My kids own a Charlie Brown Christmas board game that has a winding path from the start to the finish line. Although there are many different actions that a player may have to do (depending on what square he lands on in his journey), a player can land on North Pole slides that shoot him up several spaces ahead. These slides give the player a distinct advantage by allowing him to bypass several squares in one turn and get further ahead than he can just by rolling the dice on a turn.
Shortcuts are a positive in more than just my kids’ board games. I am always looking for shortcuts to make life as a stay-at-home mom of three kids more manageable and less overwhelming. I get excited when I can make a meal in less time, drive a shorter route to a destination when I am running late, or locate a simpler set of instructions to explain a concept to my kids to help them understand their homework. In these ways, shortcuts are desirable and give me valuable time and energy that I can spend on another task.
When Shortcuts Aren’t a Positive
However, shortcuts aren’t always good. When we cut corners to arrive at an intended goal but do so in a way that is wrong — that’s when shortcuts aren’t helpful to us and can actually hinder our growth. Particularly, spiritually, when we’ve been on a journey to a promise God has given us a long time and despair that we’ll ever reach the place God has for us, we can be tempted to take shortcuts, rather than the longer route God is pointing out to us.
At the end of Ruth 4, we see that Naomi has arrived at her intended destination. She left Moab a bitter woman grieving over the death of her sons and her shattered life. However, she transforms into a woman who has a place of rest and security in the family of Ruth and Boaz. She has the financial provision she needs (no more stressful days eking out a living), and her arms are full with a precious grandson.
So, how does Naomi move into what God intends for her? What can we learn from Naomi about moving from a place of bitterness to a place of fullness without compromising and taking shortcuts?
1. We walk in God’s way despite our feelings.
In Ruth 1:20-21, on the heels of the tragic death of her sons, Naomi reveals that she believes that the Lord’s hand has turned against her: “ ‘Don’t call me Naomi,’ she told them. ‘Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune on me.”
Clearly, with these words we see a woman who does not like her situation, but she does not turn away from God. While she may have found every excuse not to return back to God, Naomi decides that she has no other place to go and accepts God’s hand in her affliction. Similarly, we will have times when we don’t like what is happening in our lives or will struggle to trust what God tells us. And yet, even in those times, we trust Him instead of taking the easier way out.
Ezekiel is another such example of a man who trusted God despite his outward circumstances. Ezekiel’s life was disrupted and thrown into upheaval when he was called to be a prophet to the rebellious nation of Israel. Up to that point, he served as a priest, and his life was humming along quite nicely. Then, God asked Ezekiel to do some pretty strange actions and serve as a living representation of the difficult message God wanted to give to Israel. God told Ezekiel that the people would not listen, but that he was to go anyway. In response to God’s instructions, Ezekiel says in Ezekiel 3:14, 15: “The Spirit then lifted me up and took me away, and I went in bitterness and in the anger of my spirit, with the strong hand of the LORD on me. I came to the exiles who lived at Tel Aviv near the Kebar River. And there, where they were living, I sat among for seven days — deeply distressed.”
Clearly, Ezekiel is distraught over the message he has been asked to give. Although he wants to obey God, he knows that the message will not be well received. We can almost imagine him saying to God: Really, God? Why are you sending me to say this? Don’t you care about how I am going to be treated when I do what you ask of me? Are you trying to ruin my life?
Ezekiel and Naomi’s situations differ in that Ezekiel did not enter into affliction because of his choices. He was a faithful servant of God and God shook up his world with some very difficult assignments. He suffered persecution because he walked in God’s plan whereas it is highly probable that Naomi’s family swerved from God’s plan by going to Moab (we aren’t given all the details), and yet, Naomi is used mightily by God when she returns to Him. However, both individuals show us that what it looks like to keep following God even when He allows situations we would not have chosen for ourselves or calls us to tasks we don’t want to do.
In his analysis of Ruth, Bob Deffinbaugh says this: “Doing what is right in God’s eyes requires faith for we often cannot see how doing the right thing will produce what God has promised.” John Piper says it another way, “If we could learn to wait and trust in God, all our complaints against God would prove untrue.” Certainly, neither Naomi nor Ezekiel knew how their situations would turn out, but chose to do what was right believing that God would work out all the details for their good in the end. Similarly, we can’t always see how our right actions will benefit us, but we should keep doing them knowing that they are leading us to God’s promises.
2. Instead of allowing our bitterness to make us turn inward, we keep showing up for God’s purposes.
When we feel angry or resentful, it’s natural to want to hibernate or take a break from serving others. But we find healing when we continue moving forward and keep an “others mindset.” Naomi is in pain at the beginning of her journey and has gone through a great tragedy, but she continues to look out for others and orchestrates a marriage for her daughter-in-law, saying: “My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for” (Ruth 3:1).
