Sermon Follow Up- Week 49, 2021
Suffering turns our lives bitter. It makes us wish every difficulty and painful situation would just disappear or it brings us to a place where we assume "This shouldn't be happening!" That was the story of Naomi's life by the time she decided to return to Bethlehem. All the while, God was silently plotting. While Naomi's bitterness drove her to believe that God was plotting her destruction, the presence of Ruth and the arrival of the barley harvest proved that God was plotting Naomi's blessing, not her ruin. The beginning of the story is to show that God's hand, heavy as it is at time, is not against his people or his purposes. In his wisdom, he weaves pain into his plan to bring about salvation and ultimate restoration for those who trust in Christ.
"In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The LORD grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.” Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.
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?” She said to them, “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?”
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." (Ruth 1:1-22 ESV)
The God who may cause your life to be bitter or painful couldn’t be more concerned with mercifully doing good to you.
SUBPOINTS AND REFLECTION QUESTIONS
Introductory story: Once there was a man who found himself in dire straights. He was helplessly flat on his back with a masked man advancing upon him with a sharp weapon. He looked around frantically as his chest heaved. This armed assailant wasn’t alone. He had friends. One of those friends was smothering the helpless man until he began to lose consciousness. The last thing he saw was the sharp weapon drawing closer and closer to him. Then nothing. The helpless man finally awoke in a hospital bed… but the truth was… He had been in the hospital the whole time. Just a few hours earlier, he found himself in the emergency room with a ruptured appendix. And the doctor along with his staff had to work quickly to remove the failed appendix before things got bad. There was no threat with a knife… just a doctor with a precision scalpel. Nor was there a malicious smotherer, just the anesthesiologist. They were two people intent on helping the helpless man but in those confused and disoriented moments, the helpless man was certain that they meant him harm. He perceived the incoming pain as unnecessary and malevolent. He couldn’t have been more wrong!
From whom does our suffering come? From malicious hands who intend only to harm? Or hands that intend to save?
1. The Tragedy is His
When we're on the hunt for "the reason behind suffering" we often breeze over the pain and the people who are hurting. That's where we have to start. Suffering is real... and it's here to stay so long as we're waiting for Jesus to return (thankfully that means we will not suffer forever!). Suffering requires appropriate grief which is why we can't look at Naomi's situation or our friend's situation or our own and pretend as if hard things haven't/aren't happening.
- Throughout the course of your life, what are the hardest things to admit that God has done/included in his plan for you?
- What are things (right or wrong) you often tell yourself to try to ease the difficulties you face?
- What would you say to Naomi (or someone like Naomi) that would validate her suffering while also reminding her of the hope that her God offers?
2. The Solution is His
In all the moments we’ve insisted that our way is the better way in all the difficulties we’ve faced thus far, we are often resisting God’s plans to work out his good and perfect and better plans. Even if your solution might be to turn away from God because you feel like your life would be more pleasant if you told him to buzz off. Resist that! Because like Naomi, you will be turning your back on the very person who has the real solution.
Here before Naomi, is the solution to her sorrows in the form of a daughter-in-law named Ruth. And here she was trying to send Ruth away. You may be quite sure that you know how your suffering should pan out. There’s a clear path to safety or greener pastures and you’re going to take it. Friends, we don’t know it all for a reason, and it’s so we can trust the God who took a Moabite widow to rescue Naomi’s fortunes and quite literally save the world. That’s a God whose solutions are better than my feeble attempts to fix things. If you’re in the midst of it right now… please, stop trying to force your outcome. I invite you to not push away the scalpel as if God, the Lord of the universe, doesn’t know what he’s doing. I think we, like Naomi, are blinded by the same sort of habitual unbelief that shows up when the temperature of our life rises and all we see is loss and emptiness as we proclaim, “This shouldn’t be happening.”
What this story draws us toward is entrusting ourselves to God who will always and forever accomplish his perfect will. There’s not really any hope in saying, “I’ll be okay, everything happens for a reason.” That’s what people tell themselves to try to take the edge off of things pretending that their life will magically wind up more okay than it is. Something more reassuring is this, “I trust that everything I will face today and the rest of my life is done intentionally by my God for his good and perfect designs.” The things in your life that are most challenging are not chance happenings fulfilling some “reasons.” They are intentional actions from a personal God who is working out his solution.
- Do you currently believe that God knows what he's doing with your pain? What's the main reason for your answer?
- Why do his solutions or his approach to your suffering often feel wrong?
3. The Choice is Ours
All we have up to this point is Naomi’s evaluation of God. Is it accurate? Has he done this? Yes. Has he brought calamity? Yes. Has he brought Naomi back empty?..... It feels that way for Naomi. But is she empty? … In different ways Naomi says twice in this chapter God is against her. And who can blame her because the situation seems that way. But is it that way?
