Responding to Suffering
The Book of Ruth
Ruth 1: Responding to Suffering
Good morning to you all this morning. This morning we resume our study in the book of Ruth. If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Ruth 1. We will be exploring Ruth for the next three weeks. Each week we will cover one chapter of Ruth. This week, Ruth 1, the next Ruth 2,
the next Ruth 3, and the next Ruth 4. Please, if you haven’t already, be reading Ruth during the week so that you can familiarize yourself with the book.
For our sermon this morning, we encounter a very dark chapter in Scripture. This is one of the darkest chapters in all of Scripture. What makes this chapter so dark, as I alluded to last week, is the suffering that occurs here. Great suffering. Read with me Ruth 1:1–5.
In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These
took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
This passage reveals several incidents that lead to the theme of suffering. First, as mentioned last week, this story occurs within the story of Judges. As mentioned last week, Ruth is a story within a story. It is a short story within the context of Judges. Judges is a dark book. Suffering, chaos, disobedience, murder, death. Many dark themes in Judges. As we read 1:1, we should not expect anything different in Ruth than from Judges. Judges is dark; Ruth is dark. Second, there was a
famine in Bethlehem. Famine’s in the ANE were disastrous for societies. Third, this famine results in a family leaving their home to emigrate to a distant land. The main characters home and security was taken away from them. Fourth, the husband of the family, Elimelech, dies. Fifth, the two boys through whom Naomi might find security also die. And, sixth, Naomi’s sons do not give her any grandkids. Verse 4 specifies that Naomi’s sons had been married to Orpah and Ruth for “ten years.” Regardless, there are no heirs of the family. Naomi is left without
grandchildren. Death, famine, insecurity, and bareness—all terrible themes that occur within the span of five verses. These themes are the backdrop the story.
These themes are alive and well with us today. There is more similarity with our world, our lives, our experiences and this story than there are differences. One aspect of Scripture is that it is timeless. No matter where you go, you will find people in the same condition today as they were in Scripture. This story of Ruth is not different. People still suffer. There is still economic hardship. People still emigrate due to famine. Families still struggle with bareness. Husbands die. Fathers die. Children die. While there is a significant time gap between us and the story of Ruth, the shared themes make this story very real to us. Suffering is as real today as it was then.
The way I want to use this chapter in Ruth this morning is to show you how you are to respond to suffering. Either you are suffering now, or you will in the future. God wants us to respond appropriately to suffering. Ruth 1 provides us a template for how we are to respond to suffering.
I’ve titled this morning’s sermon as this: “Ruth 1: Responding to Suffering.” As I try with most of my sermons, this sermon will have three point. Recently, I conversed with a mother who attends CBC, and she told me that her son loves my three-point sermons because he knows when I get to my third point that my sermon is almost over. So, three points for you this morning.
When you suffer, lament
My first point is this: “When you suffer, you are to lament.” The word “lament” here is not a common word used today. It is, however, a thoroughly biblical word. “To lament” is to “express sorrow and grief.” It is to bear your heart to both God and man regarding the grief you are
experiencing. It is to pour your heart out, to cry out, to wail. It is to express how you truly feel in times of suffering, pain, and misery. Lament exists within the intersection of faith, honesty, and suffering. Lament is an act of faith. To lament is to show forth faith. Lamenting requires honesty. It requires us to be honest with God, ourselves, and others. Lamenting occurs within the context of suffering. We don’t lament when things are going well.
We see Naomi do this throughout Ruth. Look at Ruth 1:13. Naomi says to her daughters-in-law, “No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.” Look at Ruth 1:20. Here, Naomi is talking to her old friends who stayed in Bethlehem during the famine. She says, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought
calamity upon me?”
In all these statements, Naomi does not have positive, uplifting things to say. Her husband and her babies have been taken from her. She is the only one left in her family. Everyone else has died. She has no security. She’s honest with God and with those around her regarding how she
feels. There’s no façade or smoke and mirrors. She’s raw and honest. Naomi is doing awful and she let’s everyone know that is the case.
