Here’s a Bible promise that none of us likes to claim. Jesus said, “In this world you will have suffering” (John 16:33). Most Jesus followers are surprised to learn that suffering is a normal part of life even after giving our lives to the Lord. Whether it takes the form of poverty, or illness, or loss, or persecution, we’ll all face adversity sometime, sometimes more than once. And while most of the time, people want to know why, today I want to address another question—how? How should we respond to adversity? How do we deal with the difficulties of life? One passage of Scripture that gives us our options is the first chapter of the book of Ruth.
The setting of the book is in the times of the Judges, when every person “did what was right in their own eyes.” Israel frequently disobeyed God’s Word, so God would discipline the nation with oppression or difficulties, then the people would repent and God would send deliverance through a leader, known as a judge. Some time during this period, there was a famine in the land of Israel. This was likely a discipline from God because He had warned Israel, in Deuteronomy 11:16-17, that if they fell prey to idolatry, God would discipline them by “clos[ing] the sky, and there will be no rain; the land will not yield its produce.” This led a man named Elimelech to take his wife Naomi and their two sons to the land of Moab across the Jordan River, hopefully to find food and satisfaction. There the two boys married Moabite women. Before too long, Elimelech and both his sons died, leaving Naomi a childless widow, with two widowed daughters-in-law. This biblical chapter reveals four ways we can respond to suffering and adversity.
Like Elimelech, we can respond to adversity with disobedience. Why was it wrong for Elimelech to go to Moab? The Moabites were the descendants of the incestual relationship of Lot and his daughter (Gen 19:37). They had sought to curse Israel through Balaam during wilderness wanderings (Num 22). Israel had slept with Moabite women and followed their false gods (Num 25:1-3). That’s why, in Deut 23:3-6, God commanded Israel not to have anything to do with Moab. Yet, Elimelech disobeyed the Lord seeking an easy way out of his difficult circumstances. We do that too. I’ve seen people in difficult marriages deal with it by seeking out affairs. Or people facing financial disasters make ethical compromises in business. But disobedience to God is never a good solution to adversity.
A second way we could respond would be to be like Naomi, and despair of God’s goodness. Her words reflected her misery, “my life is much too bitter . . . because the LORD’s hand has turned against me . . . . Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I left here full, but the LORD brought me back empty. So why call me ‘Naomi’? After all, the LORD is against me, and the Almighty has broken me” (1:13, 20-21). I once heard a take on a Nietzsche saying that was funny but true for some of us: “What doesn’t kill you makes you bitter.” Too often, we come out of adversity like Naomi, not denying the Lord but despairing of His goodness and kindness. To follow the Lord Jesus in this way is its own special kind of misery.
Orpah, one of Naomi’s daughters-in-law, reveals a third way we can respond to adversity, by departure. When Naomi told her daughters-in-law to go back to their families and to their gods, Orpah did just that. “ Orpah kissed her mother-in-law” and “returned to her people and to her gods” (1:14-15). It seems to me that like many of us, Orpah had seen and heard much about the God of Israel but did not really believe in Him. Too often, some of us, people who claim to follow the Lord Jesus, when life gets rough, abandon their faith, because it’s claimed, “it just didn’t work out the way I expected it.”
The fourth way we can deal with adversity, is like Ruth, we can respond with determination. Here’s what she said, “Do not persuade me to leave you or go back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you live, I will live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me, and do so severely, if anything but death separates you and me” (1:16-17). It’s plain that Ruth was not only devoted to Naomi, her spiritual mentor, and to the people of Israel but was most importantly devoted to her faith in the one true God of Israel. That’s why, “When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped trying to persuade her” (1:18).
Like Ruth, when adversity strikes, we must be determined to trust God, to remember the Lord Jesus is with us and will never forsake us. He’ll enable us to endure difficulties. We need to keep praying even when we wonder if God is even listening. We must read His Word even when we can’t seem to hear His voice in it. We have to keep praising Him even when we don’t understand Him and obey Him when we wonder if He even sees us. It’s this kind of determination that will bring us through every adversity with joy. As I’ve meditated on this kind of faith recently, I’ve been reminded of Psalm 84:11-12: “For the Lord God is a sun and shield, The Lord gives grace and glory; He does not withold the good from who live with integrity. Happy is the person who trusts in You, Lord of Hosts.”
A number of years ago, Joe Thompson II was told that his teenage son had been in an auto accident and was hanging on for dear life. Afterwards he said, “I didn’t know they meant he literally was hanging on for dear life.” This is what happened: Mr. Thompson’s eighteen year old son, Joe III of Blue Springs, MO, was driving at 45 mph when another car struck his Jeep. He lost control of his vehicle, rolling it over five or six times. The top was ripped off the car, and the teenager, who was not wearing a seat belt, was catapulted 25 feet into the air. On his way down, he grabbed onto some overhead utility wires. He dangled there for twenty minutes, bear hugging the wires, before a rescue crew brought him down by ladder.
Joe’s survival amazed both Dad and son, as well as witnesses and rescuers. Emergency workers told Joe that he had flown through the air at about 60 mph and should have had his head ripped off by the wires. Surviving the catapult was certainly astounding; but Thompson’s ability to hang on for twenty minutes, even after his arms and head had turned blue, only adds to the astonishing story. While hanging from the wires, Joe was asked how long he could hold on. He said, “I can hold on as long as it takes.” That’s best way to deal with adversity—just hang on, take courage, to the truth of God’s Word and our resurrected Lord Jesus, whose overcome the world, will hang on to us and bring us through.