Ruth: three thoughts

I was named after Ruth in the Bible. I may be biased, but I’ve always thought she was pretty special. I’ve always been interested in the book named after her. As a child, I thought it was the loveliest of love stories. As an adult I still think it’s within the top five loveliest of love stories, but I’ve come to understand so much more about it, about the three main characters, and about God’s incredible love for each one of them. I could write many things I’ve discovered about this book of the Bible, but you don’t want to read something that long, so I’ll let you in on three lessons I’ve learnt.  

1. There’s a phrase that changes my perspective on this love story significantly.

In the days when the judges ruled…” (Ruth 1:1)

I did not read through all of Judges as a child, although I knew of Samson, Ehud, Deborah. I had never heard the final horrific chapters of Judges.  I did not understand that the book was about the nation of Israel declining into the sinful patterns of the nations around them. I had not heard the final section’s repeated refrain “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25; 17:6; 18:1; 19:1).  

Ultimately, I hadn’t placed the book of Ruth, and the actions of the characters in Ruth within the time they lived. I was the poorer in understanding for it. I would now suggest that to understand Ruth, one should first read Judges. When you start Ruth with a background of Judges, there are answers to questions.

Judges is a significantly longer book than Ruth, so for the sake of the length of this article, I am going to briefly focus on the two sections of Judges that I think specifically shed some light on Ruth: chapter 3 [1] and 19-20[2].

When I have read the book of Ruth with other women, there has been a persisting question over whether Elimelech did the right thing moving to Moab with his family.

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.” (Ruth 1:1)

I don’t know if this was during the events of Judges 3 or not, but having read the chapter, I suspect as readers we should be calling out ‘ no, don’t go there!’.  In Judges 3, King Eglon of Moab defeated and ruled over Israel for 18 years. Moab is no friend of Israelites and it is not a good thing for this man and his family to move there for however long he’s planning to be there. He’s moving into enemy territory. Whether it was enemy territory then or not, having read Judges, those alarm bells should be ringing in our heads when reading the beginning of Ruth. ‘Not Moab, don’t go there.’ And in case you missed it, Ruth’s author reinforces the move “They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.” (Ruth 1:2). In the time of the Judges, this is not an advisable move. 

You may be mentally arguing with me, saying ‘But there was a famine in the land. They had to do something. They might have been starving to death.’ And I would say, yes I agree. This was a serious time. But, in the book of Judges, and in many books in the Old Testament, a famine on the land may be a sign of God’s judgement on the people. If there is a famine in Israel, but not in Moab, which is geographically quite close, doesn’t that concern you even a little?  Rather than move to enemy territory, perhaps the answer was to call out to God, like one of the themes of Judges in that repetitive cycle of sin, judgement, repentance, rescue (judge), sin (judge has died), judgement, repentance, rescue, sin, judgement, repentance, rescue. Moving away from the promised land is not ever the antidote to hardship in the time of the Judges. It is always calling out to God in repentance.

But then we also have the sad irony of the name of the man. Elimelech. A man whose very name means ‘My God is king’. During a time when the writer of Judges reminds us more than once ‘In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’ Elimelech should have cried out to the one who was truly king in Israel, but instead he abandoned the meaning of his own name and did what he saw fit in his own eyes. And he ended up dying in that foreign land, followed ten years later by his two, married to Moabite women, sons.  Block argues that “the theme of the book [Judges] is the Canaanization of Israelite society during the period of settlement”[3], and in the beginning of Ruth we have a miniature picture of a family in all appearances becoming Moabite, assimilating with a people group that they should not be assimilating with or seeking a treaty of friendship with. (Deut 23:3-6)

2. The important ending that changes perspective.

Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.”  (Ruth 4:18-22)

Without the ‘surprise reveal’ at the end of the book of Ruth, we might leave it as a lovely love story about Boaz and Ruth. Yet, this ending makes the story so much more significant. Sometimes, we can lose the ‘wow factor’ when we’re too familiar with Bible verses. Here’s the ‘wow factor’ ending. It turns out that this story, about these Godly, amazing characters, Ruth and Boaz, are King David’s great grandparents! God blessed them is such a huge way, much bigger than merely providing an heir for Mahlon’s land.[4]

 One of the big themes of the book of Ruth is God’s provision. In the book the author descibes the LORD as intervening explicitly in two verses, providing food and family: 

“Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food.”  (Ruth 1:6)


So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son.” (Ruth 4:13)

In each case, the book of Ruth continues to show how much more abundant God’s provision is in these two areas of food and family.  In Ruth 1:4-5 we learn that Naomi is left without food and without family, apart from two foreign daughters-in-law.  By the end of the book of Ruth, Naomi’s future food and shelter are sorted because Boaz has agreed to take care of Naomi and Ruth, and her arms a filled with a new baby. As the women of the village say: 

Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” (Ruth 4:14-15)

And the story could be finished there. God’s incredibly abundant provision for Naomi’s needs is shown.   But then, even in the next verse, we read that this child, Obed, is the grandfather of the greatest King in the Old Testament! This is the eye-popping moment of the book. 

