Into the Unknown, Pt. 3: Life at the Bottom of the J-Curve

My high school graduating class has held several reunions. Sadly, I haven’t been able to attend any of them thus far. Our next will be in 2022, celebrating our thirty-fifth year since we walked to pomp and circumstance and tossed our caps into the air at the fifty-yard line of the football field in front of a crowd of family and friends.

One thing is for sure.

The people who return for that reunion will not be the same as those who graduated in 1987. Even if we were to look the same, which we don’t; our life experiences have so deeply affected us, broken us, and matured us, that when we return home after having been gone all these years, we are not the same people.

Experience has changed us.

There will have been marriages, children, new cities, new sets of friends. There will have been the heartache of death, foreclosure, and even divorce. Some of us are followers of Jesus now.

We are not who we once were, because the journey changes us. It shapes us.

The shaping process of the journey often is quite painful. Sometimes we just want to go back — back to way it was before. Before the stress. Before the loss. Before the complicated life.

This is what happened to an Israelite woman named Naomi.

It is around 1100 B.C. and after 10 years away from Israel living in a land called Moab, Naomi is returning to her hometown of Bethlehem, which as you may know, becomes the birthplace of Jesus. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Naomi has experienced multiple family tragedies that have translated into a sense of overwhelming grief and personal hopelessness. It is not a stretch to say she is at rock bottom.

Naomi is not the woman she was when she left. The journey has shaped her in undeniable ways. Shattered dreams will do that. Naomi is a broken woman.

In the wake of overwhelming loss, Naomi’s instinct is to go back home to where life had been good. But she discovers that you really can’t go back. You can go back to the same place, but you can’t go back to the same life. But you can lean forward into a better life.

The story of Ruth is a J curve.[1]

At the top left of the J, the journey begins with hopes and dreams. But then, unexpectedly, the dream is shattered and dies and you slide to the bottom of the curve.

Some of us know what that feels like. You may be there now. The depression. Loneliness. Hopelessness.

With the Covid outbreak, our entire culture is experiencing a kind of J-Curve moment, aren’t we?

It is disorienting and surreal. Those are two words I’ve been using to describe my emotions.

At the bottom of the J-Curve, what we can’t see is the purpose of God for the downward bend. What we discover in Naomi’s story is that in God’s plan, there is a new, better dream being born. It’s hard — no, impossible — to see the new dream in the moment. But eventually, the J bends upward and hope is resurrected — a hope that leads to new joy.

But at the bottom of the curve, all you know is that if peace reigned in the past, pain rules the present… and you just want to go back.

If you are at the bottom of the curve today. What I want you to know is that God is at work at that low, anxious, fearful place, doing things in our lives that can only be done there… at the bottom, where grace flows downhill and God brings life out of death.

As we survey her homecoming experience, I want to show you three things that I think will help us see that her story is our story, and her hope can be our hope, where shattered dreams set the context for better dreams.

Here is the account in Ruth 1:19–22.

19 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?” 20 “Don’t call me Naomi, ” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” 22 So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.

Of the three things I want us to observe about Naomi’s homecoming, the first is that…

NAOMI RETURNS EMPTY

Apparently, Naomi not only had been well known but also well off in her previous life. Her husband was a man of standing — a big fish in a small town. We know they had land and probably a nice home. Life was comfortable and prosperous.

But now, as Naomi says, all that is gone. She went away full but has returned empty. The memory of former comfort and prosperity now mock her misery.

While the rest of the town had stayed to endure a famine together, Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, relocated to a rival country in search of life and blessing beyond the boundaries of the land the LORD has given as a place where his presence would dwell and provision would continue, as long as the people followed the ways of the LORD.

In Naomi and Elimelech, we see what characterized the people of Israel during the period of the Judges, in which we read, “The people did what was right in their own eyes.”

Looking for life outside of God’s wisdom did not pave the ground with blessing but with death. Eventually, Naomi would find herself at the bottom of the J-Curve and much like the prodigal younger brother in the Parable of the Lost Sons, she finally comes to her senses and goes home.

If social media had been available then, scrolling through her feed would have been particularly depressing, with piercing reminders in every smile and family photo just how empty and sad her life had become in comparison.

Upon her return in verse 19, the women of the town are shocked at Naomi’s condition. “Can this be Naomi?” She had been a vibrant, probably well-dressed, beautiful woman. Now she is a shell of her former self, a face caked in dust from her walk back home, revealing in deep wrinkles the stress and bereavement she has endured during her years away.

Indeed, she is the same woman but, at the same time, she isn’t the same woman.

