A few months ago my wife and I met with a woman who was telling us about her family. She told us that when her daughter was born she had big hopes and dreams for her child, like any mother would. She wanted her child to be used by God. Maybe her daughter would grow up to be a doctor, and God would use her mind and her hands to heal the sick. Maybe her daughter would be a lawyer, and God would use her to stand up for peace and fight against oppression and injustice.
She had hopes, dreams, and plans for her child. She's the type of mom that did everything right. She crossed her t's and dotted her i's. She bought all the right brands, all the right foods—all organic. She wouldn't even let her husband hold the child too much.
Things were going well until one day her daughter fell to the floor, convulsing. Her parents frantically rushed her to the hospital, not knowing what was wrong. Doctors stabilized her, tests were run, but they couldn't figure out what was wrong. After two weeks of painful uncertainty, they learned that her two-year old daughter had been diagnosed with a rare, neural-genetic disorder that would leave her mentally impaired for life. Through her tears, the mother asked the question that anyone in her situation would ask: Why would God allow this to happen?
All of us walk through dark times when we wonder: Where is God in the shadows, in the darkness? Where is he in the left turns and the detours of life?
Let me offer two perspectives on these questions. First, in William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3 a character named Macduff says, "Every morn, new widows howl, new orphans cry and new sorrows strike heaven on the face." Can you feel the impact of that?
One of the beautiful things about poetry is that it is compressed language, a verbal time bomb. With only a few words, with a few strokes of the pen, Shakespeare unleashes volumes of raw sentiment, emotion and philosophy. He's saying that with every loss, with every tear, with every illness, and with every injustice there is an assault on the face of God, on the character of God. Every evil, every heartache strikes heaven on the face and says with clenched fists, "God does not exist. God does not care. God is not good."
This is probably the most pervasive perspective on evil and suffering and the existence of God today. This is what our culture believes.
The logic can be framed like this: If evil and suffering exist but God does not stop it, he may be all powerful but he is not good. If evil and suffering exist but God cannot stop it, he may be good but he's not all powerful. Either way, the good and all powerful God of the Bible cannot be. It's a powerful argument. What do we say?
Here's the second perspective on questions of God's presence in the dark times of life. In C.S Lewis' The Great Divorce a character named George MacDonald says, "Ah, the Saved … what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage. What seemed, when they entered it, to be the vale of misery turns out, when they look back, to have been a well; and where present experience saw only salt deserts memory truthfully records that the pools were full of water."
Lewis is saying is that God has a funny way of working through suffering to bring about incredible blessing. And it's this perspective that we're going to unpack as we walk through one of my favorite books in the Bible—the book of Ruth.
The book of Ruth is a fabulous book. It's short but it's rich with content about what life with God is like in the shadows, in the left turns, in the detours. It's a book for people who wonder where God is when tragedies assault their faith. It's a book for people who wonder how God could use their ordinary lives of faith to do something great. It's a book of hope and I want you to be encouraged by it.
God is at work in our losses
The story begins with a famine in the land in which they live. Most of you can't imagine it, but place yourselves there. Walk in the footsteps of Naomi. See through her eyes.
An economic depression hits and your husband loses his job and people all around you lose their jobs. At first, it's okay because you tell yourself that this is only temporary and your husband will find work soon. So you stick it out by cutting back, not going to the mall that often, buying five gallon tubs of Mac & Cheese at Costco. Six months pass, it's getting worse. A year passes. Two years pass. And still, there's an economic depression and no job.
And now, you've sold your house, your car, and everything you have that's valuable for food. You've worn the same thing for weeks but it doesn't matter anymore. Everything that used to preoccupy your mind—your portfolio, your retirement, your social calendar—are now replaced by thoughts of what's going to happen to you, where you'll find your next meal, and how you're going to feed your kids. You're in survival mode. So in a final, desperate attempt, you move to a hostile, foreign country with people you don't know, a language that you're not familiar with, a culture that's strange and different, and you just hope for a better life.
Now if you're Naomi, everything you have and everything you love is with you, especially the three men in your life—your husband and your two boys. You've lost the good life and the picket fence and the early retirement but you'll manage because you still have your family. You have a husband to support you and two boys to carry on the family name. You still have hope.
While you're in Moab, your husband gets sick. As he weakens, so does your hope. You pray that God would heal him. And then your husband dies; and when he dies, part of your hope dies as well. He always seemed to know what to do. And even though times got rough, you always felt that it was going to be okay just because he was there. And now he's gone and your world falls apart.