3. Now combine my first two points and look at the main characters in the book of Ruth.

When we read the final, awful, chapters of the book of Judges, we read what the common Israelites lived like. They are confused in their understanding of God, (eg. Judges 17), they are depraved, at civil war, and oddly enough, the little town of Bethlehem gets quite a mention[5]. There are no likeable people in this final section of the book of Judges. 

Against this backdrop, compare Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. 

Some people may question Naomi’s faith because of her bitterness in Ruth 1, but throughout the book she calls on the name of the LORD regularly.  In Ruth 1:8, Naomi prays for God’s hesed[6] to be shown to Ruth and Orpah. She uses the word that encapsulates one of the biggest themes of the book. In Ruth 2:20, Naomi recognises God’s hesed, in the amount of food Ruth has brought back from Boaz’s fields. 

Ruth is a foreignor, a Moabite. And in case we ever forget, the author of Ruth writes it repeatedly throughout the book. Yet, her big speech in Ruth 1:16-17 is astounding, especially when compared to the backdrop of the final chapters of Judges. 

“For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”  (Ruth 1:16-17)

Ruth calls on the name of the LORD, and she declares that she follows him. She works long hours in Boaz’s fields, to provide food for herself and her mother in law, and remarkably the characteristic of God, ‘hesed’ that is so big a theme of the book, is used to describe her actions in Ruth 3:10. This is a far cry from the times in which she lives. She is not a woman of her home or her times. One might even argue that although the book of Judges contains the ‘Canaanization of Israel’, we see in the book of Ruth, the ‘Israelization of a Gentile’.

And then we turn to Boaz. He cares for the foreignor and his distant relative by marriage, he is a man of his word and integrity. When we read of the truly disgusting way the women are treated at the end Judges, Boaz by comparison is phenomenal. He did not take advantage of Ruth on the threshing floor and he also protected her reputation. (Ruth 3:14). At great cost to himself, he took on a woman whose first son would carry on her first husband’s name, and he took on her mother-in-law and provided generously for both of them. He was considerate, not wanting Ruth to feel awkward in the fields, (Ruth 2:15), and throughout the book, Boaz calls on the name of the LORD and refers to the LORD. 

And this Boaz and Ruth are ancestors of King David. These characters that know God’s ‘hesed’ and display it by their actions, are ancestors to the king who metnioned God’s ‘hesed’ more than any other author in the Old Testament, in the Psalms. And this couple who gave of themselves, one as a kinsman-redeemer, are, through David, ancestors of the ultimate example of God’s hesed, the greatest of all kings, Jesus.

The loveliest of love stories? The book of Ruth, when we dig a little deeper into it, pushes us towards our redeemer, as we see the ‘canaanization’ of the world around us, and as we read of the one who stands out above all others, who is the very expression of God’s love. Although Ruth is really a part of the greatest love story ever, an early chapter in the story yet to unfold, even without knowing the ultimate ending, I’d say the book of Ruth is at least in the top five best love stories.

This article was first published on Equal But Different.

[1] Although nobody knows for sure when in the age of the Judges the events of Ruth took place, it is most commonly believed to be during this time.

[2] The events of these chapters are recorded at the end of the book for thematic purposes, but most likely happened much earlier in the chronology of the events.

[3]Daniel Block, The New American Commentary Vol 6, Judges, Ruth, p.58.

[4] Ruth 4:10

[5] Intererstingly Gibeah, Saul’s hometown is central to the last chapters of Judges as well. We have an embyonic David vs Saul origin story.

[6] A hard word to define in English. Block writes: “…all the positive attributes of God – love, mercy, grace, kindness, goodness, benevolence, loyalty, covenant faithfulness; in short, that quality that moves a person to act for the benefit of another without respect to the advantage it might bring to the one who expresses it.” Daniel Block, The New American Commentary Vol 6, Judges, Ruth, p.605.

A Personal Reflection on Submission in Marriage

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. A secret in my marriage that I have never discussed with my husband. Nor has my husband discussed it with me. Are you ready? Andrew and I have completely different ways of hanging towels in a bathroom. I didn’t say it was an exciting secret. It’s an unspoken, perhaps unnoticed by him, little difference that each of us tries to ‘correct’ when we hang the towels back up. I hang them my way, and after his shower, he hangs them his way. I then notice them hanging, what seems to me, ‘incorrectly’, and I re-hang them ‘correctly’. 

Am I being an unsubmissive wife?

Some would say yes, some would say no. I guess most of you would say, ‘it really doesn’t matter’.  But what if I honestly thought that my way was the only and truly correct way to hang those towels? And what if Andrew thought his way was the only and truly correct way to hang those towels? What if either of us was genuinely becoming upset, agitated and angry about the other person’s hanging style? What then? What if Andrew said to me specifically, “there is only one correct way to hang towels and it is my way and you have to hang the towels my way.” What then? 

