Lately, tired, hopeless, Old Testament Naomi has been running around in my brain.
For those of you who HAVEN’T had Naomi running around in your brain, here’s a brief run-down:
- We meet her in the Old Testament book of Ruth.
- Jewish woman, in the time of the judges (no kings, not much societal order)
- Because of famine, her family moved to Moab (pagan land near Israel)
- Her husband dies.
- Her two sons marry Moabite (pagan) women. Then both sons die, childless.
- Naomi decides she has nothing left and might as well go back to Israel.
- Her daughters-in-law want to come; she urges them not to. One turns back; one does not (Ruth). Ruth pledges allegiance to Naomi and her God.
- Naomi and Ruth move back to Israel.
- Naomi changes her name to “Mara” (which means “bitter”).
The story of Ruth has been (rightly) treasured as a beautiful tale of God’s redemption and care for a pagan woman. It’s a story that points to Jesus over and over again (metaphorically and genealogically).
But inside that romantic, Jesus-pointing story, we find the story arc of an oft-overlooked woman: used-up, seemingly-futureless, middle-aged Naomi.
MIDDLE AGE OFTEN BRINGS UNEXPECTED PAIN
Naomi was going along through life as a good Jewish woman, doing what Jewish women did… she got married, had babies, and when difficulty struck (famine!), she followed her husband’s lead. The CSB indicates that he only planned to stay in Moab “for a while.” And when her husband died (tragedy!), she apparently put one foot in front of the other, and saw to it that their sons got married.
But then came MORE tragedy: both sons die.
And while we can “get” this to some degree… I mean, having your husbands and sons all dead is seriously no joke… we still don’t fully comprehend the utter devastation this would mean for her. No finances. No hope for a future. No joy. No security.
Naomi now had a life with nothing good in it, and worse still: no prospects with which she could hold any reasonable hope for the future.
What felt true about Naomi’s life can feel true for all of us at some point in middle age.
Whether it’s medical challenges, career loss, divorce, childlessness, an unfaithful spouse, deaths, difficulties with adult children, or something else, in middle age, it is common to hit deep, unexpected pain.
Other people may seem to be coasting along in the fast lane of success, stability, and ease, while we’re broken down over on the side of the highway, full of sorrow and shame. Unexpected difficulties throw us off from the high hopes we’d dreamed about, and bump us off of the brighter paths we’d anticipated traveling.
Middle age includes some dreary paths.
When we walk that road, we may very well do some of what Naomi did:
- push people away from us
- feel a loss of identity/no longer feel like ourselves
- have a sense of hopelessness about the future, a sense that it can’t be redeemed or made right
- seek a significant shake-up in the details of our lives.
NAOMI REMEMBERED THE LORD
But what I find so delightful about pondering Naomi is the way “the Lord” is woven all through her story. Whether she’s mentioning good or bad things, she repeatedly connects her circumstances to the sovereignty of God. Some examples:
- 1:6- She sets out to return to Israel, “because she had heard… that the LORD had paid attention to His people’s need by providing them food.” IN HER DESPAIR, SHE MOVED TOWARD GOD, HIS PEOPLE, & HIS PROVISION.
- 1:8- She prayed for her daughters-in-law: “May the LORD show kindness to you…” SHE STILL PRAYED FOR PEOPLE IN HER LIFE.
- 1:13- Discussing the bitterness of her life circumstances, she says, “the LORD’s hand has turned against me.” and 1:20- to her friends, when she urges them to adopt a new name for her: “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara, for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has opposed me and the Almighty has afflicted me?” SHE SEES EVEN HER DIFFICULTIES AS FROM THE HAND OF GOD.
The bleak direction of her life brings real grief, but it doesn’t shake her from her certainty that God is the author of life’s stories.
- sits in her grief, even identifying with it
- acknowledges her losses
- speaks plainly with others about the sorrow in her heart
- attributes it all– and specifically the challenges– as the work of God.
WHAT THE LORD DID TO NAOMI
And what I find particularly comforting is this: at no point does God
- rebuke her
- bring additional shame on her
- urge her to repent
- send people to correct her and tell her that, “no, it’s because your husband did XYZ,” or “it’s because you didn’t trust enough,” or “___________,” or
- indicate that if she just does ABC, life would get better.
Instead, all along the way, God kindly provides for her. With grace toward her– evident in every providential step– He nurtures her body and soul toward healing and joy. He:
- draws faithful Ruth toward Himself, and she cares for Naomi.
- returns some old friends into her life.
- gives her the comfort of familiar lands.
- reconnects her with her family and roots.
- provides abundantly for her financial and physical needs.
When you read the story of Ruth with a focus on Naomi, you can’t miss this truth: GOD CARES FOR NAOMI— tired, used-up, widowed, no-more-kids-left, yes-Hebrew-lady-friends,-it’s-true-my-sons-married-pagan-wives, zero-grandkids, we-left-when-it-was-bad-and-I’m-back-only-now-that-times-are-good, middle-aged-and-moving-toward-over-the-hill, nearly-unrecognizable Naomi.
As the story moves along, God keeps on providing for her. Abundantly.
By the end of the story, she’s bouncing a baby on her knee who would become King David’s grandpa– a predecessor to the Messiah. That precious baby is not of her bloodline, and she doesn’t even care– she’s overwhelmed with joy!
Yes, Naomi went away seemingly “full” and came back seemingly “empty,” but God abundantly filled her seeming emptiness with GENUINELY GOOD THINGS.
When we are in a similar place to Naomi,
- mourning the loss of dreams and desires,
- feeling hopeless
- used up, with nothing else to offer
- like all the “good” we could have hoped for is back there in the timeline behind us,
- like we’ve broken down on the side of the road while our peers blaze past, seemingly achieving all their hopes and dreams, and
- like the road ahead looks bleak and holds no promises for us at all,
we can take heart.
It’s OK to grieve hard seasons. It’s OK to be sad about losses. It’s OK to tell the truth about the dark circumstances we find ourselves in. It’s OK to struggle while we muddle through pain and grief.
As people of God, we don’t have to live in fear that some misstep will put us outside of God’s grace. And we don’t have to pretend that hard things are A-OK.
But we can call to mind: God is the author of the story, and His mercy and love will win.
He’s got good plans for His people and our sadness won’t throw it off.
And even if we’re used up, barren, tired, grief-stricken, and have said or done questionable things that don’t look like words & deeds of unflinching “faith–“
we CAN take heart:
The hope of the Messiah is not just for other people–
- not just for people who have impressive children and grandchildren in their bloodlines.
- not just for people who have done everything the “right” way and never taken a questionable path.
- not just for people who have maintained unflagging hope and never given into grief or sorrow.
No! When we are weak, lacking the hope and faith we feel we must have in order to pass muster, He has already made a way.
The certainty and hope of the Messiah is for us Naomis!