Take the Initiative, or Leave it To God?

Do we trust God, or do we work things out for ourselves? Do we wait on God, or take the initiative? Do we leave everything in God’s hands, or do we take things into our own hands? Do we wait for a sign, or go ahead with a decision? The Book of Ruth gets at the heart of these questions. Right in the middle of the book Naomi takes a bold step:

1 Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Ruth 3:1 (NRSV emphasis added)

Naomi then puts a plan into action which sees her daughter-in-law Ruth request marriage to Boaz, their “guardian-redeemer.”

We are not told if Naomi spent time in prayer in formulating this plan. The Book of Ruth does not tell us about Naomi’s prayers, her devotional times, or if she ever sought counsel from godly people, or God himself for that matter! It simply tells us that she took the initiative to solve a problem. She saw an opportunity to make a difference. She saw a practical solution to a practical problem.

While God is very involved in our lives, we have the opportunity to work out practical solutions to practical problems. God gives us the opportunity to grow in knowledge, skill, and wisdom. Finding solutions to problems is a thrill we get to share in. Some have the opportunity to share in finding a cure, a vaccine, a better way to help people, a more efficient car, or a faster motorcycle. Human ingenuity is something to celebrate. Being created in the image of God, we reflect the creativity of God.

Your ingenuity is something to be celebrated, and developed. God does not desire for us to be like infants forever, but to learn to walk on our own two feet. No parent wants their child to never take a first step. We celebrate the growth and development of children. However, no parent wants to come home to find their child has completely disassembled the car. There is a time to celebrate initiative, and there is a time to defer to God who knows best!

While Naomi could take the intiative, the closing verse of the Book of Ruth reminds us that God is sovereign. Only God could establish David’s reign. Only God could make and keep the promises that would lead to Jesus and salvation. Naomi’s initiative had potential impact on the DNA of Jesus, but only God could do what he did through Jesus. There are spiritual problems for which there are only God solutions.

Only God can bring salvation. There is no initiative you can take to reconcile yourself to God. No amount of effort, work, or deep thinking, can reconcile you to God. It is a gift from God. Our salvation is his initiative, his effort, his work on the cross. When it comes to salvation, we celebrate God’s initiative, not ours.

But when it came to finding security for Ruth, Naomi takes some credit. In fact, if Naomi had not taken the initiative , perhaps things may have not turned out as well. We don’t know, but perhaps Naomi might still be bitter by the end of chapter 4, just as we found her at the end of chapter 1. Instead, the Book of Ruth ends with joy and hope. This possibility is instructive. It is possible that looking for purely spiritual solutions to practical problems can lead to spiritual problems.

Many years ago I worked with some people in a Bible study specifically for those with mental illness. A well meaning church in town was willing to pick such folk up for programming they offered at their church. That was all very good, however, some were told that if they could find the sin that led to mental illness and repented of it, they would be healed from their mental illness. If anything, many of these people were much closer to Jesus than the “sound-minded” Christians in the churches! Perhaps some mental illness can be chalked up to spiritual problems, but much mental illness comes from practical problems, for which doctors continue to work on practical solutions. While we pray for miracle cures we also pray for those who work toward practical helps.

There is something else we can notice about Naomi’s initiative. She was keeping in step with God. Naomi saw an opportunity provided by the guardian-redeemer laws that God set up for His people of that time and place. We don’t live by those laws today as Christians, but we do live by the Spirit. We are to keep in step with God’s Spirit. Our initiatives and practical solutions should, and can, be in step with God. To give an example, our neighbour might find a practical solution to the problem of our barking dog. A well aimed bullet would do it. But that is not a good solution. There are better solutions that would keep in step with God!

So do we trust in God, or take initiative? Naomi devises a plan and advises Ruth to take a practical step, a step which lead to a positive outcome. However, in reading the whole book of Ruth, we understand that God is working everything out for good from beginning to end. It is not either/or, but both/and. We take initiative where it makes sense to do so, keeping in step with God, while always trusting in God. God, in his wisdom and power is able to accomplish his purposes despite, and often even through, our initiative. Perhaps this helps us take the initiative to pray. We don’t how our prayers could impact a sovereign God, but we have a wonderful opportunity to participate with God’s activity through our decisions in prayer. Mysterious, yet wonderful!

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A Bitter Beginning. A Bitter Woman. Senseless Suffering and the Book of Ruth.

