Into the Unknown, Pt. 2: Unrelenting Love

On October 23, 2015, with sustained winds of 215 miles per hour, Hurricane Patricia became the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded, making landfall the following day on the western coast of northern, Mexico.

Patricia was a “Category 5” on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which measures a storm’s sustained winds. If the index had envisioned a Patricia, that storm would have been closer a Category 7.

In ranking hurricanes, “sustained” is the operative word. Winds may gust, but in order to qualify for a Saffir-Simpson Category, the winds must be sustained. People who have lived through major hurricanes describe those kinds of winds as unrelenting.

This is why major hurricanes create so much damage. Not because of wind gusts, but because of the unrelenting gales.

For Naomi in the book of Ruth, the sustained winds of hardship had been blowing for years. Eventually, her life crashes down like a wooden structure under the force of a Category 5 Hurricane.

If you remember, Naomi with her husband, Elimelech, had left her hometown of Bethlehem in Judah ten years prior in search of food during a severe famine. They ended up in the land of Moab, a rival of Israel notorious for pagan religious practices. Many biblical scholars see their “settling” in Moab as an act of unbelief in the LORD’s promise to provide. The land where they sought life became a place of death and tragedy, as Naomi’s husband and sons all die.

With her life is in ruins, she decides to return to Judah after hearing that the LORD had blessed his people with food.

I can imagine that as she packs her belongings in a knapsack and begins the walk back to Bethlehem, she is feeling anything but loved. Judged maybe. Not loved.

In light of the extreme hardship she has recently faced, feeling as if the LORD were against her would be understandable, but misguided.

Maybe you have come to the same conclusion about God’s disposition toward you?

If that is true for you, what I want you to see is that, for Naomi, the winds that have been blowing in her life have not only been gusts of adversity but have been mixed with the winds of unrelenting love. The love of a God who is determined to bring her home.

While there is a larger redemptive story unfolding, I don’t want us to miss what God is doing in Naomi’s heart and in Ruth’s heart. Because what takes place in their lives is what can happen in yours and in mine. You see, God’s purpose is not to crush them, but to bless them. While they are faced with a tragic providence, there is purpose in the pain. Though we can rarely see it at the time, there is always is a providential purpose in the pain.

If anything shows us this, it is the cross of Jesus.

David Crowder wrote a well-known song called “How He Loves.” The lyrics pick up on the concept of God’s love to be like the unrelenting winds of a hurricane.

[Your] love’s like a hurricane, I am a tree
Bending beneath the weight of [your] wind and mercy,
When all of a sudden
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory [that there is a redemptive purpose]
And I realize just how beautiful You are.
And how great your affections are for me.

Crowder is acknowledging God’s purpose in the pain — a purpose that is driven by the winds not of judgment but of unrelenting love.

What this section in Ruth will teach us is that love is most powerful, when like a hurricane, it is sustained and unrelenting.

Many of us are learning that families being together for extended periods of time can be a wonderful blessing. It can also be an unexpected challenge. Proximity provides both the opportunity for love and the possibility of conflict.

In close quarters, what we will need is not a gust of love now and then, but a sustained, unrelenting love. It may help to remember that love is not primarily an emotion as much as it is an action. To love is to bless, to do good — and often it is to do good at great personal cost to those who don’t deserve it. Love is not defined by how we feel but by what we do — especially when we are not feeling it.

As we journey into the unknown together, we need examples of unrelenting love to guide us, which is exactly what we find in Ruth 1:6–18.

6 When [Naomi] heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. 7 With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah. 8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. 9 May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me — even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons — 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has gone out against me!”

14 At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her. 15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”

18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her [to turn back].

Of the three examples of unrelenting love we see in this text, the first is…

THE UNRELENTING LOVE OF NAOMI

In the first part of our text, verses 6–15, Naomi’s love for her daughters-in-law is dramatically portrayed by putting their interests and welfare ahead of her own.

Rather than using guilt to manipulate them into supporting her on the journey, sacrificing their futures, Naomi sets them free from any duty or obligation they would have felt about following her to Judah.

Her commitment to set them free and have them have a life is so strong that she has to get a bit forceful. Rather than suggesting they return to their own families, she demands it.

Naomi has decided with free volition that she is the one who will make the sacrifice. And she will not be swayed.

This entire episode makes me think of Philippians 2:3–8, where Paul provides the example of Jesus as the one who put the needs of others ahead of his own, writing,

3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!

Just like Jesus was willing to die to himself for others, so also Naomi was willing to die to herself for Orpah and Ruth.

This is what unrelenting love looks like. In verse 8, when Naomi prays that the LORD would extend his kindness to Orpah and Ruth, she uses the Hebrew word hesed, which is one of the most theologically rich words in the Old Testament. Hesed means steadfast faithfulness, covenantal commitment… or we could say, unrelenting love. This kind of love is willing to put the needs of another ahead of our own needs and comforts.

It is willing to die to self so that someone else may live.

In the Greek New Testament, an analogous word to hesed is agape, the word used for the kind of love with which we have been loved by God through the sacrifice of Jesus.

