As a twenty-something millennial, I suffer from self-diagnosed ‘Elizabeth Bennett Syndrome’. In other words, the propensity to insert myself as the heroine of every story I read. From animated princesses to plucky schoolgirls, the adventures of admirable women have been fixtures in imagination. And, naturally, I am inclined to interchange my name synonymously with theirs.
To my surprise, when my pastor preached through the book of Ruth, I found myself identifying more with jaded Naomi than the title character.
Many have at least a working knowledge of this Old Testament account: two widows faced with poverty return to Israel to seek provision. Most Christians can easily reference Ruth’s lyrical pledge of loyalty to Naomi. Vows often recited at weddings, albeit slightly out of context. “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1: 16) Naomi’s response to her difficult circumstances is less than quote-worthy, “it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” (Ruth 1:13)
Don’t get me wrong, I would rather be like Ruth. Ruth is kind and courageous. Ruth is hardworking and loyal. But in a recent desert season (though nothing as drastic as a famine or triple funeral), I notice that my response is more like the woman who said “call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” (Ruth 1:20)
But God is merciful, even to those of us struggling with bitterness. Three realities in particular struck me as I examine Naomi’s situation, and assess my own.
- Despite Naomi’s despair, God comforts.
When faced with destitution and loneliness in Moab, it is telling that Naomi seemingly believes resolving her circumstances rests upon her own shoulders. When her widowed daughters-in-law attempt to return to Israel with Naomi, they are discouraged from the pursuit. “Turn back, my daughters… even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying?” (Ruth 1:11-13) Though Naomi rebuffs her daughters-in-law first attempts to comfort her, she cannot stiffarm faithful Ruth. In spite of herself, God provides a companion for Naomi. A friend who points to Naomi’s ultimate friend, Jesus.
- Despite Naomi’s begrudging, God provides.
When my two-year-old throws a tantrum, I am still parent-bound to provide for her needs. (Though, sinfully, I am less happy to do so!) A toddler tantrum is similar to the kind of heart attitude Naomi adopted when her life took an unexpected turn. Even in her begrudging, the Lord provided Naomi with community (through her daughter-in-law Ruth), shelter (her late husband’s home), and food (through Boaz’s fields). These measures testify to the fact that even when we are not in a frame of heart to ask God to provide for our needs, He continues to do so. And in Naomi’s story, we see God softening her heart little by little as these provisions come. After all, it is Naomi who recognizes Boaz’s position as a kinsmen redeemer and prompts Ruth to request his protection.
- Despite Naomi, God redeems.
During the last few lines of Ruth, wrongs are made right. The woman who lost her husband and two children chapters earlier, becomes grandmother to a bouncy baby boy. Naomi’s friends speak to the gracious work in her life, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel!” (Ruth 4:14) Why would God bear patiently with a grouchy old woman? The same reason He bears patiently with this entitled young woman, and all sinners everywhere. God’s steadfast love is a testament to the fact that He is a covenant keeping God. His people will always be His people.
If Naomi were to identify a ‘life verse’, perhaps it would be Isaiah 42:3 “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” In studying Ruth, it is a comfort to me that the Lord never changes. We are frail, and our emotions are anything but constant. Even when you feel more like Naomi, the Lord God is working on your behalf. And, by God’s grace, His covenant-keeping love softens our hearts and turns our bitterness into faithfulness.