The hidden hand of God

Good stories don’t just entertain; they also teach. The biblical book of Ruth is a great story, so while it is captivating on a narrative level, it’s also deeply instructive. One of the main lessons the book of Ruth teaches is that, despite appearances often to the contrary, God cares for us and is in control of all things.

The theological word that describes God’s care for all things is “providence.” Providence means that the hidden hand of God is always at work in the ordinary affairs of day-to-day life. Ruth is not a theological treatise reflecting on the doctrine of providence in the form of propositions. Instead, as we read about the lives of Naomi and Ruth and Boaz we observe a picture of God’s providence unfolding in an ordinary family, living in an ordinary town during a not-particularly hopeful time in history.

If you haven’t read the story of Ruth, I’d encourage you to do so (it’s only 85 verses!) There are at least four ideas there that we learn about the doctrine of providence that we can apply to our own lives.

1. Providence is a difficult thing to read in real-time. Ruth and Naomi could not, at the end of chapter 1, have had any idea how their story would turn out. And actually they never saw the full end of their story during their lifetime. Especially in moments of hardship, it can be difficult and even unwise to try to “read” how providence is unfolding in the circumstances of your life. The book of Ruth tells us that God is always working, but it doesn’t give us an exact blueprint to determine what he is doing.

2. God can handle your hard questions. The book of Ruth reminds us that we can bring our questions and doubts before God, and that he can handle them. After a string of tragic events unfold in her life, Naomi declares, “The almighty has made my life very bitter ... The Lord has afflicted me ... The almighty has brought misfortune upon me” (Ruth 1:20-21). We don’t like this part of the story. We want to rush along to chapter 2 when Boaz arrives and a happy love story starts to emerge. But if we sit with Naomi in her time of darkness for at least a few moments, we begin to experience a strange kind of freedom and assurance. God can handle our grief, our questions, and doubt. Sometimes life is just really hard and we need to say that. The book of Ruth teaches us that we can, and should, bring all of our hurt to God, and that he can handle it when we do.

3. The doctrine of providence is not material to use for counseling others. If someone you know is going through a hard time and you say, “Don’t worry; God’s hidden hand is at work in your life,” chances are good they will secretly hate you! The doctrine of providence can be like balm that we use to anoint our own souls in moments of fear and grief and spiritual sadness. But it’s not meant to be the main or first bit of counsel you give to another person who is struggling. Notice: throughout the book of Ruth, it is the characters themselves who identify how God is working in their own lives, whether that work is perceived as good or hard.

4. The purpose of providence is always Christ. Reading through Ruth can lead people to conclude that life will always have a discernible happy ending. That would be an inappropriate conclusion to draw. There are plenty of other stories in the Bible that show their people experiencing prolonged periods of sorrow, or even unhappy endings. Joseph spent twenty years in prison. John the Baptist died in prison. Jeremiah had a hard ministry and was hated for most of it. God’s purpose in providence is not to give you everything you want or think you need.

Rather, the point of providence is to help us begin to connect our story to God’s story, and to see that we are caught up in a larger, grand narrative that has as its culmination in the magnifying of Christ in all things. It is the cross and resurrection of Jesus that stand as the ultimate declaration that, what was meant for evil, God used for good. And so, as the genealogy at the end of Ruth shows, the ultimate purpose of God’s providence is always to reveal Christ in us and through us.

The eighteenth century British poet and hymn-writer, William Cowper, experienced a lifelong battle with depression, grief, and devastating loss. Speaking to a friend he once described his life as a constant “scrambling in the dark.” And yet, even in the midst of his spiritual (and sometimes physical) darkness, he was able to see glimmers of how the doctrine of providence could bring hope in his life. During one of his bouts with depression he wrote the following poem, which has been a balm for weary hearts ever since:

God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform.
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
With blessings on your head

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

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