In a season full of clamor, many of us wish for half an hour—fifteen-minutes even—of silence. And silence in small doses can be refreshing. But to be granted a desire for absence of noise long term could be terrifying as the 2018 movie A Quiet Place depicts.
The movie presents Lee and Evelyn Abbott seeking to protect their family from creatures that are drawn to sound and will attack anyone they can hunt down with their keen sense of hearing. To stay alive, the Abbotts and their children must remain completely silent. When traveling. When eating. Even when giving birth.
In a world where noise is the default, their lives of almost absolute quiet protect them. Ironically, though, the same eerie silence that protects them also leads to the movie’s suspense. Though the action isn’t continual, the film’s element of fear screams loudly precisely because the characters don’t.
In my illness, I’ve experienced a similar (though less terrifying) response to sound. While no devouring beasts lurk, the pain brought on by the stimulation of noise has intensified as my illness has continued. The rustling of plastic bags. The clanking of dishes. The murmur of normal speech. The hum of a lawnmower. All these natural, daily noises produce pain, and because of that, my life has become silent and still, protected like the Abbotts’s.
That protection comes through noise-reducing headphones and the closing of windows and doors. While I avoid trips into public, I can’t avoid imposing my silence on others’ lives. My parents tiptoe around me. Friends whisper their conversations. I live a quieter life than I could ever have dreamed.
But the silence is more than physical. I also experience the silence of watching others’ dreams fulfilled. Even as I rejoice in good, wonderful answers to prayer for those I love, God’s silence toward me continues.
In that silence when the only word God seems to speak over my life is “no,” it seems as if he’s needlessly withholding, as if he’s not giving abundantly. He’s certainly not responding like I think he should. And as I’ve waited and hoped through a season of God taking and not giving, he’s used the biblical account of Naomi in my life.
The Old Testament book of Ruth in which Naomi’s story unfolds frequently references God, yet he seems almost absent at points. Silent. All of his work accomplished by stealth.
This account takes place during the period of the judges, a dark time when there was no king in Israel. And while God was working in a single family to preserve and prepare the way for the King, the One who would ultimately bring life from death, none of the main characters know that.
Though the book bears Ruth’s name, Naomi is probably its central character. And when we view the account from the perspective of this woman who knows what it means to have God take rather than give, the major themes of emptiness and fullness stand out.
In chapter 1, the theme is emptiness. There we see Naomi in a strange land, having left her own country because of empty bellies brought on by famine. And this chapter recounts further emptiness—the loss of Naomi’s husband, and then, one by one, her two sons. This triple devastation leads her to return to Bethlehem, her hometown. When she arrives with just a daughter-in-law in tow, she states the theme clearly and with great honesty. She says to those eager to see her, “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:21).
Naomi knows God exists. She knows he’s sovereign. But she also knows he’s afflicted her. She acknowledges him and sees the pain he’s brought on her, but she doesn’t yet see his mercy. She doesn’t see the implications of Ruth 1:22—the Lord has brought her home with Ruth standing beside her. This daughter-in-law full of faith will be the key to fullness, to redemption.
And just as Naomi struggles to see what God is doing, she can’t yet hear that he has broken his silence either. She and Ruth have returned at the beginning of barley harvest. But Naomi doesn’t catch the low hum of God’s faithfulness as the scythes move back and forth in the fields being harvested around her. She doesn’t yet hear the song of future hope God is working. She’s oblivious to the fullness ahead.
As the book progresses, though, the murmur of God’s care grows loud enough for even grief-stricken Naomi to hear. In chapter 2, Ruth is gathering grain in the fields behind the harvesters, providing for her mother-in-law’s needs. And this chapter introduces Boaz, the one who will eventually provide for both Naomi and Ruth. As Boaz offers Ruth protection while she gleans in his fields, the author piles up imagery of fullness—references to bread, grain, and wine all build a sense of coming abundance.
And in chapter 3, the imagery’s culmination begins. In response to Ruth’s (to us) unorthodox proposal to Boaz, his answer is in part, “You must not go back empty-handed to your mother-in-law” (Ruth 3:17). And Ruth recounts to Naomi how this good man loaded her down with more grain than she could have gathered on her best day.
By the time chapter 4 ends, no trace of emptiness remains. Boaz marries Ruth, Ruth brings forth a son, and Naomi’s arms are full.
While Naomi is one of the book’s key characters, the greatest character is God. And he has been silently working all along in Naomi’s greatest setbacks. When she loses her husband and sons, God gives her Ruth. When there is no male kinsman left, God gives her Boaz to preserve the family line. When barren Ruth marries Boaz after ten years of childlessness in her first marriage, God gives a child.
