Ruth 1:19-22 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 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?” 22 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 at the beginning of barley harvest.
The drama of this story continues to unfold. This morning we’ll pick up where we left off last week and then we’ll zoom in on Naomi’s misery. In particular, we’ll watch the two women, Naomi and Ruth, enter into Bethlehem and then consider five truths of Christian suffering. Please pray with me that God would help us understand his perspective on human suffering in order that we’d grow in our ability to suffer as those whose hope is something hardship cannot touch.
THE STORY CONTINUES
In the way of a reminder, in the days of the judges, famine had overtaken Israel (likely as an expression of divine judgment on Israel). Instead of trusting in God, an Israelite named Elimelech led his family out of Israel and into the land of God’s enemies to find food. For many years his family made a home there. His sons took wives there. Eventually however all three men died, leaving their wives alone and vulnerable.
Last week we saw that Naomi, Elimelech’s wife, having heard that God had lifted the famine in Israel determined to return to her homeland. We also saw that one of her daughters-in-law, Orpah, decided to go back to her parent’s home and her parents’ gods; while the other, Ruth, decided to remain with Naomi and her God. We were left wondering what would happen to them. Would they make it to Israel? Once there, would they find food and shelter? How would Ruth’s conversion be received by the Israelites and by God himself?
And that’s where our text for this morning picks up. In it we find that Naomi and Ruth did in fact make it back to Israel; to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem. We also find that that their arrival stirred up quite a bit of commotion. Certainly some of it was simply the result of curiosity. Where had they been? How had they fared? Where were Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion? Who was this young woman with Naomi? If you’ve ever been a part of a small town, you know that Naomi’s return would have inevitably sparked interest and gossip.
More than that though, the text tells us, that something in Naomi’s appearance had changed to the point that people didn’t recognize her. “…the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?'” Quickly, the reason for her changed appearance is made clear. “She said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”
Naomi’s suffering had taken its toll on her. The town was stirred because pleasantness (Naomi) and fullness had dramatically and visually turned to bitterness (Mara) and emptiness. Naomi and Ruth made it to Bethlehem from Moab, but not without scars.
The previous scene closed (1:18) leaving the reader to wonder whether or not the women would make it to Bethlehem. This scene closes leaving the reader to wonder how the women will fare now that they’ve arrived. The final clause in the final verse of chapter 1 gives us a clue, “And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.” We’re not yet sure what that means, but its placement indicates that it’s significant.
FIVE TRUTHS FOR YOUR SUFFERING
With that, I’d like to spend the rest of the sermon focusing in on another question raised by the text: Where is God in our individual suffering?
In the first chapter of Ruth we are told (in fairly mater-of-fact terms) of Naomi’s loss of her husband and two sons within a relatively short time period. Not long after that she was abandoned by one of her daughters-in-law. Her suffering was immense—even, as we just saw, to the point that she was unrecognizable by those who had once known her well.
I asked you last week to try to put yourself in Elimelech’s shoes (what would you do if there was no food in the land and you needed to feed your family?). This week I’m asking you to put yourself in Naomi’s shoes (what would you do if all the males in your family died—leaving you with no home, no money, no life insurance, and in a foreign land?). If we read Ruth carefully and rightly, we cannot help but to feel for Naomi (and Orpah and Ruth). And as soon as we do—as soon as we begin to sympathize with the women’s suffering—we’re also forced to consider the role of suffering in our own lives. Thanks be to God most of us never have and never will know that kind of pain. And yet every one of us has known some level of suffering. Again, then, where is God in it?
Last week we saw that Ruth provides for us a description, not a definition, of godly womanhood. In the same way, Ruth is not meant to provide a systematic theology on the doctrine of suffering. It is not a complete theodicy (defense of the problem of evil). And yet it does help us to see a few important things about God’s relationship to our individual suffering. To be more specific, I want to share with you five truths from Ruth about suffering in the life of a Christian.
First, God is not absent from or indifferent to your suffering.
Have you ever asked yourself (or others) where God was in your suffering? Have you ever wondered if God had left when your suffering was greatest? Has it ever seemed to you as if God just wasn’t there in your pain; like you were all alone? Naomi shines a bright light on those questions in chapter 1.
As difficult as things were for Naomi, the last thing she believed was that God was absent from them. Far from being uninvolved in her suffering, Naomi understood God to be the ultimate cause of it. In 1:13 she said to her daughters-in-law, “It is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.” Similarly, in our passage for this morning (1:20-21) we read these words of Naomi to the women of her hometown: “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?”
