Ministry is usually challenging. Sometimes it can be brutal. What do we need for ministry in the tough times?
I have found help from an unlikely source – the book of Ruth. Nestled after the book of Judges, Ruth is a four chapter gem that is intensely relevant for our lives today. Why? First, because Ruth is not a story of kings, warriors and prophets – it is a story of very normal people, just like us. Second, because Ruth is set in a time where the culture around was marked by a growing ungodliness, just like ours. Third, because in Ruth we don’t see God working in spectacular and sensational miracles, and there are times in our lives when we don’t see God being as obvious as we’d like Him to be. Ruth is a story of God quietly at work in the lives of ordinary people during very challenging times, and therefore it is a story for us.
The book of Ruth is really the story of Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law. Naomi suffers extreme devastation in the first verses. Her family moved away from the Promised Land to Moab, and there her husband died, followed by her two sons. She was left devastated and somehow responsible for her two Moabite daughters-in-law.
The darkness for Naomi was overwhelming. She faced two great problems. One was immediate, the other long-term. The immediate problem was that without a husband or sons to protect and provide, how would she eat? The longer-term problem was that of life purpose. In that culture her role was to bear sons and continue the family line. She had borne sons, but now they were dead. An overwhelming sense of shame, failure and hopelessness must have nagged at her.
Naomi’s journey is really the journey of humanity. In the darkness of life’s circumstances, we live under the cloud resulting from the Fall of Genesis. We have been born into a world that believes the lie that God is not good and He cannot be trusted. Even as Christian leaders, when life hits us hard we can get to where Naomi was, struggling to trust in the goodness of God. Her journey is the journey of history, and it is a journey many of us will have to make – a journey of rediscovery of the goodness of God.
In chapter 1 Naomi is so devastated that all she can muster, by way of explanation of her situation, is that the LORD, the Almighty, has brought her back empty, He has dealt bitterly with her. She cannot say that God is good, all she can muster is that God is . . . God. Maybe you are there right now. Maybe you will be one day.
Praise God that He does not discard us when we struggle to trust in His goodness. Instead He works, typically quietly and behind the scenes, to tune our hearts to recognize His ongoing steadfast and loyal love for us. In chapter 1 we see the stunning speech of Ruth. Sometimes our radar for God’s kindness will be helped by those around us whose commitment to God is a testimony to us in our own struggle.
The rest of the book demonstrates God’s persistent love for Naomi and Ruth in response to the two great needs that overwhelmed Naomi in chapter 1. The immediate need for food is addressed in chapter 2. At the start of the day Ruth speaks of the possibility of finding favour (receiving grace) from someone that day. Naomi sat at home with that ringing in her ears until evening. Then she discovered that God had showered Ruth with grace through Boaz. Ruth staggered home with a huge amount of barley, and leftovers from her own lunch. And it all began with Ruth “luckily” landing in the field of Boaz. God was at work, and Naomi started to trust again.
In the next chapters we see Naomi starting to plan for a future legacy via Boaz and Ruth. God had better plans than hers. Boaz turned out to be incredibly godly and he made sure that he followed through with appropriate wedding plans. As the book ends we see a kinsman sitting on the lap of Naomi, provided by God. The kinsman was Obed, the grandfather of David.
Ruth is the story of Naomi’s journey from ‘God is God,’ to ‘how good is God!?’ It is the story of God persistently and quietly working behind the scenes to help Naomi see His character again. He provided protection and food, and He provided honour in the place of shame, a legacy that would go down through the generations to the great king David . . . and to David’s greater son, Jesus.
Maybe you are facing overwhelming darkness in ministry right now. Maybe all you can muster is a declaration that God is God. He’s in charge, but He has dealt bitterly with you. If that is not the case today, it very well may be one day. How will we come through such times?
The book of Ruth teaches us that in such times God is still at work, even when we don’t see it. It teaches us that there will be times when it will be the faith of a Ruth, or the godliness of a Boaz, that will preach hope into our hearts. It teaches us that God will work quietly, but persistently, to not only provide for us, but also to bring about His greater plans of which we are a part.
When the darkness descends we can easily feel like our life and ministry amounts to nothing. If we are part of God’s great plan at all, then our ministry is just a couple of black threads in a tapestry we cannot see. But God still has His big picture, and our lives are still part of it. Naomi could never have guessed that God’s plan in her suffering was really about bringing Ruth from Moab to Bethlehem so she could be in the line of the Messiah. So we don’t know the bigger picture.
The book of Ruth lifts our hearts to believe that one day, when God reveals the great tapestry of human history, we will see how it all fit. We will see how our few threads, even the darkest ones, were part of a glorious picture that only God’s goodness could have achieved.
Pray for God to stir your heart to trust His goodness. Maybe through the faith and godliness of others. Maybe through the “lucky” circumstances of life. Maybe through suffering that doesn’t make sense. One day it will. And for now prayerfully look to see where God is quietly at work in your life, in your family, in your ministry. God does not have to be sensational and spectacular to convince us of His goodness, but He is persistently good!