Chapter Four: “Throw Out the Welcome Mat”
Our first month together has certainly flown by! I really appreciate your comments on the blog. If you’ve been following along via my emails but haven’t chimed in online, why not do so this week? Pop on my Bible Study Blog: http://www.LizCurtisHiggs.com/blog/.
In Chapter Four we see Naomi’s bitterness come to a head, before we catch a glimpse of “bright hope for tomorrow,” as the old hymn says. If the barley harvest is beginning, we can be sure redemption is drawing near. And nobody needs redeeming more than Naomi.
1. a. How do the words of Job in Job 10:1 and of Jeremiah in Lamentations 3:5 capture the essence of our bitter Naomi’s experience?
Naomi is definitely giving “free reign to her complaint”! On my worst days I’ve done the same, yet never without regret. Even if we have the right to complain—say, if we’ve been unjustly treated—that doesn’t make complaining the right thing to do. Naomi might well say, as Jeremiah did, the Lord “surrounded me with bitterness and hardship.” Yet it seems to me that, however many challenges the Lord puts in our path, our emotional response isn’t on him…it’s on us. Ruth is our example in this. She has plenty of reason to complain, yet never does. Oh, to have such a sweet spirit, such a servant’s heart!
1. b. Is it better to tell people what you’re really thinking and feeling or tell them what they want to hear?
It’s very tempting to answer this one, “It depends!” In personal relationships, I think sharing your emotions is a sign of trust, so it’s not only a good idea, it’s a necessary step toward intimacy. Still, even the people who love us may not want to hear every single thing that’s on our hearts, especially if it’s the same complaint, over and over.
In the case of your boss, telling that person what he/she wants to hear might sometimes be more prudent than spilling out your deepest thoughts and feelings, as long as what you do put into words is the truth. Lying is never the right thing to do, but keeping your opinions to yourself on occasion may have merit. (Feel free to disagree!)
Why do we often please and appease others?
Since I struggle with people-pleasing tendencies, I’ll answer this from my own perspective: the problem is pride. Wanting, even needing to be liked, to be accepted, to be loved. Naomi doesn’t seem to suffer from this problem! But I do. Oddly, I have no problem whining or complaining around the people I love most, maybe because I’m no longer afraid they will reject me. But with casual friends and strangers, I’m on my best behavior, trying to say and do all the right things to have people think well of me.
How ugly is that?! Yet it’s the absolute truth. That’s what studying God’s Word is all about: seeing God’s beauty in contrast with our ugliness, then realizing he loves us anyway and is determined to make us his kind of gorgeous: “He has made everything beautiful in its time” Ecclesiastes 3:11. Lord, you are beyond amazing.
What approach would most honor God, do you think?
God makes it clear in his Word that honesty and humility are what pleases him. As it says in Proverbs 16:13, “Kings take pleasure in honest lips,” and in 1 Peter 5:5, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” So, if I can let go of my people-pleasing pride and focus on speaking the truth in love, that might be a step in the right direction. Actually, if I’d just keep my mouth shut, that might be the best solution of all!
1. c. How do you respond to friends when they whine or complain? Is there a verse or passage you might share with them, hoping to improve their attitude? Or is it best simply to listen, and if so, why?
Considering what I shared above, I should be extremely understanding toward my whiny friends! And I hope I am. Listening and nodding seems the better approach than correcting or admonishing.
But after someone goes on and on and on, I think it’s okay to say, “Here’s a passage that helps me deal when things don’t go the way I’d hoped.” Then I might share David’s words from Psalm 142:1-3: “I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy. I pour out my complaint before him; before him I tell my trouble. When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who know my way.” The first verse shows a friend where to turn. The second verse assures her it’s okay to carry our troubles to the Lord. And the third verse offers comfort that she’s not alone.
This kind of thing is easier via email, when you can chose your words with care, and the recipient can reflect on them privately. If someone is whining in person, I’ve found the best way to help her is simply to give her a hug and say, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.” It lets her feel heard, which is really what we all want. And it might even help her ease up on her griping and move on.
2. a. Here’s the big question for Naomi, as John Piper saw it: “Can I trust and love the God who has dealt me this painful hand in life?” If you’re going through a difficult time right now, how would you answer that question?
I feel unqualified to respond to this one because any difficulties I’m experiencing in my life right now are almost entirely self-imposed (too much work, too many deadlines, what have you). If God is taking you through a painful time of refinement, might you kindly share how you are learning to trust and love God through this tough stretch?
What do Psalm 13:5 and Psalm 143:8 tell us about the source of trust and love?
In a nutshell, we trust because of God’s loving-kindness. You’ll notice Psalm 13:5, at least in the NIV, starts out with that big word, “But…” In this case, David began the psalm whining to the Lord, “Will you forget me forever?” Apparently David had to get that out of his system first, then he reminded himself (and us) to trust in God’s “unfailing love.”
David covers similar ground in Psalm 143:8. It’s comforting to know the same complaints surface again and again—set to music, no less—and still the prophet Samuel said of David, “the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people” 1 Samuel 13:14.
2. b. If you’re currently in a pleasant season, are you willing to embrace hardship if it comes from God’s hand?
