culture

How God Makes Beauty from Brokenness

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I recently called a friend to discuss an upcoming church event. Eventually, our conversation turned to the culture.

My friend, who is a little more than twice my age, listed a few of the troubling cultural trends he’s noticed. “Pastor, I don’t envy your job,” he said. “Things have gotten out of control.”

There was an air of hopelessness in his voice, as if we’d reached a cultural tipping point. In his eyes, there seemed to be little hope that God could be at work.

And can we blame him for thinking this way? If we look around, we see that the prevailing winds of culture tend to celebrate sinful lifestyles, espouse secular ideologies and minimize religious freedom. The world today looks very different than it did when he was my age — in some ways for the better, but in other ways for the worse.

As I reflected on our conversation, I thought back to a time that was not so different than our own — the time in which Ruth lived.

On paper, there was no way God could be at work, but he was. And he may be at work now.

A Bleak Outlook Then

The book of Ruth is a hope-filled story, but the book’s opening verses paint a decidedly hopeless picture.

The culture was bleak. The narrator tells us that this story takes place “in the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1), a particularly bad time for God’s people. They were mired in cycles of sin and judgment, like dirty water circling a drain. In this time, the Bible explains,

[T]here was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21:25)

Sin thrived. The vulnerable suffered. It was a bleak cultural moment.

Because of personal suffering, people’s lives were bleak. Naomi and Elimelech lived in Bethlehem, a hotbed of agriculture. But a famine struck the land, so they fled to neighboring Moab. They tried to make a life in this enemy land rife with false gods and pagan religion. Their sons even married Moabite women. But, once again, suffering struck this family. Elimelech and both of his sons died — leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law as destitute widows. Only one of Naomi’s daughters-in-law, Ruth, would stay by her side.

Finally, Ruth’s past was bleak. Ruth would later become the focal point of the story, but she was no pristine role model. She’d grown up in a pagan land. She’d followed pagan customs. She’d worshiped false gods. It’s not unrealistic to imagine that she’d been taught to hate Israel and its God. Ruth enters this story with significant baggage.

A corrupt culture. Suffering. Baggage. These are not the ingredients you’d expect in a hope-filled story. On the surface, there’s no way God could be at work.

But if you know the book of Ruth, you know the story doesn’t end here. God takes these woeful ingredients and creates something beautiful out of them. During this bleak time, God was still at work to provide hope, provision and a future for two grieving widows.

And he was at work in even more profound ways — to save Ruth’s very soul, to save the people of Israel and to eventually redeem people from all parts of the world. For from this suffering, this pagan woman and this rotten time, God would bring a king named David — and ultimately a king named Jesus.

On paper, there was no way God could be at work, but he was. And he may be at work now.

God often does his best work when the outlook is the bleakest.

A Bleak Outlook Today

Little seems to have improved since Ruth’s day. Our world does seem particularly bleak, as my friend mentioned. The slaughter of children is a celebrated, legalized right. Cultural leaders in every sector have been exposed as sexual predators. A technology-induced mental health crisis is brewing among teenagers. Terrorism, racism, mass shootings, opioid addiction and natural disasters fill our headlines. Our neighbors continue to do “what is right in their own eyes,” and proudly so.

Plus, we all like Naomi experience suffering. And we all like Ruth have baggage.

Things do seem “out of control.” But Ruth’s example reminds us that God often does his best work when the outlook is the bleakest. And sometimes, he gives us little glimmers of hope.

A Glimmer of Hope

At the front of our church sanctuary stands the baptismal. This space, closed off by a curtain, had collected dust for almost eight years. The baptismal preparation rooms, fallen into disuse, had been turned into storage. If some of the church members were honest with you, they might have told you that God was done with us. The outlook was bleak.

But a few weeks ago, the baptismal waters flowed again. Two young believers were immersed, publicly proclaiming their commitment to follow Jesus. This seemingly simple event was profoundly significant for our humble congregation. We saw clearly that despite a bleak culture, God is stirring in our community. God is still at work.

Friend, the times may look bleak to you, too. But God often does his best work when the outlook is bleakest. He specializes in making beauty out of brokenness. And he’s not done.

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Nathaniel Williams

Editor and Content Manager for the CFC

Nathaniel Williams (M.Div, Southeastern Seminary) oversees the website, podcast and social media for the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture, and he serves as the pastor of Cedar Rock First Baptist Church. His work has appeared at Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, Fathom Mag, the ERLC and BRNow.org. He and his family live in rural North Carolina.

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