Does God owe us something for our service to Him?
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
It is also a well-known fact that a single man coming to the mission field must be in search of a missionary wife. Certainly, I have heard my team leader say something along those lines, followed by winks in the direction of me and the other single girls on my team.
It is incredible the amount of sensation that even a distant rumour of single missionary males can create on mission teams.
If you are single, you suddenly become hyper-aware of the fact that you are unmarried in a sea of unreached males. Any rumour of a Christian, single male in the vicinity could mean the end of your waiting. You’ve left everything – home, family, friends, culture – for the sake of the Gospel. Now, you’re wondering if you’re stuck single forever, or perhaps hoping that God is still preparing someone for you.
Reminds me of a story I read once.
There was a woman called Ruth. She marries, and 10 years later, her husband, brother-in-law and father-in-law all died. She’s left with only a sister-in-law and mother-in-law, but she’s still in her homeland at least. Then her mother-in-law declares she’s packing up to go home on the other side of the Dead Sea, and Ruth dutifully follows. Even when Naomi tells her there won’t be any more sons for her to marry, Ruth refuses to abandon her mother-in-law.
They get to Naomi’s old town, poor as paupers, and Ruth heads out into the fields to work. Thanks to God’s providence, she ends up in the fields of Naomi’s husband’s relative, who treats them well and ends up marrying Ruth. She made the big sacrifice, and in the end, it turned out well: God gave her a husband and a son to carry on the family name.
If you’ve gone on the mission field single, thinking that you’ve sacrificed a lot and may never get married, then this story makes things look pretty hopeful.
But is that the right interpretation?
It seems like the perfect Biblical Jane Austen ending, but is that really what this story is about?
In the culture in which I'm living in the Balkans, the relationship between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law is not usually this pleasant. A new bride moves into the home of her husband and parents-in-law, and the mother-in-law is the seat of authority over her new daughter. She teaches her how to be a good wife and mother, cook and house cleaner. Often, the relationship can become abusive or controlling, looking more like the classic Western fairytale’s stepmothers than a good, motherly relationship.
Most likely, Ruth had also moved in with her husband and parents-in-law. Ruth goes beyond expected devotion and duty. Even when released by Naomi, Ruth declares that she will not leave Naomi for any reason.
I often think of my devotion to missions as stemming from my devotion to God and his calling on my life. In Ruth’s case, she doesn’t say that she’s going to a new country because of her love for God; she says she’s going because of her love for her mother-in-law.
I’m sure that God was calling Ruth to follow Naomi, but really, Ruth is just devoted to Naomi. She’ll adopt Naomi’s God and country, because she loves Naomi herself.
It amazes me the way God draws people to Himself, often using other people. The beauty of it is that whether or not Ruth was really devoted yet to YHWH, the God of Naomi, there was something already Christ-like about her commitment.
In John 15, Jesus says, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.”
More than a thousand years before Jesus said this, Ruth was already Jesus’ friend because she was living out His command. She gave her whole life to Naomi. She left her homeland, travelled to a new country, worked in the fields and even submitted to Naomi’s choice for her second marriage.
She did not even choose Boaz herself, and Boaz commended her that she did not selfishly run after younger men. Ruth lived a life of submission to Naomi, without knowing what the outcome would be, without expecting to gain anything.
Submission can have a bad reputation in Western cultures like the ones I grew up in, but what Ruth proved is that submission out of love is just the type of life that Christ lived. The point of the story of Ruth is love, but it’s not a romantic, Jane Austen, chick-flick love.
It’s about a brave, sacrificial love for a mother-in-law.
It’s about love for the "least of these."
I’ve moved to a new country out of love for God and love for the lost, which are both good things, but how often do I also expect something in return? Do I expect God to reward me with a good life, a husband and a family, a fairly-comfortable home and success in ministry? Do I jump ahead to the ending of Ruth as my goal, rather than being content to just do as Christ has called me to do and lay down my life for my friends?
The book of Ruth is a beautiful story, because in the end, it seems that God does reward Ruth for what she did. She finds rest in an alien country, and God uses her action to serve not only herself but also to accomplish what she deeply desired: to care for Naomi.
Her mother-in-law’s bitterness is turned to joy and abundance in the end. This is the transformation we desire to see in the places we serve as well: that what is bitter around us would turn to sweet fruit, to a spiritual harvest.
Ruth impacted not only Naomi but also the rest of the world; she became an ancestor of King David and of her Messiah, Jesus. God used her obedience as a special part of his plan of salvation for the world.
All this from a pagan girl who gave up her life for the sake of her mother-in-law.
Am I willing to live my life in the same way?
Am I willing to give all for the sake of Christ?
Am I ready to pour out my life to love my friends, my neighbours, even my enemies?
Can I give up my hopes, dreams and career plans to start entering into daily acts of love?
They may not be big acts. It may just start by opening my eyes to the people around me and looking for ways to love them through word and deed. Daily acts of love for my teammates, my friends, the people I pass on the street.
It may mean that God gives me a husband to love someday, and it may not. Regardless, the task is clear: to be the type of disciple that loves as Christ loved:
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).