The human heart is fragile. It can be broken and crushed (Psalm 147:3). This same fragile heart is the one with which we are to love God passionately along with our mind and soul and strength (Luke 10:27). The fact that God “inflicts pain, and gives relief; He wounds, and His hands also heal (Job 5:18)” makes this conundrum even more baffling.
This is the dilemma that Naomi faced as she journeyed from Moab back to Judah. It didn’t get any worse in Israel than to be a childless widow past the age of childbearing in that male-dominated society. Her hope in God was tempered by the reality she faced. Her heart had been broken and her spirit crushed. Unable to protect and provide for Orpah and Ruth, she bid them return to Moab where God might show kindness to them. But Ruth remained with Naomi.
Naomi left Bethlehem with a husband and two sons but returned without them. She left Bethlehem full but returned empty. She left Bethlehem with a pleasant heart consistent with her name Naomi, but returned with an embittered heart and a desire to be called Mara. Naomi was sure that God’s hand had gone out against her; He had afflicted her and brought misfortune upon her. (See Ruth Chapter 1)
She knew this was God’s doing.
Isn’t God’s Providence Supposed to Be a Good Thing?
Intellectually we may know that God causes all things to work for our good, but our hearts struggle to see God’s goodness in the midst of suffering. Unable to see the end from the beginning, we focus on the loss and the pain we experience and perhaps, like Naomi, become embittered.
When God withdraws his mercies, it is a reminder that they are his mercies. The bad times are in his hands as well as the good. “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10) Our fiery trials are not unusual; God has a good purpose in them (1 Peter 4:12,13).
What Naomi didn’t know was what lay ahead. Was it more trouble or God’s mercy1? Did she hold a glimmer of hope that God would extend his mercy he was showing to Israel to her (Ruth 1:6)?
When Do We Move and When Should We Stand Still?
God did not despise Naomi’s broken heart and he doesn’t despise yours or mine (Psalm 51:17). But sometimes, just when it seems we are in the midst of deliverance; God gives us another trial. What are we to do when this happens?
Recall the Israelite’s Exodus from Egypt. God hardened the heart of Pharaoh so that he would pursue them. Suddenly, as the Israelites camped by the sea, they became fearful as Pharaoh’s army approached. They forgot about God’s Providence, the miracles he had performed and the promises he had made. What were they to do? Moses told them to stand still. The Lord would fight for them and deliver them and bring glory to himself.
In his providence, God does expect his people to act, but there comes a point when we must be still and let him deliver us. He expected the Israelites to slaughter a lamb and place blood on the door frames of their houses but it was the Lord who passed over their houses (Exodus 12:27). He expected them to ask for gold, silver and clothing from the Egyptians but it was the Lord who made them favorably disposed to give it to them (Exodus 12:36). God expected the Israelites to leave Egypt and camp by the sea but it was there that God would bring final deliverance from the Egyptians (Exodus 14:13-14).
It wasn’t yet time for Naomi to stand still before God; she had a journey to make. She chose to act on the news that the Lord had come to the aid of his people and return to Bethlehem. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). What would God do with Naomi’s broken heart?
- Of course, trials and suffering could be considered a form of mercy if they protect us from straying from God. However, the Psalmists typically view mercy as an alleviation of suffering, even if the suffering is the result of one’s own sin.