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1st November : Proper 26 : Ruth 1:118
Peter Lau The Expository Times 2009 121: 27 DOI: 10.1177/0014524609107035

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Volume 121 Number 1 Pages 2728 Thet Author(s), 2009 Reprints and he ex p o. s itor y Permissions: times DOI: 10.1177/0014524609107035


1st November: Proper 26 Ruth 1:118

Peter Lau Sydney Missionary and Bible College, Australia

Responding to Suffering uffering is one of the certainties in life. If you live in this world, you will suffer. If you have not suffered already, you will. Sadly, your numbers going to come up sooner or later. But it is not the suffering in itself that is important, but how we respond to it. Gerald Sittser, a Christian professor in the US, lost his mother, wife and daughter in a tragic car accident. He writes: It is not ... the experience of loss that becomes the defining moment in our lives. ... It is how we respond to the loss that matters.1

Naomis Response to Suffering We can learn a lot from the way Naomi responds to her suffering and loss. Although the story begins with Naomi having a full household, tragedy quickly strikes. Elimelech dies. Naomi is suddenly a single mother in a foreign land. Naomis sons take Moabite wives. Then they die. Naomi is now a childless widow in a foreign land. Naomi now has no man to look after her no husband, no sons. In her society, she is now effectively destitute in a foreign land, without social and physical support. How is Naomi going to respond? The first thing Naomi does is to leave Moab. When she hears that God had broken the drought in Judah, she decides to return home. But on road out of Moab, she realizes that it is better for her daughters-in-law to stay in their home country than to go with her to Israel (Ruth 1:89). Orpah is eventually persuaded to remain in Moab, but
1 Gerald L. Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 9 (emphasis original).

Naomi just cannot shake off Ruth. She fiercely clings to her mother-in-law, and utters her famously moving vow (1:1617). Yet despite Ruths extraordinary loyalty to Naomi, by the end of Chapter One we see that Naomi becomes so bitter that she changes her name. When she arrives back in her hometown of Bethlehem, the women of the town would have seen the hardship and loss of the last decade etched on her face. Those who knew her when she left with a full household now see her returned without her husband and sons. In fact, all she has now is a foreign daughter-in-law. It is no wonder that they exclaim: Is this Naomi? But when Naomi hears their question, she sarcastically snarls back at them: Dont call me Naomi; call me Mara. In changing her name, Naomi is saying that pleasant does not reflect who she is anymore. All she feels is pain, despair, and emptiness, so the name Bitter is a truer reflection of her identity, her character. Yet what is the underlying reason for Naomis bitterness? The reason is that she feels God has turned against her (Ruth 1:20). In this verse, Naomi does not hold back regarding what she thinks of God, and in particular what he has done to her. She calls God the Almighty, which means she acknowledges that God is in control of all things. But if God is in control, she also has to acknowledge that God is the one who has brought misfortune against her. In Naomis mind, He is the one that is responsible for disasters that have come upon her and her family. But it seems wrong to lay the blame for the disasters on Gods shoulders only. For, according to the book of Deuteronomy, famine was one of Gods curses for Israel disobeying Him.2 The right

E.g., Deuteronomy 28:1519, 24.

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response would have been to repent, and to turn back to God. Yet Elimelech and his family had left the Promised Land to find food in the land of Moab.3 Moreover, it is significant that God begins to bless Naomi again after she decides to return from Moab. In the OT, the word return is used not only to describe a physical return, but also a spiritual return or repentance.4 In returning to Israel, Naomi is also turning back to God. The point is that at least some of the blame for the disasters must be laid at the feet of Elimelech and Naomi. Nonetheless, Naomi is right to think that her hardship has come from God, even if she should take some responsibility for it. And I think that it is healthy for Naomi to honestly express her complaint to God. Some people may think it is unspiritual to express negative emotions to God; that we always need speak to God in a controlled and sanitized way. But at times it is helpful to be emotionally honest with God. And Naomi is in good company here: king David in his psalms; Jeremiah; Job; and Jesus, with his anguished cry on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? All these people in the Bible lamented or complained to God. In fact, if we are in a close, intimate relationship with God our Heavenly Father, it is normal that we would want to communicate with him in this way. To not do so would be unnatural. Nevertheless, our complaints need to be expressed within certain boundaries. In particular, we need to be careful that our complaints do not spill over to bitterness or resentment towards God. We need to keep trusting God, otherwise we can become bitter. If we do not trust that He is both in control and a good God, we begin to doubt that God has good intentions for us. Naomi thinks that God has turned against her altogether. She doubts Gods goodness. He may be in control, but in Naomis eyes, he definitely does not want to bless her. In fact, she believes that God has brought her back empty.
3 Elimelech, a man whose name ironically means my God is king, disobeyed God and moved his family to Moab. 4 In the Hebrew, the word return is repeated twelve times in this chapter.

But this is not a true picture of God in the book of Ruth. Ruths vow of commitment to Naomi may be still ringing in our ears, but it seems that Naomis pain has drowned out Ruths words. So much so, that she even ignores the fact that Ruth is right by her side when she despairs of her emptiness. Yet straight after we hear Naomis lament, not only do we read that Ruth is with her, but it is also the beginning of the harvest season (Ruth 1:22). God is already beginning to bless Naomi. Our Response to Suffering Part of Naomis problem is that she cannot see the bigger picture. By the end of the book of Ruth, we see that God will ultimately bless Israel and the world through Naomi and Ruth. But its impossible for Naomi to see this as she returns to Bethlehem. And for us, often all we can see is what is happening in our lives right now. It is like getting directions from google map but not being able to see where we are going to end up. We are at street view where the starting flag is, so all we can see is the immediate surroundings. But God can see everything: right from our street view through to our destination. Like Naomi, we will not always immediately understand the reason for our suffering. God may not even reveal the ultimate reason for our suffering in this life. But the Bible assures us that God is using our suffering for our good (Rom 8:28). It is amazing how many people can testify to the fact that God has used suffering in their lives for their ultimate benefit. I am sure that many of us can look back on the hardships in our lives, and now see God working in them to test and refine us. Sometimes in the midst of our hardship or suffering, we do not see Gods kindness towards us. We are tempted to become bitter or resentful towards God, like Naomi. When we are hurting, it is an act of faith to believe that God still loves us. But God has shown us incredible kindness in His Son Jesus Christ. And nothing can separate us from Gods love for us in Jesus (Rom 8:3839). In times of suffering it may be hard to trust Him through our pain. But God reminds us that He is in control our lives, and His ultimate aim is to bless us.Amen.

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