Ruth Part 6: Help My Unbelief (Dr. Trey Benfield)

Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 43:1-7
Matthew 10:26-28
Ruth 3:11

We are in our week six in our study of Ruth.  Ruth is a relatively short book, and we are going through it rather slowly.  However, I think you will agree that not only is a compelling story, but there the author has managed to cram a lot of theology into this book.  My focus so far has been on the particular word hesed which is used quite a bit in the Old Testament to describe God’s relationship with His people.  We have talked about hesed and how no word can adequately translate it, because it contains several concepts like loyalty, mercy, grace, and a love that goes beyond ones duty.  It is illustrated in the story of Ruth by Ruth and her relationship with Naomi as well as Boaz and his relationship with Ruth.  By using a story, the author is able to communicate this concept in a more vivid way that just a definition so that we experience it in a deep way.

Today, I am going to revisit one verse that I think lies at the heart of Ruth and I want to go into more detail.  In this verse Boaz tells Ruth do not fear and I will do for you all I ask.  When I studied this verse I realized that these two phrases are used repeatedly in the Bible to describe God’s attitude toward His people.  So what I want to do in the sermon today is take these two phrases and try and understand their significance and what we can learn from these words.

However, I am going to start with a story.  In 1940 Adolf Hitler turned his military westward invading France after taking over Norway and Denmark.  Great Britain had sent 316,000 troops to France to help the French halt the Nazi invasion.  Hitler’s disciplined, mechanized army with its Panzer tanks and extremely effective air support proved too much for the Belgian, French, and British army.  The British Expeditionary Force, the French 1st Army, and the Belgian Army became trapped near the Dunkirk.  On the East and West were two massive German armies and to the North the English Channel.  For the Allies there were only two options available, hold out and fight and suffer certain defeat or surrender.  As those in Great Britain awaited news of the fate of the British Expeditionary Force, an officer was able to send out a three word transmission - “but if not.”   The British knew there would be no surrender, the army would fight to the end.   

The three word phrase introduces a verse from the book of Daniel.  King Nebuchadnezzar had made a giant golden idol and demanded that at certain appointed times, everyone in the empire was to bow down and worship the golden idol.  However, three Israelites, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego refused to so.  Nebuchadnezzar had devised a punishment for refusal - a fiery furnace.  When King Nebuchadnezzar confronted the three Israelites, they replied, “Our God is able to deliver us.  But if not, be it know to you, O King, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden idol that you have set up.”  How were Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego able to defy the greatest conquerer at that point in human history despite the very real prospect of death by without any trace of fear?

So let’s first look at “do not fear.”   The phrase do not fear, do not be afraid, fear not or some variation is found in almost every book of the Bible.  In fact, do not fear is the most frequent command issued in the Bible.  Often the phrase is used at key movement in the story and also at times when God makes an appearance usually in response to a crisis.  The first time fear not is used was in the critical moment when God makes the great covenant with Abraham promising him descendants and great kingdom.  It is repeated again to Abraham’s son Isaac and then numerous times in Deuteronomy as the Israelites prepare to take over the promised land from the Canaanite and also to Joshua as he leads the Israelites into battle.

The book of Isaiah contains a section called the servant songs in which the Messiah is promised and repeatedly the command is given to fear not.  When the messiah is born in Bethlehem, the angels tell the shepherds fear not for I bring you good news of great joy that will be to all people.  I could go on.  

As we look at the examples where we are told not to fear there are some consistent reasons given for why we should not fear.  First, God’s people are under his protection.  God tells Abraham that He is his shield.  God is bigger than any enemy and everything and everyone is in His power.  The Psalms says God is our refuge and our strength therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains move into the heart of the sea.  The Lord is on my side I will not fear, what can a man do to me.  Jesus will later reassure the disciples that all power in heaven and on earth is under His authority.  

Second, God’s presence is with His people.  God’s presence means that His people will benefit because He is actively there to bless them and fulfill His promises.  When Isaac is harassed by the Philistines and cannot dig a well, God tells Isaac, “fear not, I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring.” I am with you is frequently repeated to His people.  He is on their side and that means He is actively working together with His people.  Often this phrase is used when God’s people are taking on a project like conquering Canaan or building the temple.  They are to know that with God’s help the goal will be accomplished.  

Third, God has a plan and He is in control.  We are not to fear the future because God has already decided the outcome.  God will redeem His people.  He tells Israel he will gather them for the east and the west.  God tells them fear not, nor be afraid have I not told you from of old and declared it?  God has a plan for His people and that plan is nothing less than the salvation of the whole world.  Jesus says fear not for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Remember that when Jesus talks about the kingdom, that is not an abstract concept to His audience.   The kingdom is shorthand for God’s plan to free Israel and to fulfill all the promises made in the Old Testament.  Jesus tells us fear not I am the first and the last.  
What I find interesting about this concept of not fearing is that despite its persistent repeated command throughout the Bible, the Church is full of fear.  We fear cultural relativism, shifting cultural values, future economic collapse, the marginalization of faith in public life, atheists, militant Islam, politicians that do not conform to our views and we sit and worry and fear that one or more of these groups will crush the church.  However, John tells us the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.  

Listen to this quote from Leviticus that describes the state Israel will find itself if they depart from the loyalty to God: “The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues.  They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues.”  
What this passage tells us is that fear means that we will not be able to stand before our enemies.  Furthermore, those who forget God are recognized by the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears.  A driven leaf puts them to flight.   The scary thing for the church is at the heart of fear is unbelief in the only assurance of safety, God Himself. 