Andrew was recently asked a question about submission in marriage, and what it means, how to explain it to friends who aren’t Christians, and what it actually looks like in marriage on a day-to-day basis. Andrew asked me my opinion and thoughts on the topic, and we had an interesting discussion about it.  Later during a question time online, I thought he answered well. One of Andrew’s greatest gifts is his ability to think well ‘on his feet’, in the moment.  I am not gifted in that way at all. My brain is filled with too many thoughts, half of them inanely functional and boring, some completely imaginative, and most them a little jumbled, especially the later it is at night. Give me a day to think about a topic, and I’ll come up with some more thought out answers. 

So now, 24 hours after the questions, I continue to completely agree with Andrew’s original answer, but I have something to add to it as well. (Sorry if you missed the discussion and original answer. I can’t rewrite the whole thing here, needless to say there was talk of Proverbs 31:11 & 31; talk of Ephesians 5:33 and a lot more besides all that).  

One of the important points that Andrew made was that to understand Biblical submission, we need to define it Biblically. I completely agree. We try to treat many Biblical themes that way. For example, the world defines the word ‘love’ in many ways that we, as Christians, do not. Often what we mean by ‘love’ is different because the Bible says that “God is love” (1John 4:7-8). Even within the passage on which the original questions were asked, Ephesians 5:22-33, we want to be defining the love mentioned in verse 25 with a Biblical definition. It’s easier with that though, because the passage spells out quite clearly what that means: 

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church….” (Ephesians 5:25 & 28)

Husbandly love is self sacrificing and caring. It is a high calling for husbands.  

So what does that look like in a day to day setting? Most wives don’t daily accidentally nearly get run over, so that their husband can run onto the road and push them out of the way, thereby sacrificing his own life to save hers. It happens, but not every day. More often than not, we tend to discuss and paint a picture of what this will look like daily by giving examples of what it is, and giving examples of what it is not. When we give the opposite, it paints more clearly for us what it is.  Bossing a wife around is not loving a wife. Ignoring your wife when you come home from work is not loving your wife. Physically or mentally harming your wife is not loving your wife. Always choosing what you watch together on TV and playing ‘couch commando’ is not loving your wife. Not praying for your wife, speaking badly of your wife to others, discouraging her from growing in the Lord….All of these kinds of examples, help create a picture of what loving is because opposites help us. 

So, let’s turn back to submission. Generally speaking, in our society, the word has become ‘dirty’, yet in practice the concept is used all the time. I submit to the policeman when he tells me to pull my car over. We submit to the law all the time. In fact, our ability as Australians to stand in queues in banks, post offices, Centrelink, Service Centres, is all submission. And we all do it.  It’s not dirty. It’s not clean either. It is just something we all do. As a society though, we choose not to label it ‘submit’.

So what do we do, as Christians, when we read this word in the Scriptures, and are being told that a portion of our church family needs to submit to another portion of our church family? (Wives are only told to submit to their own husbands Ephesians 5:22).  As with other Biblical words, we need to define it Biblically, and look to Biblical examples, which I think we often try to do. So we may have a discussion about Ephesians 5:33 – and what respecting or honouring your husband may look like. We will probably turn to 1Peter 3:1-6 and possibly Colossians 3:18 to fill out the picture a little more. And hopefully within the discussion, we will look at Proverbs 31 and point out that this wife of noble character is capable, hard working, industrious, kind, and brings her husband great honour. In fact, “she brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.” (Proverbs 31:12).  And I would happily leave the discussion there as a good starting point to put to practice. There’s so much there that paints a picture for every day life.

But what I want to add this morning, having had my 24 hours to think a little further on it, is that we can see even more clearly what Biblical submission is, by seeing Biblically what it is not. Biblically speaking, what is the opposite of wifely submission?

We can think of a few Biblical examples of terrible wives, like Jezebel who brought Ahab great harm with her introduction and perpetuation of Baal worship, or Athaliah who killed her grandchildren so she could remain queen, but that seems to be a little extreme, right? 

I think there are a few verses in Proverbs that give us a good indication of the opposite of submission. 

  • “A foolish child is a father’s ruin, and a quarrelsome wife is like the constant dripping of a leaky roof.” (Proverbs 19:13)
  • “Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.” (Proverbs 21:9)
  • “Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and nagging wife.” (Proverbs 21:19)
  • “Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.” (Proverbs 25:24)
  • “A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm; restraining her is like restraining the wind or grasping oil with the hand.” (Proverbs 27:15-16)

