Years ago, when my 2-year-old car needed a new battery, my son said, "Dad, we need to buy a new car. This one is getting old." When the tape deck needed work, he said, "Dad, we'd better buy a new car. This one is eating us out of house and home." I insisted there was no reason to spend thousands of dollars on a new car just because the old one needed minor repairs.
Marriages are a bit like that. Sometimes a little maintenance can get the marriage operating smoothly again. Occasionally, a serious breakdown means a complete overhaul is necessary, but most problems are solvable. Even if there has been an affair, the marriage can usually be restored at the price of repentance and forgiveness.
One of the real problems of our society has been the tendency of some couples to give up too quickly. Minor problems cause some to look admiringly at other models. Soon they're convinced nothing can be done, and the old relationship is ready for the junk pile. But then they discover the trade-in is costly, and they've bought into a whole new set of problems.
God intends a husband and wife to live together in love till death parts them. But what do you do if the marriage relationship is over? Maybe your mate left you for somebody else. Or maybe years ago you concluded that your marriage was irreparable, and you gave up on it. Now it can't be reclaimed. Perhaps your mate died and left you alone. Is it scriptural for you to start over with somebody else? Is it possible for you to remain single and be fulfilled and happy?
Today we'll use the story of Boaz and Ruth as a basis for our discussion about starting over. This is a pertinent story because it focuses primarily on single people.
The story of Ruth and Boaz
The main characters in the drama are single. There is Naomi, an older Jewish widow. Years before, she and her husband had moved from Bethlehem of Judea to Moab. Their two sons grew up to marry Moabite girls. Then tragedy struck. Naomi's husband and both sons died. Naomi is living with grief and struggling with bitterness.
The second character in the story is Ruth. She is Naomi's daughter-in-law, a young widow with no children. She has relatives in the Moabite country, but she is closer to Naomi than to anybody else. Ruth is grieving, lonely, and uncertain about what to do with her life.
A middle-aged, single man by the name of Boaz steps onto the scene. Boaz is a wealthy Jewish landowner, much older than Ruth, but he is to become her second husband. Apparently, Boaz had never married.
This past week we examined our church files to find out how many single people, 22 years old and up, we have on our membership rolls. There are 1,468 single people in our directory. They are in different age groups and in at least three distinct categories.
There are those like Naomi and Ruth whose mates have died. That is one of the most difficult adjustments in life. The Bible says the two become one. When your partner dies, there's a sense in which you feel incomplete and sometimes out of place as well as grief-stricken. I've read that it normally takes about two years to become emotionally stable after the death of a spouse. You may wonder at times if your life will ever be happy and fulfilling again.
One widow told me that even six months later she would think of something during the day and say to herself, Oh, I must tell Gerald about that when he comes home tonight. Then it would hit her: Gerald is not coming home tonight or ever. She said that even years later she would be singing a hymn in church and suddenly she'd see the back of some man's head that reminded her of her husband. Tears would well up, and she would be back down in the pit of despair. A number of you here today can identify with Naomi and Ruth in the grief they experienced.
The second category is composed of single people who have gone through the pain of divorce. A Bible college friend of mine, a respected minister, went through a bitter divorce several years ago. He was devastated when his wife left him for another man. Speaking later of the trauma, he said, "I believe divorce can be more difficult than the death of your mate."
A third category of single people we minister to is made up of those who have never married. Since 1970, the proportion of persons ages 25 to 29 that have never married has tripled for women and more than doubled for men. Maybe those of you who have not yet married have been disillusioned by a relationship. Or maybe you've been disappointed by the relationship of your parents, and you're reluctant to marry. Some single persons are trying to walk in the will of God, and you become frustrated that God hasn't provided the right person for you. You wonder what you're doing wrong. Others who are single are being wise in waiting for the right person to come along. They would much rather be happy and single than be unhappily married.
This is a pertinent, positive Bible story for all of us. Although it starts out with the sad death of mates, it ends in fulfillment. In her loneliness, Naomi decides to move back to Judea. Her daughters-in-law decide to go with her. Let's pick up the story in verse 8 of chapter 1.
So Ruth went to the homeland of Naomi, to Bethlehem. That's evidence of her compassion for her mother-in-law but also evidence of her adventuresome spirit. Ruth did not lock herself in and wallow in self-pity. She was willing to change her lifestyle so she could have a better life and minister to her mother-in-law. That spirit of confidence and independence made her even more attractive.