You live in Moab for a while and you get by. Your sons find work. You're a woman trying to raise two men. Your two boys fall in love and eventually marry Moabite women. It's a strange dynamic in your family. It's interracial.
Ten years pass, Time goes by so fast. And just as Naomi starts to heal from the death of her husband, her two boys get sick.
This looks all too familiar. And she has to go through the darkness of watching a loved one die all over again. And this time it's not just one person—it's her two boys. She's remembering their first words, the first time they walked, the first time they lost a tooth—these are her two boys that she raised lying on their deathbeds. They die and she's devastated. She's lost all hope. Everyone that she loved when she got to Moab is now dead. All that's left are her two daughters-in-law.
She has experienced incredible economic loss. She has experienced painful relational loss. But not only that, as a widow, she plummeted to the very bottom of society. Nowadays, if you have an education or some marketable skill, you can make a living. But back then, your future depended on your family. You didn't need an education, you needed a husband and you needed kids. If you had those, you had hope for the future. But Naomi was the worst kind of widow—she was older. If you became a widow, you had a couple of options. You could go back and live with your parents. But Naomi couldn't do that. If you were a widow you could remarry and start a new family. But Naomi couldn't do that either. She was too old. If you were a widow and you were old, you could live off the support of your adult children. Naomi couldn't do that. All her adult children are dead. She has nothing.
She has no name. Her family line is going to die out with her. She has had everything stripped away from her. Now, she's going back to Israel because she has nowhere to go. She's going back to a dead-end life, to live out the end of her days as a beggar. And the saddest part is that because of all her misfortune, in a way, she feels like she has lost her God as well. She feels cursed and rejected by God. This is complete, comprehensive, total loss that Naomi is experiencing.
Just to show you how heartbroken she is, she does a very sad play on her own name. Back then your name symbolized who you were. It wasn't just something that you called yourself but it was a prophetic word into your destiny and your future. Naomi gets back to Bethlehem. And the people remember her from before. And they say, "Can this be Naomi?" Her name Naomi, in the Hebrew, means Sweet. She says, "Don't call me Sweet. Call me Bitter. I went away full but came back empty. Why call me Naomi? Naomi is dead. The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me."
It's a sad story. But that's not the end. If you look at verses 6-18, you see God working and turning Naomi's life around—you see signs of hope.
And that's our first lesson: There are signs of hope in every single life because God works under the surface and behind the scenes. That's what the book of Ruth teaches you. You must never lose hope no matter what's going on in your life because God is doing 10,000 things for his glory and your good even when he appears to be absent and not listening.
Here's the great thing about the book of Ruth. Put it up next to Jonah, Genesis, or almost any book in the Bible. And you'll see something that's different. There's nothing in the book of Ruth that is miraculous. There are no big fish or burning bushes. There are no dreams, no voices, and no revelations. There are no explicit, overt interventions from God. There are no dramatic answers to prayer. There's just a group of people trying to live and survive. They see nothing but mundane times and hard times. They make decisions about where to live and what to eat—just like us. But when you read it, you see that God is still powerfully at work.
You see, it was God who broke the famine and opened the way home (1:6). It was God who preserved a kinsman redeemer to continue Naomi's line (2:20). And it was God who convicts Ruth to stay with Naomi. It was God who led Ruth to Boaz. God was constantly at work. That's the irony of the text. Naomi doesn't see it. Ruth doesn't see it. Boaz doesn't see it. But we see it. God's in every scene, every act, and every movement of this play. He is right there in their sorrows and in their joys. There are invisible fingerprints and footsteps in the sand all over the story. The same is true with your life. You must learn to see the signs of hope that he's constantly working even when it seems like he's silent. One scholar put it like this: God is most powerfully present even when he seems most conspicuously absent. He's always working. That's the first lesson.
God's grace is closer than you think
The second lesson is this: God often works in ways that we'd never expect. He works in the way of grace and grace is so counterintuitive that we often miss it. What you consider a weakness, God will turn into a source of his strength.
Look at Naomi. In her darkest hour, when all light had faded from her eyes, God gave her Ruth. Way back in Ruth 1 after Naomi had lost her sons, this is what she says:
But Naomi said, "Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons—would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD's hand has gone out against me!" At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her. "Look," said Naomi, "your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her." But Ruth replied, "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me." When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.