If a Christianly submissive wife is one who brings her husband good not harm all his days, a woman who respects her husband, and lives for Jesus with purity and reverence, then an opposite is a wife who is quarrelsome, and nagging. Which wife wants to think that her constant nagging and quarrelsome ways have led her husband to wish he lived on the corner of his rooftop? Which wife wants to think that she reminds him of a constantly dripping tap?  If you are daily nagging your husband to take the bins out, if you are constantly complaining about the car needing to be booked in for a service, or the way he doesn’t do things your way, then may I politely suggest that you’re not being very submissive, you’re not helping your marriage, you’re are not honouring your husband or respecting him? Does that mean you can’t remind your husband it’s ‘bin night’ or that the car needs a service? Of course not. There’s a difference between asking and nagging. Does it mean you can never have a fight with your husband, or that you must think he’s always right? Of course not, being quarrelsome is not the same as having a quarrel. What about disagreeing with your husband, is that allowed? Well, I’d like you to find me an example of any wife who has always agreed with her husband in everything! I believe Biblical submission is an attitude, and I think being a nagging or quarrelsome wife is also based in an attitude.  So, on a day-to-day basis, if you want to know what submission is like, it may help to remember that the opposite is constantly nagging and being quarrelsome.  

However, I think the passage in Ephesians gives us wives a really clear picture of how to stay out of that pitfall. Context, it makes all the difference, doesn’t it! Remember that long sentence before the marriage section?

“Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:18-22)

It is very hard to be a nagging and quarrelsome wife if we, being filled with the Spirit, are women of psalms, hymns, and song. If we are making music in our hearts to the Lord, if we are filled with thankfulness to God for everything, then we are going to be far from the rooftop-sending, nagging, quarrelsome wife of Proverbs. Women of joy in the Lord are generally not women of nagging and constant quarrels.

So, back to the towel-hanging in my household. Andrew and I both have options. He could command me to hang the towels his way, deeming my way as wrong. He could be overbearing and unreasonable. And I would say, unloving. Or he could explain to me that he believes his way of hanging towels prevents mould and is therefore healthier for longevity of towel use, means we need to wash them less often, and is better for our breathing. And he could ask me to give his way a try.  Alternatively, I could repeatedly belittle him, nagging him to hang them my way, saying words like “how hard is it, even a trained monkey could do this?”, I could leave sticky notes on the walls of the bathroom with multiple exclamation marks. Or I could ask him if he wouldn’t mind hanging the towels my way because I believe it looks prettier, fits better, and provides better air flow, thus drying the towels more thoroughly between usage.  Or we could just continue to rehang the towels our own preferred way and not get upset about difference of preference.  Ultimately how we end up hanging our towels doesn’t really matter. But the way we get to how we agree does. He’s been told to love, and I’ve been told to submit. Bossing me is unloving. Explaining and asking is loving. He may have valid reasons (for my good) as to why his way is the best way, and I need to submit, knowing he has my best interests at heart.  Me nagging him and belittling him is unsubmissive. Explaining and asking him to try my way is submissive. It’s not about the towels. Hanging towels is not a matter of Godliness. But the way we treat each other is. In such a small and unimportant issue as towel hanging, we can live the attitude that we want permeating our marriage in all areas. I don’t want Andrew wishing he lived on the corner of our rooftop. I want him to know I value him and trust him.  Ultimately, as I read through this article to him, he admitted that he had never noticed that we hang our towels differently! 

We both had a good laugh.

3. The Church’s capacity to leave toilet paper on your doorstep…

I wrote this title almost a year ago, a long time before the infamous ‘toilet paper dash of 2020’.   It feels odd writing it now, knowing how desperately short of toilet paper the supermarkets, and many homes, became for a time this year.  But it is my story to tell, and this was the reality I learnt during 2016, when my son had cancer.

The thing with most cancer diagnoses, is that you don’t expect them to happen.  I think nearly all cases of initial diagnoses of cancer come as a shock.  If you knew you had cancer, you’d already be at the hospital seeking answers and treatment, right?  As a parent, you hear of kids with cancer, but you never ever anticipate that any of your children will have cancer.  That’s what happens to other families.  And so nobody is ‘ready’ when a diagnosis of cancer comes.  Certainly, when Nathan was diagnosed with cancer, it was a shock to us.  

And so, our household was not prepared for the changes that needed to take place.

With one or both parents in hospital, brains reeling with new information, and absences from home, the reality is that a functioning household is just not initially a priority or even an afterthought.  

In our experience, one afternoon, while we were in hospital, about two weeks after Nathan’s initial brain tumour surgery, during a routine echocardiogram, doctors found out that Nathan had a tumour in his heart.  I was asked to ring Andrew to come in, and it was suggested that we find some overnight babysitters for our other kids.  Andrew drove in, the kids were farmed out to grandparents, and we were moved to a big room where both Andrew and I could stay with Nathan.  In the world of overnight stays in hospital in Sydney, this was unusual.  Rarely are both parents encouraged to sleepover.  I remember ringing my father, who was speaking at a conference, and crying and saying, ‘they found a tumour in his heart. Please come home.’  I have never asked my Dad to leave a conference before.  But, it was that kind of news, and he came home immediately.

We stayed in hospital for quite a few nights, I don’t really remember how long, because in my trauma, the next few days, or weeks, are a complete blur.  

