The Struggle to Hope
The Struggle to Hope
Do you ever wonder why the Book of Ruth was written? Naomi returns home after losing her husband and two sons. Feeling distinctly miserable, she essentially changes her name saying, "Don't call me pleasant one. Call me bitter one."
She comes home at a time when everybody's working hard, gathering grain that's now growing, since the famine ended. They're all saying Our trials are over. God is blessing us. Let's party. And she's Not me.
When I was in private practice as a clinical psychologist in Florida a client of mine committed suicide on Christmas Eve. I'd planned to hospitalize him for his depression the day after Christmas. I got the call about eleven o'clock that night, Christmas Eve. I spoke with his wife, mother of three small children, young man in his thirties. Next morning I got up and I watched our two sons rip open their Christmas gifts. We had friends over for dinner, happy day. Well, how did I feel? Maybe I felt a little bit like Naomi when she arrived home at the beginning of the harvest.
As I read the story of Naomi so far I'm not enjoying it. It's a sad story. It's a romantic story of an older woman who lost her husband and then lost her two sons, whose life at the end of the story is made better by a wealthy relative who was flattered by the attentions of a young woman. This wealthy, older relative marries the young woman who happened to be the of the bereaved older lady. And this older fellow marries this girl and pays off the debt that the older penniless lady owed; and she gets her land back and she gets a , and she gets a grandkid. Story ends with Obed on Naomi's lap. What we're supposed to feel is Isn't that great? Behind every shattered dream God has a better one.
I must tell you candidly that when I read through the book of Ruth without pondering it deeply, I have two immediate reactions.
The first reaction is So what? Why should I pay attention to the book of Ruth? Why is it in the Bible?
My second reaction is I don't like the ending. It isn't really satisfying to me. If the story is meant to encourage me with how God works in the life of his people, I find myself immediately saying, I'm not sure if I like the way you work in this person's life, and I'm not sure if I like the way you work in a lot of people's lives.
Why let those sons die?
Seven years ago my brother was killed in an airplane crash. Among the many wonderful letters that I received, I received one letter where the person said "my husband came to trust Christ during the memorial service for your brother where you spoke." And I responded with joy until I read the next line. "Now we know why your brother had to die." No we don't. A lot of people have gotten saved without my brother dying. Why couldn't God have saved that particular man through a Billy Graham crusade and not at a funeral service for my brother?
Suppose God came to you and said, Plan A, Plan B, you choose. Here's Plan A, I will let your most cherished dreams come true. Whatever is dear to your heart in terms of your family, a spouse, your children, your job, your health, your ministry, the things that you're dreaming of the things that you want so bad. I will give you your most cherished dreams. No cancer. No divorce. No heartbreak from your children. None of that sort of thing will happen in your life. But as a result of my satisfying your cherished dreams, you will glorify me a little less. That's Plan A. Choose that if you will. Plan B is the second choice. I'll shatter your most cherished dream in a way that will enable to glorify me a little more.
It seems to me that God could trust only one person with that choice. Son, you may call ten thousand angels at any time.
My topic today is the struggle to hope. Two reactions to the story of Naomi. Why does it matter? and Why should I like it?
When we're living in the middle of shattered dreams when somebody we care about is lying in a hospital bed, perhaps dying, when our child is going through things we thought they'd never go throughWhy does our spouse have to die? Why do I hurt so much without relief? Why is my ministry so up and down? Why am I so emotionally unstable? Why do I have these particular problems, emotional difficulties? Why did I come into that particular family with this alcoholic father who raped me? Why? I don't get itwhen we're living through shattered dreams I suggest that maybe the two questions reduce to one, and This is the struggle to hope. Is God really at work right now? Is he pursuing good things that require all of this to happen? I want to know that there's something good right now. That it's not all just for heaven.
Shattered dreams tell us God is up to something wonderful
My assumption is that the God who died for me is right now up to something wonderful.
The book of Ruth begins with a story of shattered dreams and it ends with the story of recovered different dreams. Naomi is holding her grandson on her knees, the fruit of the supernaturally arranged marriage between Boaz and Ruth. And we know that her grandson and his mother both are listed in the Lord's genealogy. But Naomi didn't know that. The picture of her holding Obed on her lap is a vision of God's better dreams. I read that and I don't get immediately thrilled. It's hard to rejoice in the little bit of good that seems to come.
