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Book Review: Ordering Your Private World

I first encountered Gordon MacDonald’s Ordering your Private World when I was just out of college and entering my first professional ministry position. I dutifully listened to six cassette tapes of MacDonald speaking about the content in his book. Looking back, I can see how those cassette tapes helped me develop healthy patterns as I began my life in professional ministry (and, how some mistakes probably could have been avoided had I attended to the concepts even more closely).

Fast forward to 2017: my fourth child was just born. I am on the verge of completing my doctoral dissertation. I work full time at a big church in a demanding role. I am completing a two year term as moderator of my presbytery (regional group of churches). I serve on denominational agencies and the board of directors for two local organizations. Oh, and I coach my oldest’s little league team.

Now, none of that is intended as a complaint. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities the Lord has offered and the wonderful family the Lord has entrusted to me. I long to lead and serve my family and my church well. But it also makes this reading of the revised and updated 3rd edition of Ordering Your Private World especially timely.

I don’t want to be the sinkhole that MacDonald describes in chapter 1 where everything looks ok from the outside until it collapses in upon itself because the foundation was weak and wasting away. I don’t want an inner, private life that is disordered and in disarray, hollow and hollowing. I want to thrive from the inside out.

Through stories, Scriptural exposition and personal testimony, MacDonald names and engages several core challenges faced by many of us who struggle to live from the inside out. For me, I was particularly convicted by the chapter on drivenness. It may be a different chapter for you, but one or many of the concepts MacDonald discusses are sure to reveal areas of your own heart that you may wish remained hidden but deeply need revealed if you want to experience the joy, peace and love of the Lord amidst uncertain circumstances, busy lives and unexpected storms all around.

___

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Day 8: From Emptiness to Fulfillment

Read: Ruth 4:1-22

Reflect: In chapter 3, Boaz expressed his willingness to be the family redeemer. But he is a man of character and obedient to the law of God and he knows there is another man who is a closer relative to Elimelech than he. So he offers the opportunity to be the redeemer to this man. He declines, not wanting to marry Ruth. 

Thus Boaz takes a vow before all the people that he will be the redeemer, buy the land, marry Ruth and carry on the family name of her deceased husband. They get married and have a son. 

And then the story immediately turns back to Naomi. At the start of the story she lost everything. Her husband and her sons were dead and she was alone in a foreign land. Our story ends with Naomi back in her hometown bouncing a little baby boy on her knee. When she returned to Bethlehem she told the women that she was bitter and empty. Now those women are praising God as the restorer of life. Those same women ignored Ruth’s very existence upon their return to Bethlehem. Now those women are telling Naomi that a daughter-in-law like her is better than 7 sons. The women in the streets are proclaiming that Naomi has a son. 

Our story has seen Naomi move from mourning death to celebrating birth. Naomi has gone from empty to fulfilled, from sorrow to joy and from bitter to pleasant. And it is all because of the never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love of God. 

Respond: 

  • How has you seen God be the restorer of your life in unexpected ways? 
  • How has you seen God be the restorer of life in the Philippines this week? 
  • How is God calling you to labor alongside of him to restore life to those around you at home? 

Postlogue

The book of Ruth concludes with a postlogue recounting a genealogy. Seems like an odd place to end after such a beautiful story culminates with God’s overwhelming kindness shining so brightly in the restoration of life and unexpected birth of the baby. But the narrator wants to make sure we don’t miss why this is such a big deal: Because that baby was Obed, father of Jesse, father of King David. And of course, many years and many generations later another unexpected baby would be born in Bethlehem. And that baby, a descendent of David… and therefore a descendent of Ruth and Boaz… would grow up to be both our Family Redeemer and the Great King of all!

Day 7: A Plan is Hatched

Read: Ruth 3:1-18

Reflect: Chapter 2 ends with great hope and a sense that something big is stirring. But the narrator also leaves us with a cliffhanger: “And she lived with her mother-in-law” (2:23). Now, you already knew that. Where else did any of us think she was living? The narrator is pointing us to something yet unfulfilled in this story. While there is hope for Naomi and she is encouraged, it is as if the narrator skillfully drops a clue as to where the story heads next. 

Chapter 3 opens with Naomi showing genuine concern for Ruth for seemingly the first time in the whole story and the narrator invites us in to overhear as she hatches a plan for Ruth to sneak in to where Boaz was sleeping and to lay down next to him. 

Ruth does as Naomi instructs her and then, when the moment is right, asks Boaz if he would be their family redeemer. This is a strange concept to most of us, but the Mosaic law governing Israel provided for a family redeemer who would be required to buy someone back if they had sold themselves into slavery to pay off a debt and it called for a brother to marry his brother’s widow in order to give a child who could carry on the dead brother’s family. 

In short: Ruth proposed to Boaz, basically asking him to step in as a brother to her dead husband and fulfill the spirit of the law. You don’t expect a woman to propose marriage in that culture, but she does. And he says yes (well, with a caveat to be discovered in chapter 4). 