The other kids were well cared for, our focus was on Nathan and his needs.

And although a heart tumour in a teenager is exceedingly rare, my guess is that for most parents, the diagnosis of cancer in ones child is equally as shocking, abrupt, terrifying, and something nobody expected.

And on that journey home, after leaving the house at a moments notice, when it is time for one of the parents to bring the other children back to their ‘regular rountines’, the last thing on anyone’s mind is the household needs.  The milk that was left in the fridge a week or two ago, the lack of fresh food for meals at home, the thick layer of dust that has accumulated whilst emotional chaos has reigned elsewhere, the washing that has not done itself, and the bills that have not been paid, because they were not a priority.  Suddenly these things will all hit your face when you open that front door, and realise that although it feels like your world has stopped, some things in your life have continued.

And this is where we found our church family stepped up.

And for those of you who know someone with a child with cancer, may I recommend this be an area of life you can help out with?

We came home from hospital with our house dust free, and clean, our fridge restocked with fresh food, a meal or two ready to reheat, and our washing and ironing pile empty because it was all done for us.  It was a huge relief.  And it was not a one off experience.

There was an envelope on our kitchen bench with cash to pay for hospital parking, and a letter with offers and names and numbers of specific things people could do for us if we needed help.

And so began a year of our church being phenomenally helpful and walking beside us with practical, background help.

There’s a story in Exodus 17 about a battle between Israel and the Amalekites.  

“While Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, but whenever he put his hand down, Amalek prevailed.  When Moses’ hands grew heavy, they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat down on it. Then Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other so that his hands remained steady until the sun went down.” 

Ex. 17:11-12

As parents, our focus was on helping Nathan and our other children through this epic battle.  But we needed help with our hands being held up, and we needed someone to place a rock for us to sit on. Our battle was not with the Amalekites, nor honestly, even with cancer.  Our battle was with the temptation to let our thoughts wander away from God’s promises, to let our eyes veer away from Jesus in our crisis.  Our problem was cancer, but we needed to be there reminding our kids with confidence that God was in control, that He was always loving and merciful and that He was and always is good, even amidst chemotherapy and cancer, and even amidst the fear of death.

Our church and the wider church in many ways acted like Aaron and Hur, holding our arms up, pulling a stone out for us to sit upon.

And we were inundated with super practical help.  We often woke to find groceries left anonymously on our doorstep.  We had deliveries from supermarkets that we didn’t personally order, and we were given an abundance of toilet paper.  With every bag of shopping, our practically minded friends gave us a pack of toilet paper, and a carton of eggs.

At one time we had almost a years supply of toilet paper, and over 80 eggs in the fridge!

I am not complaining.  It brought us laughter, and it turned out that of the very limited food Nathan felt like eating, eggs was one of his favourites.  One of his schoolfriends’ grandmothers knew of his fondness for eggs, and she dropped around fresh eggs from her chickens every week.  It was so incredibly kind.

I could write pages and pages of praise for the practical and creative ways our church family cared for our household needs during that year.  They were consistent, they were faithful and they were highly practical.

When I was younger, I learnt this Bible verse off by heart:

“A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed..”

PROV. 11:25

The church was incredibly generous to us.  And what we have been repeatedly told afterwards was how encouraged they were to see us keep the faith throughout Nathan’s illness.  This Proverb is not a ‘give so you get’ kind of message.  The reality is that we could never financially repay what was given to us throughout that year. We wouldn’t even know specifically who to repay.  It was not about a tally of expenses.  When Nathan continued to trust in Jesus throughout his cancer, he brought refreshment to others who had refreshed him and our family.

What do 300 rolls of toilet paper and 80 eggs have in common?

“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:13-35

2. The importance of knowing God’s word when your child is well…

“I don’t know how you coped so well.”
“I don’t know how you do it.”
“You seem to be doing so well.”

I can’t tell you the number of times I heard these statements during the year my son was sick, and the year after his death. Statements meant as an encouragement, statements that came from kind hearts, and statements that show how easy it is to put up a facade and fool people, or perhaps how private grief can be. But, I guess, although my husband and I weren’t coping “well”, and we certainly weren’t ‘doing it all’, we were paradoxically, doing ok. Thanks to a lot of assistance from parents, friends, family, school teachers, and prayers from so many people, thanks to hospital staff, a great social worker, and kindness from strangers, we did ok. And sometimes, muddling through, trying to juggle everything, is enough. Standards change, and ‘ok’ is now the new thriving. We were not ‘ok’ with our son’s health declining before our eyes, but we were ok with each other, we were putting dinner on the table for our other kids, keeping up with the washing, and fulfilling the work commitments we had made.

But emotionally, our hearts were breaking, there was very little sleep had by either of us, and our new ‘normal’ consisted of hospital stays, hospital tests, hospital appointments that ended up taking all day, regular medication handouts, temperatures being taken at least twice daily, sitting by our son as he injected painful medications into his thighs morning and evening, and figuratively holding his hand as he dealt with a huge burden and sickness.