Naomi’s example here is the type of example that we are to follow. There are two reasons for this. First, the theme of lament occurs repeatedly in Scripture. It is even found on the lips of Jesus when he was on the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Second, we
are commanded to speak the truth in love. That’s a command. Speaking the truth in love includes lament. It includes telling people and God the truth about yourself.
Lamenting can be hard. Lamenting requires that we are honest with ourselves, with God, and with others. The truth can hurt, though. It’s hard to come to a place where we have the courage to honestly confess to ourselves, to God, and to others that we’re not okay. By voicing something, you acknowledge something. To voice your pain is to acknowledge that you are in pain. This can be hard. Sometimes it’s much easier to keep our painful feelings bottled up, pressed down. Or,
sometimes we can care so much about how others perceive us that we know that if we share something with them that reveals something bad in our lives then they will think differently of us. We care more about other people’s thought than we care being honest. We’ll post something
on social media letting the world know how awesome things are in our lives. In actuality, we’re lying. We want to maintain some fake image. It’s all smoke and mirrors.
In your pain, God calls you to be honest. Like Naomi, God wants you to lament. He wants you to be honest with yourself, with others, and with him. If you are struggling, if life is hard right now, stop pretending that everything is okay. You are lying to yourself, to the world, and to God. Confess to God your pain, your misery. Be honest with yourself that your life is not okay. When loving brothers and sisters in Christ ask you how you’re doing, let them into your pain. Be honest. In your pain, lament.
When you suffer, believe God’s sovereignty My first point is this: “When you suffer, believe in the sovereignty of God.” To affirm God’s control of the universe and of our personal lives is all good and fun when things are going well. If the family’s healthy, the job’s going well, the wife’s happy, it’s easy to say that God is control. Well of course he is! All blessings come from him and my life is blessed right now. Amen!
Things change when circumstances are not going well. Let’s say you’re sick, the family dog just died, farming isn’t going well, the stock market is plummeting. Is God in control of your life then? Is he in control in the good times and the bad? When you’re thriving and suffering? You
better believe he is. God is always in control—in the good and the bad.
Look again at Naomi’s confessions. First, look at Ruth 1:13. Naomi interprets the death of her husband and her children as in accordance with God’s plan. She says, “No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.” Look at 1:20–21. Naomi says a similar thing: “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has
brought calamity upon me?”
The interpretive issue we must wrestle with in this passage is the truthfulness of Naomi’s confession. To put it differently, is what Naomi says about God’s relation to her suffering true? Is it true, from verse 13, that “the hand of the LORD has gone out against her?” Is it true that,
from verse 20, that “the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with her? That the LORD has brought her back barren? And that the Almighty has brought calamity upon her?” Is her interpretation of the event true or not? Is she in such grief that she’s speaking nonsense? Or, is she, through deep pain, speaking true doctrine? This is an interpretive challenge.
To solve this dilemma, we must first recognize that simply because Naomi says something in Scripture doesn’t mean what she says is true. To illustrate this, look at Ruth 1:15. Naomi says this to Ruth: “And she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’” What she says to Ruth is not helpful. God had commanded in the 10 Commandments that Israel was to have no other gods than him. Jews were to reject polytheism—the worship of many gods. So, what Ruth does here is wrong. Scripture records this for us but does not encourage us to follow her words. This statement could be evidence that what Ruth says with reference to God’s sovereignty in her suffering is incorrect.
My interpretation of Naomi’s lament is that it reveals correct theology. My interpretation this morning is that Naomi is correct to highlight that God is mysteriously behind the death of her family members. To prove this point, we need to turn to the book of Job. We will go to two places in Job. First, go to Job 1:20. As I’ve mentioned, the story of Ruth is something of a female counterpart to the story of Job. Many similar themes show up in both books. The context of Job 1:20 is that Job has just lost his children. This is what Job says when he learns of this incident: “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”
What Job says here is similar to what Naomi says in Ruth. Very similar. With Job’s statement, we could conclude that Job’s lament is not reflecting correct theology. He’s in so much pain that he’s gone mad. That is a possible interpretation. It’s wrong, though. Here’s why. Look at Job 1:22. The narrator, who correctly interprets for us Job’s actions, says that in doing this, in stating that God has taken away his kids, did not sin or did not charge God with wrong. The narrator is saying that what Job said in the previous verse was correct—that God took his kids away.
