The best-known mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship in the Bible is that of Naomi and Ruth. Take a look again at this familiar Old Testament story. Within a few sentences we meet an Israelite family desperate to survive. Famine ravages Bethlehem, their home. Hunger has driven them to Moab, the land of Israel’s ancient enemy. After the family’s father dies, the sons violate God’s law and marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. Then the sons die, leaving Naomi—the mother—and her daughters-in-law with nothing.
“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. (Ruth 1:15–18 ESV)
Full of regrets and love, Naomi tells her daughter-in-law to stay behind. The life of widows in Moab is hard enough. But how could her daughters-in-law possibly survive as foreign widows in Israel? No one would want to marry them there. If they stayed in Moab, they’d have a better shot at remarrying and starting a new life. Orpah agrees. But Ruth surprises Naomi, insisting she will go with her.
What can Ruth hope to gain from staying with Naomi? Ruth is not naive. She knows life will be hard. But she loves her mother-in-law and she loves her mother-in-law’s God. And now she acts on that love.
What if you have been hurt? Or your in-law is disagreeable? Maybe she’s even unkind. How can you love a woman so unlike you? She’s nothing like the person you dreamed she’d be. Is there any hope of developing a loving relationship with her?
We enter the mother-in-law, daughter-in-law relationship expecting what we want—the best. Instead of the dream come true, suddenly it seems we’ve ended up in a nightmare. What can we do? Our unrealistic expectations have only made us super-sensitive. The ugliness of sin smacks us in the face. Our inconsistent feelings mislead us. How can we help but go in the wrong direction? Love has disappeared.
We’ve been hurt. We pull away. Self-protectively, we watch for more ways she’ll miss the mark. We begin to justify ourselves. She deserves my emotional distance. Our hearts say, “I’ll love my in-law when she stops hurting me.” As if love could ever be pain-free! We pretend to love our in-law, but we talk about her behind her back. We find ways to punish her or we take it out on our husbands. Bitterness and cynicism grow. How did we ever think we could stir up love? We give up.
Committed love—what is it? Ruth teaches us the hard truth: committed love is more than a feeling. Feelings are very important and deserve tending to, but true love could never wholly depend on something as unstable as our emotions. For love to be true, it has to be fueled by commitment.
Said another way, the true test of love is not if we feel it in the moment, but rather if we show up to what love requires in the moment. And when we honor the commitment to honor our in-law no matter what, when we show up to what love requires regardless of what the other person is doing, this habit eventually pulls our feelings along toward true love. Whether it’s an argument or harsh words, committed love has no room for endless exceptions. True love does not withdraw. Our commitment moves us toward the other person in hardship, not away. Love accepts inconsistencies. Ruth loved the real Naomi, not a dream of what she thought she should be.
Modern Day In-Laws
Debra has honed her skill at packing criticism into sweet sounding words toward her daughter-in-law, Tara.
“It’s so good to hear your voice. I was just wondering when I’d ever hear from you.”
“I was so pleased to hear from ________ (the “good” daughter-in-law) this week. Can you believe, she always asks for my advice on how to discipline her kids?”
“Oh goodness, I would have invited you to the gathering with the others, but I didn’t hear from you at all last week.”
To make matters even worse, when Tara tells her husband about the conversation, all he hears is his mother’s sweet voice. He can’t see what is really going on. Would anyone fault Tara for distancing herself? Is there any hope for love? Neither Debra nor Tara feel like loving the other.
Or take the case of Vivian. Problems with her daughter-in-law, Shelley, surfaced right after the newly-weds returned from the honeymoon. Vivian tried to think positively about Shelley. She listed Shelley’s strengths. The list stayed short, but her bitterness grew. All she saw were Shelley’s annoying rough edges. More and more, Vivian found herself thinking, “I knew she’d never change.” Vivian prayed. When things didn’t change, Vivian wondered, “Are you listening to me, God?”
We’re trapped when we define love as a feeling that we have no control over. We lock people into categories. Of all relationships, our culture expects—and even laughs at—problems between a man’s mother and his wife. The worldly narrative is set for us and we jump right into it.
Yet even in overwhelming difficulties, our feelings don’t have to control us. Having our hormones at the right level may help, but it’s not the key. So, what is the key that can unlock the power of our feelings?
Before the foundation of the world, God in Christ committed to love us. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8 ESV). Jesus shows us what true love looks like. It follows through on the commitment to love—no matter how costly, and no matter how unworthy the loved one. Committed love does not wait for our in-law to change. It loves first. It loves always. It loves no matter what.
But Jesus’ love does even more. His Spirit gives us the power to love. Because He loved us no matter what, we really can love our in-law that way, too. Whatever your in-law’s situation, God offers you an opportunity to trust Him. Will you ask God for faith to trust Him? By His grace and for His glory, we can live out our commitment to love.
Note: This article is an excerpt from Making Room for Her—Biblical wisdom for a healthier relationship with your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law (B&H publishing, 2022) by Barbara and Stacy Reaoch.