love stories ever written. It shows such a beautiful picture of many kinds of love, like the love of a woman for her mother-in-law, the love between a husband and wife, and the love of God for His people. I have really enjoyed working on the Ruth study that will be out later this month and reflecting on the love and godly characteristics of Ruth that are so evident throughout the text. Since the study will focus more on Ruth, I wanted to take a minute to look at Naomi and what we can learn from her response to suffering. *If you have never read the Book of Ruth or if the details are fuzzy, you may want to read it before you continue.
Please note that while I’m going to be addressing Naomi’s negative responses, she doesn’t only respond negatively. We do see throughout the story that Naomi shows her gratitude for Ruth’s loyalty, she provides Ruth with instruction and wisdom as they seek a redeemer for their family, and when Ruth gives birth to a son, Naomi cares for the baby. My hope in addressing the negative responses (that are common responses we have today!) is to point you to truth and encourage you to respond in light of that truth.
The story begins, honestly, with quite depressing events. A famine in Bethlehem causes Naomi, her husband and two sons to sojourn in Moab. While they are there, her husband dies. Her two sons marry Moabite women and then ten years later, the sons die. Naomi is left widowed, with no sons and no grandchildren to help take care of her. In a desperate attempt to survive, she decides to go back home to Bethlehem now that the famine is over in hopes that her people and her God will care for her.
On their way, Naomi stops and tells her two daughters-in-law to return to their own country and to remarry so that they might have a future. Naomi begins to list the reasons why the women should leave her – she is old, she will not be able to remarry and provide more sons, her life is too sad and burdensome for them (v. 11-14). Like we often do in the midst of our suffering, Naomi pushes away those closest to her. She makes excuses as to why she should just be left alone. And she is successful at running off one of her daughters-in-law. But we were not created to do life alone. Even when we experience loss, it is not God’s design to leave us alone. God by His very nature is relational; the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are in continuous communion with one another and always have been (Gen. 1:26). Because we are created in the image of God, that means by our nature, we are relational too. The problem with this is sin. Sin causes our relationships to break. We push others away when we fear they may hurt us or leave us. We fight against any form of intimacy because it requires being really known by someone else. We assume others pity or envy us instead of assuming God has placed them in our lives to walk with us in our suffering and sadness, as well as our victories and joy. Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” and Galatians 6:2 tells us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” We are instructed to be relational. Not only are we created for community, we are commanded to be an active participant in it.
In her own mourning, Ruth gets this and refuses to leave Naomi. They travel together to Bethlehem and when they arrive, the women of the town ask, “is this Naomi?” Naomi responds the way many of us do when we are hurt – with self-pity and blame. “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 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?” (v. 20-21). Naomi goes so far as to change her name from Naomi, which means pleasant, to Mara, meaning bitter. She is consumed with bitterness and blames God for her plight. Now, I’m not suggesting that Naomi’s situation is her fault or that her own sin is the cause of her unfortunate circumstances. However, while we cannot always control what happens to us, it is only up to us to control how we respond to those things. When we consider God’s sovereignty, we move from blaming God to trusting Him. We make a shift in our thinking and are able to believe that God uses our suffering for our sanctification and His glory. 1 Peter 5:10 says, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” How much more joyful and fulfilled would our lives be if we truly believed our suffering held a purpose? That our refining made us more like Christ? That the thorn in our side, while sometimes crippling us, made God’s name known?
There will always be trials and suffering in this life because our world is broken. When they come your way, don’t be like Naomi who responded with pushing others away, self-pity and blame. Instead, invite others into your suffering and let them bear the burden with you. Although it may feel more natural to push others away, remind yourself that you were created for community and by letting others in it will help you live a life that is closer to God’s design for our relationships. Do not wallow in self-pity or blame God for your circumstances. There are a number of passages in the bible that discuss suffering, and they all point to this truth: suffering has a purpose. We do not labor in vain. Even if we do not understand our suffering, we can rest in God’s goodness and grace, knowing we are being made more like Christ all the while glorifying the God who made us in His image.