 

19 So the two of them continued on their journey. When they came to Bethlehem, the entire town was excited by their arrival. “Is it really Naomi?” the women asked.
20 “Don’t call me Naomi, [which means ‘pleasant’]” she responded. “Instead, call me Mara [which means ‘bitter’], for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. 21 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 1:19-21 (NLT)

The Book of Ruth begins horribly. Naomi and their family flee their homeland to escape famine. Then Naomi’s husband and children died. Naomi’s story begins with grief upon grief. It may have helped Naomi if there were some reason for the deaths. A chain-smoking husband, a dedicated older son dying in the line of duty, a reckless younger son dying in a motorcycle accident. Naomi might then have at least made some sense of their deaths. She could connect the dots. However, there is no reason Naomi can give. All she can say is “the Lord caused me to suffer.” The dots cannot be connected. This is senseless suffering.

Perhaps you have experienced loss and grief that cannot be explained. Perhaps you have experienced senseless suffering yourself, or watched a loved one go through it. The Book of Ruth can help.

Notice first, that in the Book of Ruth, no effort is made to explain Naomi’s suffering.

The townspeople make no attempt to make sense of her loss. There are no platitudes. The writer of the book offers no theological insights at this point. We may need to the resist the desire to explain away senseless suffering.

This is true when we see others suffering. Job’s friends could not resist explaining why Job was suffering. After pages and pages of argument, we eventually discover that they were wrong. Words and arguments can lead, not to a healed heart, but to a hurting head. Our presence can be of greater comfort to someone living though senseless suffering than our words. We may need to accept that our suffering makes no sense, and may never do so.

Notice second, that Naomi holds nothing back in her lament.

Let us read it again:

20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she responded. “Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. 21 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 (NLT)

Naomi is honest in her assessment of God. She may not be correct, but she is honest. She may not be in touch with good theology, but she is in touch with her feelings. There is no effort to correct her assessment of God, or her theology. The writer of the book sees no need to defend God at this point. There is no explanation of the fallenness of humanity, the corresponding fallenness of creation, and that sometimes bad things happen. God’s goodness will be seen later, but for now, God gets the blame. For now, Naomi expresses how she really feels. We do well to make space for honest sharing. We do well to be honest in our sharing, and in our prayers. Sometimes it is best to sit with someone in their emotions, than try to correct their thinking. Sometimes we need the space to lament and experience the depths of our souls, even when our heads can’t figure it all out.

Notice third, that suffering is at the beginning of Naomi’s story.

Let us jump to the end of the book to see how it turns out:

14 Then the women of the town said to Naomi, “Praise the Lord, who has now provided a redeemer for your family! May this child be famous in Israel. 15 May he restore your youth and care for you in your old age. For he is the son of your daughter-in-law who loves you and has been better to you than seven sons!” 16 Naomi took the baby and cuddled him to her breast. And she cared for him as if he were her own. 17 The neighbor women said, “Now at last Naomi has a son again!” And they named him Obed. He became the father of Jesse and the grandfather of David. Ruth 4:14-17 (NLT)

In the book of Ruth, suffering is at the beginning of Naomi’s story. There are better days ahead. We can put suffering and loss at the beginning of a new chapter in our lives, rather than the end of our stories. Better days are ahead. When we think of suffering and loss as “where we have ended up,” we can get stuck. Our lives become for us a road that has led to tragedy. When we think of suffering as the beginning of a new chapter of our lives, we put ourselves on a road which includes tragedy, but does not end there. Tragedy is part of our experience, but is not our destination.

Putting suffering at the beginning is something we can do as Christians, because all suffering, indeed your entire life, is the beginning chapter of a really long book:

18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. Romans 8:18 (NLT)

Sometimes we need to jump to the end to see how it all turns out. In Christ and by the grace of God, in being reconciled to God, it turns out well.

Notice fourth, that baby steps are taken.

Naomi returns home. Ruth, in a beautiful step of commitment and care, goes with her. There is connection. If we read ahead into chapters two and three, we will find Ruth doing what the poor people of the land did in that time and place. She followed along the reapers and gleaned the leftovers. There is connection, and there is survival. Naomi and Ruth take steps to make life work. When faced with senseless suffering, we can take the next step. We can take the next best step, however small a step that might be. We can turn the page. We can get further into this new chapter. Is there a step you need to take today?

The Book of Ruth begins with horrible and senseless suffering for Naomi and her daughter-in-laws. If you are a human being, chances are good that senseless suffering will happen in your life at some point. When it does, don’t dwell on explanations, make, or take space for honest sharing, put the suffering at the beginning a new chapter, and turn the page, taking your next best step into the future. With God, whom we may blame for the time being, the story will go on.

A Compelling Future. Are Heaven and Hell Consistent with a Good and Loving God?

