One of the things I take great pleasure in life is to take time and sit down with a good book. Now there are many different types of literature out there. You have science fiction, poetry, historical novels, sports anthologies, and even the dreaded romance novels! Now, I’ve never been one to read romance novels, but I will admit that recently I did read one… and I found it really hard to put down!
If you are wondering which one it was, believe it or not, it’s a book I found in the Bible—the Book of Ruth. The setting of Ruth is the Promised Land during the period of the Judges. This story serves as a ray of light in a sea of darkness, giving us a snapshot of God at work in an ordinary life.
From the very beginning, the main characters are plunged into tragedy and loss of unusual proportion. Many of us have experienced difficulties in our lives, but one of the main characters in this story seemed to run into bad luck at every turn. Her name is Naomi and with her husband, Elimelech, they go to a foreign land. Shortly after arriving, Elimelech dies leaving her as a single mother of two sons in a foreign land.
As a widow, she has no way of providing for herself except through her two sons. Her two sons take Moabite wives, Ruth and Orpah, but shortly thereafter, both sons also die. Naomi was now totally helpless. In those days, there was no welfare system or life insurance policy she could fall back on. What would she do?
When tragic events like this happen in our lives, we are put in a place of making important, yet difficult choices. It is like being on a journey and coming to a crossroads. The choices we make are important and can have lasting consequences.
Gerald Sittser, a professor at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, writes about losing his mother, wife, and daughter in a tragic auto accident. Sittser says he discovered that “the experience of loss does not need to be the defining moment of our life…the defining moment can be our response to the loss.”
In other words, we do not have the freedom to choose the roles we must play in life, but we can choose how we are going to play the roles that we have been given. Our response to tragedy will often dictate or have great influence on the eventual outcome.
Another person familiar with tragedy was a man named Horatio Spafford. Seemingly all through his life, tragedy seemed to find him. First, he lost his two-year-old son. He then suffered financial ruin from the great Chicago Fire of 1871. He decided to go to Europe with his family, but a change in plans required him to wait so he sent his family ahead on the SS Ville De Havre. The ship sank after colliding with another vessel and his four daughters were lost at sea. While traveling to see his wife, he was inspired to write the classic hymn, “It is Well with my Soul.”
So how do you deal with the loss like Naomi’s?
The Bible tells me there are certain things I should not do, and it tells me there are certain things I should do if I want to live a life that is full and meaningful. Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah had important choices to make in the face of their loss. Each of these women teaches us of the choices we have to make to not just survive our losses but to actually grow and deepen through them.
In the wake of the loss, Naomi decides to return to her homeland to be around her family and friends for support and to the people of like faith. When we go through difficulties, it important to find a place to be where we can get the support we desperately need. We need to find it through a Christian counselor, going to church, joining a small group, or some days, simply getting out of bed.
Relationships are key when going through difficult times. When you read Naomi’s story, we see how she learned to rely on those closest to her for support. There’s something about shared suffering that actually knits our hearts together with other people. Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
When Naomi heads off for the Promised Land, her daughter-in-laws, Ruth and Orpah, leave with her, despite Naomi’s request that they not do so. Naomi prays, “May the Lord deal kindly with you.” That word kindly is from a Hebrew word which describes God’s loyal, steadfast, committed love for His people. After Naomi continues to challenge their decision, Orpah decides to return to Moab. But then Ruth did the unexpected and stayed close to Naomi.
Ruth’s expression of loyal, faithful love to Naomi consists of some of the most beautiful words in the Bible: “Where you go, I will go.” Ruth is making a permanent break with her past as an expression of her loyalty to God. Ruth has learned from Naomi’s example to trust God. Proverbs 18:24 says, “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Ruth was such a friend.
If we’re going to survive times of loss and tragedy, we have to learn to have this kind of loyalty and commitment to each other. Our tendency in these times is to isolate ourselves, but we need to extend ourselves to each other.
The church of Jesus Christ ought to be a place where we demonstrate that it is possible to have intimate and deeply committed relationships founded on the example of Christ’s love for His church. We see that same kind of love in how Naomi and Ruth related to one another.
So Ruth and Naomi, arm-in-arm, make the treacherous journey across the mountains to the little town of Bethlehem. Now we can only guess the story that Naomi’s face told the people of the town. She had left with a full-life filled with hopes and dreams, and now she returns with nothing but a Moabite woman.
But even returning home doesn’t take away the pain Naomi is feeling. Naomi is still struggling with all she has gone through and lost. This leads to an awful change. Naomi, which means “pleasant,” now asks that the people call her Mara, which means “bitter”.
Now it is easy to think that Naomi was a very unspiritual, unfaithful woman to talk this way, but this was not the first time one of God’s people had lodged a complaint. God actually appreciates such honesty.
I experienced that in my own life. Back in 1990, Tracey was pregnant with our son, Josiah. Sadly, he had a birth defect that led to him living only for a day. I was pretty mad with God over the whole thing. Why didn’t He answer our prayers? Didn’t He care about us? As I look back on those times, I am grateful that I have faith in a God who understood my deepest pain and hurt and was “big enough” to listen and have compassion on me.
When you’re intimate with someone, it’s normal to express all your feelings, even if they seem like betrayal and bitter. Our choice to face and lament the pain, as Naomi does, is necessary before we can actually experience true joy again.
In the end, Naomi understood and came to believe that God was in charge. What she had a hard time seeing was that God was at work in all of these things for her good and blessing. Naomi says, “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.”
Had Naomi come back empty handed? No. She had a loyal daughter-in-law named Ruth. She also had come back at the time of the barley harvest. In the end, she discovered that God was meeting her needs!
In the midst of our losses, it is an act of faith to believe God is still at work and his ultimate aim is to bless us. If we open our eyes—if we can at least wipe the tears away and look around us—we can begin to think, “Maybe there is a blessing in all of this?”
If you ever get a chance to look at the back of a tapestry, you will discover something interesting. On its back, you will see is a coloured mass of tangled threads. The myriad of colours doesn’t seem to make any rhyme or reason. But flipped back over you discover how each coloured thread is put together in a way that creates a beautiful image for all to enjoy.
There are going to be times in our lives where everything will seem like a tangled mess. But as we keep our hearts and eyes focused on Jesus, we will in time discover that what we thought was a disaster, God was working in and through to bring glory to Himself and blessings into our lives.