It’s not clear exactly how Naomi understood God’s involvement in her suffering, but it is clear that she understood God to be immediately present and directly involved in it. She knew that he was not far off, but always close at hand. The question, then, is not if God is present in your suffering; the question is, how and why he is present. The next few points help to answer that question.
God is not absent from or indifferent to your suffering. He is with you in all of it.
Second, all suffering is the result of sin.
This point isn’t made explicitly in our text, but it is implied and critical to understand.
In the Garden, before the Fall, Adam and Eve knew no sickness or disease, no betrayal or deceit, no earthquake or tornado, no unmet hunger or thirst, no loneliness or sorrow, and no death or loss. They knew no suffering. Everything, it is written, was very good.
Similarly, in the New Heavens and Earth mankind will know only peace and blessing and joy. There will be no more difficulty, for God ” will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Suffering will be forever done away with for the people of God.
Grace, suffering only exists where sin exists. Where there is no sin, there is no suffering.
Conversely, in between these two periods of purity (in the pre-Fall Garden and in the New Heavens and Earth) sin abounds, and therefore suffering abounds. Wherever there is sin, there is suffering. Sin is corrupting by nature. It deteriorates and destroys everything it touches; and sin touches everything. It has gotten into all of creation making cells rebel (causing cancer), genes rebel (causing birth defects), atoms rebel (causing natural disasters), and people rebel (causing all manner of hardship). Suffering is not necessarily the direct result of any individual’s sin, but it is always the result of the rebellion of creation brought about by the sin of Adam and his children.
That is the essence of passages like Romans 8:20-22, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”
I have a congenital defect that caused me to be born without a working thumb. It probably wasn’t the direct result of anyone’s rebellion against God, but it was the result of the destructive work of sin. Again, then, the second thing to see about your own suffering is that all of it is the result of sin’s corruption of the world.
Third, some suffering is the result of your own sin.
This is uncomfortable—we tend not to like thinking in these terms—but there are times when our suffering is the result of our sin and rebellion. A couple of weeks ago we saw this as a covenant promise of God in Leviticus 26. That is, when God agreed to be Israel’s God, he promised great blessing for faithfulness and great curse for disobedience. God’s Law prescribed significant suffering and even death for sinners. For Israel in Naomi’s day there was a tight and direct link between suffering and God’s judgment.
As we saw in the first point this morning (from 1:20-21), four times Ruth attributed her suffering to God’s judgment. “The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” “The LORD has brought me back empty.” “The LORD has testified against me.” The Almighty has brought calamity upon me.”
The link between suffering and sin continues even into the New Covenant age. While the link is not as tight and direct in the NT, it’s there nonetheless.
Judas betrayed Jesus and as a result his guts burst open (Acts 1:18). A man and his wife, Ananias and Sapphira, lied to the apostles about the profits from selling their field and they were struck dead (Acts 5).
We see this in passages like 1 Corinthians 11:28-30. Vs.28-29 (which are a part of our communion liturgy) say this, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” While we typically stop there, Paul’s argument continues for another verse. In v.30 he concludes, “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” New Covenant people suffered and died because they took part in the Lord’s Supper in sin.
And we see it in passages like Hebrews 12:6, which says, “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” At times God brings suffering to those he loves for our sanctification.
John 9:1-3, 15:20, 2 Timothy 3:12, and 1 Peter 1:6-7 all teach that in the New Covenant era not all of your suffering is the direct result of your (or someone else’s) personal sin, but the passages we just looked at teach that some of it might be. And so whenever we encounter suffering we ought to ask, are there any unrepentant sins in my life? Is there a chance my suffering is God’s discipline upon me?
I remember having a lot of trouble sleeping during one particularly difficult season of ministry. I became anxious—and I almost never deal with anxiety. It eventually became clear to me that as real as the hardship was, my lack of sleep and anxiety were most certainly the product of my lack of trust in God. That’s not always the case, but it was for me then.
We will likely never know for sure whether or not our suffering is the result of God’s judgment, but Ruth and the rest of the bible teach us that when we experience suffering we should consider carefully our faithfulness to Christ. To be clear, if you are a Christians not all of your suffering is on account of your sin, and yet some of it might be.
