The book of Ruth is a hardship story, a harvest story, and a heartwarming story about love and God’s provision. We’re going to camp in the book of Ruth for a few weeks and see what God has to say about the tragedies and challenges we face in life.
Ruth 1:1-5 1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there. 3 Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
Some God-authored, life-changing, wonderful things have been happening in the lives of many in our church just since the beginning of this year. But many have also been enduring some dark nights, some rough roads, and some unrelenting pain. There have been shocking diagnoses, changes in quality of life, unanswered questions, and hardships that are being reported weekly and often daily. I’ve been talking to God about it a lot and have wrestled with not having understanding or answers that I think can truly help. But this I do know, those of you who are struggling, you are not alone. Many sitting in this room are enduring difficult battles, and certainly many in the Scriptures have wrestled with the “Where is God?” and the “If God loves me why did He allow this to happen to me?” questions. My mind went to the story of Ruth and Naomi, and felt God wanted us to explore how they handled their difficult circumstances to give us some insight on possible ways to handle ours.
Both ladies were dealing with grief. Naomi and her husband had left their hometown of Bethlehem and went to live, verse one says, “for a while” in Moab to escape a famine. At some point Naomi’s husband passed away, but she had her two boys to help care for her. Her boys married Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. The little while turned into a long while, and after ten years of living in Moab, her boys died also.
I tried to put myself in Naomi’s state of mind. She was in Moab because her husband had made a decision to leave Bethlehem in order to avoid the famine. Scripture doesn’t say that, but the nature of the patriarchal society meant the men made the decisions and the women followed so I believe that is the way the relocation came about. That move, however, took her fifty miles away from home, away from her family. It’s interesting to me that Bethlehem means “House of Bread,” yet during a time of famine, rather than trust God to supply food in the “House of Bread,” Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, struck out to find food on his own in Moab.
I don’t blame him. It was a bad time. Isn’t it true that our first instinct in bad circumstances is to escape them? I mean, why sit around and endure something bad? Rather than start with “God what can You do in my circumstance,” it is most often, “Let’s see what I can do.” We have options, right? However, looking for options rather than looking to God isn’t the kind of faith-walk we are supposed to be living out. While Elimilech probably just wanted to provide for his family, he led them to a place where they were going to eventually be alone and without family to assist them during a very tough time.
The grass isn’t always greener somewhere else. The food isn’t always more plentiful somewhere else. The circumstances aren’t always better in another position. The happiness isn’t always sustained long-term in another relationship. But often, we get discontent or scared and we leave where we are without seeking God. We just want to feel better. We just want to feel secure. We just want to feel full. We just want to be loved. Listen, no matter what happens to us in life, the safest place to be in is in the will of God. If God wants us in Bethlehem during a time of famine He will supply our needs and see us through. What did David say in Psalm 37:25? “I have been young, and now I am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, or his descendants begging bread.” God will take care of us.
However, rather than wait to see what God will do, in times of crises sometimes we look to the physical things of life for comfort to ease our pain quickly without realizing that sometimes earthly comfort comes with a spiritual price tag. (I should add it often comes with an emotional and physical one too, but that is a different message.)
Maybe leaving Bethlehem made some sense, but Moab? It was not the place for committed followers of God to go and dwell. Moab was considered an enemy of the Jews. The Moabites were descendants of Lot from an incestuous relationship he had with his daughter (Gen. 19). They were enemies of the Jews because of the way they had treated Israel when they were making their way from Egypt to Canaan. During the time of the judges, Moab had invaded Israel and ruled over the people for eighteen years (Judg. 3:12-14); so why should Elimelech turn to them for help?
Listen to what God said about the Moabites in Deuteronomy 23:3-6: 3 No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation. 4 For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you. 5 However, the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loves you. 6 Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.
It doesn’t sound as if God was very high on the Moabites. He didn’t tell His people it was ok to even vacation in Moab. He said, “Don’t be friends with them as long as you live.” “Don’t be friends with Moabites” should have been easily translated into “And don’t even think about living there.”
Oh, but remember, they were just going “for a while.” It was just going to be temporary. They were just escaping the famine for a bit. They would go back to Bethlehem in a while.
How often do you and I find ourselves justifying our actions because “it will just be temporary?” We’ll get our lives back on track soon. We’ll get back into church soon. We’ll start reading the Bible again soon. When the crises is over we will return to life as normal and honor God again, but during the crunch time we need to do our own thing to make sure we’ll be okay. We know we can stop the drinking or the drugging once we get through our stressful time, so we turn to vices and addictions as crutches to help us get through rather than relying on God. It’s a bad move.
We’re told in James 4:4 that becoming “friends” with the world means we become enemies of God. That verse doesn’t mean we aren’t to have non-Christian friends. It means we aren’t to live for the things of this world, we aren’t to solve our problems through worldly methods, we aren’t to let the values of the world impact our worship of and devotion to God, and we aren’t to let the culture of the world determine how we will live and respond to life’s difficulties. Not only did this family settle in Moab, but their sons married Moabite women. So they went from being friendly with Moab to making two Moabite women family. From friendly to family. How subtly compromise happens.
