When [Ruth and Naomi] arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be 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.”
On April 18, 1980, my parents gave me the name “Timothy”. Unless something strange happens, I’ll be Tim, Timothy, or some other derivative for the rest of my life.
Other folks seem less content. Because lots of well-known people have risen to fame under stage names, aliases, and pseudonyms that differ from the names printed on their birth certificates.
President Gerald Ford, for instance, was actually born Leslie Lynch King.
Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvilli, who liked to be thought of as “steely,” went by the more metallic moniker Josef Stalin.
Entertainer Aloe Blacc’s birth certificate reads “Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III.”
Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta has chosen to go by the name “Lady Gaga”. Improvement? You be the judge.
To make a point, activist Christopher Garnett changed his name to KentuckyFriedCruelty.com. No, I’m not going to hyperlink it here.
Even TV celebrity horse Mr. Ed was born under a different moniker. The little foal was called “Bamboo Harvester.”
People change their names for different sorts of reasons. They take on aliases to convey their convictions, to market themselves to the public, or identify with new communities.
But you know what you don’t hear much about? You don’t hear much about people trading in a wonderful name for an ugly one. People don’t generally swap out Aloe for Egbert.
But the Bible says that’s what happened to a woman in the Old Testament named Naomi. She abandoned a beautiful name for a bitter alias.
The opening verses of Naomi’s story (Ruth 1) recount a series of personal and family heartaches. Natives of the Judean town of Bethlehem, Naomi and her starving family were forced to emigrate to the distant land of Moab to find food. While they were living there, Naomi’s husband and two sons died.
With three tombstones to her back, Naomi eventually decided to head back home. One of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, accompanied the worn-out widow to Bethlehem.
When they reached the gates of the village, Bethlehem’s women ran out to greet Naomi. Everyone rejoiced over her return. She was home, and everyone was happy!
But Naomi…was not happy.
Naomi was not good.
Naomi was grieving.
Naomi…was not Naomi.
This can be one of the hardest things about going through suffering. You are unable to be who you others expect you to be. Sometimes you can’t even be who you want to be.
Why? Because while the world’s gone on as if nothing changed, you’ve been through something. You’ve been to the battlefront. You’ve sailed in the storm. You’ve fought through the fire.
Grieving people – you know who you are – you’ve walked through the smoke and the fog.
You didn’t make the team.
You’ve been told that you’ll never have kids of your own.
You’ve lived three days and three nights in the pit.
You aren’t who you once were.
You are changed.
You’ve stood at the grave.
You’ve had to sell the car you loved to pay the bill you hated.
You’ve been told there isn’t a second medical opinion.
You aren’t who we think you are.
Look at me, Naomi moans. I’m not who I used to be. I’m not Naomi. I’m something else, something less. I’m empty. I’m bitter. Tonight, all I am is duct tape and baling wire. My body is here, but my soul is someplace else.
Call me Mara, the bitter one. Because I’m not who I used to be.
But the story is pretty clear. Despite all of her grief, Naomi doesn’t lose her faith. She doesn’t consider all of this pain to be the result of fate or random chance. This comes from God, she says. And Naomi is – in her grief and bitterness – working out a theology of complaint.
Old Testament professor Edward Campbell says this about being upset with God:
“Not only is complaint tolerated by God, but it can even be the proper stance of a person who takes God seriously! Anyone who ascribes full sovereignty to a just and merciful God may expect to encounter the problem of theodicy – theodicy means the problem of evil, pain, and suffering in the world – and to wrestle with that problem is no sin even when it leads to an attempt to put God on trial.”
Even when it is an attempt to put God on trial.
I can tell you: As a pastor, I’ve been there. I’ve sat with people in my office or in the hospital room or in the funeral parlor. And I’ve heard them say how frustrated they are with God. How disappointed they are with God.
And then, they audibly gasp that those words have actually come out of their own mouths.
But if Campbell is right, then we have no reason to be ashamed that we’ve turned our sadness God-ward. Believers look at everything – even tragedy – and see God in it. God before it, God below it, God behind it.
And after we go through it, we come out different. Suffering forges something new out of us. In our grief, we become links between what the bitterness of what has been and the beauty of what is still to come.
What was yet to come for Naomi? Well, here’s the rest of the story:
After settling in to Bethlehem Ruth headed out to provide for her mother-in-law by gleaning in a field. Out among the sheaves, Ruth met a handsome and eligible landowner named Boaz.
That’s when Naomi began to see – if only a pixel at a time – what God’s great plan was.
The tired old widow went full-on Yente, morphing into a savvy matchmaker, and – long story short – Ruth wound up marrying Boaz. Nature took its course, and eventually Ruth gave birth to a little boy named Obed. A generation later, Obed had a son named Jesse, and – as God would have it – Jesse begat a boy competent in slings, stones, harps, and crowns. His name was David.
Yes, that David.
In God’s perfect plan, worn-out Naomi became the great-great grandmother of Israel’s great, great king.
And you know what’s amazing? Ruth 4:16 tells us that after baby Obed was born, Naomi took that little child in her arms and cared for him. And all of the women of the village said “Naomi has a son!”
Not a grandson, a son.
This child transformed her life so much that it was as if Obed was her own child. Bitter Mara became a beautiful mama.
There’s no doubt: Moab changed Naomi. There were three hard funerals. But God’s plan for her heart, for her family, for her nation – and ultimately, for our salvation – was never off course.
God has a plan for you, too. Though you’ve been through the ringer, you’re still standing. And regardless of what you think of yourself, in the end, you are ever and only who God says you are.