One of the most beautiful stories ever written is found in your Old Testament under the title ‘Ruth’. It is a love story. We are even accustomed to hearing a passage from this short book used in modern weddings.
For wherever you go, I will go,
and wherever you live, I will live;
your people will be my people,
and your God will be my God.
You may not have realized that this is also a study of grief and loss. In fact, the book begins with only a brief introduction of Naomi’s family before we are informed of the deaths that afflict them.
Naomi’s husband Elimelech died, and she was left with her two sons. Her sons took Moabite women as their wives: one was named Orpah and the second was named Ruth. After they lived in Moab about 10 years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two children and without her husband.
In this tragic circumstance, what can we learn about grief and surviving losses?
1. Grief Can Change Family Relationships. Drastic changes can take place due to placing blame, volatile exchanges, painful silence, even separation or divorce. These situations may be brief or have long lasting consequences. As each person grieves individually and in a different manner conflicts can develop. Naomi was not only grieving the loss of her husband and homeland, but two precious sons. Her ongoing relationship with her daughters-in-law says a lot about them all. (Ruth 1:7-13)
2. Tears Are An Appropriate Response to Painful Loss. At the time of the death of a loved one we should not try to hold back our tears. While some people may choose to cry only behind closed doors, others are much more demonstrative no matter the setting. But one should never feel that tears somehow betray a lack of faith or disbelief in God’s promises. I fully believe that my son is in heaven but many tears have been shed. Grief hurts. Trying not to cry is unhealthy and nonsensical.
Naomi …kissed them, and they wept loudly…. Again they wept loudly, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
3. Faith Can Develop a Bitter Taste. When Naomi and Ruth came back to Bethlehem all of the locals were talking about the arrival of Naomi. However, Naomi asked them to call her Mara instead. Mara means ‘bitter’. Naomi said, “The Almighty has made me very bitter … the Lord has pronounced judgment on me and the Almighty has afflicted me” (Ruth 1:20-21). Naomi’s bitterness was much like widows today. Her provider has been taken away, she had to move from her home, and there were questions about how she would even eat with no one to help take care of her. Christians who serve God wholeheartedly do not expect to have their lives turned upside down by loss, but it happens all the time. There will be seasons where we will actually blame God for not taking care of us. More, believing that God has punished us. Try to regard this as a season of turbulent faith, rather than a rejection of God. True enough, some people do reject God during a time of grief. A better path is to continue to express your pain to the Lord. He is big enough to hear your complaint and His grace is overflowing in your behalf.
4. Grief Can Be a Time of Redefining Our Purpose. After arriving back in Bethlehem Ruth begins serving Naomi by going out to gather food. Her love for her mother-in-law is observed and Boaz says to her, “Everything you have done for your mother-in-law since your husband’s death has been fully reported to me: how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth, and how you came to a people you didn’t previously know. May the Lord reward you for what you have done, and may you receive a full reward from the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge” (Ruth 2:11-12) What a beautiful reflection of God’s grace came through Boaz to a grieving widow. Ruth took the experience of her own grief and turned it into a time of serving someone else who was hurting. For a time immediately following a loss this may be impossible. However, there comes a time when the inward reflections need to be turned outward toward other hurting people. This is when healing can begin to take place. In fact, in chapter 3 and verse 1 we see Naomi beginning to open up her heart to serve loyal and faithful Ruth.
5. Watch For Blessings From the Lord. Chapter 4 of Ruth is a beautiful reflection of God’s provision for the mourning widows we first met in chapter one. Ruth was beloved by Boaz. They married and had a child. There is no record of Naomi marrying again. Whether she did or not, however, she had traveled through a journey of pain to a place where she was able to see the blessings of the Lord. To be clear, her new blessings did not ‘replace’ the sons she lost nor the husband who was taken away from her. No one can ever take the place in our hearts that belongs to our loved ones who have died. But that does not prevent us from finding joy again.
Naomi took the child, placed him on her lap, and took care of him. The neighbor women said, “A son has been born to Naomi,” and they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. ~Ruth 4:16
In the first meeting of The Compassionate Friends that I attended someone said something like, “It won’t always hurt this way … we promise … there are brighter days ahead.” Over six years later I can testify that this is true.
The narrative of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi chronicles for us a pathway through grief. It isn’t always pretty. It can be messy. But it is a painful journey through which we press on. At times it seems so dark that there is no way out. There is light ahead, just around the bend. Don’t ever give up.
Thanks to Michael Whitworth for insights from his wonderful book Bethlehem Road that I’ve been studying in the past few weeks.