Loss and bitterness affect us all. Death can ravage marriages, leaving behind grieving spouses who don’t know how to love each other anymore. It can ruin families and poison relationships, especially if there is some sense of 'fault' in the loss. If you’re in that place now, or know someone who is, I hope the following is of help to you.
We begin by entering the story of a woman who lost her husband and two sons. Her name was Naomi. The time was approximately 1100 BC and the account comes to us through the book of Ruth. A famine sent her and her family from Bethlehem in Israel to the neighboring country of Moab. In this story, Naomi said that she left Bethlehem “full.” While in Moab, though, she lost her husband and sons. They had been married for ten years and were survived by their wives, two Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. There is no mention of children. Early in chapter one it says, that, at this point, "Naomi arose with her daughter-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and given them food.”
Orpah and Ruth - her daughters-in-law offer to go with her. This was her reply:
‘Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? … No my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.” (Ruth 1:11;13)
Naomi is angry and bitter and convinces Orpah to go back to her people. But Ruth remains and offers one of the most beautiful vows of loyalty found in Scripture:
“But 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.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
The two women travel back to Bethlehem—but it was not a joyful homecoming.
“So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?”
She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi [which means 'pleasant'], call me Mara [which means 'bitter'], for the Almighty has deal bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me.” (Ruth 1:19-21)
The tragic loss of the men she loved has wrecked Naomi. But the losses are not just relational. Here’s how one scholar put it:
“From wife to widow, from mother to no-mother, this female is stripped of all identity. The security of husband and children, which a male-dominated culture affords its woman, is hers no longer. The definition of worth, by which it values the female, applies to her no more. The blessings of old age, which it gives through children, are there no longer. Stranger in a foreign land, Naomi is a victim of death—and of life.” (Trible, 167-168)
Naomi’s grief is normal, but it is compounded by the pressures of her own culture. In her culture the pressure, you could even say the cultural necessity, for a woman to be married and bear children was immense. This was a woman's chief source of pride, identity and value ... and now Naomi had lost that, too. Pressures like these continue today and can still make death that much harder to mourn through.
We live in a culture that struggles to talk about death and mourn openly. If you have lost your husband or children, you may feel unwanted or isolated because your grief is an affront to the Suburban/American goal of projecting happiness and togetherness. And if you're a woman who has had such tragedies as Naomi, you will know why she said, "Call me Bitter."
Naomi meant “pleasant”—but that name mocked her now. So she renamed herself, “Mara”—“Bitter.” “I went away full,” she says, “and the LORD has brought me back empty.” Has your bitterness ever been so thick you wondered, ‘Why live? Why was I even born if I was going to experience so much pain?’ And for the person who believes in God, there is another layer of confusion: Why did God do this to me and my family?
In the face of bitterness, loss and confusion, what can we possibly do?
I will start with the obvious: You grieve. You mourn. You weep as Jesus wept. You don’t try to stop it up. You don’t try to trudge through, staying strong for everyone else, and bottling up the pain.
But I encourage you to grieve without giving up on God, and to bring your complaints to the Lord without quitting on faith. There are times when you will say from the depths of your soul, just like Naomi, that “the hand of the LORD has gone out against me." Like Job, (read chapter 3), you will wonder why you were even born, if only to suffer and be "hedged in" by God.
At first, Naomi and Job's belief in God actually seemed to make their grief harder. That may be your experience as well. They knew God was Almighty, the Sovereign One, able to prevent the things that had happened. But He had not.
If you haven’t already, one day you will probably hit this same wall of grief and confusion. It may not be occasioned by death—but you will hit a wall of suffering and ignorance and every fiber of your being will demand an answer—but you will not get one. For the Lord God does not reveal all things to us. However, although you feel alone and abandoned, you are not. Perhaps, like Naomi, God's grace is present right in your emptiness.
Naomi said, she came home “empty.” But she didn’t really, did she? God had given her Ruth--a gift of grace if ever there was one. This young woman--herself now a widow--stood by Naomi’s side through it all. In her mere presence, Ruth is a reminder to us that sometimes people in great loss just need us to stay with them.
What should you do, if you're standing in Ruth's shoes?
Be patient. Don’t run away. Don’t avoid conversations. Talk about the deceased. Be okay with the happy times turning sad, perhaps for many years. Learn what it means to "mourn with those who mourn.” Let their tears become your tears.
You will feel awkward, but they know you can’t fix it. They know you don’t have any magic words to take away the pain or explain why God let it happen. But the one who is suffering does know when you're there, and when you're not.
You won’t want this job, but that takes us to an incredibly important passage: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)
Strengthening your family is sacrificial work. There is no simple process, no pill you can take or script you can read. Being there for people, reminding them of God’s love and faithfulness is part of what it means to be a “living sacrifice.” Ruth is amazing. She sacrificed it all for Naomi. Look at her vow, again:
Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. She sacrificed her freedom.
For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. She sacrificed her homeland and culture.
Your people shall be my people. She sacrificed her family.
Your God my God. She sacrificed her gods.
Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. She even sacrificed her future.
What’s beautiful about this passage, too, is that the more we look at Ruth, the more we see God’s grace and heart for us. Jesus promised us, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” In Hebrews 13:5, quoting from Deuteronomy, we are reminded that God will never leave us nor forsake us. Ask the saints who’ve been through the fire, and they will bear witness to the promises of Scriptures like these:
Psalm 46:1-2, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea…”
Psalm 23:4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.
2 Corinthians 1:5, “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort, too.”
However, Christ is not only our comforter in death, he is the conqueror of death.
Your well-meaning friends who don’t have a relationships with Jesus, secular therapists, psychologists and most other people who talk to you in your hour of pain will probably counsel you that ultimately, death is normal and needs to be accepted. Death is a part of life, they'll remind you. Yes, it is awful; but it is also universal, biological and predictable.
This may be of some peace to you, reminding you that what you’re not alone in your grief and loss. And although what they’re saying is true—which is why it can be helpful—it's incomplete. Scripture tells us more. Through the words of the prophets and apostles, God reveals the deeper meaning of death.
Death is universal, biological and predictable because it is ultimately a result of sin. Sin came first; death came second. Paul wrote in Romans 5:12, “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin..” (Romans 5:12) The significance of that is shocking. The universe we live in is not first and foremost physical and biological; it is first and foremost spiritual and moral, because it has been created and is upheld by a spiritual and moral God. Thus, the immorality of humans, explains the mortality of humans. Sin is the reason why death is now universal, predictable and biological.
This is also the reason why Jesus Christ could overcome death. The Apostle Peter declared this throughout Jerusalem in the first recorded sermon after the resurrection. He said, "But God raised him [Jesus of Nazareth] from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him." (Acts 2:24). This was so because Jesus was perfectly moral. He was the one person who "knew no sin." Yet in laying down his life, he put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Hebrews 9:26b)
This is why he could say to his grieving friend, Martha, "“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
When you are united to Christ in faith, his morality, all of his goodness is yours by faith. His death is yours. His resurrection is yours. In the life of the Christian, the reign of death has already given way to the reign of grace! You can be comforted in your own life knowing that when Christ returns as Judge and Savior sin and death will have no more place in this world. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:26, "The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
For you today, as you read these things, whether reading in grief or in peace, may these truths transform your mind. May you know, in your mind and heart, through all the tears, that God's grace is there, right in your emptiness. May you be present in the lives of your family members who mourn and weep. And when that's you, may you call out to God, not quitting or giving up, but trusting in his grace to uphold you, and his Son to one day restore you and put an end to all grieving and loss forever.