Shattered Dreams: Sojourn of Suffering

(Part 1 of 4)

During my time in ministry, twice I slid into depression.  There were a couple of causes related to this, primarily it was the handling of stress and during the last time, I was referred to the book “Shattered Dreams” by Dr. Larry Crabb. It was then and remains a foundational book in my library. It helped me through that time and led me to other books and authors that have helped me deal with the issue of pain and suffering. As you can imagine, I returned to it again over this past year and have read others.  My hope and prayer in this series is to help us all wrestle with the issue of suffering and pain in our world and our faith.

From the outset, there is a clarification I need to make and it is primarily what subject matter I want to touch on here.  The word theodicy, is the word we use to describe our attempt to understand God’s justice in a world of evil.  This usually overlaps with the problem of suffering and pain.  And while this in most cases makes good sense, I want to keep this separate, not because I don’t think theodicy isn’t important (it is profoundly important!) but because suffering and pain do not necessitate the presence of evil as a cause and in the Book of Ruth, the issue of evil is not brought to the forefront.  

As a confession, let me say whenever I read authors or hear speakers/pastors talk about pain and suffering and theodicy, there is often a credibility issue. The credentials aren’t pasted on walls but on scars, “what have you suffered that I should listen to you?” Mine comes from being a testicular cancer survivor, a depression survivor, failing as a church planting pastor, and living with a vascular condition in my eyes that has taken nearly 50% of my vision. But none of those has prepared me for the pain and struggle of being the primary caregiver of a spouse with stage 4 cancer as I am today. Are there some worse than me? Sure, but I think those are sufficient. And as I look at Naomi’s story in the Book of Ruth, I find a story where I can relate.

So let me introduce Naomi to you. She is a  Hebrew wife and mother who, with her family travel to Moab during a famine in Judah.  There, her two sons marry Moabite women.  But her husband dies and then her two sons, leaving her a widow and helpless in a foreign land.  She chooses to return to Judah and her daughter-in-law’s follow until she dismisses them.  One leaves but Ruth has other plans - to follow Naomi.

Ruth 1:16-22  But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die, there will I be buried.May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’ When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’ She said to them,‘Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara,   for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full  but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’ So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Here is the thing.  This is NOT what should have happened to Naomi! She is of God’s chosen people.   Yet here  she is now.  She  knew what it meant to really go hungry. She has lost all that is meaningful to her - her husband and her sons.  No one to watch over her and care for her. She is hurt and in pain.  When she arrives in Bethlehem she even changes her name so everyone knows how bitter she is.

Now note what Naomi says in 1:20 - “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.”  Naomi declares she holds God responsible.  I think she is right to do so, after all, God DID make this world. Contrast this with the book of Job.  Job’s three friends almost can’t wait  to point their fingers back at Job - “What did YOU do, Job?” To this  day, this seems to be the default  approach to suffering su;rely WE did something bad to suffer like this! But thankfully Naomi has Ruth.  Ruth doesn’t blame Naomi, she sticks by her.  Ruth remains silent and consistent.

When it comes to suffering and pain, the issues of disease, accidents, disasters, and numerous other causes; we are likely not going to discover the meaning  for our suffering and pain in a day or a week or maybe, even years. We can ask, as Rabbi Harold Kushner brings up in his book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” - “Why did this happen? Why do I deserve it?  But Kushner writes and points out this is not particularly helpful question (pg 136). Kushner offers a better question to be sure but I think it isn’t sufficient.  

I believe there is a better question to ask.  It will come at another time, maybe not immediately, but in its time, hopefully we can deal with it.  I word  it this way, “ It has happened but will I continue to cooperate with God’s grace?”

This is question came arose from a lot of time with various traditions and  sources.  One was the early church leader, Irenaeus who had a unique opinion of the world God created.  He argued that God created human beings to continue to grow. God intended there to be some adversity in the world God created.  And as sin does with everything good that God makes, it has been made worse a thousand times over. (referenced Jerry Walls, “Making Sense of Evil,” Good News Magazine.)

Ironically, if we give up the idea of a good God in the midst of suffering and pain, we give up hope that our pain can be redeemed, and those who die are condemned to nothingness.  At few times and to few people, God has revealed ways in which he works.  It is not likely God is going to reveal that way.    I don’t expect God is going to do that for me but I will not give up the idea of God being a good God and so I have hope there will be meaning.

By choosing to cooperate with God’s grace, we are choosing to recognize some of our dreams and ideas about our world and about God, need to be shattered.  They need to be shattered to make room for new dreams, better dreams.  Hope makes that possible I think.  But it is also a pattern Jesus did this to his disciples and their idea that God’s Messiah, the World’s Savior would be a great warrior. They left home, careers, and even their religion to follow Jesus Christ.

Many people were traveling with Jesus. He said to them, “If you come to me but will not leave your family, you cannot be my follower. You must love me more than your father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters—even more than your own life!  Whoever will not carry the cross that is given to them when they follow me cannot be my follower. Luke 14:25-27 (ERV)

Larry Crabb writes, “As long as our purpose is to have a good time...God becomes merely a means to an end, an object to be used (Shattered Dreams, 32).  Perhaps we’re meant to learn that the richest hope permits the deepest suffering (45).”

So what do we learn from Naomi in this first part of her story?  What is Naomi’s response to the question: “Will you continue to cooperate with God’s grace?” You need only look where she went: she “...set out on the road that would take them back to land of Judah (1:7).”  Empty and bitter though she was, Naomi seeks refuge among the people of God  Naomi returned to the place which raised her and taught her faith - she went home, where she could weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15)

Has anything really changed?   I see it far too often people leaving the church and God’s people in times of suffering.  Sometimes it is because people were more like Job’s friends and less like Ruth.  Sometimes it is because we think God needs to be defended, when in truth, people need to have hope that pain and suffering can be redeemed. Sometimes, the pain and grief is paralyzing and no one is there on the path like Ruth was. I have no doubt there are more but I think our opening hymn said it best this morning, for when dreams shatter, our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness.  And when we’re done - when we’re worn out - we are being called to return to our “Judah,” to the church - to Jesus’ people.

Author's Note: These are the notes of a sermon and so some thoughts are not fully "fleshed out." This is partly by design in all my sermons so that there might be room for God's Spirit to show up in ways that might be unexpected. In addition, the links I will be providing throughout these posts will be varied each week. Though you may not find a favorite book this week, it doesn't mean I won't refer to it in the future.

Books Cited In This Sermon:


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