Three Faith Lessons We Can Learn from Naomi
The book of Ruth is nestled between the Book of Judges and 1 Samuel. Its setting is placed during a turbulent time for God's people. The nation of Israel was without a king and everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes. It was one of the lowest points in their history. There was civil war, cruelty, division, lawlessness, unbelief, and disobedience to God.
In the beginning of the book of Ruth, we are introduced to Naomi, her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons, Mahlon and Killion. A famine is plaguing their hometown of Bethlehem. It is strange that a city that means "house of bread" would experience a famine. But, trouble was everywhere in Israel, and Bethlehem was not immune. The Old Testament is filled with stories of famine intentionally brought to the Israelites as a form of Godly discipline; punishment for their disobedience, their worship of other gods, and their sins.
This is where we find this family from Bethlehem. The decisions they made when faced with this famine would have severe consequences and lasting implications—much sadness would come from an unwise choice to leave Bethlehem and make their home in Moab. As always, however, God creates beauty from ashes. What seems like a hopeless situation for Naomi turns into one of the most beautiful redemption stories in the bible.
Our focus today is to examine what we can learn from Naomi's experience. There are three errors of faith that Naomi made, which brought her much heartache. As with many bible characters, we can learn from their imperfections and their mistakes. As Ruth gleaned wheat from the fields, we can glean from Namoi's story.
3 mistakes we must avoid as we deal with the trials of life.
1. Running Away from Your Problems
Warren Wiersbe says, "When trouble comes to our lives, we can do one of three things: endure it, escape it, or enlist it. If we only endure our trials, then trials become our master, and we have a tendency to become hard and bitter. If we try to escape our trials, then we probably miss the purposes God wants to achieve in our lives. But if we learn to enlist our trials, they will become our servants instead of our masters and work for us."
Elimelech and Naomi chose to escape the problem that had befallen Bethlehem. They were more concerned about how they were going to find bread then to trust the Bread of Life.
When Jesus was in the desert for forty days and the devil came to tempt him, the devil tried to play on the physical need of hunger that Jesus was combatting as he fasted for those forty days. The tempter said, "If you are the son of God, turn these stones into bread." But Jesus answered:
"It is written: Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."
In Matthew 7:31, Jesus tells us:
"So do not worry saying 'What shall we eat? or What shall we drink?' The pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."
You can't run away from your problems! No matter how difficult the situation you are facing, it is better to be physically hungry in the will of God then to be full and fat outside of it. We are called to walk by faith and not by sight.For Elimelech and Naomi, it was not God's will that they move to Moab; but they were walking by sight and not by faith. They believed one of the devil's favorite lies; that they would certainly die if they remained in Bethlehem. I can hear the enemy whispering to them, "Did God really say?" Those seeds of doubt were watered with fear, and sprouted into panic and desperation.
David says in Psalm 37:25:
"I was young and now I am old, yet i have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread."
I can understand that Elimelech felt, as the patriarch of the family, that he had to make sure that he took care of the health and well-being of his family, but he forgot the promises of God. He forgot that God was the manna provider in the desert for his people, he forgot that God makes a way where there seems no way. He forgot that God split the sea and delivered His people. Elimelech relied on his own plan, his own way, and his own strength and as he stepped foot into Moab, he stepped out of the will of God.
Elimelech's name means, "my God is king", but he did not live up to his name. He forgot that God was his king, and he became the king of his own life by making decisions that were against God's will and purpose.
They ran to Moab—the land of their enemy to escape their problem, but their problem was a disobedient heart and sadly that followed them to Moab. Then their sons married Moabite women—another law broken and in the end, the death they were so afraid of came to all but Naomi. When the famine was over, she stood in front of three graves and moved into her next mistake of faith, trying to hide her mistake.
2. You Can't Hide Your Mistakes
"When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there."Ruth 1:6
The brevity of the text causes us to make some suppositions about Naomi's decision to return home. Often, it is not what people say or do that reveals their true character, it is what is not said or done. All we know from the text is that Naomi seems to be, once again, only thinking of her physical needs as she makes the decision to return to Bethlehem. We are given no indication that Naomi has asked the Lord for forgiveness for breaking the law of Moses and living in Moab.