At some point in our lives, we will have to die to ourselves in order to bless someone else with hesed love. This does not mean that we will die physically.

For example, you can’t be a mother without sacrifice. You sacrifice sleep, your schedule, and sometimes, your career. Marriage is the same way.

This is the purpose of home sheltering and social distancing during our present health crisis with COVID-19. We are staying home — sacrificing our normal routines and the enjoyment of cultural amenities — in order to love others well. Some of us are sacrificing our very employment.

Along with mothering, marriage, and social distancing, Naomi shows us that love requires a dying to self so that others may live.

The second example of unrelenting love is…

THE UNRELENTING LOVE OF RUTH

Naomi has built an airtight, logical case for why Orpah and Ruth must go back to their own homes. While Orpah makes the sensible decision, Ruth clings to Naomi and will not let go.

The original Hebrew word for cling means “to adhere to like glue… to make two things one.”

It is the same word used in Genesis 2:24 to describe the oneness of marriage,“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and CLING [cleave, be united, adhere like glue] to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”

Commenting on this passage, Robert Hubbard, Jr,says,

“Ruth took on the uncertain future of a bitter widow in a land where she knew no one, enjoyed few legal rights, and — given the intense Moabite-Israelite rivalry — she faced likely prejudice… She gave up marriage to a man [in order] to devote herself to an old woman.”

Ruth gives up friends, family, and her future for Naomi. Ruth’s love defies logic.

What if you were Ruth’s mother, or father, or brother? How would you counsel her? You’d say, “This is not only impractical; it is unwise. Even foolish to give away (maybe throw away?) your life like that.”

But hesed love defies what conventional wisdom prescribes as the limit of love. But hesed knows no limits. It is unbounded and unrelenting, going far beyond what anyone could expect. That is what makes this kind of love so powerful and transformational for those who are the recipients of it.

The limitless character of hesed love also teaches us that a commitment to love isn’t merely an emotional reaction, but a conscious, willful act that demands resolve. In fact, when the original Hebrew phrase in verse 18 that readsthatRuth “was determined,” it literally reads, “she strengthened herself.”

The strength we will need for this kind of active, unrelenting, sustained love will demand more than the examples of two women in ancient Palestine. Unrelenting love is seen most vividly, not in Ruth or Naomi, but in…

THE UNRELENTING LOVE OF GOD

Like Naomi, over a thousand years later Jesus would walk a similar road of lament and brokenness, but not because he had walked away from God. Rather, because we had walked away from God.

This is exactly how Jesus exemplifies unrelenting love, by walking that road of lament all the way to a cross, where he would take my place in judgment, paying the debt my sins had accumulated before the law of God. The result is that my orad home is not one of lament and sadness but one of joy and gladness as I, a beloved and forgiven son, am welcomed by God the Father with open arms.

Paul Miller says, “Substitution is the structure of love.” It is the very essence, whereby one person is willing to face a painful providence for the blessing of someone else. It is one person being willing to die in order for someone else to live.

That is the heart of the gospel, isn’t it? To see this depicted with mutual sacrifice between Naomi and Ruth is such a beautiful shadow of grace for us to receive and emulate.

Just like Naomi couldn’t shake Ruth’s love off, neither can we shake off the love of God in Christ. No amount of sin, failure or unfaithfulness on your part or mine will cause Jesus to let us go.

It is not a stretch to see Ruth’s grip of unrelenting love as a tangible expression of God showing his hesed to Naomi! If Naomi could only hear the Lord speaking, “Naomi, Ruth’s grip on you is an illustration of my grip on you.”

Can you see that Jesus is our Ruth?

Just like Ruth clung to Naomi in her grief, so Jesus clings to us, uniting us as one with himself with the glue of mercy that has been sealed with his own blood.

He will not let us go. He will bring us home.

The cross proves his resolve and confirms his unrelenting love. Even as Paul writes in Romans 5:8, that “God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

There really was a purpose to the providential pain of the cross.

Bring You Home

In the 1999 film The Hurricane, Denzel Washington plays Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a professional boxer in the 1960s who spent twenty years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. After being incarcerated sixteen years, a team of supporters moves to DC to be near the prison and devote themselves full-time to his exoneration and release.

After they move into a hotel across from the prison, they call Rubin and tell him to look out the window. Although it is dark outside, one of the rooms in the hotel flashes on and off with light. When the light is on, Rubin can see a small group waving their arms.

He asks, “What are y’all doing?”

“We’ve come to get you out. We are in this together and are not leaving until we bring you home.”

Instead of protesting their overwhelming commitment, the former boxer concedes, saying with a smile, “Okay. Okay.”

For some of us, it will take time for the reality of someone giving their life for yours to sink in. We want to earn our release. But just like Hurricane had to submit to the kindness of his friends, so we must submit to the kindness — the hesed kindness — of God.

In order to be a people of unrelenting love in our spheres of influence, we must submit to the overwhelming, unrelenting commitment of Jesus to give himself full-time for us. We are called to look at the cross and say, “Okay. Okay, I’ll believe that Jesus is for me. That he gave himself for me. That I really am forgiven. That I really am his, and that because of his strong, hesed love for me, he will not… ever, ever… let me go.”

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