Title: A Sweet & Bitter Providence: Sex, Race and the Sovereignty of God
Author: John Piper
Publisher: Crossway Books
With it’s themes of sex, romance, culture and the unseen hand of God, the Old Testament book of Ruth is perhaps one of the most gripping short stories ever written—one with a great deal to teach us.
That’s why I was so glad to read A Sweet & Bitter Providence by John Piper as he illustrates how the story of Naomi, Ruth & Boaz teaches us to suffer well for the glory of God, recognizing that all things occur according to His sovereign rule.
God Reigns—But Do We See It?
Piper begins with the “bitter” providence of God in Naomi’s life. Seeking to find respite from the famine that has struck Israel, Her husband, Elimelech, moves Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon & Chilion, to Moab. There, instead of finding relief, the family finds only despair. Elimelech dies, her sons marry two Moabite women and die as well, childless. Naomi sees that ”the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20). Of this, Piper writes,
I would take Naomi’s theology any day over the sentimental views of God that permeate so many churches today. Endless excuses are made for God’s sovereignty. Naomi is unshaken and sure about three things: God exists, God is sovereign, and God has afflicted her. (pp. 37-38)
Piper wants readers to catch a larger vision of God, one that the Bible itself displays. A God who is much bigger than He appears based on what we hear in many sermons and read in a lot of books. He is real. He is sovereign and, yes, He has afflicted her. But all of these things happen not because He is capricious and mean, but because He is using them to further His plans for the salvation of the world.
Naomi returns to Israel with her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, who has renounced her culture and abandoned her family and their gods to follow Naomi. “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God,” says Ruth (1:16). They return during the barley harvest (v. 22). Ruth just happens to go to glean from the field of Boaz, who so just so happens to be the family’s kinsman redeemer. In the midst of the “bitter” providence of God, His “sweet” providence is revealed. But Naomi is too blind to see it at first.
“‘The Lord has brought me back empty.’ Not so, Naomi!” writes Piper. “You are so weary with the night of adversity that you can’t see the dawn of rejoicing” (p. 39).
What about us? When adversity is wearing us down, when we grow weary from the struggle, it’s hard to see “the dawn of rejoicing,” isn’t it? I struggle greatly at times to focus not merely on the present circumstances but to trust that God is working out all things for His glory and my good. When positive change seems to be distant, it’s easy to become bitter. But, as Piper reminds us, “Bitterness is a powerful blindness” (p. 42). Will we, like Naomi eventually did, give praise to the Lord “whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead” (Ruth 2:20) and bow to the wonder of His mercy and grace?
Saturated with God
Equally inspiring is Piper’s depiction of Ruth & Boaz and their relationship. I love his description of Boaz as a “God-saturated man,” one who is so full of love for God that it’s evident that when he greets his employees saying, “The Lord be with you,” you know he means it. As Piper rightly reminds us, “these were more than pious platitudes” (p. 61). For men, Boaz is the one of the few earthly examples to which we should aspire. He treats his employees with great care and dignity—and does likewise with his personal relationships.
Ruth, a Moabite, would not have been entitled of any real respect in the culture; yet Boaz treats her with the greatest dignity. He protects her. He feeds her well. He allows her to not just glean from the edges of the field but right along with his employees. And even though he finds himself with opportunity (and motive), he protects her purity.
Ruth comes to him in the middle of the night; she boldly comes to him and says, “I want to be your wife.” Piper writes,
The stars are beautiful overhead, it is midnight, he desires her, she desires him, they are alone, she is under his cloak… and he stops it for the sake of righteousness and does not touch her. What a man! What a woman! (p. 90)
Boaz is the kind of man who cherishes purity over momentary pleasure. That is the kind of man that we should be striving to be! “What a man!” says Piper. I agree wholeheartedly.
Ruth likewise is a woman that the writer of the biblical story wants us to admire and imitate. Throughout the narrative, she shows herself to take initiative, be humble and industrious. These are worthy traits, says Piper, ones worthy of imitation.
Piper pleads, “Don’t be like the world. Be like Boaz. Be like Ruth. Profound in love. Subtle and perceptive in communication. Powerful in self-control. Committed to strategic righteousness” (p. 94). Are we willing to be like Ruth and Boaz?
Inspiring Study of an Inspiring Relationship
With A Sweet & Bitter Providence, John Piper provides us with an inspiring study of an inspiring relationship—teaching us that “God’s purpose for his people is to connect us to something far greater than ourselves. God wants us to know that when we follow him, our lives always mean more than we think they do” (p. 121). In the case of Naomi, Ruth & Boaz, their trials ultimately were to connect them to the earthly line of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
For us, what God is doing in us and through us is surely going to be less dramatic, but the glory that is to come is worth pursuing. “The best is yet to come. And God is at work in the darkest of your times to get you there” (p. 122).