“Where was God when… (enter catastrophic event here)?”
By Chad Bailey
This question says as much as it asks. It suggests that the god who can prevent something awful, will always do so. It is often asked critically to prove God is either incapable or unwilling to prevent evil, calling into question the trustworthiness of such a god. But notice the change in tone when we ask each other the same kind of question about a catastrophic event. “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?” or “Where were you on 9/11?” We do not expect fellow finite beings to have been present on either occasion, much less to have been able to foil the evil-doers’ plans. God is not let off the hook so easily; we tend to expect more of Him. The good news is His power and concern are not so easily disproven. According to Scripture, God is simultaneously transcendent and imminent. That is, He is spiritually over and above all things and yet near; enthroned in heaven (Ps. 2:4) and providentially involved in the minutia of life (Col. 1:17).
Few portions of Scripture demonstrate this paradox like the Old Testament book of Ruth, the masterful drama about the gracious provision of God. But before it is a story of blessing and redemption, it is a story of heart-breaking loss. Out of the gate, the patriarch of an Israelite family and his two sons die in a foreign land, survived only by the widow Naomi and her two daughters-in-law. This is where the plot thickens. By the end of scene one, Naomi, in no uncertain terms, assigns full responsibility for her terrible loss to God (Ruth 1:19-22). If you were to ask her where God was when all the men in her life expired, she might have answered, “On His throne, as always.”
This isn’t the only appeal to God’s sovereignty in Scripture (Ps. 115:3), not by a long shot. Job, who lost more than Naomi, never spoke negatively against God, but declared, “The LORD gave, and the LORD took away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21-22). Naomi appears to struggle a bit more here than did Job, nevertheless she never doubted God’s existence or His fateful involvement. After being gone for more than a decade, she returned home with a new identity. She left as Naomi, meaning pleasant. She returned insisting she be called Mara, meaning bitter. And her reason for the name- change was the Almighty had dealt bitterly with her (1:20). She was not happy about it, but she was willing to accept the LORD’s righteous discipline, however severe (1:21).
How can we learn from Naomi’s ability to reconcile God’s loving-kindness with painful loss? A fascinating clue is found in the names she uses for God. Twice she uses God’s personal, covenant name, Yahweh, which speaks of God’s nearness, His imminence. And twice she uses an older, more generic name for God, Shaddai, which speaks more of His transcendence and power. Naomi sees God as both the God to whom she must submit and the God who may be known and trusted. While God does not stop all evil in this life, His perfect character is not in question. Isaiah 55:8 reminds us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and neither are His ways our ways. All of His ways are good, without even the smallest exception.
The book of Ruth ends with God’s gracious provision for Naomi on remarkable display. As with Job, God blesses Naomi in ways she could never have guessed. Such is often the case in our lives, however, even if these merciful endings never come, God remains eternally worthy of our worship, obedience, and trust.
Chad Bailey is the husband of his high school sweetheart, the father of three (13, 11, 3), and the Lead Pastor at The Parks Church Frisco, a new church plant meeting Sunday at 10:15 AM at the Performing Arts Center of the Frisco School of Music on Preston and Main in Frisco, Texas. (TheParksChurchFrisco.com)