By Philippe R. Sterling
Life is often difficult. One of my most difficult years was my second year in college. I was taking some of my most demanding classes: organic chemistry, physics, and physiology. Three weeks before finals I got a severe sinus infection, which made it look as if I had a softball under my cheeks and required hospitalization. I returned to school and tried to make up my incomplete work and continue with a new round of classes. That was a mistake. At the end of the term, I received a D in physics, a D in physiology, and an F in organic chemistry. I lost a tuition grant and had to drop out the next year in order to work.
What should we do when life is difficult? What is God doing? The true story of a young woman who lived 3,000 years ago provides a model of how we should respond to life’s difficult experiences and of how God works in them. The story of this amazing woman will instruct us concerning the proven character we need to demonstrate, and the providential care God displays.
We Should Live Responsibly Through Life’s Difficulties
Ruth provides a pleasing picture of responsible living in the midst of life’s difficulties. We see her proven character through her choice, her conduct, and her commendation.
THE CHOICE OF FAITH: CHOOSE TO TRUST GOD AS RUTH CHOSE TO TRUST GOD.
The opening unit of Ruth is bleak (1:1-7). Because of famine, Elimelech and his family migrate from Bethlehem to Moab where, after his death, his two sons marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. Then the sons also die, leaving their mother Naomi bereft of her whole family. Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem because she hears that Yahweh has providentially provided food for His people.
The first episode opens on a roadside in Moab with a farewell scene in which Naomi tries to dissuade her two daughters-in-law from going with her to Bethlehem. Three exchanges make up the dialogue. They show a repeated alternation of advice and response.
Naomi makes use of national, personal, and religious arguments to try to convince Ruth and Orpah to stay in Moab. In the first exchange, she makes use of the national motive to urge the women to stay (1:8-9a). In their first refusal, the women indicate their determination to return to Naomi’s people (1:9b-10). In the second exchange, Naomi ignores the national motive and focuses on the personal one of childlessness and marriage (1:11-13). She convinces Orpah with that argument (1:14). With Ruth, she again takes up the national motive and adds a religious one (1:15). Ruth’s reply is an extraordinary statement of personal, national, and religious identification with Naomi (1:16-18). She ends her statement with an oath indicating that Yahweh is her God. It is likely that at some earlier time, through the witness of Naomi, Ruth had simply believed in the coming Messiah who gives eternal life and was regenerated. Now she was identifying with God’s people much like a believer today may identify with the Body of Christ through baptism.
Ruth’s choice, not chance, would determine her destiny. Once she decided to identify with God and His people in spite of difficult circumstances, God began to move in guiding her to His purpose for her.
I do not always respond in faith to my trying circumstances. But on the occasion of my sickness and scholastic failure, I did. After learning of my grades, I went back to my room and spent the afternoon reading the Bible and praying. I decided that, in spite of my situation, I would trust God. I wrote down my commitment in a journal: “God, I don’t understand why this is happening. I have failed but I know that You are with me and will be glorified through this. I will work through things with You.”
THE CONDUCT OF FAITH: LIVE RESPONSIBLY AS RUTH LIVED RESPONSIBLY.
Through her actions, Ruth demonstrates what the book calls loyal-love. In chapter one she clings to Naomi and returns with her to Bethlehem. In chapter two she takes the initiative to provide for Naomi and herself by gleaning in the fields. In chapter three she carries out Naomi’s instructions for claiming Boaz as a redeemer. She is a model of responsible living.
I dropped out of school for a while, moved back in with my parents, and found a job to earn enough money to return to school. Once I returned to school, I would have to face organic chemistry again.
THE COMMENDATION OF FAITH: WE CAN RECEIVE A SIMILAR COMMENDATION TO THE ONE RUTH RECEIVED.
Ruth receives commendation for her choice and her conduct. In 1:8 Naomi prays for Ruth because she practiced loyal-love with her husband and with her. In 2:11-12 Boaz prays for her because of the kindness she showed Naomi. In 3:10-11 he pledges to redeem her because of the loyal-love she shows in choosing him over other younger men and because all the people of the town know her to be a woman of noble character. Finally, in 4:14-15 the chorus of women praises Ruth and counts her of more worth than the ideal number of sons.
Ruth portrays the responsible way God calls His people to live even through the tough times of life. She teaches us that we should choose to trust God and live responsibly through all of life’s experiences. If we do, we can be commended as she was commended.