Ruth is awesome. The commitment and courage of Ruth is all the more amazing when you realize what's going on. Naomi tells her daughters-in-law that she has nothing to offer them. There is no hope for her and if they try to be faithful to her, there will be no hope for them. If they stay, they can have a life. They can remarry and have children. If they come, there is nothing but widowhood, childlessness, and poverty for them. Naomi paints her future black on the canvas of misery and sorrow and Ruth looks in, takes her hand and says, "Let's go."
Here's what's amazing about Ruth: She's an immigrant. Every act of immigration takes incredible courage, faith, and sacrifice. I remember when my parents first came to the States. They didn't know the language, the culture, or the geography. They just came. My dad owned a construction company and my mom was a banker, which was really good for a woman in South Korea in the late 60s. They basically liquidated their assets and moved. And like every other Asian we moved to New York.
My dad couldn't find work in New York, but someone told them about a small motel that was for sale in Virginia. I don't know if he knew how far Virginia was from New York but they bought it. We packed it up and moved down. My parents have been running that motel for the last 30 years. I think about that a lot, especially now that I have a child of my own. I think about the incredible sacrifices that they made. I love my dad but my mom is truly amazing. She taught me English when she didn't know how to speak it herself. If my mom had the education and the opportunities that I had, she could have gone far. But for the last 30 years, she cleans toilets, scrubs bathtubs, takes out other people's trash, makes bed, and vacuums rooms.
That's been her life for the last 30 years. That will be her life until she gets too old to do that anymore. But if you ask my mom or any other immigrant why they would make that sort of sacrifice, the answer is always the same: a hope for a better life, a hope for a better future.
But Ruth immigrates not because she thinks she's going to have a better life. She immigrates thinking she's going to have a worse one. She's the only immigrant I know who moves out expecting a worse life. For all she knows, the rest of her adult life (the text tells us that she's a young woman) will be characterized by abject poverty, rejection, and violence. And in some ways, it may be harder for Ruth than Naomi.
Throughout the whole book she's called "Ruth the Moabitess." The narrator does not let you forget that. Why is that important? Moab and Israel were the bitterest of enemies. The Moabites were the descendants of Sodom. They were seen as horrible, wicked people by the Israelites. And the Moabites had historically oppressed the Israelites. So there was incredible racial animosity between Israelites and Moabites. And Ruth was a Moabite.
So not only is she moving in as a woman, not only is she moving in as a widow, she's moving in as a hated race.
There's a really disturbing verse in chapter 2 where Boaz tells Ruth to glean in his field or else she might be harmed. Then he says to her, "I have warned my young men not to assault you." And later in the chapter Naomi tells Ruth that it's good that she's gleaning in Boaz's field because in another field she may be assaulted. There was so much risk for Ruth as a foreigner that Boaz has to order his men not to harm her. Otherwise, Boaz knows, Naomi knows, Ruth knows that she could be victimized.
Ruth knows the danger ahead of her and yet, she goes. Because of her love for Naomi—her love for her mother-in-law. What a woman! What a friend! What a gift.
Here's what so funny. It's one of the many places in Ruth where the author uses tongue-in-cheek irony. When Naomi comes back to Bethlehem and all the women recognize her, she tells them, "I'm empty. The LORD has brought me back empty." But right under her nose is Ruth—this amazing gift of grace. Even Ruth had to be saying, "Hey, what's up with that?" Naomi's complaint was that she had no name, she had no line. God had taken them away. All that was left of her family was this young, Moabite widow. What can God do with that? But if you read the story, through Ruth, God gives her a son named Obed. Obed becomes the father of Jesse. Jesse becomes the father of David, who becomes the greatest king in the history of Israel. And from David, comes Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior of the world.
Through Ruth, Naomi is included in the lineage of kings and the messiah. Yet, Naomi looks past Ruth and she thinks, "I have no name. I have no line. God has left me empty. He's forgotten me." Here's the reason for her blindness to God's grace: Naomi thinks she knows better than God about how her life should go. And because she thinks she knows better than God about how her life should go, she can't see Ruth—God's greatest gift to her and the best thing in her life.
Some of us are in the same place. We have an agenda for our life and because our agenda doesn't match with God's agenda, we think God has abandoned us. We say, "God has left me empty." And right underneath your nose could be your Ruth, your hope, the greatest avenue of blessing in your life. But you're blind to the incredible things that God has put in your life because you can't see the mysterious way of grace. All throughout Scripture God tells us that he does his best work, his greatest work through widows, orphans, weaknesses, and trials. He is a God that works through crosses. Like C.S. Lewis once said, the things that you think are salt deserts in your life right now are really overflowing wells of grace.
