On her right, the soil was still freshly turned, heaped upon the graves of her two sons. To her left, the dirt on the grave of her husband had settled long ago. Now Naomi sat alone between the graves, crushed by the weight of loss she carried.
Her mind drifted to her life in Bethlehem long before they made the fateful decision to move to Moab. The drought was severe. They had nothing left. Their options were scarce. In desperation they packed up the few belonging they owned and moved the family to Moab. Moab, the land of idol worshipers and pagans. Moabites, the enemies of Israel. Who could have imagined the grief she would bear as a result of this fateful decision?
After they settled in Moab, her husband died. She was now a single mother in a foreign land trying to raise two sons. The seed of bitterness was planted. She could have moved home, but decided to stay. It was a decision she would long regret. The final insult was when both of her sons married Moabite woman. It was shameful, but at least she was far from home and from the ones who would judge her severely if they knew.
A hot breeze stirred the dust on the graves as she sat and pondered her fate. Though far from the accusing stares of those in Bethlehem, she still felt punished by an angry God. Surely God had seen all they had done. Surely God had turned against her for allowing her sons to marry Moabite women. It was all her fault. The depth of her shame was exceeded only by the bitterness that bloomed within her.
Somewhere far in the heavens above, God had already forgiven her. He saw the bitterness that consumed her, and his heart hurt for her. If only she knew the plans that God had already put into place. If only she realized how he would use her, for what she did not understand was that as a result of her time in Moab, nearly a thousand years later Jesus Christ would be born.
(Adapted from Ruth 1:1-13, ESV.)
Whenever I read the book of Ruth, it is easy to get caught up in the romantic, Cinderella story of Ruth. But the book begins with the tragic story of Naomi. Naomi’s story matters because it gives us hope. It demonstrates that even when we have blown it, God can still use us.
To be fair, when they decided to leave Bethlehem, Naomi was likely not the decision maker. She was obediently following her husband Elimelech. But after Elimelech died, she could have returned to Bethlehem and her people. For some reason, she chose to stay. In staying, she set up the next unfortunate event. Her sons married foreign wives. God never intended this, and it was against Jewish law.
Was she wrong to allow her sons to marry foreign wives? Yes. Was God’s grace sufficient to use her in spite of this? Yes again. Let me explain.
Whenever I read the Bible I am always asking two questions: “What can I learn about God?” and “What can I learn about man?” Let’s begin with the second aspect first, what we learn about ourselves. Like Naomi, we tend to get bitter when we face unbearable loss. It is human. It is human to feel like God is being cruel. “Why did this happen? If God is in control, why would he allow this to happen to me? It must be because of sin I have done. It is all my fault.” Unfortunately, when we focus on our sin instead of God’s grace, we can become bitter. And bitterness is a terrible master.
This week I was talking with a friend whose life is falling apart. He feels he is spiraling out of control. He is concerned that he has sinned so much that God will no longer forgive him. Do you ever feel like that? It is human if you do.
Please understand that when we sin, we can expect to be punished. God does so because he loves us and wants us to be in a right relationship with him. Discipline is one of the ways we can know that we are truly in relationship with him. Like a father disciplines his son, so God disciplines us as his children. But because he is a father to us, he never stops loving us, even when we have blown it. This is where many of us struggle. God is quick to forgive when we repent. He wraps his arms around us when we are hurting. He knows the mess we have made, and loves us anyway.
Once we realize our sin and repent, God is quick to forgive. But what is next? When we experience great hardship and loss as a result of our actions, what do we do then? We chose to hope that God can still use us in spite of our failures.
The good news is that God is always in control. This is what we learn about God from this passage. God is at work even when life is hard. He is always at work even in your difficult times. God is at work even when you have blown it. Even in your failures, God can still use you. Naomi is proof of that. God was at work when the famine hit Bethlehem. God was at work when they moved to Moab. God was at work when Naomi’s husband died. God was at work when she decided not to return home to Bethlehem and family. God was at work when she allowed her sons to marry Moabite women. God was at work when they lived in Moab for ten years. God was at work when her sons died. God was always at work.
He is still at work today. The difficulty is that we rarely get to know the end from the beginning. We are here for a very short time on this earth. The full story of God’s grace is being played out across centuries of time. Like Naomi, how can we possibly understand our place in that? We can’t. But when we remember that God is fully in control we can have hope. We can choose to believe that God can use all our failures, yes even our sin, for good.
Because Naomi made bad choices, a Moabite woman named Ruth marries her son. After the son dies, Ruth stays with Naomi and together they return to Bethlehem. Ruth eventually marries a man named Boaz. Together they have a son. Eventually they become the great-great-grandparents of a man named David, the greatest King Israel has ever had. By doing so, they also took their place in the lineage of Jesus, the Messiah.
All in spite of a bad choice. That gives hope for the rest of us as well.
This article was originally published in the September 2016 Newsletter.