Giving Up Bitterness for Lent (A Fresh Idea for a Traditional Practice Part II)
If there's anything that can suck the joy out of life, it's when we're bitter. This week we'll learn from one woman's heartbreaking loss how we can "fast" from bitterness.
It was roughly 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, and there was a famine throughout Israel. Consequently, a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons moved to the country of Moab.
They were there for 10 years, during which time Elimelech and his two sons died. Naomi was now a widow with two widowed daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. The future for these women was bleak.
Naomi knew it. She knew that the future was grim for both her and her daughters-in-law. Naomi's name means pleasant, but after the loss of her husband and sons, she says to Orpha and Ruth,
"Don't call me Naomi; call me Bitter. The Strong One [God] has dealt me a bitter blow." Ruth 1:20 MSG
And so Naomi decides to return home. I thought about that and wondered how awkward that could have been.
Was it hard for Naomi to do that? Would others criticize her family's choice for having left Israel in the first place? It would have been easy for Naomi to allow pride to keep her from returning home.
We all want to return home as the hero… the success story. Who wants to go back when we've failed or are in need. Thank heaven Naomi did not allow pride to keep her from going back.
The second thing that Naomi did is she received help when it was offered. Not at first, she argued against it, but eventually, she succumbed.
Both of Naomi's daughters-in-law offered to accompany her back home. Naomi offered an emphatic no! She did not believe leaving Moab would be in their best interest. Orpah did as Naomi wished and left. Ruth was another story.
Ruth insisted on accompanying Naomi. Finally, Naomi agreed. We must take notice of something important in the exchange between Naomi and Ruth. Not only does Ruth promise to follow Naomi, but she also promises to follow Naomi's God.
Attention is often given to Ruth's outstanding devotion. It's remarkable, to be sure. After all, Ruth's determination to follow Naomi was all but guaranteed a life of desolation. Talk about complete commitment.
But I couldn't help but wonder about Naomi. What kind of woman would inspire such devotion? A devotion not limited to the person but extended to the person's God.
Did Naomi model something in her own relationship with God that made Him appealing to a foreigner like Ruth? Did Naomi have the kind of tender and special relationship with Ruth that made anything but complete commitment out of the question?
We don't know. But it inspires me to be the kind of woman worthy of a Ruth.
And so, the women return to Naomi's homeland. And then, we begin to see God's hand at work.
They just happened to return at the time of the harvest.
It so happened that "Naomi had a relative by marriage, a man prominent and rich, connected with Elimelech's family. His name was Boaz." According to Jewish custom Boaz would have had the prerogative of marrying Ruth. This would provide for the widows and keep the name of Elimelech alive. Boaz was Naomi's kinsman redeemer.
As it turned out, when Ruth went to gather food from a field for her and Naomi, she just happened to find herself in a lot that belonged to Boaz.
God takes Naomi's bitter story and starts to sprinkle it with sugar, after sugar, after sugar.
As I read through this story, I couldn't help but smile. As objective readers, we know the outcome and can quickly spot the "it just so happened."
But I wonder if Naomi recognized that? At least at first? How many times has that happened in our own lives? It isn't until later, sometimes many years later, that we see God's tender hand in our circumstances.
What a great reminder of how important it is to trust Him even when we can't see Him.
At a certain point in the story, Naomi's eyes are open. She discovers that the whole time Ruth has been gleaning, they were fields that belonged to Boaz, her kinsman redeemer.
The heart of our bitter friend Naomi does something that it hasn't done in a long time. It begins to hope. I love what the footnotes in my Bible say about Naomi's change of heart.
"Naomi is encouraged when she hears that the Lord has led Ruth to the fields of their kinsman redeemer. This moment of Naomi's awakened hope is the crucial turning point of the story."
We all know that moment.
The moment Luke Skywalker finds the strength of the Force to overcome his foe.
The moment Jimmy returns to the basketball team and the Hoosiers stand a chance.
The moment Private Ryan decides he won't leave a single man behind.
Stories have turning points, and for Naomi, this was hers.
The warmth of hope was beginning to melt the icy bitterness in her heart.
What can you and I take away from this story of Naomi and Ruth?
The first thing we learn is how important it is to run home.
Bitterness thrives in the barrenness of isolation.
When we go "home," bitterness faces its ugly self. Home is the place where we are known. We get to see ourselves in the reflection of others. It is often there that our strengths and our weaknesses are revealed.
God cares about home. His letters from His Word remind us that He longs to have us "home" with Him.
In addition, His words serve as the mirror we may need to see any bitter root trying to take hold in our lives.
The second thing we learn is how important it is to accept help when it is offered.
We may receive what feels like "tangible" help through a loving family member, a good friend's listening ear, or a counselor's wise words. These are lovely things.
But whether we experience that kind of help or not, we must never forget that we always have God's help. When we realize this, we get to experience the third and perhaps most important part of Naomi's story––
We can dare to hope.
Can you imagine if Naomi had succumbed to bitterness?
Never returned home.
Never accepted help.
Never dared to hope.
The genealogy of Jesus would have looked different. God could have done it another way, but think of all Naomi would have missed out on. Think of all that her family would have missed out on.
This Lenten season may remember the home we have in Him, the help that He is always ready to supply so that we may experience the hope that is ours… a hope so vast there is no room for bitterness!