God knew that becoming “friends” with Moab would result in compromise. During Moses’ life, it was Moabite women who seduced Jewish men into immorality and idolatry. As a result, 24,000 people died (Num. 25). Why in the world would Elimilech choose to settle his family in Moab? It had a huge spiritual price tag. Elimilech took his family there to escape physical death, but in Moab, he and his two young adult sons wound up losing their earthly lives. Interesting, right?
And the Scripture tells us in Ruth 1:13 and in 1:20 that Naomi was bitter. She was a widow. She had to grieve that loss. She lost both of her sons. How devastating for her. She immediately thought her daughters-in-law would remarry and move on. The thought of either of them staying with her never crossed her mind (verses 8-9). She was prepared to live entirely alone. Whatever life had been built in Moab, whatever her dreams were for the future . . . living into retirement years with her husband, growing a relationship with her daughters-in-law, becoming a grandma to her sons’ children, it was all gone. And she was bitter.
This passage teaches us about the destructiveness of bitterness. For when we become bitter it is often tempting to BLAME GOD, it is very easy to BLOW OUR WITNESS.
Look at verse 13. Naomi blamed God for her circumstances. She said God was against her. One thing I know about God: He is NEVER against you. He is only for you. Does He allow consequences in our lives? Yes, of course, but He does so because He loves us, wants to protect us, and wants us to learn from our mistakes. She said again in verse 20 that God had made her life bitter. No, God hadn’t done these things to her.
Let’s unpack it a bit. Grief is natural, normal, and expected. But grief that isn’t handled well can turn to bitterness. Grief is the human response to loss. Bitterness is resentment about that loss.
God is the easiest one to blame because God has the power to order the events of our lives to make us happy all of the time. When He doesn’t do that, we question His love and we also put Him in a position where we make Him accountable to us rather than the way it truly is. God doesn’t answer to us. We are under His authority.
The loss of people we love has to be the worst earthly possible pain we could endure, but we must remember death was never part of God’s plan. Death is the result of sin entering the world. Sin brought death into the world (Romans 5). God is not to be blamed for death in this life. And He isn’t any happier about it than we are which is why He sent Jesus to pay the price for our sins so we didn’t have to suffer death and why He raised Jesus from the dead so we would never have to fear physical death. For those who are in Christ will live forever in heaven where there is no more physical death (I Cor. 15:21)!
We can get into blaming God when life isn’t or doesn’t seem fair. Let me just help all of us this morning. Until Jesus returns or you and I go on to glory, life will never be fair because we live in a sin-cursed world. No, God wasn’t being harsh towards Naomi. He was lovingly bringing her back home, back to Bethlehem, back to God’s people, back to a place of provision. He cared about what she was going through, and even though she blamed Him for her heartache, He was about to show her it’s not about what we endure in life, but what we entrust to Him that will bring healing and joy back into our lives.
I know many of you are suffering and have friends who are suffering. God is not to blame. He is compassionate towards you and wants to help you. Blaming God will put distance between us and Him and will inhibit our ability to see and receive what He wants to do in our lives. You may be thinking, “Well, maybe He didn’t cause my pain, but couldn’t He have prevented what happened to me?” Yes, He could have. He can do anything because He is God. But when He chooses to allow trials and difficulties to come into our lives it isn’t to hurt us but to help us draw closer to Him, to help us gain needed perspective, wisdom, and strength, to help us conform to the image of Christ, and to use us to be a testimony to others around us.
I am richly blessed to be an observer of Christina Britton’s journey as she deals with having a brain tumor for the second time in her life. Christina was healed once before and continues to profess God’s power to heal. This last week, she turned in a blue card with a prayer request, and the request wasn’t even for her, but was for a friend with pancreatic cancer. She is living with a critical brain tumor, and yet she isn’t in crises.
How can that be? That is her reality because instead of blaming God she has chosen to trust Him.
I heard reports this week of how she ministered to Mary Nichols and reassured her that all would be okay with the PICC line they were putting in Mary at the Cleveland Clinic this past week. In fact, this weekend Christina participated in a fundraising brain tumor walk in Durham, NC. Last Sunday she posted on FB how happy she was that she could come to church on Easter. On Wednesday she posted on Mary Nichols’ wall that she was praying for her. On Thursday she posted on FB that she couldn’t make it without the Lord-all of this on the heels of being hospitalized a week and a few days ago and learning that her tumor was bigger. Her tumor was bigger, but it didn’t change the way she lived. Her tumor was bigger, but it didn’t change her trust in God. She wasn’t blaming God! She was blessing others and believing God was going to work in and through her. Let’s not blame God when we struggle. Let’s look for reasons to believe in Him all the more!
