Bob Gross’ NBA team really needed him. Their season was on the brink, and if they had any hopes of making the playoffs then Bob would need to suit up and show up big time. There was just one problem- Bob had a badly injured ankle that was giving him a tremendous amount of pain. No problem. Not long before tipoff the doctors injected a strong painkiller into three places in Bob’s foot, totally numbing the pain. The game begins and a few moments later, Bob goes for a rebound, lands, and everyone on the court hears a loud snap; Bob however didn’t feel a thing. He tries to run down court and ultimately crumples to the ground. This was not only his last play in the game, but tragically it became the last play of his NBA career. Bob’s inability to feel pain ruined him.
It really is counter-intuitive, but pain- our deepest hurts- is often times God’s greatest gift to us. Pain is far more helpful than harmful. This is a discovery that the world’s foremost scholar on pain, Dr. Paul Brand points out when he says, “Pain is often seen as the great inhibitor, keeping us from happiness. But I see it as a giver of freedom.” The great writer and intellectual, C.S. Lewis continues Dr. Brand’s train of thought, but connecting the assets of pain to God when he writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. [Pain] is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world”- C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. Both Dr. Paul Brand and C.S. Lewis posture pain as a gift, a wonderful asset, and implore us to not waste our pain.
Why Should I Listen?
If there’s one word that sums up Ruth 1, it’s pain. Our story today is all about pain. I mean just look at the intense and prolonged season of pain Naomi goes through as she seemingly loses everything. She suffers a famine that causes her and her family to uproot from their home in Bethlehem and venture out as immigrants into a foreign country. Not only that but there’s good reason to believe that she has a disabled child. One of her sons name is Mahlon. Now in antiquity what you named your child was major; it spoke to some aspect of their character. Mahlon’s name means weak or sickly. In all likelihood she either named him this originally because this is how he came out of the womb, or she changed his name to this because of some debilitating sickness. In either event Naomi has had to endure a suffering child. See the pain? But it gets worse. Her husband dies. Her two children die. She loses a daughter in law. And then in verse 21 she sums it up by saying she went out full and has now come back to Bethlehem empty.
Oh, and one more thing, as if this wasn’t enough. The narrator of the story tells us that she was an Ephrathite. Now this is an important word that speaks of her status or class. Ephrathites were the upper class of Israel. It’s a statement of her wealth. It’s like saying Naomi was a Vanderbilt, or a Kennedy or a Zuckerburg. It’s like saying she lives up in the hills of Portillo Valley.
Get the picture? This wealthy woman goes through a horrendous season of pain. I think the narrator is pointing out something we all know and that is pain is universal. Pain does not discriminate or play favorites. Pain stretches its tentacles from the projects to the gated community. All of us in this room have experienced pain. Some of us know the pain of a broken home where daddy walked out. Others of us know the pain of abuse. Still others of us know the pain of a failed marriage. Many of us know the pain of death, as we’ve had to say see you later to loved ones. Still others know the pain of failure- at school, on the job, making poor decisions. Others know the pain of addiction. Oh yes, pain is universal.
So the question is what do we do when pain comes knocking? When God comes shouting to us through our pain what are we to do? How do we steward well the gift of pain? Our text shows us three things about pain we must see if we are going to use it for the gift that it is, helping to make us better and not bitter.
PAIN IS PURPOSEFUL- RUTH 1:1
The first thing we should see about pain is that pain has a purpose. Look with me at verse one. Here is Naomi going through the pain of a famine in Bethlehem, and what does she do? She packs her stuff up and moves. She gets to Moab and there’s more pain as she watches her husband and children die. What does she do? She packs up yet again and moves back to Bethlehem. And what does she do when she gets back to Bethlehem? Look at verse 19- she blames God. She’s upset with God. Now, here’s the disconnect we have with Naomi: We know the whole story and she doesn’t. See what we want to say to Naomi is hold on, girlfriend. God is setting you up for a major move and miracle in your life. Hold on. We see the big picture. She doesn’t, and since she can’t see the big picture she starts to blame God.
Isn’t this our reflex reaction when pain comes to our lives- to get down on and blame God? Why did you take my mother from me? God’s not good, if he was he wouldn’t have allowed me to go through this. This always happens because the problem with life is fundamentally the problem of perspective. And what we don’t realize is that we are just in one chapter of our lives, but God is writing a whole book! See, that’s why the Bible rarely deals with the why of pain and suffering, and instead asks of pain, to what end? What is the purpose? In a stunning passage to the Corinthians- a community in a lot of pain- Paul says these words, “But it hurt you only for a little while. Now I am glad I sent it, not because it hurt you, but because the pain turned you to God. It was a good kind of sorrow you felt, the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have”- 2 Corinthians 7:8-9, Living Bible. See it? Paul says your pain was not frivolous; it had a purpose! And that purpose was to turn you to God. This is important, because when pain comes knocking I most always remind myself there is a purpose to the pain!
Mary Verghese was a promising young doctor whose future was bright. All that changed one day when she got into a car with a young man and ended up in an accident that left her lower body paralyzed, and her face deeply scarred. In that first season of pain the doctors tried everything to help her, but to no avail. Finally, after some encouragement and a lot of hard work she returned to being a doctor, becoming India’s first wheelchair doctor. She practiced medicine in a colony of lepers, and it is said that when she wheeled into examine these lepers all of their sense of despair and self-pity went away. Her face was like theirs- deeply scarred. God used her to bring hope to the lowest of the low, because she could empathize with their plight. And her empathy was birthed out of suffering. Out of her pain came her purpose.
