“Two paths diverged in the wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
I’ve always liked this line from Robert Frost’s poem, and I like these words even better as I’ve grown older and experienced the truth that these words represent.
We will often have two paths before us and the best path isn’t always the one that looks to be the best. As humans we’re used to choosing what will be to our advantage, but we’re not always adept at determining how a decision will turn out. God can trace down and see where a path will lead whereas we can only see the inviting entry point. Sometimes the path that God leads us down won’t look at the outset like the most advantageous path for us, but it is if God is leading us.
Ruth: A Woman Who Chooses a Harder Path
In Ruth 1, we see a woman who chooses a path that does not look initially to be the best for her. When hard circumstances hit her family and her husband and brother-in-law dies (after her father-in-law died several years before), her mother-in-law decides to go back to Judah and urges Ruth and her sister-in-law, Orpah, to return back to their families. While both Ruth and Orpah travel with Naomi initially and say they will go with her, only Ruth stays with Naomi. Let’s take a look at the story in Ruth 1:1-18:
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimilek, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.
Now Elimilek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.
Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.’
Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud and said to her, ‘We will go back with you to your people.’
But Naomi said, ‘Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters: I am too old to have another husband … No my daughters. It is more bitter for me than you, because the LORD’s hand has turned against me!’
At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.
‘Look,’ said Naomi, ‘your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.’
But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and you God will be my God. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.’ When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.
What can we learn from this passage about choosing the path to follow God even in tough circumstances?
1. God remains sovereign in situations that seem out-of-control.
One detail in the story that we might overlook is that it was “questionable,” as one commentator put it, that Elimilek’s family was in Moab to begin with. God had brought the Israelites to the Promised Land, and though they suffered a famine in Bethlehem, God sustained His people in the midst of the famine.
Elimilek sought to escape from the famine, and although he encountered plenty in the land of Moab, he eventually lost his life. Therefore, though he hoped to find better circumstances in Moab, he was worse off than he would have been in Bethlehem. His move to Moab was a backwards move for his family, rather than forwards. Furthermore, after he died, his sons married foreign wives even though God’s covenant with Israelites specified that they not take foreign wives.
Some scholars suggest that the tragedy that came on Elimilek and his sons may have occurred because they violated God’s law. I like how David Guzik discusses this passage: “It is hard to say that this was the direct hand of God’s judgment against them. It is sometimes difficult to discern why tragic things happen. What is certain is that the change of scenery doesn’t make things better. We sometimes think we can move away from our problems, but find we just bring them with us. No matter where you go, you bring yourself with you — so the same problems can continue in a different place.”
No matter the reason for the deaths of Elimilek and his sons, we can determine that Ruth was in the situation she was in because of the decisions of others and circumstances beyond her control. Often, when we find ourselves at the bottom of confusing, painful circumstances that we didn’t cause or choose — we can wonder what God is doing and why He has allowed what He has. Yet, if we fast forward just a few passages, God was sovereign and already had provision planned for Ruth when she arrived in Judah.
Ruth wasn’t the only recipient of God’s grace and provision. Naomi, too, received God’s provision. We don’t know what role Naomi had to play in her husband and sons’ decisions, but she declares that God’s hand has turned against her (v. 21). She may have said these words merely in recognition of God’s sovereignty or because she felt that God dealt with her family for their wrong choices.
Whatever the case, Naomi, like Ruth, turns to God and He works on her behalf. God works through hard situations — whether caused by the actions of others or our own actions. And we should know that there is hope for us just as there was hope for Ruth and Naomi. We, too, can turn to Him in our struggle, and He can work all things (even our mistakes and missteps) together for our good (Romans 8:28).
2. Even in hard situations that we didn’t choose, we can trust God and follow Him even when it doesn’t make sense.
Because of the circumstances that happen to Ruth’s family, she, Naomi, and Orpah are left at a difficult crossroads. At first, Ruth’s sister-in-law, Orpah, says that she plans to travel with them and go to Bethlehem. But then, she abandons that plan and returns to her family and gods. As a Moabite, she had grown up serving other gods, but in marrying Elimilek’s son, she had been exposed to the one true God. Perhaps she had exhibited allegiance at one point, but then when she considered the hardships ahead, she decided to abandon God for what appeared a more advantageous path. If she returned home, she would surely find a husband again — even if it meant no longer following God.
Ruth, on the other hand, “clung” to Naomi with a rare tenacity and makes this declaration in verses 16 and 17: “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God will by my God.” She chooses the harder path: to go with Naomi meant to leave her homeland, family, and gods and walk towards a life that by all appearances did not look so promising. As a widow, she would be poor and could not expect more beyond hard work and a low status.
Certainly, as we see in the next few chapters, Ruth had to work hard gleaning wheat in a field all day in the hot sun, relying on others’ kindness to get needed sustenance. She could have followed Orpah out the door, but she instead went the harder way of following God when she couldn’t see how such a move would benefit her.
3. We have to commit to the course, having a “whatever it takes” attitude.
Ruth committed to following God and then kept faithfully on that course. Naomi tries to talk her out of going with her, but then stops when she sees that Ruth is “determined” to go with her (v. 18).
We will have those in our lives who attempt to talk us out of certain parts of our calling, but if we are walking in the will of God, we can gently put those arguments to rest and persevere on against the odds to live out our calling. Paul says in Philippians 3:13: “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” For Paul, answering God’s call meant leaving behind his prestigious titles and standing in the community and embracing prison, shipwrecks, hunger, opposition, and execution.
Similarly, Ruth here will not abandon God and go back to her former life, but instead presses on. When they arrive in Bethlehem, she demonstrates her tenacity further by doing what she could to support herself and her mother-in-law. Were there moments when she felt her hope slip away when she viewed married women in the community happily established and enjoying the protection and care of a husband? Did she remember longingly at times all that was familiar in Moab? Did she at times wonder if the new God she was following actually was going to come through for her? I am quite sure she did. We don’t know her thought processes, but we can imagine that the hard path she had chosen, although the right one, must have been burdensome.
Walking in God’s Will Brings Blessings
God’s ways aren’t our ways. Often what looks to be the right way in our own eyes will only lead to bondage and suffering. I love what Lysa Terkeurst says, “The safest place to be is in the center of God’s will.” Proverbs 3:5, 6 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.” We will encounter obstacles when walking in His will, but they will be those that God will help us overcome and see us through.
In my own life, years ago, I felt God asking me to step away from music for a season and instead pursue a ministry training program and start the blog. I fought against what God told me because a better opportunity appeared to open in front of me. It was right there for the taking. But God gave me a firm no, and it broke my heart. At first, I rejected what I thought I was hearing. How can this be, God? I have a calling to be used in music. So, I persisted in going the direction I wanted to go, but I didn’t get far. His “no” to me was relentless, and I eventually felt such a lack of peace I stepped away from the opportunity a few days later. As it turns out, sometime later we ended up moving. That particular collaboration with certain individuals would not have worked out.
If God is a good God and knows what is best for us, He will only lead us in the best way. But it won’t always feel like it. When tempted to go our own way, which might initially look more advantageous, we can look at the story of Ruth and see how she was blessed when she went the harder way — at the center of God’s will.
Ever been in a bad situation and it just gets worse? Join us for our brand new series “Hope When You’re at the end of Your Rope: Lessons From Ruth on Trust, Surrender, and Healing.” In the study, we will look at the story of Ruth where will draw lessons the next few weeks on the hope we have when life gets hard, and we feel abandoned and in need of rescue. With this new series, we will begin a new podcast post schedule where we post podcasts at the beginning of the week instead of the weekend.