If bitterness was collateral, then Naomi would have been a millionaire. Naomi was a woman in the Bible who had seen her share of sad days, losing her husband and then both of her sons. These losses and the accompanying grief were compounded by financial distress. Because of the culture she was living in, not having a male to provide for her, be it a husband, a son or a grandson, put Naomi in a very stressful and scary position. Furthermore, she had two daughter-in-laws to worry about. They were lovely girls, mind you, but they were more mouths to feed. So she told her daughter-in-laws that they should return home to their families, something that was not in accordance with the custom of the day. But Naomi didn’t know what else to do. She planned on returning to her family in Israel and hoping for the best. Maybe someone would have pity on her and take her in. Otherwise, she would become a beggar on the street – as if life hadn’t been hard enough on this older woman who was just trying to get through each day under the intense weight of her sadness. Have you ever felt so sad that you no longer cared what happened to you? Naomi felt this way. And I’m sure just trying to think about how to take care of her daughter-in-laws while struggling under the pressure of grief and financial strain was too much for her.
One of the daughters agreed to go home to her family but the other daughter-in-law, Ruth, begged to stay with Naomi. So Naomi brought Ruth with her back to Israel, a land that Ruth had never seen before. Now Ruth is following a grieving widow while trying to handle her own grief and adjusting to a new culture. She had her own sadness and financial concerns pressing down on her, but her reaction to life’s stress was different than her mother-in-law’s. Where Naomi saw her loss and grief as a box that contained her, Ruth looked around for the new beginning. Where Naomi looked at the season she was in as the definition of who she was, Ruth looked forward with hope for what could transpire.
When Naomi returned to Israel, all of her friends and family were so happy to see her, but she told the welcome party not to call her Naomi any longer. She told them to call her Mara, which means Bitter. Naomi acted as if what had happened to her over the past few years was the sum total of who she was and what her life would ever amount to, so much so that she changed her name to reflect her new definition.
And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara,for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 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?”
What Naomi failed to realize is that she was in the middle chapters of her life, and while they were sad chapters, the end had not been written yet. Naomi made the classic mistake of defining herself by life’s hardships. Have you ever done that? Have you failed at a relationship and then defined yourself by that failure? Have you struggled financially and then defined yourself by your current lack of prosperity? Have you had such severe losses that you see yourself as someone who always loses? Have you compared your life to that of others and defined yourself as a failure because you don’t have what others’ have or you haven’t done what others’ have done?
Let’s look at Ruth’s approach. As soon as she and Naomi got settled, Ruth immediately started looking for options. And she found one. She realized that in Israel there was a custom that allowed the poor to follow along behind the field hands and gather up the gleanings of wheat that had fallen. Ruth approached her mother-in-law and offered to glean along the edges of the field. What a resourceful girl! Instead of sitting in the dust with her bitter mother-in-law, she looked up and saw a solution that Naomi, accustomed as she was with Israel’s laws, should have been able to see first. But allowing yourself to be defined by loss and contained by bitterness will blind you every time. Naomi wasn’t looking forward to possibilities, she was looking backward at reasons to be bitter. Ruth made the choice to be forward- and opportunity-focused and it changed both women’s lives forever.
One of the land owners was a relative of Naomi’s and therefore had the legal right to step in and redeem, or take back, all that Naomi’s family had – which was nothing. Or was it? Ruth was collateral. And she knew it. She knew that as a beautiful young woman, she could marry Boaz and her life and Naomi’s life would be saved. God gave Ruth a strategy through Naomi’s instructions to win the respect of Boaz. Once he noticed her stalwart heart and pure affection for her mother-in-law, he redeemed her and married her (Ruth 2:8-13). This may sound terrible to today’s young women, but the Bible records that Boaz and Ruth had a very loving and tender marriage. It’s actually a Cinderella love story. Eventually, Ruth had a son and Naomi finally had a grandson.
Now for all of you who have a negative or fearful tendency, I want you to see something in this story that absolutely blew my mind. But first let me say this: I have spent a LOT of time being frustrated with myself when I have fallen into doubt, discouragement or even anger at God during painful seasons. I have put myself in Time Out and lectured myself regarding the times that I have spoken death over my situation and not reacted in faith. I know better! I know that God is good. I know that He has made promises to me and that He cannot lie. So why is it so easy for me to become bitter, feel sorry for myself and act as though this is The End, God is finished and there can’t be any happiness or success for me now? I thank God for the progress I have made in this area over the years, but I’d be a liar if I said I don’t ever struggle anymore!
So with that said, let’s look at the end of Naomi’s life. What does she have? She has a daughter-in-law who is better to her than most natural-born daughters. She has a new son-in-law in Boaz. She lives in a wealthy man’s home with no financial stress at all. And last, but not least, she has the coveted grandson! Everything has come up roses for Naomi even though she renamed herself Bitter. This story is such a story of God’s mercy, redemption and love that it’s shocking. Naomi doesn’t deserve all of the blessings she received at the end of her life. Let’s be honest – she didn’t exactly pass the Faith Test! But God, in His great mercy, blessed her anyway. He had compassion on her weakness and inability to see beyond her grief. She was stuck in her box of bitterness and He lifted her up. God redeemed her out of the past and placed her in a wide open space full of love and family.
This story sets me free in so many ways – and I hope it sets you free, too. So many times I get scared that my seeming lack of faith in the middle of crisis, or my battle with bitterness will toss me out of the race. But that’s not the case. I will always do my best to battle against bitterness and take up the Word of God to overcome all that wants to overcome me; but now I see that my failures don’t define me. Naomi was foolish to define herself by her circumstances, and we are foolish to define ourselves by our spiritual face-plants. It’s the fact that we get back up that determines whether or not we allow our setbacks to define us. The Father sees us as his beautiful children, and He will redeem us completely, presenting us before His throne of glory. Praise God, we are not making ourselves, but He is making us!
- Do you ever get stuck in a season and feel like it will be forever?
- Do you ever define yourself by the season you are in?
- Have you ever been tempted to think that the season you’re in is the final chapter of that part of your life and that there’s no hope for change anymore?
- Have you seen the Lord provide for you during difficult seasons until they pass?
- Have you sensed the close presence of the Lord during your most painful seasons?
God is never out of resources or opportunities for change in your life or in anyone else’s. Whatever you are going through right now is Chapter 19 and you don’t know how many chapters the book of your life contains. But if Chapter 19 is a sad chapter, just hang on, because it’s going to get powerful, encouraging and joyful again. You’re just not there yet, so you don’t know how good it will be. But God does and he promises that you will see His goodness. Hang on to His promises and don’t get stuck in Chapter 19!
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.