Adding insult to injury, the original text indicates that the women were talking about her rather than to her. The Hebrew word for “stirred” may also be translated “murmured.” Instead of extending grace, the women gossip, which is talking about someone behind their back instead of talking with them face to face.

Obviously, there is a significant application here concerning what it takes to establish an authentic community — not just in a small town, but in a church family. There are few things more damaging to a congregation’s sense of gospel safety and camaraderie than sharing negative reports about each other — even if the reports are true. Rather talk about each other, believers need to learn what it looks like to engage with each other when we have issues with or questions about others in the church family.

When someone shares with me that “people are talking”– stirring, murmuring, gossiping, whispering–I know Satan is working overtime to divide and conquer that congregation.

In verse 20, Naomi calls their bluff, responding to the whispers of familiar faces by re-introducing herself, not as Naomi, but as Mara. In Hebrew, the name Naomi means “pleasant.” Conversely, the name Mara (from which we get Mary) means “bitter.”

Ten years of hard has turned a pleasant woman into a bitter woman. Resentful and cynical. But if you have experienced the bottom of a J-Curve like she has, you can relate to the bitterness, resentment, and cynicism. I can.

If you are familiar with the Grief Cycle, then what we read next will not surprise you. In her emptiness, feeling the acute pain of devastating loss…

NAOMI RETURNS ANGRY

In the grief cycle, given time, bitterness eventually ferments into anger. We see this with Naomi as she lays blame squarely at the feet of the LORD, whom she credits with ruining her life. Maybe you can detect this tone in Naomi’s voice in verses 20 and 21.

20 “The Almighty [Shaddai] has made my life very bitter. [Hedidn’t have to, he is sovereign, in total control] 21 I went away full, but the LORD [Yahweh — the personal name for Israel’s God] has brought me back empty [it is his fault]. Why call me Naomi? The LORD [Yahweh] has afflicted me; the Almighty [Shaddai] has brought misfortune upon me.”

Notice how raw and brutally honest Naomi has become. She does not say the right thing, or what others expect, or what would make for polite conversation. She is being unvarnished, and she can be because her life, like an antique table undergoing the refinishing process, has been stripped of all pretense. There is nowhere to hide. Her brokenness is publicly exposed as if it were the headline in the morning paper.

At some point in our lives, we all will be stripped of pretense. The question is not will I be stripped but what will replace the old finish? How will I be shaped by the process?

Satan has his varnish that he will want to apply when we are raw and real. Maybe he had taken advantage of her anger, getting a foothold in her heart by whispering to Naomi the way he spoke to Eve in the garden, casting doubt by whispering lies about God.

We’ve heard the whispers.

“Look at what God has allowed to happen in your life. As your friends’ children were getting engaged, receiving great job offers, taking amazing vacations, yours were dying. Just look at Instagram or Facebook and you’ll see how happy and perfect everyone else’s life is. All while your marriage is struggling, your kids are wandering, your job is floundering, and your soul is dying others don’t seem to have a care in the world. It is not fair. You deserve better.”

Can’t you hear Naomi turning to the LORD in response?

“Yeah, I don’t deserve this. You are supposed to be a loving God who blesses his people, but I feel forsaken, alone, and afflicted. Why will you not bless me like you bless others?”

I can feel the rage growing in Naomi’s heart because I have felt it in my own. I may not outwardly cast blame upon the Lord with a tone of unholy disdain, but if I’m honest, I feel the same kind of entitlement inwardly Naomi expressed outwardly.

There is something within me that is like a toddler who makes demands out of a sense of entitlement. I deserve better!

But to talk about what I deserve is a dangerous thing. If the Lord is fair, I am in big trouble. And so are you. Rather than demanding God give me what I deserve, I should plead into his mercy, that he would withhold from me what I truly deserve in view of how I, like Naomi, have so often rejected his wisdom and done what is right in my own eyes.

But my flesh still rages at the bottom of the J-Curve.

The Roman poet Horace said, “Anger is a brief madness.”

It’s like a child’s temper tantrum. Eventually, tantrums fade. They give out.

I want you to know that just like a parent can take a child’s tantrum, so our Father in heaven can take ours. He will not forsake us for our brief madness or love us less. Children throw tantrums; even God’s children.

If you are angry with God, like Naomi, he can take it. It is best to be honest like the author of Psalm 73, a man named Asaph, who writes in verses 21–26,

21 When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. 23 Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

But some of us do not respond with anger toward God. Rather, we direct the anger at ourselves. If Naomi had gone this route, you can imagine the conversation she may have had with herself.

“Why did we leave Bethlehem? Why didn’t we stay and stick it out? My husband and my sons would still be alive. The day we decided to leave ruined my life. If we had just stayed like everyone else.”