I’ve had six babies, and the exhaustion that descends after a new baby is born, is somewhat akin to the exhaustion I felt when my son was first diagnosed with a brain tumour. Except, of course, this time, the exhaustion had no joy to hold on to, no cute smile at six weeks to keep you going, no date by which you know everything will settle down and improve, no end in sight at all, except perhaps that scary end that you really really hope will not come to your son’s case.

I remember after my fourth son was born, driving to a friend’s house and not remembering whether I had driven through red or green lights to get there. I was so tired, that travelling became a little foggy for a while. Looking after a child for nights on end through a round of chemotherapy feels a little like that, but added in with a deep, abiding, hidden from the child, sorrow that has an outlet only whilst hiding in the parents bathroom on the ward. Never have I heard so many deep, gut-wrenching sobbing cries as I did coming from the toilet cubicles opposite the children’s oncology ward. It’s the saddest reality spot in the children’s hospital, and yet, we each came out of those toilets, eyes red, with a plastered smile on our faces, pretending for the sake of our children, that all was well, and we were going to get through this just fine.


And in amongst this deep fear, and sorrow, in amongst this new schedule of life, in amongst the severe sleep deprivation, somewhere in there, what I held on to were Bible verses. Bible verses I had learnt as a child, Bible verses I was sent, Bible verses that sprang to memory as Christian songs played around in my head. Bible verses filled with promise, that gave me even an inkling of hope, of purpose, a reason to smile even through the sadness. God’s word is life. And if, after this very long introduction, you are wondering what the lesson I learnt about God’s word is, here is your answer: if you don’t know and understand God’s word when your child is well, you won’t have the emotional, intellectual, or physical energy to learn it while he’s sick.

Knowing God’s Word

I had a friend express to me that memory verses—learning a Bible verse off by heart—is no longer a needed practice because Bibles are so cheap and you can access any verse you want on your phone. I completely disagree. When you are at your most tired, waiting anxiously while your child is undergoing medical tests (a CAT scan, an MRI, a PET scan) there is usually no opportunity to get your phone out of your pocket. Often you are not allowed to use phones around those machines. You wait and wait and wait and wait, and it is distressing, and heart breaking. It is the perfect time to pray and remember God’s word, which you will really only be able to easily do if you have verses embedded in your brain from previous years when there was some spare brain space. Recalling verses and holding firmly onto the ultimate truths are what can keep you sane, and will help you maintain the status of ‘ok’ during the hardest times of your life.

Let me write that again. If you don’t memorise verses or passages when your child is well, you won’t remember or find them when your child is sick. Your brain is at capacity learning names of new words like ondansetron, maxelon, dexamethasone, doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide, neutropenia, cytotoxic. You have to remember many names of new people that enter your world, you must think about schedules, appointments, urine totals, temperatures, and so many more things. Your child is depending on you to be their spokesperson, to keep on top of this information. It is honestly so hard to put any other new information into your head. You need to know your Bible before your child is sick. And you need to know it well.

You know how there’s a verse somewhere that says something, and you can’t remember exactly where it is, and exactly what it says? When your child is sick with cancer, you want to know precisely what that verse says and where to find it. And you don’t have time to go rummaging through the pages of the Bible for an hour or so looking it up. And you don’t have time to google it, to trawl through the different options trying to find the exact verse you thought you meant.

One of the best things Christians did while my son was sick was sending me Bible verses: in emails, text messages, letters, or printed in big letters to hang on my wall at home. And when I say “Bible verses”, I mean the whole verse, not just a reference for me to look up. I did not have the time or spare hands to look up a reference.

I have known God as my Father from childhood. I have always understood that I am sinful, and need Jesus as my saviour. I have always put my trust in God’s promise of salvation. I’d had some hard things happen in my life before my son was diagnosed with cancer. Yet I learnt so much more richly what it means to put my trust in God’s Word of salvation, comfort, and hope during the year of my son’s cancer. I am not a runner, but I’ve seen a lot of running movies; the athlete has to pull out all the stops, give that little bit more at the end of the race, make it to the finish line. Similarly, I found that every last bit of energy and hope was pinned to God’s word – I needed it like I needed water to drink and air to breathe to survive each day.

God’s word, verses I had learnt throughout my life, were like precious jewels sewn into the lining of my clothes. Jewels I could take out and look at, hold on to, rely on day and night—when the lights were on and when they were off, when all I could hear was the whirring of chemotherapy pumps or the beeping of machines that needed refilling and the vomiting of children. The thing with lining your coat with jewels though, is that you have to have jewels to sew into your clothes. Learning God’s word before your child is sick is so important.

Understanding God’s Word

The second huge lesson I learnt about God’s word while my son was sick, is that you need to really understand God’s word.