The timing is just right and guess who has brought them back to Bethlehem right at the beginning of the barley harvest? God has. The one who Naomi thinks has been against her this whole time. He is supplying her hometown with food and he has supplied Naomi with a woman named Ruth. Both of which he will use to fill Naomi’s emptiness…
“Trials are medicines measured out with care and prescribed by our wise and gracious Physician.”- John Newton
“Let us trust our Physician, and he will surely do us good.” - John Newton
“Every moment of our suffering is a ‘love token,’ proof of God’s favor, proof of his enduring love, proof of his fatherhood over us, proof of his divine claim on us, proof of his friendship to us, and proof of our preciousness to him. (wait…How is that true??) The same Christ who was pierced for sinners is the Christ who governs and rules over every trial, measuring every sting with ‘a love which can give no unnecessary pain to those for whom he died upon the cross.’” -Tony Reinke and John Newton
Jesus will not unnecessarily pain you. He will not carelessly afflict you. He died to claim you and save you. All that he does in the form of bringing suffering into your life is what he has deemed necessary to bring about his good purposes and you can rest on that. Is he against you?
Romans 8:28 “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
If you belong to Jesus by trusting in him, he is working all things (all things really means all things) together for good. For good! Not evil, not harm for harm’s sake. He is working it for good. Don’t wait for the outcome to start believing this. It can bring you moments of relief in the hardest times if this works its way all the way to your bones.
“You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?
Then my enemies will turn back
in the day when I call.
This I know, that God is for me.” (Psalm 56:8-9 ESV)
David, in the recesses of his soul, is convinced that God is on his side. His God has known every shed tear and has noticed every wrong done against David. And he will make all things right.
How do we know that God is not against us? When we were lost in darkness. Jesus came for us. When we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Ask us how we know that God’s ways are better than my ways and your ways and his ways and her ways. Well, when we couldn’t see him, he appeared to us like light in darkness. When we weren’t looking for him. When we hated him as deeply as a person can hate, he looked on the world with compassion and brought his own son (as a baby!) to us as our rescuer. None of us could have thought up a better solution to our own tragedy!
God's bitter plan for Naomi led to her being filled rather than staying empty. Who am I to say that God's bitter plan for me will not result in good?
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36 ESV)
What would you rather— live on a wish and a prayer or live being certain that the pain God brings into your life is measured, understood, intentional, and ultimately, temporary— dispensed by the very same one who loves you more than you could possibly fathom.
“Sooner shall the most tender mother sit insensible and inattentive to the cries and wants of her infant than the Lord Jesus be an unconcerned spectator of his suffering children.” -John Newton
“Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the LORD has comforted his people
and will have compassion on his afflicted.
But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me;
my Lord has forgotten me.”
“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands….” (Isaiah 49:13-16 ESV).
He sees your suffering because he has administered it carefully like medicine for us… bitter as it may be. Trust that his hands aren’t coming at you to harm you but to make his wisdom shine in you by using that suffering for your good and his fame in this world. Let’s repent today… for assuming God has no clue what he’s doing and believe that he is actually and surprisingly on your side.
- How does Naomi's situation prove that God is never inactive in our suffering?
- How can you grow in daily entrusting yourself to God's infinite wisdom?
- Where is the proof that God is on your side as a Christian?
- Is he against you?
Scripture has a way of instilling things in us by repetition. One of those things is how unfailing God's commitment is towards his people (consider the story of Hosea and Gomer!). While God does discipline his children, he is never against them so as to unnecessarily pain them— like the difference between an abusive parent who is reckless and one who is lovingly intentional in their discipline. Ask God for a heart of faith for the trial you're in so that you might trust that the one behind it all truly does care for you.
- The confusion and weariness of trials will tempt you to veer away from believing that God is trustworthy.
Over days and months and years of extended or intense suffering, the "believability" of God's goodness and commitment to your good starts to wane. One of the most common lies we can become convinced of is that God will not listen to my frustration or complaint. One of the songs below (Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul) expresses this:
Hast Thou not bid me seek Thy face,
And shall I seek in vain?
And can the ear of sovereign grace,
Be deaf when I complain?
No still the ear of sovereign grace
Attends the mourner's prayer
Oh may I ever find access,
To breathe my sorrows there
Even when our trust in God's good purposes seems slim, may we know that we have access to breathe our sorrows before him and ask him to have mercy on us or to help us endure.
- Consciously connect Christmas to your suffering.
One of this week's devotional thoughts from "Finding Hope Under Bethelehm Skies" (Day 3) noted that our culture's desire to start Christmas earlier and earlier could be an escape tactic. We're in darkness so we want to start the festivities sooner to get away from it all. In reality, Christmas is not a placebo or pain killer to help us ignore our suffering. Christmas is the beginning of the antidote to our suffering. The only way we can have hope for the moment where all our tears are wiped away is by God sending his Son to us. Christmas has everything to do with your suffering and we are worse off for going with the flow of our world that skips over how Christmas addresses our deepest need as well as the hardest things in life.
Additional Topic: God Disciplines Those He Loves
"It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed."
For many people, the idea of discipline is sour whether in our memory or based on our confusion of what discipline humanly speaking really is meant to look like. It's difficult to not see discipline as an unwanted, negative thing. However, God is clear that true discipline, especially that which comes from God himself, is loving and restorative. In reality, this is one of the main reasons why God uses suffering in our lives— to free us from the "old man" and our sinfulness, to cause us to further trust in him, to invite us to return to him, and ultimately, to show us that he is choosing to be involved with us and that he cares.
Here is a brief article/interview to provide additional thought on God's discipline. I'd encourage you to not take anything at face value but to weigh it and study the Word as a result. What we want is to better understand what God's discipline is meant for and who it is that administers it.
- Romans 8:18-39
- Isaiah 49:8-18
- Psalm 56:1-12
- Hebrews 12:7-13