Interestingly, when she reaches out and helps others, she helps herself. It tells us in chapter 4 that she is nourished and sustained by Obed, Ruth and Boaz’s son. The work she invests in ensuring the welfare of Ruth is that which, in turn, helps to restore her own soul. The woman who describes herself as “empty” in the first chapter brims with hope and happiness in the last chapter. Is it merely because her circumstances change? No, I don’t believe so. Certainly, her grandson brings her joy. However, she learns how to fill herself with the Lord. And though she lives to see her family fortunes restored and hold a grandson — her true joy comes when she chooses to accept God’s sovereignty and faithfully follow God despite her questions and her pain.
3. When tempted to veer from God’s path, we should remind ourselves that shortcuts don’t lead us to God’s promises.
When we are angry and resentful and believe we’ve that we’ve been dealt a bad hand, we can use our poor circumstances to justify poor choices and cut corners to get out of our circumstances and arrive at our intended goal.
Some commentators assert that Naomi tries to take a shortcut to her intended goal of provision for herself and Ruth by forcing a marriage between Boaz and Ruth. They believe that she instructs Ruth to seduce Boaz and argue that Ruth did more than lay at his feet on the threshing floor. But I don’t view Naomi’s advice in this way at all. From all we see of Boaz and Ruth’s conduct, both were concerned about acting honorably in all situations.
Ruth is careful to lay at his feet and wait for him to wake up. When he does wake up and enquires about who is at his feet, he makes no move to take advantage of her. Rather, he protects her by allowing her to remain at his feet until morning and then sends her out early to preserve her reputation. When the morning comes, she immediately goes home, as he instructs her to do, while he goes and follows the guidelines of the law in order to redeem the land and become Ruth’s guardian-redeemer and husband.
While Naomi’s plan for Ruth at the threshing floor is unusual, she works within the boundaries of God’s law at the time and does what she can to change their situation without deviating from God’s guidelines. In addition, she gives the advice that she does knowing that both Boaz and Ruth are virtuous and will do what’s right in the situation. Rather than resist against God’s instructions to us or forge our own path apart from His purposes, we end up where we’re intended to go when we submit to the instructions God gives us and don’t attempt to make our own plans apart from His.
Naomi makes good choices when she returns to Judah, but do you know what I find the most encouraging about Naomi? Her story begins a different way. We might say that in turning back to Judah she recovered from a shortcut her family made. Even though her family made some mistakes in going to Moab, she still received God’s provision and blessing because she returned back. And the same is true of us. Maybe we’re in the wrong place at the moment and we need to make a U-turn. It’s not too late.
Maybe we’ve strayed to Moab, but like Naomi, we can come back and God still has great plans for us that are waiting to be fulfilled. God even graciously worked through the mistakes of Naomi’s family and worked all the details in Naomi’s life — good and bad — into His purposes. Had her family never gone to Moab, her son would not have married Ruth, Ruth would not have come with her to Bethlehem, Ruth would not have married Boaz, and Obed would not have been born. God would have found another way to achieve His purposes, but don’t you love that God used all the parts of Naomi’s life for her good? Satan wants us to believe that our mistakes and missteps have derailed us from the plans God has for us, and we can see here that we can turn around and go back to God. Even the bad choices we’ve made while in Moab are not too great to deter us from the plans He has for us.
However, when we’re on the right path, we can’t leap ahead to God’s promises without the journey God wants to take us through. Naomi returned to Bethlehem, but she didn’t fast track to God’s blessings in a day. She took a long journey with her daughters-in-law — one left along the way. Once in Bethlehem, she and Ruth scraped out a living as impoverished widows. Because she chose to travel God’s way in no way exempted her from hardship or trials.
In my kids’ Charlie Brown game, North Pole slides not only fast track players ahead, these same shortcuts work the other way as well. If you land on the other side of the shortcut, you slide backwards. In fact, when we first played the game, it took so long to end the game because as players we were constantly moving back and forth along these chutes that shot us forward and plunged us back. We eventually changed the rules so that players only go forward because it took too long the other way to get to the finish line!
What a very real picture of what it looks like to try to move ahead when God isn’t directing us in that way or has told us that we aren’t to take a certain step. Though God can certainly use our missteps in His plan, the “shortcuts” don’t really get us anywhere and prolong our journey. Instead, when we follow after God and go where He leads, what feels like the longer way will get us to where we need to go much faster than if we try to route around the difficult assignments He gives us and go an easier way.
Ever been in a bad situation and it just gets worse? With this article and podcast episode, we conclude the series “Hope When You’re at the end of Your Rope: Lessons From Ruth on Trust, Surrender, and Healing.” In the study, we’ve examined the story of Ruth where we have drawn lessons on the hope we have when life gets hard, and we feel abandoned and in need of rescue.
Check out the previous posts in the series: Part 1: “Why God’s Way is Always Best,” Part 2: “Pushing Past Our Breaking Points to Do the Will of God,” Part 3: “The Blessings of Following God,” Part 4: “Trusting God When It Doesn’t Make Sense,” and Part 5: “Walking Into All God Has for You.”