I’ve been working with a congregation in Mesquite, TX for the last few months. We’re studying through a series in Ruth, and this past Sunday, I talked about some of Naomi’s suffering.
The truth, though, is that I feel like teaching on suffering is pretty pointless for me. Pointless because it’s been taught and explored by people far more intelligent and studied than myself. Pointless because to teach about suffering, you have to know of suffering. No matter how much I might feel I’m hurting at some particular point in time, I know that mine is merely a speck of sand compared to the mountains others have faced.
But perhaps more significant than any of those reasons, it feels pointless because I don’t know why God doesn’t intervene to stop it. Why doesn’t He sit down and warn us Himself before we walk into worlds of pain? If His final plan is to wipe away every tear from our eyes, why is He letting us cry so many now? And I’ll give you a heads up, this isn’t one of those posts where I have some solution waiting in the wings. I’ve got nothing. I don’t understand it. I have no answers.
Naomi lived in Israel with her husband and two sons. There was a famine, though, and so they moved to a different country to try and make ends meet. But Naomi’s husband died; so she was left with two children and no husband. She could have moved back, but what good would that do with no food to eat? So she took care of her sons, and they married women in the foreign land. After living ten years in this new place, some of which she spent alone and sad because of her husband’s death, her sons died too. That was the last straw. She was now an older widow taking care of two younger widows, neither of them even from her own country.
When she heard there was food back home, she found no more reason to stay. She told her daughters-in-law that they’d be better off staying where they were, to find new husbands, and to move on with their lives. One stayed, and the other refused; her name was Ruth.
When Naomi made it back to her home in Israel, it had been over ten years. When her people greeted her, she had some interesting things to say:
“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because El Shaddai has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; El Shaddai has brought misfortune upon me.”
Naomi is a Hebrew word that means ‘pleasant’. Coming home minus two sons and a husband, Naomi didn’t feel very pleasant. Mara means ‘bitter’ — and that is how she felt. That seems fair. She had been on a very hard road. What strikes me as odd, though, is that she attributed her hurt to God. Both El Shaddai and LORD refer to the God of Israel. So, “God has made my life very bitter. God has brought me back empty. God has afflicted me. God has brought misfortune upon me.” She never says God did anything wrong here, but she believes He is responsible. By far, the most interesting thing to me is that never once, in the entire remainder of the book, does God or the author reject that claim.
I’m usually pretty reticent to lay any of my suffering on God’s shoulders, because it could be Satan, right? Or maybe someone else made choices that were wrong and it’s affecting me? Or maybe I made choices and I’m facing the consequences. Sometimes things happen for which no instigating party can be given credit. But when I hear Naomi’s assertion, I can’t help but think of Job:
Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away.
I remember that nowhere in the text of Job does God deny responsibility for taking away Job’s wealth and family. Here, we have more details than we do for Naomi; God actually allowed Satan to hurt Job and those he loved. In the end, it was Satan who instigated the pain, but God clearly let it happen. In fact, Satan had to ask God’s permission, so in this case, is God not ultimately responsible? Apparently, Job did not sin in thinking so.
For a moment, let me just assume that Naomi and Job were right… that God is responsible for your suffering and for mine. What God gives only departs when He takes it away, and when those we love are hurt, it is not without God’s permission. I’ve thought about whether that assumption makes God no longer good, or whether it makes Him too unpredictable or scary to serve. In the end, I think it really just means my assumptions about Him were wrong. The idea that a good and just and loving God could simultaneously be responsible for bad and unjust and hate-inspired suffering — that is a hard pill to swallow. Of course, it’s easier to leave that pill in its academic bottle when you, or those you truly love, are not suffering.
When it really hits home, though, when you are hurting, or when it’s someone you love (and you’ll know you love them when you truly wish you could take their place), then that hard pill grows jagged edges and lodges itself right in your throat. And how do you breathe like that, much less function? How do you keep putting one foot in front of the other without falling over?
I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. I do know this, though: whether or not I love God, whether I do good deeds or evil, I will suffer in this life. If I had to choose one entity to be responsible for that suffering, it would be the God who gave his Son.
King David, the sinner, the adulterer, the murderer, the man after God’s own heart, once found his people in trouble with God.
By the text’s own admission, God influenced David to do something that would cause Israel to suffer. David commanded his armies and fighting men to be counted, which was forbidden in the law. This count resulted in a punishment for Israel, and David was offered three possible options for that punishment: Either there would be seven years of famine, or three months of military defeat, or three days of pestilence in the land.
David did not try to get out of the punishment, but rather reasoned that if the suffering was to come from any source, He would rather it come from God and not from man, “for His mercies are great.”
In the end, that is what I choose. If I must suffer, I’d rather it be at the command of a loving God, rather than at the remorseless hands of man or Satan. If God gives, I will praise Him, and be glad. If God takes away, I will praise Him, and not be afraid to cry out in pain. God’s mercies are great, and I will trust Him to do what is best.