When people are overly aggressive about marriage, it's a turn off. I remember hearing college guys say, "Boy, I wouldn't date her. She is just here to get her MRS. degree." They saw her as overly eager and not enough of a challenge, which caused them to back off. Ruth was an attractive person because she wasn't consumed about the idea of getting married again.
While Ruth was working in the field, Boaz noticed her. It doesn't say she made a big play for him. The Bible says Boaz asked the foreman of his harvesters, "Whose young woman is that?"
The foreman replied, "She is the Moabitess who came back from Moab with Naomi. She went into the field and has worked steadily from morning till now except for a short rest in the shelter."
By the way, if you are walking in God's will, he will bring the right person to you in his time. If Ruth had been elsewhere, she probably wouldn't have met Boaz. She did what was right, and God brought her in contact with this wealthy landowner.
Guidelines from Ruth's story
This is such a practical story for single people. There are several pragmatic guidelines that I'd like for you to glean from this story.
1. If you have experienced the loss of a mate, understand that it will take time to be emotionally stable again. The same is true with somebody who has gone through a divorce. Rather than using those times of frustration and emotional instability to chase after somebody else, you could be drawing closer to God.
I asked several people who had experienced divorce to meet with me this past week in preparation for this sermon. Two women who went through a divorce over six years ago said the same thing. They said the first year it was terrible, but they grew more as Christians during that time than any other period of their lives. One has remarried and the other is single. But both counseled that they were not ready for marriage during the first year, even though they felt they had a scriptural right to remarry.
A man in that meeting said that when he went through his divorce, he was determined to remain true to Christ. He said, "I chose not to date at all during the first year, because I knew I was not ready. I was lonely and too vulnerable."
It takes a long time for emotions to settle down. The pain doesn't go away instantly. Dating and remarriage doesn't cure it either. So you have to be patient.
2. You learn to be content, even if you are single. Accept the fact that singleness may be God's will for your life. I know single people who make themselves miserable because they are convinced if they're not married they're unfulfilled as people. I know married people who would give anything if they could be single.
One man and wife were celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary when he broke into tears. His wife said, "What is wrong with you? Why are you so emotional?"
He said, "On our honeymoon, I remember being so mad at you I said, 'I could just kill you.' You said, 'If you do, you'll go to jail for twenty-five years.'"
His wife said, "Honey, I forgave you for that a long time ago."
He said, "I know. But if I had done it, today I would be a free man!"
I know married people who would give anything if they could be single. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Some of you single people have been programmed to believe that the only way you can be fulfilled is in a relationship. And if marriage doesn't come your way, you feel rejected and inferior or jump into a relationship that's wrong. Please understand that the single life may be God's will for you, and it can be fulfilling.
Some of you who are single have deeper communication and better companionship with friends than many people who are married. Our society has so exaggerated the importance of sexual fulfillment that some have the impression that you cannot have a meaningful life without physical passion. That is not true. Jesus Christ is the greatest person who ever lived. He was single. Paul is the greatest Christian who ever lived, and Paul said he had learned contentment in whatever state he found himself. "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me," he said.
Understand that God has not put the key to your happiness in somebody else's pocket. It's in your pocket; it's in your attitude. So make up your mind to be happy though single. If the right person comes along, fine. If not, you're still going to be content.
3. Maintain your character regardless of where you are. Boaz told Ruth that everybody knew what a noble character she had. When you're lonely, you're so vulnerable, and though it may shock you, even though you have Christian convictions, you can easily fall into a physical relationship that is wrong. You must decide in advance what your convictions are going to be.
I hear all kinds of rationalizations from Christian single people about how the moral standards of our society are low. "God is full of grace," a person will say. "He can't expect me to be morally pure at my age. We're going to get married anyway." There are others who use sex to hang onto a shaky relationship, believing it's better to live in sin than to be lonely.
It may be very difficult to keep your moral standards today, but I know it's possible. I know it's God's will for your life. You may have it tough, but you don't have it worse than Joseph in Egypt. He was a slave, nearly 30 years of age, and single. Potiphar's wife approached him, and he told her he wouldn't do this sin. It wasn't long before God honored his purity.
Let me remind you of something: It wasn't easy for Jesus to go to the cross and die for your sin. He said if you're not willing to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him every day, you're not worthy of being his disciple. You have no right to ask God to bless your life if you are continuously, deliberately violating his standards of morality. So guard your character.