Does Christianity have a compelling vision for the future? It would be odd if you were considering the compelling reasons to trust in Jesus, but then upon asking about the afterlife you are told that you enter an endless cycle of being reincarnated as a bird if you receive Christ, and as a worm, if not. That should strike you as utter nonsense. Now what about Christian teaching? The idea that upon death we either sprout wings and play a harp while sitting in the clouds, or burn in an eternal fire, is for many people, too much to believe. Is the Biblical Christian vision for the future consistent with a good and loving God? Or is it nonsensical? When we hear what the Bible teaches about eternal destination, do we say ‘of course that is what a good God would do”?

Let us look first, to the Book of Revelation;

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

Here we have, not a hope of going up into heaven when I die, to spend eternity there, but something much grander. This is a vision of God’s re-creation of all creation. All of creation was negatively impacted by the sin of humanity (see Romans 8:18-23). All of creation will be positively impacted by God’s rescue of humanity.

2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Here we are told of a city, not in the sense of roads and buildings, but in the sense of people. The holy city is the “bride,” that is, the people of God. Just as people are the focus in the creation account of Genesis, people are the focus of the re-creation account. God created humanity, the only creature we are told he created in his image, for a special relationship. That relationship is what is truly important.

3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;

There is much in the Bible about separation from God being a huge problem for humanity. It begins with Genesis chapter three and the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. It becomes apparent at Mount Sinai when the people cannot approach the mountain on which God’s presence was made palpable. It is emphasized in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, with the establishment of both the tabernacle and priesthood. While God was willing to dwell among his people, as symbolized through the pitching of his “tent” among them, God needed to remain separated from the people, for their sake. An unholy people cannot approach a holy God without becoming holy first. The sacrificial rigmarole of the priesthood was a constant reminder of separation from God and the need for atonement. The priesthood and the sacrifices pointed forward to something greater; God the Son making people holy through his sacrifice. In Christ the future of God’s people is wrapped up with being at home with God. There is no more separation from God.

The problems of this world, which separation from God creates, also are dealt with;

4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” Revelation 21:1-4 (NRSV)

The consequence of sin and separation from God is death. The consequence of being reconciled to God is eternal life. In Christ death is no longer part of the human condition. However the consequence of God’s grace is not just eternal life, but as we have already seen, eternal life with God.

In sum, the Biblical vision of the future is one of transformation, for all creation, for our bodies, and for our very selves. The transformation within us begins now through the Holy Spirit. The fact that the Christian is to look to God to fix everything in the future is compelling. The fact that the Christian need not wait for Christ’s return to fix everything in us is also compelling. The hope of meaningful change, not into brilliant cloud-sitting harpists, but into good people who dwell with a good God in a good creation, is consistent with a good and loving God.

However, is the future of those who reject God consistent with a good and loving God? The idea of being on fire forever does not seem consistent to many of us. In answering this we must first appreciate that the people of the Bible often speak in poetic ways, just as we do today. We sometimes pick apart the Bible as if we are in math class working out equations. Let us remember our English literature lessons and have an appreciation for the poetic and literary nuances which often escape the math whizzes. We will not dig into this too deeply, but it is best to take the language about hell, with the everlasting fire and torment, as poetic. The least poetic, the most matter-of-fact, the most precise and concise description of hell we have in the Bible is this;

9 These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (NRSV)

What is hell? It is separation from God. What is it like to be separated from God? Thankfully, no one alive can truly tell, for to be alive at all is to experience a measure of God’s grace. However, we do well to remember that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 NRSV). As you read through the Bible, watch out for how often salvation is spoken of as a matter of eternal life versus death. This is consistent with the Genesis account and the promise that death would occur if the forbidden fruit were eaten. What we can say with certainty is that to experience hell is to experience everlasting separation from God.

If hell is separation from God, then is separation from God consistent with a good and loving God? Consider first, the holiness and justice of God. That unholy people cannot dwell with a holy God is made clear in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers; at Mount Sinai, and through the establishment of the tabernacle and priesthood. God did not teach about His holiness and our sinfulness in the Old Testament then come to us in the New Testament and say “it doesn’t matter anymore.” It does matter, but God offers to make us holy in Christ and through his Holy Spirit. If you reject that offer of being made holy, then separation from God is a very natural consequence. The experience of death is a natural consequence of refusing the offer of eternal life. Therefore, the future of those who reject God is consistent with a good and loving God who respects the wishes of those who want nothing to do with him. Of course that is what a good God would do.

The Bible presents a compelling and beautiful vision for the future of those who receive Christ and accept God’s offer of relationship. While we might not use the word beautiful, the Bible provides a vision of the future of those who do not want a relationship with God that is consistent with His goodness and love. The consistency of the Christian vision of the future is yet another aspect of Christianity that is compelling.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)