I want to look in between the two bookends, the shattered dreams, the restored dreams, and see the process. Here's a hint as to why the end of the story could become deeply satisfying as opposed to anemic.
There are two other places in the Old Testament where that phrase of a grandparent holding a grandchild on his or her lap is used. In both cases it is used of a grandparent holding a grandchild.
"Now Israel's eyes were failing because of old age, and he could hardly see. So Joseph brought his sons close to him, and his father kissed them and embraced them. Israel said to Joseph, 'I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children, too.' Then Joseph removed them from Israel's knees" (Genesis 48:1012).
Jacob as an old man whose life had been such a mixture of failure and faith. His only deed of faith that Hebrews records took place when he was 130 years old, now an old man, when he holds his two grandkids on his knees, same as Naomi.
Jacob had just said: My years have been few and difficult, but now I sense something stirring deep within my breast that I never felt in the middle of my up and down life when I trying to manage everything, when I was getting the wife that I wanted and plotting for this and plotting to avoid the anger of my brother, who I'd offended so badly. Through all of my shattered dreams as an old man looking back on everything and getting a whole different perspective as my grandchildren are on my knees, something deep is stirring within me as I bless these children. That was an act of faith that Hebrews records. Faith, the stirring of eternity in our hearts. There's something bigger than right now, that when we're stirred to see is a stirring that only the pain of shattered dreams allows us to feel.
Is it possible that the very best part of who we are rises to the surface most richly only through suffering?
The second time this phrase is used, Genesis 50:2225,
Joseph stayed in Egypt, along with all his father's family. He lived a hundred and ten years and saw the third generation of Ephraim's children, also the children of Machir son of Manasseh were placed at birth on Joseph's knees, [same phrase]. Then Joseph said to his brothers, "I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." And Joseph made the sons of Israel swear an oath and said, "God will surely come to your aid. And then you must carry my bones up from this place."
Shattered dreams for Joseph, a man who had his sharebrothers who hated him, imprisoned on false charges. And now at age one hundred and ten holds his on his knees and says: I'm about to die but God is at work.
Maybe the last phrase in the Book of Ruth when Naomi holds her grandson on her knees has some similar significance. A life that didn't go as well as she wanted but now in her old age holds the ancestor of Jesus on her lap? The ending just begins to sound a little bit satisfying.
My question is Why did the whole story matter in the first place? Why did God see to it the book was recorded? Why is this part of the Bible? What's the value of this book when I'm in the middle of shattered dreams?
Naomi's dreams are shattered, but the writer intends us to feel there's hope. She returned at the beginning of harvest. God is at work right now in the middle of your situation. Naomi didn't see it. She didn't feel it. She feels nothing but misery, but God is with her in the moment planning something better.
When the Lord was walking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, remember he opened up the Old Testament to them? Imagine being at a Bible study with the Author. Remember what it says? He took the Old Testament and began revealing himself. The disciples later told their friends: As we listened to this manthe Christ, the God of the universe, the incarnate Son of Godas we listened to him teach, our hearts burned within us.
Struggle to hope that right now God is at work; that he is working out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. That struggle was in God's mind when he saw to it that the story of Boaz was recorded for us to read.
God encourages us in our struggle to hope
Boaz is an Old Testament picture of a relative, a picture of a relative of somebody who was able to provide redemption for what this person had lost. Boaz is an Old Testament kinsman redeemer, and most would agree, he's a wonderful picture of the real, the true, the richest Kinsman Redeemer, the Person of Christ. We know that Boaz is a picture of Christ. But I want to delve into the story a little bit and learn to read the story in a way that a few hearts might burn.
To understand the idea of the kinsman redeemer we need first to understand the law of land possession in Israel. Leviticus 25:2325 the Lord is speaking:
The land, the land that you Israelites, you Hebrews are occupying, the land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine, and you are but aliens and my tenants. "Throughout the country that you hold as a possession you must provide for the redemption of the land. If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold."
Notice three laws from those few verses.
First, the land is God's. Exodus 19:5 God says: The land is mine. "The whole earth is mine." The idea is clear that God looks down on everything and says it all belongs to me. The land and all the inhabitants, this is mine. I own it. I made it. I created it. It's mine.