God is not absent from or indifferent to your suffering, all suffering is the result of sin, some suffering is the direct result of your own sin, and forth…
Fourth, your greatest need is not physical healing.
This principle presents itself in an interesting way in this section. Remember what Naomi said concerning her condition when she first left Bethlehem. In her lament she said, ” I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty (1:21). But remember as well the reason they left. They were certainly not full of food, money, or possessions. There was famine and poverty in the land. In some ways that’s an excellent perspective. Naomi’s understanding of fullness was not tied to any earthly possessions. She did not seem bitter at all at God’s withholding of rain and crops because those things were not her highest desire. Again, there is something very good about that.
What, then, did she mean by “I went away full”? By “full” she must have must have meant her family. She left with a husband and two sons. She was fine living in poverty and physical vulnerability as long as she had her family. That too is in some ways admirable. Family is a gift to be cherished.
However, there are at least two problems in Naomi’s reasoning. First, regarding her indifference to her family’s poverty, it is good that Naomi hadn’t made an idol out of physical provision, but if her heart had been truly godward, she would have been convicted of the sin of her people (which caused their lack of physical provision). Knowing peace in poverty is good, unless the poverty is an expression of divine judgment. Being at peace when you are active in rebellion is a counterfeit and deadly peace.
The second problem in Naomi’s reasoning was in connecting her well being to her family. Naomi’s lack of hope in God regarding food showed up in the fact that she did not grieve over her sin. Naomi’s inappropriate hope in the men of her family showed up in the fact that their loss caused her to become faithless. Some of you are hoping in God in many ways, but this teaches us to ask ourselves, what is that one thing that if God were to take away would cause you to turn away from God?
All of this comes together to help the reader see that when we encounter suffering, our greatest need is never physical (food, shelter, money, possessions, or people). It is almost always right to pray for food and family and healing (James 5:14), but it is never right to want those things most. To have everything in this life, but not God’s favor is to have nothing. Conversely, to have nothing, not even life itself, but to have God is to have everything. Our greatest need is never physical. Our greatest need is always God’s favor.
In that way, it would have been better for Elimelech and his family to die of starvation in Israel while remaining faithful to God than to live 100 more years in well-fed sin. And in that way, it is better for you and me to have cancer or sickness or death take us (and all our loved ones), than it is to forsake God. God is our greatest treasure and therefore faithfulness to him at any cost is greater than every cost. In your suffering, Grace, do not let your hope be in your healing. Do not let your hope be in improved circumstances. Let your hope be in the promises of God for you that rise 1,000,000 miles above the worst suffering this world has known. And that leads to the final principle on suffering.
Finally, fifth, if you are a Christian your suffering is for your good—all of it.
This is not to say that all of your suffering is for your comfort or happiness or fun. But it is to say that (as hard as it might be to believe in the moment of your suffering) the blood of Jesus means every ounce of your suffering is for your ultimate good.
As I mentioned last week, Naomi’s suffering (unbeknownst to Naomi at this point in the story) found its significance in Ruth’s conversion. Naomi suffered because of the sins of her people (sin was the cause), but she suffered for the grandfather of David, the line of Jesus, to be born (that was the reason). How much differently do you think Naomi would have handled things, how much differently do you think she would have felt, had she known the remarkable result of her suffering?
The clearest promise of this for you and me comes in a familiar passage, Romans 8:28-39.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died- more than that, who was raised- who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
How would you approach your suffering differently if you believed that whatever the cause, these were the reasons for your suffering—your good, your conformation into the image of Jesus, your preservation, your glorification, your ability to display your hope in the power and calling of God on your life, your ultimate victory in Christ, and your indestructible experience of the love of God!?
If you are a Christian, if your hope is in Christ alone, none of your suffering is in vain. Every ounce of it is being used for some great glory. Do not despise suffering as it is a powerful instrument of God for the good of the nations and the glory of his name.
God is not absent from or indifferent to your suffering, all suffering is the result of sin, some suffering is the result of your own sin, your greatest need is not physical healing, and if you are a Christian your suffering is for your good—all of it. None of this makes light of your pain. None of this minimizes the real suffering that many of you have endured. All of this, however, puts your suffering into the proper perspective.
In your suffering, then, learn from Naomi. Learn from the whole of the book of Ruth. Learn to hope in God. Learn to trust in God’s plans to bless. And learn to use your suffering as a means of putting your trust in the sufficiency of God on display for all to see.