God Leads Us as We Live Responsibly Through Life’s Difficulties
As we demonstrate our proven character, God displays His providential care. Ruth’s proven character is only half the story; the other half concerns the providential care of God. God is the main character in the story. He is continually on the scene, but in a hidden way—many events in the narrative evidence His activity without stating it directly. Let us look at three that reflect His providential care. God’s care is reflected in the commands of the law, the control of events, and the giving of conception.
THE COMMANDS FOR LIFE: GOD EXPRESSES HIS PROVIDENTIAL CARE BY COMMANDING HIS PEOPLE TO PROVIDE FOR THOSE IN NEED.
An indirect way in which the Book of Ruth shows God’s involvement in His people’s lives is by the use of the provisions made through the Law. The narrative illustrates the implementation of three of the civil and social laws. Ruth makes use of the law concerning gleaning in order to gain sustenance for herself and Naomi (see Ruth 2:2 and Lev 19:9-10). Boaz redeems Elimelech’s land and marries Ruth in fulfillment of the law of redemption and the law of levirate marriage (see Ruth 4:9-10; Deut 25:5-10). Boaz provided for Ruth and Naomi according to the commands of God.
The application for us is that in difficult times we should seek and receive aid from each other. The NT gives numerous commands, principles, and examples concerning this aspect of body life. For example, the early church provided for elderly widows who had a reputation for good works (see 1 Tim 5:9-10).
While I was out of school, many people helped me with transportation and provided encouragement. When it came time to return to school, some even offered financial help.
THE CONTROL OF LIFE: GOD EXPRESSES HIS PROVIDENTIAL CARE BY CONTROLLING THE EVENTS OF OUR LIVES.
The narrator subtly indicates the providential acts of God in several passages. In 2:3 he states that Ruth “happens” to come to the field of Boaz. The expression suggests chance, while the context indicates that this event was not accidental but providential, the result of God’s unseen influence. Naomi makes the connection in 2:20 when she states that Ruth’s meeting with Boaz was an expression of God’s loyal-love to them. God’s subtle direction is also seen in 2:4 and 4:1 where the emphasizing particle behold indicates the appearance of the right person at precisely the right time. God acts behind the scenes to guide His faithful people into the experience of His purpose for them.
The Book of Ruth shows that when a believer commits himself to live responsibly before God, He will act behind the scenes to direct the course of his life. A whole stream of events issues from such a commitment, raising in the believer’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings, and material assistance.
THE CONCEPTION OF LIFE: GOD EXPRESSES HIS PROVIDENTIAL CARE BY TURNING OUR EMPTINESS INTO FULLNESS.
The narrator relates directly the acts of God in two key passages that enclose the story. The first is 1:6, where he states that Yahweh had visited His people in giving them food. This statement reflecting the sovereign care of God in relieving famine sets the story in motion. The second is in 4:13 where he states that Yahweh caused Ruth to conceive (she had previously been married for ten years without conceiving). This statement reflecting the sovereign care of God in continuing the family line brings the story to a happy conclusion.
God worked behind the scenes in the lives of Ruth and Boaz, a man and a woman who chose to live responsibly before Him. Through them He brought about a special birth in the line of Judah. He brought together two people of proven character to become the ancestors of David and ultimately of Jesus Christ (4:18-22; Matt 1:5, 16). The principle is that those who live responsibly may trust God to lead providentially. We may never know the long-range effects of our faithfulness and steadfastness until we are rewarded by Christ at His Judgment Seat.
God allowed me to see some of the results of my faith during my college experience. While I was home working, my father and my sisters all believed in Christ for everlasting life. I returned to school, passed organic chemistry, and gained most of the grade-point average I had lost. I graduated just one semester late. The month I would have graduated was when I had my first date with my wife Brenda. The month I actually graduated was the month we became engaged. We might never have married had it not been for that postponement of my graduation. Without Brenda, I might not have gone to seminary. Without Brenda, I might not have been able to plant a church. That last term in college was also a fruitful period in ministry. I led a discipleship group of four men. Three of them went on to complete seminary. One has been a missionary, one a pastor, one a youth pastor, and one a staff member with Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru). God was faithful to fulfill His purpose for me as I trusted Him and lived responsibly before Him.
Philippe Sterling is the pastor of Vista Ridge Bible Fellowship in Lewisville, TX. He and his wife of 45 years, Brenda, live in Denton, TX, near their daughter, Sarah, son-in-law, Ben, and grandkids.