Some of us remember our own “if only” conversations. “If only I had not dropped out. If only I had left ten minutes earlier. If only I had said something. If only I hadn’t said anything. If only I had invested in Apple back in the 80s.”

If you are angry with yourself, I want you to know something. All of your decisions — even your failures and sins, and the actions of your children, even pandemics — it all fits into God’s perfect, sovereign design for your part in his larger, redemptive story. If you are at the bottom of the J-Curve, your life is not ruined. God is at work at rock bottom.

He has a plan to put a bend in the J.

Believing this is what helps you and me regain our spiritual sanity at the bottom of the J-Curve. Look again at the graphic.

Not only does she return empty and angry, but…

NAOMI RETURNS LOVED

Did you notice the details in verses 19 and 22? In verse 19, we read, “So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem.” Then, verse 22, “So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law.”

If you remember from last week’s message, Ruth had given up her own future in order to bless Naomi with her presence as a promise of hesed love. “For the rest of my life, I will make it my aim to bless you. I will never leave you. I will die where you die.”

Naomi had not been abandoned or rejected! She was not alone. The LORD had provided Ruth. Naomi wasn’t forsaken; she was loved, and even though she couldn’t see it or feel it at the time, she was more loved than she could have ever imagined.

It can be so easy to miss God’s grace to Naomi in Ruth because Ruth is so quiet. In the background. Non-obtrusive. Ruth understands the rant of grief. She’s been there. Ruth knows from her own grief that suffering narrows our vision.

In the acuteness of the pain, all we can see is the loss.

How Ruth treats Naomi here is so beautiful. Ruth doesn’t rebuke or correct Naomi’s tantrum, even though Naomi doesn’t acknowledge Ruth’s presence or introduce her to the other women in town. Ruth isn’t offended but extends grace upon grace to her empty, angry, bitter, and resentful mother-in-law.

Ruth gives Naomi permission to feel her pain and grieve the loss.

What if we could extend the same kind of grace to those in our spheres of influence? Not muting the cries. Not rebuking the tantrum. Not fixing the struggle. But just being present to understand and give space for God to work in the pain.

Yes, Naomi is experiencing acute emotional pain. But by God’s grace, she has Ruth, who quietly embodies love, being patient and kind, not keeping a record of wrongs. Ruth loves Naomi as she is, in all of her brokenness and need, not as Ruth demands or expects Naomi to be. Ruth’s is a love that is committed to following Naomi all the way to the bottom of the J-Curve.

Just like Jesus has done for us. He was born into the world as God with us, to breathe our air, to walk our roads, to feel our sorrow, and to serve the sentence of judgment we deserved.

When we look upon the cross, we are witnessing the J-Curve of all human history. For Jesus’ disciples, the dream looked shattered. The Messiah was dead. But even at such a low point — especially at such a low point — God was at work in a way nobody could have imagined!

Death would lead to life. Judgment would open the gates of mercy. Grief would give way to grace and glory!

This is what God does at the bottom of the J-Curve. He allows a lesser dream to die (victory over Rome) so that a greater dream may be born (victory over sin). When we embrace this gospel paradigm, spiritual sanity is restored, and we find hope in the low places on the journey.

You may have caught the small bend in the J-Curve in verse 22, as Naomi and Ruth “arrived in Bethlehem [just] as the barley harvest was beginning.”

Naomi feels empty now, but soon she will be filled to overflowing, beyond her wildest dreams. The J-Curve is about to bend upward in a huge way!Death will give way to life and the resurrection of hope.

In the LORD’s design, Naomi is coming home at the perfect time, which is the way God’s timing always is. Never early. never late. But always right on time according to his sovereign plan and redemptive purposes.

God’s Purpose for the Fog

William Cowper is one of the most well-known, and well-loved hymn writers of the 1700s.What many do not know is that he struggled with severe de­press­ion. As one biographer tells the story, one evening, Cowper found himself at the low point on his own J-Curve.

From that place of despair, Cowper called for a carriage and told the driv­er to take him to the Thames Riv­er, from which he intended to jump to his death. How­ev­er, a thick fog covered the city and pre­vent­ed the driver from finding the river. After driving around lost, the carriage driver, confused and frustrated, just stopped and told his passenger to get out.

To Cowper’s sur­prise, he had been let out on his very doorstep. He realized in that moment that even in our darkest moments and lowest places, God is with us and has a plan for us. In response to this discovery, Cowper wrote the hymn entitled, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy and shall break

In 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.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flower.

Listen here.

[1] The concept of J-Curve is borrowed from Paul Miller, A Loving Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014).