When we let bitterness overtake us we run the risk of blowing our witness with other people. If we only profess God to be God in the good times, what are we really counting on Him for? And if we disconnect from God and blame Him for our trials what are we saying to the world around us about the goodness of God which He has proven time and time again? Why would the world want to believe in a God who caused pain?
The things Naomi said against God she said in the presence of her daughters-in-law. Naomi had a great opportunity as a believer in God to impact the way her daughters-in-law would process their own pain. Remember, they lost their husbands too! They were dealing with grief too. They were devastated too! They were likely looking to their mother-in-law for how to handle their situations. Naomi had an open door to point them to God, but what did she do? Look at verses 8 and 9: 8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. 9 May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them and they wept aloud.
She offered them no comfort in their grief. She didn’t offer to pray for their grief. She didn’t take time to talk to them about God and how He could be help them with their grief. She just told them to go find new husbands! Talk about insensitive. Talk about short-circuiting and minimizing their pain. Her advice was basically, “I hope you can move on.” Why didn’t she have more to offer these young grieving women?
Why couldn’t Naomi just turn to God in her hour of need and find the help she needed? I have come to some personal conclusions as to why. Remember, I said that friendship with the world comes with a spiritual price tag. After having lived in enemy territory where other gods were worshiped for ten years, Naomi didn’t have the strong belief she once had. She didn’t have the connection with God she once had. While trying to preserve their physical lives in Moab there was a depletion of their spiritual lives. There was no way they had kept their spiritual fervor serving God in pagan territory for ten years the way they had done in Bethlehem.
We shouldn’t be naïve. We can’t live our own way, depending on ourselves for daily needs, making choices without consulting God or seeking His will and then wonder why we are devastated, overcome, and distraught when trouble hits. When we are connected to God and looking for Him even in the wreckage of our messes, mistakes, and mishaps we will still be able to respond with a measure of peace, calm, control, and joy. We will still be able to express our faith. We will still be able to anticipate something good in the future. The promises in God’s Word will mean something special to us. They will give us reasons to hope. We will take comfort and solace in the grace of God which is like a salve or healing balm to our souls when our souls are sick and our hearts are broken. We will find strength to go on to live meaningful lives. Without that relationship, without that anchor we won’t have the resources needed to minister to others who are hurting and we will say and do things that minimize other people’s pain and tarnish God’s reputation in the eyes of others who don’t know Him.
I wonder what went through Orpah and Ruth’s mind? Maybe they thought, “She’s the one who knows God, but she doesn’t even care what we are going through. She has made this all about her.” She hadn’t even invited them to come with her back to Bethlehem. They were on their own. It is very easy to become self-absorbed when we are dealing with trials. We need to remember we aren’t the only ones hurting.
Orpah took Naomi’s advice and went to look for a husband in her hometown. She became the next Bachelorette in Moab! J Ruth, however, had a different response. In spite of not seeing any faith in her mother-in-law while in the midst of her trial, Ruth refused to go home and insisted on going with Naomi. She is a beautiful example of God’s grace at work. Even though she didn’t grow up knowing God she had somehow through her affiliation with this family, perhaps through her now jaded mother-in-law, she had come to believe in God for herself. Read with me Ruth 1:14-18 (NIV)
14 At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her. 15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” 16 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. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.
What an amazing declaration! Naomi wasn’t even any fun to be around. If I was Ruth, I don’t know that I would have wanted to commit myself to living the rest of my life with that bitter woman! She must have developed a love for Naomi way before the bitterness had set in. Ruth could have gone back to her own father and mother (2:11). They would have helped her. They would have been compassionate towards her. They would have acknowledged her grief. But instead she pledged herself to her bitter mother-in-law! What a risk! Perhaps before Naomi’s suffering Ruth had seen a devoted woman. Perhaps the fact that Naomi, a widow, was willing to travel back to Bethlehem by herself when it was dangerous for any woman to do so, to return to her home and God’s people, was enough to convince Ruth there was hope in God and hope in Bethlehem.
Something about God had piqued her interest to the point where she wasn’t going to have it any other way. She was going to Bethlehem, and she was going with Naomi. Period. In addition, she was choosing God. She was choosing a better way than bitterness. She was choosing a better way than the pagan life she had known.
I wish I knew what God was up to in the midst of all of the struggles in our congregation. I wish I had answers for my friends who are dealing with life and death situations. I don’t know the why answer, but I do believe I know what is best to do when you are in the middle of those crises moments. Choose God. Choose God. Choose God.
Naomi and Ruth were on their way to the “House of Bread.” Things were about to take a turn for the better. It was the time of the barley harvest, a time when the community would express their joy and praise to God for His goodness. What a great atmosphere for two grieving widows. A fresh start. A new beginning. And they were going to learn that God’s resources were bigger than their burdens. Bitter or better? The choice is up to you.