I wonder as I continue to read chapter one, the reason that Naomi stops along the road and tells her two foreign daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, to return to their home and that she will make the journey to Bethlehem alone. Is it because she feels they will be happier and more accepted in their own home? Or is it that she fears if she brings these two women home with her to Bethlehem everyone will know that she and Elimelech and their sons broke God's law? It is impossible to know.
Orpah did choose to return to her family's home, but Ruth defiantly and lovingly refused to leave her mother-in-law. With Ruth by her side, it would be impossible for Naomi to hide the truth; your sin will always find you out!
Naomi was returning to her land, but not to her Lord. Naomi was broken and Naomi was bitter. Because of the death of her husband and her two sons, Naomi exclaimed in Ruth 1:13:
"The Lord's hand has turned against me."
This declaration by Naomi leads us to the third mistake of faith: Blaming God for our trials.
3. Blaming God For Our Trials
"So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, 'Can this be Naomi?'" Ruth 1:19
I wonder what it was about Naomi that made the women exclaim, "Can this be Naomi?" Had ten years of living in Moab changed her so drastically that she was unrecognizable? Was the sadness and the bitterness that enveloped her soul so great that she had physically changed in her appearance? The name Naomi means "pleasant". Was there something in her countenance and her demeanor that made her appear as different and as foreign as her daughter-in-law, Ruth? I have seen in my own experience how loss and tragedy can change a person. I can only assume this was the same for Naomi.
"Don't call me Naomi, she told them. Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me." Ruth 1:20-21.
In the ancient East, the meaning of one's name had greater significance than it does to us now in the West. Naomi wanted to change her name to Mara because Mara meant "bitterness". Naomi had returned to Bethlehem broken and empty. She had nothing; no husband, no children, no money, and no home. (What she would soon realize was the treasure and salvation she had in Ruth.)
In these verses is this Naomi's confession of her sin and disobedience to God? Does she finally admit to herself and to others that leaving Bethlehem and going to Moab was a breech of her faith and trust in the Lord and now He had punished her for it? This is another instance where all we can do is try to read between the lines. I believe, even if inadvertently, Naomi was making a confession. What is heartbreaking about this part of the story is that Naomi is blaming God and really not taking any personal responsibility for the choices she and her family made. This is a dangerous place to be in.
We can't control the circumstances that happen to us. All we can do is decide how we are going to react to them. That is really what faith is. It is staring at the situations we face in our lives and believing that God is for us and with us through it all. Even in the most dire of circumstances that arise, we must believe that God is working all things together for our good. We must do what James admonishes:
"Count it pure joy, my brothers and sisters whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." James 1:2-4
What Naomi was experiencing, is what many of us do when we are grieving, we become selfish and self-centered. We can fall into the "poor me" syndrome and only focus on the problems. This makes us myopic—only able to focus on one thing, while so many of our everyday blessings go unnoticed. I am not diminishing Naomi's loss, I am simply pointing out her lack of faith walked hand-in-hand with her loss of focus. What she could have never known in that moment was the divine grace and mercy that God was about to bestow on her through her precious daughter-in-law, Ruth. In the midst of her selfishness, she could have never imagined that she would forever be connected to the bloodline of the Messiah; that God would take what was meant for evil and He would turn it into good.
So what can we learn from Naomi's story? This whole first chapter of the book of Ruth is about faith and how we handle the difficult situations in life. We can learn much from this short chapter in the Bible. When the trials come, trust that God will do what he promised. Don't end up taking a detour away from His will, but if you do:
1. Know that you can't run from your problems
2. Know that you can't hide from your mistakes
3. You can't blame God for your trials.
For more about focusing on the promise instead of the problems, be sure to pick up a copy of my "Attitude of Gratitude Journal" found in the SHOP on the website. It will change the way you think and speak about the situations in your life and bring you a spirit of thanksgiving.
Blessings in Him,
Susie O'Neal is the founder of Between the Gardens, LLC, an online ministry dedicated to encouraging other believers with the truth of God's Word. She has a master's degree in educational psychology and is an author and copy editor for a supplemental textbook company in Cleveland, OH.
She is a blogger, and the author of the devotional, "Abundant Rain" coming this spring. Subscribe to her website so you always know what is happening in the Gardens.
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