4. Be very cautious about remarriage. The number of remarriages in this country has increased by 63 percent since 1970. But before you follow that trend, read the Scripture carefully and determine whether or not God gives you permission to remarry. First Corinthians 7:39 claims that you have permission to remarry if your mate has died. My personal opinion in reading Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15 is that you have permission to remarry if your mate has been unfaithful or has abandoned you.
Listen to 1 Corinthians 7:10-11: "To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife."
I know of a wife whose husband became an alcoholic. He began to beat her and abuse the children. She concluded it was God's will for her to get away, for the protection of the children and herself. It was God's will for her to get a divorce. She didn't consider it God's will for her to remarry: "I'm going to remain true to God and pray for my husband that he will repent and we can be reconciled somewhere down the road."
You study those passages. You respond with a submissive spirit to God's will. He knows what is best for you. When you begin to make decisions based on what you think will make you happy regardless of what the Bible says, you are in dangerous territory because you do not know the future. God does not want to harm you. He wants to provide what is best for you.
Even if you have scriptural permission to remarry, be cautious about entering into a new relationship. According to U. S. News and World Report, there is a 60 percent divorce rate for remarriages. Remarried couples face from three to ten times the stress as those in first marriages. That includes finances, relocation, the tensions of step parenting, and dealing with former spouses. So you can be open to the idea spiritually, but don't aggressively force it. Put yourself into a dating situation where you get to know the other person as a friend first.
The most important criteria in any relationship is that the person be a Christian and walk with God. In 2 Corinthians 6:14 it says, "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?" It can't be God's will for you to marry somebody who does not share your convictions about Christ.
5. If you decide to remarry, give yourself to that relationship wholeheartedly. Ruth did. If you've been hurt in a relationship, you can become paranoid. People tend to try to protect themselves in a second relationship. There are all kinds of prenuptial agreements and financial arrangements and attitudes toward children that are secondary. But if the marriage is God's will, it should be regarded as sacred and permanent with no strings attached. You are instructed when you are married to give yourself completely to the other, and the two become one flesh. The married partner takes precedence over every other family relationship.
If you are not willing to make that kind of commitment, not willing to take that kind of a risk, then you're not ready to get married. The relationship has little chance of survival. When you get married again, give yourself to the new relationship completely.
Before I close today, I must say a word to those here today who are divorced and remarried already. When the subject of divorce is touched on, it probably creates a number of questions in your mind: Should I have worked on my first marriage harder? Was I outside God's will when I remarried? Am I living in adultery? Am I welcome in this church? Should I divorce my present mate and go back to reclaim my first marriage? The answer to the last question is no, according to Deuteronomy 24.
But let me say with great fear and trembling that God's grace is a marvelous thing. When we come to him in submission and true repentance, he can wipe the slate completely clean, and we start over. I say this in fear and trembling because in no way do I want to leave the impression with others that they can presume on the grace of God in advance. But God can forgive, and God can bless a relationship even though it didn't have the right to start in the first place.
There can be no more sordid story than David and Bathsheba. They were outside God's will, and they suffered all kinds of horrible consequences because of their sin. But David pled for the forgiveness of God, and God washed him whiter than snow. Even though the first child born to that relationship died, eventually to David and Bathsheba came Solomon, who walked with God and who knew the Lord. You can't go back and unscramble eggs. You can't go back and undo the mistakes of the past. That only compounds the problem. But you can pick up where you are right now, and you can say, "God, there are so many complications, but I do repent of my sins. I thank you for your grace. I pledge that I will walk in your will from this day forward. Thank you for your grace."
Jesus met a woman at a well who had been divorced five times. She was married, but living with a man to whom she was not married. Jesus didn't reject her. He welcomed her. He invited her to become a part of his kingdom. His grace is a marvelous thing.
In 2 Corinthians 5:17 it says, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come." The critical matter is for you to walk in God's will from this day forward.
The characters we studied today were able to start over and find fulfillment in obedience. Boaz, who never married, had a wife. Ruth, who had grieved over the death of her husband, married, started over, and had a baby. Naomi, the older widow, never remarried, but her life was fulfilling because of this new child.
When Ruth brings this new baby and places it in the lap of the grandmother-in-law, Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom and became his nurse or babysitter. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. And, may I add, the forefather of Jesus Christ.
God works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. His grace covers a multitude of sins.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Bob Russell is a speaker, chairman of the board of the Londen Institute, and author of When God Builds a Church (Howard).