Love through me, Love of God;
Make me like Thy clear air
Through which, unhindered, colors pass
As though it were not there.
(Amy Carmichael, “Love Through Me”)
The book of Ruth details a young widow clinging to her mother-in-law. Maybe Ruth was prone to clinging. What she may not have realized was that Naomi was prepared to hold her.
Grafted in the messianic line, these two women’s relationship is carefully preserved throughout their journey. Ruth is endearing with her youthful commitment and pledged-love to Naomi. But it’s the grieved Naomi who is raised to lead their future with ingenious, maternal wisdom.
Let’s be honest. Naomi gets a lot of criticism for embracing bitterness and throwing a spiritual tantrum in her “stirred” village: “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Ruth 1:20-21).
However, in spite of her complaining heart, God makes Naomi’s arms wrap around Ruth—to hold, love, train, guide, and provide a future for her, just like she would for her own offspring. Naomi becomes more than a mother-in-law: she becomes Ruth’s mentor and protector. Naomi was wise. In fact, even while grieving her dead husband and sons, the texts shows us that Naomi’s love for Ruth was not just a ceremonial alliance or law-abiding affiliation. Despite their incredible suffering, theirs was not a begrudged relationship either one had to embrace. Instead, Naomi surrounds Ruth with motherly, mentoring love. Unbeknownst to her, God was already filling her emptiness, one hardship at a time.
Did they ever face cultural power-struggles and stereotypes? Did Ruth ever feel looked down upon for being young and a foreigner? Was Naomi criticized for being stuck in her old ways? We don’t know. Probably being a mother-in-law was just as difficult in those times as it is now. Most likely being a daughter-in-law posed many hardships on the young women then as it does today. The text doesn’t tell us.
But we learn that no matter their differences, these women worked it out. They learned to use the “in-law” suffix not as a hinge of differentiation but as a bolt of unification. Naomi’s mothering honored her daughter’s spiritual, social, and familial growth. She led not with demeaning words and disrespectful actions—but with God-honoring blessings and wise, protective initiatives. Naomi loved Ruth beyond their law-biding relationship.
God placed these two women in a covenantal relationship not because they were getting along, but because from their meddling something bigger was already unfolding. Their relationship had little to do with their personalities and strengths—but everything to do with the story of God leading up to the Messiah‘s birth.
Do you have a mother-in-law? Honor, love and pray for her! Do it not just because she is your law-given mother, but because God chose her to be in your life. From all the mothers in this universe, God made her your husband’s mother. Your relationship to her has less to do with your compatibility, and everything to do with the gospel. Allow the Savior’s grace to overspill into your extended family relationships: Jesus didn’t play dice when he gave you your mother-in-law. In his sovereignty, he knew both the blessings and hardships you’d face when marrying into your husband’s family. So, look at her as a gift from God, given for your eternal good.
Are you a mother-in-law? Lend your love, honor, and prayer to your children-in-law not simply because they are married to your children, but because God brought them into your family and your arms for purposes bigger than just the present. You strengthen their marriage when you love their spouses well, as Jani Ortlund wisely points out. Are you praying for your children’s spouses regularly? Are you serving them selflessly? How else can show them your devoted love in practical ways?
Too young to be a mother-in-law? If you have children, chances are you will one day become one. What kind of mother-in-law will you be? Are you making provisions for it? How are you praying for your future children-in-law these days? Are you learning from the godly examples of mother-in-law around you?
I prayed for a faithful husband and God threw in some amazing in-laws, too. While my mother-in-law has been a constant encouragement to me over the year, I’ve also looked around me for wisdom from all kinds of other mothers. My church is filled with godly mothers-in-law who have stories to share. Some are still painful and raw, while others are victorious remedies and blessed victories.
One day, my children will leave to form their own families. As I contemplate those seasons, my motherhood is being grown, too. God is preparing me not to empty my motherhood, but to fill it up abundantly. The more I look ahead to my children marrying and having their own children, the more I’m convinced that “empty-nesting” is a delusive cultural cliché. I’ll never reach emptiness within my walls while God keeps adding new souls to our family for me to love.
Naomi didn’t see the new wave of richness in relationships coming her way. But God was faithful to fill her family and heart even more. Instead of rejecting God’s way of blessing her anew, Naomi faithfully embraced her daughter-in-law. As I wait for my upcoming seasons, I pray God will grow me into a godly mother whose love crosses all laws—embracing my future sons and daughters truly in my heart and family.