You are vulnerable, so open to suggestion, confused and mixed up. And sometimes the verses that you know, the verses you have learnt, can become confusing. I really struggled with verses like Psalm 37:4. “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

How much is enough delight for God to then heal my son, which is the desire of my heart? A verse, which in my rested state, I can explain very clearly, became a burden to my soul for a time.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

How is his yoke easy and burden light? It felt so incredibly heavy. My eyes were too tired to keep open for much longer, my bones ached with grief and exhaustion, my head pounded constantly, and sorrow upon sorrow started piling up high. The situation was overwhelming. I sat by my son, while he expressed his sadness that he wouldn’t live to finish school, or get married and have children. Comforting and holding him, being a mother in those moments was so far from easy, and was a burden that I find crushing even recalling today.

“I lift my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD who made heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1-2

This Psalm was a ‘go to’ in my memory verses. I would recite these two opening verses almost daily, to remind me of God’s strength, to remind me I was not walking alone, to remind me of my heavenly help.

But the rest of the Psalm became confusing to me:

“He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD watches over you – the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm. You by day, nor the moon by night.

The LORD will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” Psalm 121:3-8

The LORD will keep me from all harm? My son was dying before my eyes, declining slowly, and this Psalm, which had for so much of my life brought me huge comfort, suddenly became unbearable to me.

I learnt that it wasn’t enough to just know God’s word off by heart, I also desperately needed to understand exactly what God was promising, what God was saying. And at such a time of fatigue, there was precious little time to delve. I remember praying often for God to help me understand how these verses were still true and what they really meant. I begged God to heal my son and take these heavy burdens off my plate. I asked God to keep his promise to keep us from all harm, and eventually decided that this Psalm only applied to Israel and not to me, yet I wanted to hold onto those first two verses for myself. And I was pretty sure I couldn’t have it both ways, I couldn’t pick and choose which verses applied to me, and which didn’t, based on what I was experiencing.

So learn God’s word now, while you can. And make sure you understand what it means, because there will no doubt be a time when you will rely on that Word to keep you going, to reach that ‘ok’ that keeps you sane. God’s word is more precious than gold, it is sweeter than honey.

An epilogue, for those wondering…

As for me, and my struggles with those particular verses, I ended up with a few different answers. I remembered a song I’d heard years ago, where the singer had recited Psalm 62:5-8 to remind himself that God is not far away in times of suffering. And these verses became one of my biggest helps and comfort:

“Rest in God alone, my soul, for my hope comes form Him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I will not be shaken. My salvation and glory depend on God, my strong rock. My refuge is in God. Trust in Him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts before Him. God is our refuge.”

I rested in God. My hope came from Him. He was my dependable rock, salvation, strength and refuge. I trusted Him, and I poured out my heart to Him many times day and night.

And God’s timing was perfect. As my son lay dying, I finally understood the verses in Psalm 121 and they became my joy. God’s promise wasn’t to protect us from all harm on this earth. How could that be true? He let his own Son die for us. But the night before my son died, I realised anew that God was promising to protect my son from all harm in eternity. And He was protecting my son’s life even as he died. And Psalm 121 became, once again, my favourite Psalm as I finally understood the most amazing promise of God for my son who died a few hours later.

1. What it is like to miss church regularly

I’ve had the privilege of growing up in a Christian household, where going to church weekly, and often more than once weekly, was just the way we lived. It was a pattern that I neither questioned, nor particularly thought about. Most children don’t think about why school is Monday through to Friday, even if they don’t like school. And as a child, I never once thought about not going to church, or why church was on, nor did I imagine what I could be doing instead of going to church. Sunday morning meant church. And when I was older, Sunday afternoon and evening meant church. It wasn’t a chore, or an obligation, or a hassle. It was neutral, and even enjoyable. I never decided to go to church, nor did I decide not to go to church. I just went to church.

I have the privilege of being married to a strong Christian man, who is also committed to going to church weekly. He, like me, grew up in a Christian household, and going to church for both of us is like breathing, You can think about it, and concentrate on it, but mostly you don’t notice it. It is just part of life. Sure, we’ve made choices about which church to go to, and which service to be a part of, but the question has never been ‘to church or not to church’.

I realise that not everyone has this head-start in their Christian lives. Not everyone has had my upbringing, nor does everyone have a supportive spouse. I’ve been in groups where people have really struggled with the idea of going to church weekly for various reasons. And I don’t want to be legalistic about church going, or how often is acceptable, or anything like that. I think it’s fair to say, because of passages like Hebrews 10:24, that Christians, by pattern, by choice, like breathing, regularly go to church and meet together. It is part of what we do.

And for the majority of Christians in the free world, that is the way it is. But there are some Christians, for whom, for a number of reasons, regular attendance at church is not an option. And only when my son had cancer did I learn what life was like without being at church each week.