There’s more. Turn to Job 42:11. He states,
Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil [or disaster] that the LORD had brought upon him.
In this passage, the narrator summarizes what has transpired in the book. What the narrator shows us is that Job’s confession at the beginning of the book—“the Lord gives and takes away”—and by extension Naomi’s confession—“that God had brought upon her
calamity”—express correct theology.
What’s all this mean, Pastor? Scripture repeatedly teaches that it is God who is in control of human history. God is sovereign. It is his will that will stand. It is his will that will be accomplished. Everything that comes to pass in your life—everything good, everything bad—is not random, is not as a result of luck. Instead, God’s sovereign plan is behind everything. God has a purpose.
What is that purpose? Turn to Rom 8:28. We will read through 29.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.
Paul gives us the answer to the “why?” of God’s bringing about suffering in our lives. God uses difficulty in the life of a Christian for good. And this “good,” Paul specifies, is “to be conformed to the image of Christ.” God brings upon suffering in our lives to make us more like Christ. This is the greatest good in the universe. For you to be more like Christ is the greatest good. There is no more glorious reality. The chief way that God conforms us is through pain. God has a purpose for your pain—it is to conform you to the image of Christ.
It will be of no good for you to reject God’s sovereignty in your trials. Scripture does not teach principles of “luck,” “chance,” or “things just happen.” Instead, Naomi shows us, and the rest of Scripture confirms, that God is in control of the good and the bad. When the bad comes, believe in God’s sovereignty. Believe that, despite what you can see in your circumstances, God is working in shaping you into the image of Christ.
When you suffer, hope in Christ
Our last point this morning: “When you suffer, hope.” For this point, turn back to Ruth, Ruth 1:22, specifically. At this point in the narrative, Naomi and Ruth have returned to Bethlehem, without Naomi’s husband, sons, and Orpah, Naomi’s daughter-in-law. Things have gone poorly,
but the chapter doesn’t end with despair. It ends with hope. Ruth 1:22 states,
So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem sat the beginning of barley harvest.
With this comment, the narrator is not just telling us a fact. While he is telling us that, he is also telling us more. The author is giving us an indication of changed circumstances. This chapter began with a famine in Bethlehem. No food. No barley harvest. The chapter ends, however, with food on the horizon.
The author is telling us that something is about to happen. For the plan of redemption, this will be an eternally consequential barley harvest. As the story develops, it is during this barley harvest that Ruth meets Boaz. It is during this barley harvest that we begin to see how God is going to redeem Israel and the whole world. And it’s in verse 22, the last verse of the chapter, that we get a taste of God’s redemption.
This whole passage is dark. But it doesn’t end that way. It ends with hope. While Naomi and Ruth do not recognize it, God is about to use their lives to change the entire course of human history. Redemptive history hinges on this barley harvest. We get a glimpse of that in v. 22.
As Christians, despair and misery is never the final world. You will have trouble. You will suffer. You will despair. But that is not the end of your story. Christians have hope. Regardless of what happens to us in this life, we always have hope. That hope is built upon Jesus Christ.
Turn to 1 Peter 1. We will read vv. 3–5. The passage reads,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
This passage specifies that Christians have a “living hope.” That living hope is connected to Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Because Jesus Christ rose from the dead, Christians can always have hope.
Central to the message of the gospel is hope. All the difficulty that Naomi and Ruth experienced in Ruth 1, all the difficulty you will experience in this life has been addressed by Jesus Christ. Suffering, pain, difficulty, death—all of these have been dealt with in the cross of Jesus Christ.
Jesus took upon himself all of this and by the power of God destroyed. He vanquished all enemies, foes, and sin. Jesus lives in heaven. He is king of all. He will one day come to deliver us completely and fully from all misery and suffering. In the meantime, though, we hope. When
you suffer, hope. Hope in Jesus Christ’s power, his love, his resurrection, and his goodness. Never let go of hope. Death does not have the final word. Jesus does. The barley harvest is on the horizon. Jesus will redeem us. In your suffering, hope in Christ.
Pray with me.