We should beware of those in the church who try to instill fear in us.  The consistent message of the Bible is against this.  Paul says that God gave us not a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self control.  This passage in Leviticus was written before the Israelites were to go into Canaan and establish God’s kingdom.  The point of the passage is a warning the fear will prevent the establishment of God’s kingdom.  The same holds for the church today.   How often does fear prevent us from living up to the ideals of the kingdom - our quest for economic security keeps us from engaging with the world, our fear of the other prevents us from loving our neighbor, our fear of lack of control prevents us from trusting God.   If we hope to establish Christ’s kingdom, the church must be characterized by power, love, and self control rather than fear.  

This is not to acknowledge that there are not real dangers.  The Bible never presents the world as anything other than a broken, violent place.  However, here is what Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”  The power of the resurrection means that nothing physical can ultimately harm the Christian.  

When Jesus stand before Pilate the man representing the power and authority of the greatest empire in human history, Pilate tells Jesus, “Do you not know that I have the authority to release you and the authority to crucify you.”  Pilate is not blowing smoke.  His authority is real.  He can crucify and he can release.  However, Jesus shows no fear despite the very real threat Pilate represents because as Jesus says, “You would have no authority over me unless it had given you from above. “  For the Christian the key to living without fear is understanding that even despite the very real threat posed by the powers of this world, those powers are ultimately in submission to God who loves His people.   

Now lets looking at the second part of this verse.  Boaz tells Ruth I will do for you all that you ask.  Just as with do not fear, this is a statement that is repeated throughout the scriptures.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”  or later in Matthew “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive if you have faith.”  There are at least twelve different occasions where Jesus will make a similar statement not counting the stories where the gospels overlap.  Later James will say, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives generously to all without reproach and it will be given him.  But let him ask in faith, without doubting.”

The point I want to make from these examples is that God promises to give us what we ask for and the only thing that prevents Him from doing so is a lack of faith.  Just as with the command to not fear, I think we in the church have a hard time believing that this is true.   Here is what I do and here is what I think most Christians do - we will pray to God and ask him for small things but we are scared to pray for what we really want.  We trust Him to take care of the the things we know are easy to achieve but the really hard things we don’t pray about.  There is an inconsistency here because God created the universe, he can do the hard things as well as the easy things.  

Really though we are scared because we have asked God for something in the past and we have not been given it and we have doubted God.  We have prayed for something and we have not been given it and we have read these verses and have concluded we must lack faith.  So we try again and tell ourselves we must not doubt and that we need to really believe this time, but we know we are forcing the issue and that is not real faith.  So we end up ignoring these verse.  Maybe we don’t think that God intervenes in this way anymore.  The problem is that we have a high view scripture and just as with the command to not fear we must deal with this repeated and clear promise.  

So what do we do?  I do not know that I can answer all the questions. However, I think Ruth gives us some help in dealing with this issue.  You see forcing ourselves to have more faith is not the answer.  The answer is in a correct view of who God is and this is where this story of Ruth and Boaz helps us.  I have been making the point all along that the reason we have this story is because at times in the book of Ruth, both Boaz and Ruth have demonstrated hesed.  Remember hesed is the very important Hebrew used to describe God’s grace, mercy, loyalty, and love for His people.  Ruth’s love from Naomi causes Ruth to leave her family and her home and become a poor, refuge in a strange and possibly hostile land with little prospect or hope.  Ruth demonstrated hesed by showing great loyalty to Naomi.  Boaz has offered care and protection to Ruth inviting her to his table and sharing his food with her despite the fact that she is from an enemy nation and has little to offer him.  Further Boaz has pledged himself to her even though her methods were impertinent and brazen.  What this story is doing is giving a real picture that we can take hold of and feel of the character of God’s love for His people.  

So when we see Boaz offering this promise to give her anything she asks and calls her his daughter, we understand what Boaz means.  He wants to be her husband, he wants to act as her father, and just as a good husband or father Boaz wants Ruth to be happy and to have joy.  This is where Ruth is helpful because I think a lot of why we have problem asking God for what we want is that we have an inaccurate picture of the character of God.  God wants us to have joy and happiness and God wants the best for us and we don’t believe it just like a father wants the best for his child 

Now don’t think I am preaching the prosperity gospel here.  Sometimes we are not given what we ask for.  I have known Praveen for several years now and I know that he has prayed for relief from his back pain.  I know that we as a congregation have prayed together for relief from his back pain.  Is it because of a lack of faith that this has not happened?  I don’t think so.  I do not know why God does not give us the answer that we want sometimes.  Paul prayed that God would remove the thorn from his side but was not given relief.  Job never received an answer as to why he suffered.  Jesus prayed that the cup would pass from Him.

What I do know is that it is dangerous for us to view God in any other way than that He is a good father who desires our joy and is able and willing to provide for us.  When the serpent tempts Eve in the garden one of the lies the serpent tells her is that God really does not desire her happiness and that is why He withholds the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from her.  I think this incorrect view of God is why the doubt and the lack of faith enters our minds when we ask God for something.  The point I want to make is that just with the command not to fear, the belief that God wants joy for us, is based on the fact that God is on our side.  We cannot follow this command or pray the way we need to if we view God in any other way.  If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare His own Son but gave him up for us all, how will He not also graciously give us all things?  

This is hard but I think that I have made the point of how serious this issue is to us in the church.  Let me conclude by leaving you with this story from Mark to help.  A man brings his son to Jesus because he is possessed by a demon.  The disciples are not able to cast them out and Jesus says clearly it is because the disciples lack faith. Jesus tells the father, “All things are possible for one who believes.”  Right here the father and the disciples are dealing with this issue.  The fathers response is “I believe; help my unbelief!”  We need to ask God to help our unbelief.  We need to repent of the ways in which we have ignored the clear teaching of scripture and we need to remember that God is our father and desires nothing less than His kingdom for us.  We need to boldly draw near to the throne of grace.  We have not received the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear.  We have received the spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, Abba! Father!