My son often had chemotherapy treatment over the weekends and I stayed with my son at the hospital Wednesday nights to Sunday lunchtimes. And it is a kindness from God that I didn’t fall asleep on the drive home from hospital each week on Sunday afternoons. I’m not entirely sure how my younger kids were fed on Sunday nights after the exhaustion from hospital stays. A result from these hospital stays, was that I missed church for most of a year. And there were six big lessons I learnt.

a) It is impossible to understand a sermon series when you only hear the sermon every three months or so. I think I heard sermons from two (non consecutive) chapters in 2 Corinthians, a sermon from Ephesians, and that’s about it. And the three sermons I remember hearing made little to no sense to me without a bigger context to place them in. (although I’m sure they were great sermons). Going to church regularly makes understanding the Bible so much easier. I did not understand that until I stopped going to church. In theory I could have listened to the sermon online during the week. And for those of you who are thinking that, then may I politely suggest that you’ve probably never looked after a child with cancer in a hospital without good internet service. There’s not a lot of spare time day or night, and you need to be attentive to your child, so headphones are not an option.

b) Church provides an opportunity to sing God’s words, and be reminded in song of the truths of Jesus. And without church, and especially if you are not at home, then you don’t have access to singing as a group, and being encouraged. One of the weekends my son and I stayed in hospital was the Easter weekend. I’ve never stayed with unbelievers over the best weekend of the Christian calendar before. It was so awful. Not only was my son receiving chemotherapy and feeling dreadful, but charities were dropping off easter eggs for kids in a ward who spent much of their days and nights vomiting even when their stomachs were empty. Apart from a personal visit from the hospital chaplain, there was no mention of God, no mention of Jesus anywhere, by anyone. My son and I read through the death and resurrection story in John’s gospel, but what I really missed was singing, rejoicing in song, being reminded of old favourite hymns, which would have been especially comforting and inspiring whilst living in the oncology wards and feeling like death was too victorious there. It may not occur to you, as it hadn’t occurred to me, but one of the greatest joys in life is singing God’s word, and remembering that word through song. It seems to me that singing is one of the key ways God writes His word on our hearts. And singing with fellow Christians, even when grief, sorrow and exhaustion makes singing difficult, is of inestimable value.

c) Living in an oncology ward is isolating, and missing church only adds to that sense of deep loneliness. I was very fortunate to have so many Christian friends message me throughout my son’s illness, with messages of Bible verses, pictures of my other children at events I could not attend, texts containing prayers that sisters and brothers in Christ were praying for my son, and our family. And all of those were fantastic, and kept me going day to day. But it is not the same as actual face to face conversation with my church family. Mothers with young children at home often talk about craving adult conversations. I have been there. Yet with a child living with cancer, that desire for conversation only increases. And it is not conversation with just anyone, it is conversation with a praying, caring, like-minded group of friends that becomes so vital to endurance. I did not know how much church provided that need until it was taken away from me for a year. It’s more than just a shoulder to cry on, it’s a sense of ‘home’ in relationship.

d) The fight before you can become all encompassing, and the temptation to become self focussed, or child focussed, increases unhealthily. My church family keep me grounded because I have the opportunity with church family to pray for others and realise that other people need my prayers too. It is only by regular attendance at church that I can find out how people are going, what things I can be praying for them, ask how the struggles of the previous week have been, and hear about how God has answered my prayers. Irregular attendance doesn’t let these conversations flow, and grow and have deep meaning. And it is in praying for others, and serving in prayer, that we can have such deep encouragement when we see God powerfully at work week by week.

e) Churches go through changes. Changes as people leave, as people join, as children are born, as people grow. And it is so hard to keep up with these changes when you miss church. I felt like there were so many new faces, so many names I’d forgotten, so many new babies who were toddlers by the time I got back to church after my son had died. And it is so hard to remember or meet new people when there are twenty new faces, which over the space of the year, were really only a few new faces at a time. And it’s not just the faces that change while you might miss church. Music styles can change, procedures can change, the familiarity that you have been used to, may change in the space of a year. It may have only changed little by little, almost imperceptibly to those who attended weekly, but the stark changes for the irregular attender can be confusing, disconcerting, off putting, and hard to adjust to.

f) Occasionally during the year of my son’s illness, he and I made it along to church. It was awkward for him. People stared at his bald head, especially little kids. People didn’t know how to talk to him. He felt like he was ‘the cancer kid’ and he found that hard. And I don’t think there was any way around that. He was bald, he was hard to talk to, his experiences were outside that of almost any other teenager, and he was ‘the cancer kid’. Yet, he and I still made the commitment to go along when he was well enough, because going to church is a way to encourage others. Nathan and I saw how encouraged others were when we managed to get to church. And when we missed church, we missed out on one of the easiest ways to spur our fellow church members on in love and good deeds. We want our church family to be there on the last day, when Jesus returns.

Sometimes people cannot make it to church each week.  And church may not be an option, for a time.  I missed church for a year, not by choice, by events outside of my control.  What I learnt is that going to church is as important a part of my week as breathing is in every minute of each day.