I heard a preacher say one time that we all have dark thoughts about God. My initial response was skepticism. As someone whose earliest memories are filled with Bible truths, I didn’t want to think that I have anything but esteem and love for God.
But I’ve come to see that the preacher was right. We don’t instinctually expect the best of God. We’re a bit suspicious of him. We suspect he’s out to make us miserable instead of deeply and eternally happy. When the worst happens in our lives, we sometimes respond with a sense of “I knew it . . . I’ve been waiting for this.” We so easily entertain the idea that God is cruelly against us rather than lovingly for us.
The Bible tells the story of a woman who not only entertained the idea that God was against her, she became convinced of it. It’s surprising that the little book that contains her story isn’t named after her, because it begins with her crisis and ends with the resolution of her crisis.
The book of Ruth begins not with Ruth, but with Naomi, telling us about the time and place in which she lived. The first line of the book explains that she was living in the town of Bethlehem in the days when the judges ruled.
During this era there was a repeated cycle of God’s people doing despicable things, followed by God sending famine or an invader to discipline them, followed by the people crying out to God for relief and salvation. And when the book of Ruth opens, they were in the midst of a famine.,
I have never experienced anything close to a famine. My challenge has always been trying to figure out how to eat less of the abundant food options that surround me, so I can barely imagine what it is like to go to bed hungry every night and wake up hungry every morning, finding no relief.
It was this kind of hunger, a desperate need, that drove one family living in Bethlehem to make a choice that may not immediately seem shocking. Actually, it seems very reasonable to us: They moved. They left the land of famine and moved to a place where they thought they would be able to find something to eat.
Moving is no big deal in our day. But this was a unique time and place and people. The land Naomi and her family were leaving was the Promised Land—the land God gave to his people, the land where he promised to be with them and to bless them. Elimelech and his wife and two sons left this land to move, not just anywhere, but to Moab, a country founded centuries earlier through the incestuous relationship of Lot with his daughters, a land in which they worshiped other gods (see Judges 10:6), a land that had oppressed and enslaved the Israelites for eighteen years only a short time before (see Judges 3:14).
This choice would have shocked those around them. Their fellow Israelites would have wanted to say to them, “Don’t do it! Don’t seek out some solution apart from God, away from where he has promised to bless his people.”
But not only did Naomi’s family leave God’s land, they settled in far away from it. The boys married Moabite women. But what seemed like a reasonable step for self-preservation proved to provide no lasting preservation at all. Soon the family’s story was engraved on grave markers in Moab. First Elimelech died, leaving Naomi a widow in a foreign land. Then both of her sons, Mahlon and Kilion, died. Naomi had gone with her family to Moab in search of life, but she found herself far away from God and far away from God’s people with no protection, no source of provision, and seemingly no future.
Then, into this terribly sad situation came a glimmer of hope. Word reached Naomi that “the Lord had blessed his people in Judah by giving them good crops again” (Ruth 1:6). Grace had come down on the fields of Bethlehem in the form of rain and a growing barley crop, and Naomi wanted in on this grace. So she packed her bags and set out for home, along with her two daughters-in-law.
Along the way, Naomi stopped to encourage her daughters-in-law to go back to their families in Moab. She knew that these Moabite women could not expect a warm welcome in Israel. But if they went back to Moab, they would likely find husbands and have children and a home. Besides, because Naomi was convinced that God was against her, she told Ruth and Orpah that they couldn’t expect anything good if they went with her.
While one of the daughters-in-law, Orpah, took Naomi’s advice and determined to head back to Moab, the other, Ruth, could not be swayed. She had heard about Israel’s God and the promises he made to bless his people, and so she bound herself to her bitter mother-in-law and to her mother-in-law’s God. God was at work to provide for Naomi through this noble daughter-in-law—but Naomi couldn’t see it. Naomi’s old friends couldn’t see it either. When the two women arrived in Bethlehem, Naomi’s old friends could hardly recognize her, and they said nothing at all about her Moabite companion. It’s as if Ruth were invisible to them.
“Don’t call me Naomi,” she said to the women of the town. To be called “Naomi,” which means “pleasant,” was a cruel joke to her. “Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?” (Ruth 1:20-21).
Clearly Naomi believed in God’s sovereignty and in his justice. She saw the events of her life as something God had brought about, but she had no expectation of God’s grace or kindness in the midst of the suffering. The presence of tragedy in her life was proof to Naomi that God was against her, and she had settled into having very dark thoughts about God. Perhaps she pictured him standing up in court to testify against her. She could practically hear him saying, “This woman left my land, she turned her back on my promises, and she doesn’t deserve anything good. What she deserves is to suffer.”
Naomi’s understanding of the world, her grasp of God’s ways with his people, was that God gives us what we deserve, what we’ve earned through our good or bad behavior. It was the same understanding Job’s friends seemed to have—that in Job’s suffering he was getting what he deserved. Naomi and the friends of Job seemed to have based their understanding and expectations of God on the law of Moses, which promised blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. But actually, what we see again and again, from the beginning to the end of the Bible, is that God repeatedly gives his people what they don’t deserve. It’s called grace. We think we want this life to be fair, but that’s not really what we want. In a perfectly fair world, there’s no room for grace, for getting what we don’t deserve. And it is this undeserved favor, the grace of God, that proves to be the defining element in our lives.
Taken from God Does His Best Work with Empty by Nancy Guthrie. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Nancy Guthrie teaches the Bible at her church, Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tennessee, at conferences worldwide, and through numerous books and video series. She and her husband, David, are the cohosts of the GriefShare video series used in more than 12,000 churches nationwide and host Respite Retreats for couples who have experienced the death of a child. Guthrie is also the host of Help Me Teach the Bible, a podcast of the Gospel Coalition. Nancy’s upcoming book, God Does His Best Work with Empty, releases from Tyndale House Publishers in September 2020.