Bitter Women Utter Honest Prayers
Naomi tasted the bitter irony of her name. Her parents had given her a name meaning “pleasantness,” tempting the God of reversals to do his thing. And he did. Unlike the patriarch of her people, who was enriched when he left Israel during a famine, Naomi became impoverished. She who bore the name Pleasant bore first her husband, then her son, then her second and last son to the graveyard. So when she returns from her exile, widowed and bereft of her children, she laments to her former neighbors, “Do not call me Pleasant; call me Bitter, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”
Christianity can easily be twisted into spiritualized etiquette. You learn how properly to eat at the Lord’s table, how respectfully to address him, how politely to carry on a conversation with him. If you don’t like what he serves, well, tough, clean your plate and ask for seconds. If you don’t feel like shaking his hand, do it anyway and beam at him like there’s no one else you’d rather be meeting. And above all, if his behavior toward you is cold and rude, if he insults you, shrug it off or put the best construction on it, and never, ever tell him exactly what you think of him. In short, such a religion teaches that nothing pleases God more than a fake.
Suffering has a way of stripping off the masks we wear when speaking of God, or to God. Hear Naomi unmasked. “The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” Or as she says to her daughters-in-law, “The hand of the Lord has gone forth against me.” There are no fine theological distinctions here between God’s consequent and antecedent will; no attribution of her suffering to Satan, that ever-handy scapegoat; not a hint that her losses are part of the raw reality of life in a fallen world. Naomi feels quite simply that God has ruined her life; and she’s not afraid to say it.
A relationship with God that has no room brutal honesty is no relationship at all. It’s a farcical faith. God is not somehow protected, or honored, when his children give no voice to the pain they experience at his hands. Indeed, the very complaint is itself a confession of faith. For faith does not require that we like what the Lord does. Faith is not his amen pew, Yes Sirring the divine. It is the kind of trust that knows that I can tell my Father how much he’s hurt me, abandoned me, ripped away my deepest loves—and still know he is my Father.
There is more, much more, to the story of Naomi. But we know that; Naomi didn’t. Yes, five years down the road, your friend who buried her husband early this year, has a daughter addicted to crack, and was just diagnosed with breast cancer—in five years she may have happily remarried, seen her daughter’s life turned around, and have a clean bill of health. But she knows none of that now. Now all she knows is a broken heart. Telling her that God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love him may well be true, but I doubt it is profitable. For now she needs, like Naomi, to speak the truth to the God who can handle it. And in time, he will answer her, as only a Father can.
Perhaps the most honest prayer ever prayed was by a condemned man, who cried out in his death agonies, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” And he was answered, three days later, when he looked over his shoulder at the grave he had just vacated. That suffering man, the atoning Lord who cried out to His Father, cries out still in us and for us and through us to the God who raised him–and us in him–from the dead.