The second principle is this. God lets us live on the land and enjoy it, but he makes it very clear we live only as aliens and tenants. We live only as stewards of all that is ours. Our very lives, the land we live on are not ours to do with as we choose. They belong to God.
The third law coming out of Leviticus 25 is this. No Israelite could ever permanently give up ownership of their land. You may not use what I give you to advance your own purposes. It must stay in the family. And if it were sold because the owner was poor, as perhaps with the case of Naomi, then a relative, a kinsman, was obligated to redeem that land to pay whatever price was necessary to buy the land back and at some point, not necessarily right away, to return it to the original tenant.
When a kinsman redeemer bought the land, the custom was to record the transaction of the purchase on a scroll, on a parchment that was rolled up and sealed. And this purchase deed was given to somebody reliable so that when the kinsman redeemer wanted to reclaim the land, the redeemer was allowed to go to the person who held the scroll, break the seal, prove his ownership, and restore the land to the individual.
A kinsman redeemer had two jobs that if he were qualified to do then he could be a real kinsman redeemer. First you had to be able to pay the price of what was lost. Second, you had to be able to take possession of the land. If another were living on the land when it was time to restore the land to its original owner, then the kinsman redeemer had to be able to remove those interlopers by force if necessary. He must have the power to claim what is rightfully his.
God knows that it's a struggle for us to hope. God knows it's hard for us to hope, so he gives us pictures that the Spirit illumines. We recover hope. The question is What's the picture? Let me say the obvious.
God owned the land. He made people to live on it, people who were to call him good and obey him, to live to the praise of his glory, and we failed.
He put us in the land to do that but something terrible happened. The land went out of the family. Luke 4:5 says "The devil led him [Jesus] to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, 'I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it's been given to me.'" What has been given to the devil? The land, the earth and all its inhabitants. When did that happen? When Adam, as representative man, the one who was to rule on earth as God's representative, instead he chose to solve his problem by yielding to the rule of someone other than God. At that moment he sold the landand himselfoutside the human family to the enemy of God, who then became the god of this world.
A close relative, a kinsman was required to buy it back. The Second Person of the Trinity became a man. He paid the price of all the sin the inhabitants of the land committed. But notice he didn't immediately reclaim the land. When Jesus paid the price of the land, a deed of purchase was written, and it was sealed and was placed in strong hands where nobody would take it, the hands of God himself, until the day when the Kinsman Redeemer will take the sealed deed, break the seal, remove those who now lay claim to this land and to our souls, and by right of ownership restore every one of our dreams beyond what we could possibly imagine.
Revelation 5: Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the thronethe right hand of God himselfa scroll. There's the purchase deed. The Kinsman Redeemer has bought the land. It's now in the hands of God. "A scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, 'Who is worthy to break the seal and open the scroll?' But no one in heaven or on earth, under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside of it." And John said: I wept. I cried. I wept and I wept because nobody was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.
It's interesting to me that Jesus didn't come forward right away when the angel asked, "Who is worthy?" Why is there a pause there? Who is worthy to open the scroll, to break the seal? Who is the one who is the true Kinsman Redeemer who has paid the price and who has the authority to reclaim the land for his glory, for his purposes and to restore all the souls that God calls his into their rightful inheritance through Jesus? Why didn't Jesus at that point come forward and say, "I'm here"? He paused a bit. And as he paused John wept. So why did he cry?
While Naomi sat depressed having sold her land, trying to remember what her husband looked like Naomi was sitting perhaps wondering Elimilech, I can't call him back to mind. My sons, I recall when they were playing in the backyard, and now they're gone. Surrounded by broken dreams. Was nothing going on during that time that was moving toward something good? Was nothing going on in the middle of the hardest things in your life?
Sometimes I feel that. This is just plain bad. No reason. Makes no sense. And the hurt sometimes feels like the bottom line. It never is. But it feels that way. There's no hope beneath the pain. And I weep in utter despair. Those are the tears John wept in Revelation 5.
I read the story of Boaz in the book of Ruth and I think of Revelation 5, a day that is not yet. But I realize that my Boaz, my Kinsman Redeemer is right now working toward that day when the fruit of what he has done will be felt finally and completely. But how about now? The struggle to hope for heaven is one thing; the struggle to hope for something good now is another thing.