In Ruth 4, the people say to Naomi, "Ruth is better than seven sons." Seven is the number for perfection. And in a society where family and name and line mean everything, sons were the ultimate commodity. So, seven sons is the symbol for the perfect life. And when the Israelite women say, Ruth, your daughter, this widow and outsider is better than seven sons they're saying, "The grace of God in your life is better than your wildest hopes and dreams for the perfect life." And if you surrender your life to God, like Ruth and Naomi, God will give you back your life. Not in the way that you imagined it, but better, bigger, greater.
Jesus completes the story of Ruth
Isn't that hopeful? Some of you are saying, "Sure, I understand that but I'm still having a hard time hoping." And if that's the case, you need a Ruth. As great as Ruth was for Naomi, we can have hope because we have someone greater than Ruth. Ruth is not just a wonderful story that tells us, "Be like Ruth." At the end of the book of Ruth we find a genealogy. It's a unique genealogy because genealogies usually point backward, but this genealogy points forward. This genealogy should have ended with Obed; instead it ends with David.
This genealogy points to David because the author of Ruth is lifting our eyes from this story about one family so we can see what God is doing for the nation of Israel and for the world. It's like a guy who's been given a vision of redemption, God's saving work, but the farthest he can see is David. But he knows there's something beyond, so the genealogy is incomplete. Where the book Ruth ends, the gospel of Matthew picks up in Matthew 1:1. In Matthew 1:3-6 we find an almost verbatim copy of the genealogy found in the book of Ruth—except Matthew's genealogy includes Ruth. That's strange because genealogies only included men and only included Jews. Ruth is a woman and she is a Gentile. So why is she in Matthew's genealogy?
Matthew is completing the picture. He's finishing the line. He's saying, "Before you look at Jesus, I want you to look at Ruth." Matthew is highlighting the family tree of Jesus and saying, "You can't understand Jesus unless you understand his family, because his family and their stories continually point to who he is and what he's about."
So Ruth is in the genealogy of Jesus because Ruth points to the one who comes out of her, the one who is her descendent. Ruth points to a greater Ruth. When Ruth looked at Naomi she said to herself, "If I keep my life, Naomi loses hers. So I'm going to give my life away so that Naomi can get one." The only way that Ruth can save Naomi is to become like her.
So she says, "I will take her poverty on myself. I will take her marginality on myself. I will become poor so that through my poverty Naomi may become rich." And that's what happened. Ruth left her father's house. She left her own country. She became an outsider. She became a suffering servant. She became someone who's rejected and despised. She takes on another's poverty so that through her poverty another may be rich. Does she remind you of anybody?
Jesus left his Father's throne above, emptied himself, and died for us. Jesus left the ultimate riches to take on the ultimate poverty so that through his poverty, we may become rich. And whereas Ruth clung to Naomi at the risk of her life, Jesus clung to us on the cross at the cost of his life. Ruth says to Naomi, "I won't let anything but death separate you from me," Jesus says to you, "I won't even let death separate you from me."
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things, in our detours, in our left turns, in our shadows, in our times of darkness and weakness, in our failures and our addictions and sin, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
When you see that, when you see the one to whom Ruth points, and see how he loves you, how he clings to you, how he's your ultimate friend, it'll change you, strengthen your faith, fill you with hope, and empower you to live.
And seeing Christ as our ultimate Ruth not only changes us and our lives, but it changes the world in which we live. When you see Jesus, the greater Ruth, the one to whom Ruth points, and how he reaches out and loves you, clings to you in your darkest hour, it will free you to be like Ruth. It will free you to love radically, to love like you have nothing to lose. It will free you to show barrier-breaking grace and commitment to a world filled with orphans and widows, strangers and outsiders—people who feel rejected and marginalized. It will free you to be the loving arms of Jesus and cling to someone whose future is painted dark with sorrow. Imagine a community like that. Imagine how that would look to a watching world. Imagine how that community would stand out and shine like a city on a hill. Imagine who could be drawn to the light of the knowledge of God. Imagine how many lives can be changed and how many broken hearts can be healed. It can happen—but only to the degree that you first see and understand Christ's love for you, only to the degree that your hope is anchored in the rock of Christ.
Saints of God, be filled with hope. He's always working. He's working here, right now, on your hearts. His way is grace. And he's given us right here, right now, now and forever the one to whom Ruth points.
Kevin Kim is a teaching pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California, and campus minister at Menlo's San Mateo site.