And the neighborhood women see the culmination of the story pointing to the fullness of Naomi. Rather than saying that Ruth has born a child, they declare that “a son has been born to Naomi” (Ruth 4:17).
But the fullness doesn’t end there. The beautiful redemption of Naomi’s story points forward to David. This son born to Naomi is a direct predecessor of that king. And that king David points forward to Jesus and the hope of the Messiah whose reign will never end. Our hope. Hope for the world.
This story that begins in death ends in life. This account that begins in loss ends in gain. Though God often seems hidden in the book’s pages, he’s been working in the darkest of times when none of the characters could see his hand or hear his voice.
And as my own life grows darker and quieter, when it’s harder to see the rise of light pouring forth through the clouds, I remember Naomi. I’m not like Naomi through whom God was working to preserve the redemptive line in order to save the world. But there’s redemption at work in the middle of my story, too. Like Naomi, I have a God who is working in the hardest of times, in the darkest of times, in the emptiness, and in the silence. For my good.
When I’m honest, though, I have to echo C.S. Lewis who says, “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us. We are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”
I’ve lived so much of the past year there. I know the truth. I have a God who is good and who is sovereign and who does what is right. But sometimes there’s a disconnect between what I know to be true and what I feel because of the silence. That disconnect often becomes the truth of what is in my life in this sinful, broken world.
Like Naomi, I have to acknowledge the reality that God has made me empty. Naomi’s comment is really the Psalm 88 way of thinking. She’s still speaking what she knows to be true. Her conclusion about God returning her to Bethlehem empty is still a conclusion of belief. With the darkness around her, she’s not walking away from God. She’s gone back to Bethlehem. Even in the middle of the silence, she’s continued walking toward God.
And there can be much pain involved in this kind of honest trust in God’s sovereign working. As I’m forced to reconcile the disappointments in my life, the emptiness, he wants me to keep walking toward him. He wants me to taste and see that he is good. He wants to fill those empty moments with more of himself, more of who he is. He’s taken away, he’s created an emptiness, to fill me with eternal joy.
Often, when I read an account like Naomi’s where the eternal joy is clear, I wish God would tie the loose ends of my life up so neatly. But while the book of Ruth is just four chapters, it could fill a much longer space because we only see points of the story. God didn’t take a shortcut through Naomi’s grief. And he doesn’t in ours either. But he’s the God who walks with us through our sorrow. The God who climbs down with us into the valley of tears. The God of Romans 4—the God of the impossible who can do the impossible.
Some of the awareness of his presence in the grief comes from choosing to see. Naomi had Ruth next to her and was going home to a land she knew, a place of familiarity. But she couldn’t see as others later did that this daughter-in-law would be “more to [her] than seven sons” (Ruth 4:15). I have to choose to see the rays of mercy that God has given in the middle of my dark, whether they come through a family and friends who serve me or in small goodnesses. I have to listen for the rustlings of future grace, to believe that the dawn of rejoicing could lie ahead.
Through the life of Naomi I’ve also seen that it isn’t my job to decipher how the pieces all fit together. My trust in God must come from knowledge of his character, not from always knowing what he is doing. Naomi didn’t know her loss would lead to a Redeemer not just for Israel but for all who turn to him in faith. My comfort comes from knowing that God’s purposes are always bigger than I can see.
Often when I’m in the middle of my story, I only see the pain. But my job is to remain faithful and obedient to the God who knows all mysteries. To have a faith that’s pleasing to him. A faith that trusts even when he hasn’t answered all of life’s questions or removed the silence. When the agonizing “How long, oh Lord?” of the psalmists persists. Because of his character, I can believe that the cavernous, screaming silence is exactly what I need, even if it’s not what I like.
Just as in Naomi’s life, God’s silence doesn’t indicate he doesn’t care or isn’t listening. The silence means that he knows in a way that I don’t. That his failure to respond in the way I desire is better than what I can look for in that moment. I know those words can sound trite—I have to continually wrestle with these truths for myself. But I’m confident that he knows things that I don’t. That his ways are higher than mine because they’re perfect and holy. That he sees the end of my story as clearly as he saw the end of Naomi’s. If that’s the case, I can offer the losses in my life as a sacrifice—a costly sacrifice—knowing that the same God who worked redemption for Naomi is working that redemption in my moments of suffering and has promised me ultimate redemption through Jesus Christ.
By Nicole Flenniken and Tracy Hsieh