The power of God is released through shattered dreams
I want to tell you something that has come to mean the world to me in just the last few months. I've come, I think, to a richer understanding of the gospel. The gospel of the new covenant where in Ezekiel 36 God looks down at his people and says: You've profaned my name. You've made me look bad. And what I'm going to do, not for your sake but for the sake of my Name I'm going to institute a new covenant with Israel that the Church will have a part in. I'm going to bring in the gospel and not only forgive you for being as awful as you've been, for profaning my Name, but more than forgiveness and the guarantee of heaven, I'm going to take your very being, who you are, and I'm going to make you terrific. I'm going to take your very being that's totally corrupt, and I'm going to give you a new heart.
Your deepest, truest self will now be good, inclined to keep my law, powerful, able to bless others. Jesus said to his Father: Father, the glory that you gave me I've given to them, so they can actually relate to one another in new ways. These people, I'm going to give them the glory. They're going to have something in their hearts that's going to be terrific. They're going to be changed people. So when they're most fully known, they'll be most fully powerful.
I don't know about you, but you know what I feel all the time? I feel if you really got to know me I think you'd walk away in disgust. Did you ever feel like a shiny, bright apple that looks good on the table in the fruit bowl, people look at the apple and say wonderful but take a bite, take two bites, take three, you'll find the worm at the core? At the core of mebecause I'm a saintthere's no worm. There's Jesus, the Spirit. Jesus Christ reclaims the wonder of his creation, by forgiving us and giving us new hearts. Then he arranges our lives to release the beauty and the energy and the passion and the power of Jesus that within many of us is locked up and never released.
Do you understand why dreams have to be shattered? As long as life works, we claim the credit and our remains and we bring very little glory to his name. We live out of our carnality, out of our flesh. When life doesn't work, when the dreams are shattered to the point where there's nothing left we can manage, where our powers, our talents, our abilities and all the things that people admire about us are no longer enough to win the day, when you realize as you raise your kids that all the ways you've tried to be the best parent in the world aren't going to do it. It requires the power of God, and then you realize the power of God is in me. How does it get out? Shattered dreams.
When I was sick I received many letters from former clients in my professional practice days. Of the twenty or so letters that I received from former counselees, every one was the same line, basically. Meant the world to me. It surprised me. They wrote to encourage me, to say, "Larry, can we tell you how God has used you to bless our lives?" And what I noticed in every letter not one mentioned my clinical skills. I've worked hard at those. Nobody mentioned my brilliant insights.
Is there any more to me than a preacher? Anything more to me than a psychologist, a writer of books? If we really knew each other and I gave you me, not whatever speaking ability I might have or thoughts I might come up with? Suppose you got me? My clients wrote and said, "Larry, our lives were changed a little bit because I think we tasted something of Christ in you." I remember reading those letters and I wept. I felt such hope. I'm actually in the core of my being somebody that would bless you?
When I didn't know if I would live or die, one of the things I said to God was, "God, don't waste this suffering, please. If you're going to let me suffer like this at least change me." When I got home from the hospital I can't tell you how disappointed I was the first time I snapped at my wife. My thought was I could snap at my wife before cancer. It's so hard to believe that our deepest value to the glory of God and to the body of Christ is who we really are, not what we can do.
My Boaz, my Jesus saw that I sold the land. I sold my soul. I belonged to another. I belonged to the devil. My Redeemer paid the price. My Redeemer has a purchase deed that's waiting at the hand of God for him one day to reclaim, to restore every dream imaginable beyond what I can imagine for me, for my joy, for my pleasure, all of which will redound to his glory. My Boaz has done more than promised me heaven. He's given me himself right now. Do you hear it properly when I say My Boaz has made me terrific to know?
Larry Crabb is professor and distinguished scholar in residence at Colorado Christian University, Morrison, Colorado. His most recent book is Soul Talk: Speaking with Power Into the Lives of Others (Integrity 2003).
(c) Larry Crabb
Preaching Today Tape #248
A resource of Christianity Today International
Larry Crabb is founder and president of New Way Ministries, distinguished scholar in residence at Colorado Christian University, and author of Shattered Dreams (WaterBrook).