My son recently asked me, “Why do you work out as much as you do?” “So I can do the things I do at my age,” I replied. Later, the real reason returned to mind—I began a regimen decades ago, determined to spare my family from the bitter agony of loss. My own father had died suddenly and prematurely, leaving his young family emptied of his presence, insecure without his provision, and longing for his love. How could I let my wife and son experience such pain? I would stay fit and ask God for long life.
The Old Testament book of Ruth is a beautiful (and brilliantly written) short story of redemption, the rescue from loss and restoration to fullness at great cost borne by another. Yet the account is every bit as vivid a depiction of inner transformation, in this case that of Naomi, the mother-in-law to Ruth, by way of the painful path that wends through grief. Losing her husband and two sons had rendered Naomi bitter and blaming: “the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.”1 We’ve been there ourselves, and we’ve stood beside many Naomi’s in our life, speaking the kind words of silent presence.
Yet in His sovereignty, God commands even death to serve His good purposes for our life, for grief brings us to an unavoidable encounter with real thoughts and deep feelings now exposed before us. We appreciate more fully the unique beauty of those now gone, though frustrated in our inability to proclaim it in their presence. Left behind, we carry the heavy load of unresolved guilt, or we lay it before God in the cleansing power of confession. We find our love was stronger than we had known, and perhaps our hurts deeper. We draw nearer to God in reliance on Him, or we distance ourselves in resentment. And in the clarity of loss, God is there, meeting us wherever we are, eager to embrace, patient to wait, and faithful to heal.
The apostle Paul wrote that “suffering [leads to] perseverance … character … and hope,”2 and it is in the context of suffering that he penned the familiar verse, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”3 But these are words more apt for another day. For now, Naomi sobs, she questions; survival is aspiration enough. And though we will not say today what she cannot hear today, we know it to be true—that God is at work in her even now, commanding her pain to work for her good.
Father, there is no sting worse than death; sustain us in our grief. Strengthen us to persevere, command our pain to build our character, and sustain us in the sure and certain hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord. In his name, we pray. Amen.
1 Ruth 1:20, 21
2 Romans 5:3, 4
3 Romans 8:28