Because of sad, hard, tragic providence, over the last few years a number of friends and a family member have become widows. In praying for and interacting with these dear women, Miriam and I have seen how lonely and difficult their new status can be. In reflecting on this both personally and biblically, one thought that might be helpful is to see widowhood as a calling.
When a Christian woman becomes a wife, she takes her vows before the Lord and receives her new role with her husband as a calling. She becomes his helper (Gen. 2:18), his closest companion by covenant (Mal. 2:14), and the delight of his life (Gen 2:23; Song of Sol. 4). By submitting herself to his leadership, usually symbolized in our culture by the woman taking her husband's last name, the wife has linked her identity with him (Eph. 5:22-33). They have become one. If the Lord blesses them with children, the woman sees her calling as a wife expanded into motherhood (Gen. 1:28; Ps. 113:9). We typically do not balk at the idea of becoming and being a wife as a calling.
But what about widowhood? Can that not also be considered a calling of a unique sort? If becoming a wife is a calling of joy, then surely becoming a widow would be a calling of sorrow. But is it not a calling nonetheless? Let me offer support for this idea from the Scriptures and why it could be helpful to see it this way.
Widows are identified as a special class of people in the Bible. Repeatedly in the Scriptures, women are simply identified as widows. From the woman known as the widow of Zarephath who fed Elijah from her meager portions to Anna the widow who served in the temple waiting for the Lord's arrival, widowhood is a classification of people. To be called a widow implies a calling to widowhood, however difficult that may seem. When Naomi returned to Bethlehem from Moab after seeing her husband and sons die, she struggled greatly with her new identity but saw it from the Lord nonetheless (Ruth 1:19-21).
Accepting a new calling from God, even one that involves suffering under a cross, is the first step toward living faithfully in that role. When the apostles were imprisoned, beaten, and then released by the Sanhedrin, they were ultimately able to rejoice because "they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name" (Acts 5:41 NASB). They knew they had been called by God to suffer. Similarly, the Lord calls widows to live honorably before him to show that, even in the midst of their sorrow and loneliness, he upholds and sustains them (Ps. 146:9).
Widows have a special place in the heart of God. To remind us of who he is, God often identifies himself with certain people. He calls himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to remind his people of his covenant promises (Ex. 3:15-16). He is known as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ so we know that he is Triune (Rom 15:6). Similarly, God identifies himself with widows. He executes justice for them (Deut. 10:18) and spreads his wings over them to protect them (Ruth 2:12). The psalmist says that "Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation" (Ps. 68:5). He views his dwelling place as the special place where widows are to be cared for (Deut. 16:11; Zech. 7:8-14). To be known by God, loved by God, and protected by God in such a way is to have a special calling indeed. For it reveals to the church and the world the God of mercy and justice.
Widows are given instructions on how to honor this difficult calling. In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, Paul gives detailed teaching about widows to Timothy and the church in Ephesus. Without going into a full exposition of this text or others instructing widows, clearly the church is to help each widow answer basic questions so she can fulfill her role righteously. What type of widow is she? Does she have family that can help look out for her? Is she young and should she be encouraged to consider remarriage? How does she use her time fruitfully so as not to fall into wantonness? Should the church support her and, if so, what are the expectations? Somewhat similar to a minister having an inner calling confirmed by the outward call of the church, so the church is to help widows understand and live out their calling.
Widows are to remind the church of the ultimate calling of God's people. One of the unique aspects of marriage is that it is to symbolize the union of Christ and his church. As the Bible both begins and ends with a wedding, marriage is a running metaphor throughout Scripture that helps us see what our relationship with Christ is to be like. Yet this truth, coupled with the church's emphasis on encouraging marriage, can cause God's people too easily to slip into thinking of earthly marriage as a permanent, and even ultimate, status. Thus, the Lord places widows in the church to teach us that is not the case and to point us to greater truth.
For what does widowhood convey to us? As the title and content of John Piper's book This Momentary Marriage remind us, earthly marriages are not to be viewed as ultimate. Rather, in the light of eternity, in Piper's words marriage should be seen as a temporary parable instructing us in the eternal love of God that we will enjoy in heaven. Widowhood experienced directly or indirectly should put greater longings in all of God's peoples' hearts to be with Christ and to experience his consummate love. As Os Guiness says in his book The Call:
We are not primarily called to do something or go somewhere; we are called to Someone. We are not called first to special work but to God. The key to answering the call is to be devoted to no one and to nothing above God himself.
Finally, the call of widowhood is placed upon the whole church, not just the individual widow. After the intense involvement during the time of death and funeral of the widow's husband, it can be easy for people in the church to begin to stand at a distance. We can view a widow, shake our heads slowly in sorrow, and, with a look of pity upon our face, see her across the sanctuary and think quietly, "Oh, that poor lady, what a burden she has been given to bear." We can see the calling to widowhood as hers alone.
But that is not the case. In the body of Christ, "if one member suffers, all suffer together" (I Cor. 12:26). We are called "to bear one another's burdens" (Gal. 6:2). Widowhood calls us all to respond. The church must practice true religion and visit widows. Then we need to visit them again and again (Jam. 1:27; Matt. 25:34-40). The church should meet needs that arise. We should be friends to widows, comforting them in their loneliness. As for many women the loss of a husband also means a loss of sense of identity and place in the body of Christ, as time and healing take place the church must help them find new areas where they can use their gifts and experience to serve.
As we respond to the widow's call, may the last prayer cry found in the Bible arise from each of our hearts more intensely. "Come, Lord Jesus!"