It has been said if you want to find your purpose take inventory of your pain! Oh yes, I’ve found that to be true in my own life. I am often asked how I came to be so passionate about the multiethnic church and seeing races come together. I always respond by saying that purpose was birthed out of a deep pain, the pain of being called a nigger in Bible College. I know many social workers who give their lives to help the abused and marginalized because in their story there was abuse and neglect. You want to know your purpose? Take inventory of your pain. Don’t waste your pain. Your pain has a purpose!
PAIN IS TRANSFORMATIVE- RUTH 1:20
So Naomi returns home to Bethlehem after a prolonged season of pain, and the Bible says the whole town is stirred. I think it’s because they are both shocked Naomi, their long departed friend is back, and when they see her they are stirred because they see a drastic change in her countenance. The text speaks to this. See, her name Naomi, means pleasant, but now she says don’t call me Naomi but Mara. Mara means bitter. Names were important back then because they spoke to who you were. Naomi has gone from Naomi to Mara, from pleasant to bitter. Isn’t that a fundamental property of pain? Pain changes us. It will make us either better or bitter. Pain can be an asset or a liability, it’s all in how we steward it. Pain changes us.
This is all throughout the Bible. There’s a moving story in Genesis where we are introduced to a young man named Joseph. He’s full of arrogance and pride as he tells his brothers how they will bow down to him and serve him. Fast forward to the end of the story and we see a completely different man who is compassionate and full of empathy for his brothers. He’s moved to tears when he sees them, and how he relates to them is out of a posture of humility. Well what changed him? Pain, and his decision to allow his pain to make him better and not bitter. Don’t you see, the question is not will pain come, but how will we steward it when it does come?
Story is told of a young man who made it his business to stump the local village wise man. This wise man had answers to everything and this young man was going to get him. His plan seemed full proof: Get a bird, hold it in his hand, and ask the wise man if the bird was alive or dead. If the wise man said it was dead he’d open his hands and show him it was alive. If the wise man said it was alive, he’d simply crush the bird in his hand. Excited he stood before the wise man and said, “Is this bird dead or alive?” The wise man smiled and said, “Neither. The bird is in your hands”. And so it is with pain. Pain is in our hands. How will we steward it?
Okay. So you’re here, and it’s happened. Fatherlessness is in your hands. How will you steward the pain of an absent dad or mom? My mother once told me that she made up her mind to be a great mom because she saw the pain of her mom not doing what she should. So she decided to use that pain to make her a great mom. The pain of cancer or sickness is in your hand. How will you steward that for the glory of God? The pain of failure is in your hand? Will you decide to get better or bitter?
PAIN IS TEMPORARY- RUTH 1:22
Finally, Naomi and Ruth go to Bethlehem after enduring years of pain. And then our story ends with a funny statement in verse 22, will you look at it with me. The narrator points out the time in which they return home- it was the time of barley harvest. This is weird. Why would he say that? Barley harvest took place around April or May. It was one of the most celebrated times of the year on the Jewish calendar. It was a season of the year marked by intense rejoicing, singing and dancing. The women would be jumping up and down and singing. You could hear the celebration in Bethlehem from miles away. Don’t you see what Naomi and Ruth are walking into is a complete 180 from what they have just gone through? Don’t you see that in literary terms this is foreshadowing? What the author is telling us is that Ruth and Naomi are literally stepping out of one season of pain, into a new season of rejoicing! Pain is temporary.
Don’t ever forget that pain is a season. As the old Negro spiritual says, “Trouble don’t last always”. This is what David found out. David, Ruth’s great-grandson, went through intense pain in his life. Was on the run from a king who was trying to kill him. He lost a baby, and had his best friend and son turn against him. And yet David says in Psalm 30 that weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning! Pain is temporary!
My little wife Korie has given birth to three big head boys, all natural. Let me repeat that phrase, ALL NATURAL! I was there to see her writhing in agony, feeling the painful fullness of every contraction and push. Oh yes, I have a ripped shirt to testify of my presence. I was also there to hear her speak in tongues. And yet, after our first two kids, and all that pain, she wanted to do it again. Why? Well, you know why. First, she knew that pain was temporary. Those contractions and labor pains were but for a season. But secondly, and more importantly, she wanted to do it again because of what was on the other side- the joy of holding a child. When she saw what was on the other side, it allowed her to go through the pain, stewarding it well!
Oh, is this not Jesus! Jesus endured the pain of the cross, where he was beaten with a whip, crowned with a crown of thorns bloodying his skull, had his beard plucked out, nails in his hands and feet, and a spear run through his side. So why Jesus did you do it? The writer of Hebrews tells us that he did it because of the joy that was set before him! What was that joy? You and I, coming to faith in Jesus Christ! Spiritual birth is why he went through the pain and agony, so that you and I could experience the barley harvest of eternal life with him in heaven where there will be no tears.
Don’t you see? This text shows us a valuable lesson when it comes to having a relationship with God, and that is God often uses pain in our lives to move us into our greatest purpose, and that is a relationship with him. Ruth gets saved in our text because of this. After losing her own husband and enduring pain, Ruth says these words in verses 16-17. What’s happening here? She has come to faith in God. What brought her to faith? Pain and suffering.
Here’s my concern for us in Silicon Valley: The reason this is one of the most secular, Godless places on earth is because this is one of the most affluent places on earth. I’m not saying there’s no pain here, but what the affluent do is they see pain and do everything they can to get rid of it, or turn against God. One of the most helpful things God could ever do to us is to allow pain in our lives so that we turn to him. Won’t you come to him!