Does life have meaning? Purpose? Or is it all just one big accident? When we find ourselves in the margins of life—caught somewhere between expectation and reality—we find ourselves asking: “Is God in this?”
Few today would agree that our world has any intrinsic purpose or meaning. Terrorist attacks, an unstable stock market, rising divorce rates—all of these have had a profound psychological impact on western civilization. In a 2012 article in the New York Times, Todd and Victoria Buchholz noted that among young people, the word “random…has morphed from a precise statistical term to an all-purpose phrase that stresses the illogic and coincidence of life.” While the generation of the 1960’s could still express some measure of idealism, today’s world is fraught with pessimism and uncertainty. Life, at its core, is unpredictable.
What, then, becomes of faith? If life is full of uncertainty, if meaning is in the eye of the beholder, then Christianity—nay, all religion—shrinks to the level of mere therapy. A beautiful dream—but nothing more than an opiate to numb ourselves to the problems of our world.
Yet are we really satisfied with such a bleak description? Of course not; this is arguably why we remain captivated by the power of story. In his 2004 book Jesus Goes to Harvard, cultural analyst Harvey Cox writes that stories represent a “common vocabulary.” Though the students of his Harvard University classroom have been taught to be suspicious of “absolute truth,” deep down they seem to recognize that “there [is] something fundamentally inadequate about moral relativism.” Indeed, our world’s most enduring stories—such as the Star Wars saga, or Lord of the Rings—open to us a world of depth and meaning, calling us subtly toward a truth bigger and better than any celluloid fantasy.
This is why the stories of Scripture become so valuable. For in these pages we find a world sensitized to the beautiful way that God enters into the human situation, to set us free from the dolor and lifelessness of a world without meaning.
Now Naomi had a relative of her husband’s, a worthy man of the clan of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. 2 And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor.” And she said to her, “Go, my daughter.” 3 So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech. 4 And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem. And he said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you!” And they answered, “The Lord bless you.” 5 Then Boaz said to his young man who was in charge of the reapers, “Whose young woman is this?”6 And the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the young Moabite woman, who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab.7 She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves after the reapers.’ So she came, and she has continued from early morning until now, except for a short rest.”
In his analysis of Ruth, Ronald Hals points out just how great this story is:
“…the author’s real meaning in 2:3b is actually the opposite of what he says. The labelling [sic] of Ruth’s meeting with Boaz as ‘chance’ is nothing more than the author’s way of saying that no human intent was involved. For Ruth and Boaz it was an accident, but not for God.” (Ronald Hals, A Theology of the Book of Ruth, p. 61)
Is it possible there’s no such thing as chance? Is it possible that God is already at work—seeking to reverse the fortunes of this young woman and her family?
8 Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now, listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. 9 Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping, and go after them. Have I not charged the young men not to touch you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn.” 10 Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” 11 But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 12 The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” 13 Then she said, “I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, though I am not one of your servants.”
14 And at mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here and eat some bread and dip your morsel in the wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he passed to her roasted grain. And she ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over.15 When she rose to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, saying, “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. 16 And also pull out some from the bundles for her and leave it for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”
Boaz is impressed with Ruth. In part this is due to her hard work ethic, and I think it adds a human touch—maybe even a comedic one—that he seems really into the fact that she’s such a hard worker. Some guys like broad shoulders, I guess.
17 So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. 18 And she took it up and went into the city. Her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned. She also brought out and gave her what food she had left over after being satisfied. 19 And her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked and said, “The man’s name with whom I worked today is Boaz.” 20 And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “May he be blessed by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a close relative of ours, one of our redeemers.” 21 And Ruth the Moabite said, “Besides, he said to me, ‘You shall keep close by my young men until they have finished all my harvest.’” 22 And Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, “It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, lest in another field you be assaulted.” 23 So she kept close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests. And she lived with her mother-in-law.
Ruth and Naomi’s fortunes are starting to turn. For the first time, the story begins to ascend out from the margins and into the light. Can God do the same for us? Deep down, this is what every human heart longs for. Yet for many of us, we’ve yet to really wrap our minds around the sheer absurdity of our circumstances.
In the 2002 film Signs, Mel Gibson plays a former minister who lost his faith. When strange lights appear in the skies overhead, the world is gripped by fear. Gibson’s character comforts his brother:
“People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance. I’m sure the people in group number two are looking at those fourteen lights in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation is a fifty-fifty. Could be bad, could be good. But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they’re on their own. And that fills them with fear…But there’s a whole lot of people in group number one. When they see those fourteen lights, they’re looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever’s going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”
Is it possible that there are no coincidences? I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, but I don’t believe that there’s any such thing as mere accidents. God is weaving a great story in which each of us has a part. It’s a story about Jesus—the center and focus of all human history—yet in an incredible act of grace God allows us to be a part of this story, to allow Christ to be the “author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1). Don’t live life as if it were random. Don’t live life as if it were mere chance. Live instead as if all of life were a gift from God, and live as if all of life were a chance for love.