The Wisdom Journey Lesson 110 - Three Widows . . . Three Ways
More than 200 years ago, an American statesman wrote a letter to his friend in which he stated, “The art of life is the avoiding of pain." I don’t believe that is true. The art of life is not how to avoid pain but how to respond to pain. God’s Word tells us that He uses painful times to develop maturity in us as we respond correctly. (Psalm 119:67,71)
I heard someone say years ago that 10 percent of life is what happens to you and 90 percent of life is how you respond to it. Suffering creates a crossroads, and the path you choose to take in responding to it will make an incredible difference in your life. And by the way, beloved, you don’t get to choose your crosses; but you can choose your responses.
Here in the first chapter of the book of Ruth, Naomi has become a familiar sight at the funeral home. Her husband and two sons have died, and right now, Naomi’s survival is at stake.
When she learns that the famine is over and Bethlehem has food again, Naomi makes up her mind to head back home. In verse 7, we’re told that Naomi “set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.”
Bethlehem was a three-day journey from Moab, and perhaps they walked together as far as the border there at the edge of the Jordan River. Naomi turns to these two young widows, Orpah and Ruth, and says to them in verse 8:
“Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.”
Now you might think it’s strange for Naomi to encourage them to return—did you notice—to their mother’s house.
This expression refers to the mother’s bed chamber, where marriages were typically arranged in this day. In other words, she’s saying to them, “You have your whole life in front of you; go back and make plans to get married again.”
Then she blesses them in verse 9:
“The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.
This is a heartbreaking scene. This isn’t one damsel in distress but three. Here they are at this crossroad of sorrow, and all three of them will respond differently.
First, there’s Naomi. Her name means “pleasant” or even “sweet.” However, she has become embittered and angry. Four times she tells her daughters-in-law they need to leave her alone and go back home.
She is even convinced that God no longer loves her. She says in verse 13, “It is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.”
Naomi is saying, “Even God is against me, and He obviously doesn’t love me.” But she goes one step farther—listen to what she tells Ruth, down in verse 15: “Your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” Is she serious? Go back to your gods?
Some scholars suggest Naomi doesn’t want anybody back in Bethlehem to know that she and her husband permitted their sons to marry pagan Gentile girls—she wants to cover that up. I don’t think that is her concern at all. I believe she is counseling Ruth based on her own unbelief. Her God doesn’t seem very real to her; He evidently isn’t watching out for her; frankly, He’s not really making it worth following Him. So, she effectively tells Ruth, “Look, I’ve been to the graveyard now three times in a matter of months; it’s obvious God doesn’t care about me.”
And notice down in verse 20, when she arrives in Bethlehem, she says to the women there: “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”
“Mara” means “bitter.” She’s saying, “Don’t call me Sweet anymore; call me Bitter. And it’s all God’s fault. He’s made my life bitter.”
Then she adds this comment in verse 21: “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.” Now in a way, she is right. God has brought her back. She just doesn’t realize at the moment that she was already empty in Moab; but she is going to be satisfied in Bethlehem.
Naomi has no idea that God is at work in her life now more than ever. There is no evidence of that, as far as she is concerned; so, let’s not be too quick to judge her. When we are suffering, it’s easy to assume that God doesn’t care about us anymore.
Now, let’s go back and take a quick look at these two younger widows. When Naomi first tells these women to return to their mothers, both of them refuse. So, Naomi lays out the reality moving forward: They have no promise of a husband in Bethlehem; and since they are Moabites, they don’t have much of chance at anything but a difficult life.
Orpah sheds a few more tears, but she then kisses her mother-in-law good-bye and heads back to Moab (verse 14). This is the critical crossroad in her life; her decision actually determines her eternal destiny. She decides to go back into idolatry—back into darkness, back to her gods. She disappears, and the Bible never mentions her again.
Now Ruth stands here at this crossroad, and in verse 15 Naomi essentially says to her, “Aren’t you going to leave? Aren’t you going to go back with Orpah?”
And what happens next is one of the greatest confessions of faith found anywhere in Scripture.
Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. 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. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” (verses 16-17)
Wow. Ruth is saying, “No matter what the future holds and no matter where this road takes us, I am staying by your side, and I am choosing to follow your God—your God is now my God.”
And what is she getting in return? There are no promises; there are no guarantees. The Bible simply says, Ruth clung to her.
I was in France with my wife a number of years ago; we stayed with a French pastor and his wife. John-Pierre could not speak English well, so his wife, Jocelyn, would often translate. One evening John-Pierre told us about a young woman who had recently become a believer in Christ. Because of her decision, she lost her friends, and her family disowned her. Then John-Pierre said something that Jocelyn was having a hard time translating into English. Finally, she said, “My husband is trying to say that in spite of everything, this young lady has gripped God.”
Here are three widows, with three responses to the pain and suffering of life.
- Orpah rejected God. She essentially said, “I’m going back to my old way of life.”
- Naomi blamed God: “God doesn’t seem to love me anymore.”
- But Ruth chose to grip God. From this point forward, no matter what might happen in her life, she will hold to Him for the rest of her life.
Let us be more like Ruth, today.