In my head and on my lips is the word, “Yes.” But in my heart I whisper, “Please, Lord. Not that kind of hardship.” Not the death of a loved one. Not a health issue that would make it impossible to travel, to speak. “Not…not….not.” My list of please-don’ts is long. Which means I’m not very willing, am I? Lord, help us see that everything from your hand is prompted by your love and is meant for our ultimate good. Everything.
What do Acts 9:16, Philippians 1:29, and 1 Peter 3:14 tell us about suffering for Christ?
When you look at all three of these verses in a row, it’s pretty sobering. Suffering for Christ doesn’t appear to be an option, a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing—not from where Paul was sitting. He told the followers of Christ to expect it, even embrace it.
How do you reconcile that with the “be good, be blessed, be happy” message we often hear in Christian circles?
While I’m quick to offer encouragement to others and a positive take on life (see 1b above!), I hope I’ve never suggested that if you are good, God will bless you, and if you aren’t good, God won’t. No way. We find too many examples in Scripture of people who were blessed in spite of, not because of, their behavior.
I’m thinking of Jacob, who ripped off his brother, Esau, deceived his father, Isaac, and ran for his life, only to be greeted in a dream by God at the top of a ladder of angels. God said to the wayward Jacob, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” Genesis 28:15. God was honoring his vow to bless Abraham’s descendents, rather than honoring even a speck of goodness in Jacob. Very comforting that!
2. c. God gives life, and he takes it away, and Naomi knows that very well. What does Deuteronomy 32:39 say about that truth?
I love the fact that it’s actually the other way around in this verse: “I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal.” It’s a reminder that God is sovereign over everything, including death itself.
And what would it take for you to embrace the conclusion stated in Job 1:21?
Here we do have giving first and then taking away, yet even so Job manages to say, “May the name of the Lord be praised.” Again, in theory I would love to have that level of faith and that firm a grasp of eternity, where nothing we have on this earth will matter to us. In losing everything Job gained this clear understanding: ‘“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth” Job 19:25. Makes we want to do a word study of “eternal” / “eternity” and see what the whole Bible has to say on the subject, with an eye to thinking long term. Really long term.
3. a. Which of the following verses do you think most aptly describes Ruth, and why: Proverbs 19:11; Proverbs 25:15; Ecclesiastes 7:8?
They all suit her, but I’m partial to Ecclesiastes 7:8, since this story begins with sorrow and ends with joy, and because Ruth definitely exhibits patience rather than pride when her mother-in-law seemingly overlooks her when they arrive at Bethlehem’s town gate.
3. b. When you read Naomi’s bitter words, “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty,” spoken with Ruth by her side, what was your response?
Well, you read my response in the book. (Didn’t you want to shake Naomi, just a little?)
If you’ve ever been snubbed in a similar manner, how did you handle it then? And how might you handle it now, in the light of Ruth’s example?
Over the years I’ve been snubbed many times, as we all have. For being the youngest person in a group, or the oldest. For being the least educated in an academic setting. For being the largest woman in a roomful of petites. For being an American in a foreign country. For being an unknown speaker or writer among a group of famous ones. We’d all have our own list of situations when we’ve been made to feel invisible.
I’m pretty sure I’ll never be as humble and self-sacrificing as Ruth was, but I have learned how to handle people looking over me, around me, or through me. I remind myself how much the Lord loves me and how much my family loves me. Then, filled with that assurance, I focus on loving the person who, for whatever reason, has decided to discount me. My success rate at doing this is maybe 50%. But it’s better than the 10% it was 30 years ago when I first fell into God’s embrace. Which means any success is entirely his!
3. c. As homecomings go, how would you rate this scene on a scale of 1 (miserable) to 10 (marvelous), and why?
Naomi would probably consider it a 1. But I think it’s at least a 7. These two women made the long journey without being harmed or injured. They arrived at the start of the spring harvest season. The women at the town gate recognized Naomi and remembered her name. These two women from Moab were not rejected or refused entrance. Ruth weathered Naomi’s silence without complaint. They apparently had some kind of lodging waiting for them. And their homecoming ends on a note of hope.
What might Naomi have done to improve her homecoming experience?
Had Naomi confessed her wrongdoing in leaving Bethlehem in the first place, the women might have been moved by her humility and offered the women grain from their own stores, so Ruth would not have been forced to glean. Except that was clearly part of God’s plan, yes?
I think we can rest in knowing Naomi was moving according to God’s direction, even if she wasn’t fully aware of it. That’s how life is for most of us as we stumble, step by step, into our glorious future.
I never dreamed when I wrote these Study Guide questions that I would need to answer them someday, and in such a public way! I’m thrilled when you, too, share your responses on our blog, and will look forward to reading what you discovered this week.
The key is that you answer these questions somewhere, whether it’s in the margin of your book, on an iPad, in a journal, wherever you can reflect on your answers and ask the Lord, “What is it you want me to see here? What is it I need to learn?”
Next up is Chapter Five, “Out Standing in Her Field,” one of my favorite scenes in Ruth’s story. See you next Wednesday!
Your sister, Liz