But are not all of us in need of a redeemer as well? Naomi, Ruth and even Boaz join each of us needing a redeemer who will buy us back out of our sin and to bring us back into the family. Praise God for Jesus, our big brother who redeemed us, paying the ultimate price by his death on the cross. 

Respond: 

  • First, take a moment to praise God for our redeemer, Jesus. 
  • How have you experienced the redeeming work of God through our ministry this week? 
  • What story are you most excited to tell people back home about the redeeming work of God in the Philippines? 

Day 6: A Sparkle of Hope for Naomi

Read: Ruth 2:17-23

Reflect: Imagine the way that Ruth’s heart must have been singing on the way home from the fields that night. She left that morning hoping to find enough to get a meal for her and Naomi. She returns having met a guy, eaten a big meal and carrying an ephah of barley. Ok, since you likely haven’t measured anything in ephahs recently, picture this: An ephah would be about the equivalent of one of those giant Costco-sized bags of dog food! Instead of coming home with just enough to feed them dinner, she brought home enough to feed them for the next month! 

And it is here, at this point in the story, that Naomi’s heart starts to thaw as she discovers that maybe God had not forgotten or abandoned her after all. Not only seeing the amount of food but discovering it came from a relative who would qualify as a family redeemer (more on that tomorrow) overwhelmed Naomi. 

And then we have that word again – hesed – the kindness (vs 20) of the Lord. This woman who was so bitter, angry and sorrowful gets the faintest sparkle of hope in her eye and she remembers… or maybe even truly discovers for the very first time… the kindness of the Lord. Respond:

  • When have you experienced the abundant, exceeding kindness of the Lord?  
  • How did it change you? 
  • Romans 2:4 tells us that God’s kindness is designed to lead us to repentance. Go before the Lord confessing your sin and clinging to the hope of his kindness for you in Christ Jesus. 

Day 5: Seeing Invisible People

Read: Ruth 2:8-16

Reflect: Boaz is a pretty stunning guy. He is full of integrity and faithful to God at a time in history where not many Israelites were. The very first things we learn about him are that he follows the Mosaic law requiring leaving part of the harvest for the poor. That must have been an easy law to convince yourself to ignore just coming out of a famine! He is an attentive landowner, coming to fields to check on them. He blesses his workers (2:4) and is respected by them (they bless him back!). 

But what I admire most about Boaz is that he sees invisible people. When Naomi and Ruth returned to Bethlehem at the end of chapter 1, the text says that they came to Bethlehem and the whole town was stirred because of them. But then there is no further mention of Ruth in that section. It is all about Naomi. Even Naomi says she came back empty. Ruth is just ignored… missed… she’s invisible to everyone. 

Everyone except Boaz that is. He takes one look out over his field and he sees a new woman that he doesn’t recognize out gleaning and he immediately inquires about her. And then he feeds her until she is satisfied (when was the last time she was truly had a full stomach?). And then he tells his own employees to be intentionally reckless and leave good parts of the harvest for her. 

She is invisible to the whole world and almost understandably so. She’s a widowed, poor, illegal immigrant. She is an outsider with no skills and no value. Until Boaz sees her. And talks to her. And abundantly, exceedingly and undeservedly shows her kindness. He sees her. She is invisible no more.

Respond:

  • When have you felt invisible, as if the whole world couldn’t see you? How did you feel? What inner desires did that stir up in you? How did you respond? 
  • Who are the invisible people you have encountered this week that God is calling you to truly see for the first time? 
  • Who are the invisible people at home that God is calling you to truly see for the first time? 

Day 4: Hidden Providence

Read: Ruth 2:1-7

Reflect: Now back in Bethlehem, and Naomi and Ruth are going to have to eat. So Ruth offers to go out and glean (that is, pick up the scraps that the harvesters dropped/missed). Naomi sends her off (and again, why didn’t Naomi go? Certainly if they were that hungry, she could have helped a little, right?) 

Then, there in the middle of verse 3, is a single word that is dripping with God’s hidden providence: “happened.” Ruth just “happened” to go to a field owned by a distant relative she’d never even heard of and who turns out to be an upstanding God-fearing man. 

Was this just a coincidence? A happy accident that is going to turn out for the good? No. It’s the hidden providence of God. 

The Westminster Shorter Catechsism defines God’s providence as “his completely holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing every creature and every action” (Q11). That is, God guides and directs the steps and actions of all of creation to fulfill his good purposes in the world.

The passage never tells us that “God directed Ruth to this particular field.” But that is the way the providence of God works. He is sovereignly in control of all things. In the good and the bad, in the things we see and understand or in the things we don’t see or don’t understand, God is working out all things for his glory and for your good!

Respond:

  • What causes you to doubt God’s providence? 
  • When is a time in your life that, in retrospect, you can see the hidden providence of God at work? Why do you think you couldn’t see it in the moment when this happened? 
  • How have you experienced God’s providence even this week on the trip? 

Day 3: From Pleasant to Bitter

Read: Ruth 1:15-22

Reflect: Today’s reading brings us to the most well known and the most often quoted passage in the book of Ruth. “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” (vs 16). It’s a beautiful statement of love, kindness and loyalty (there’s that hesed idea again). No wonder why it gets repeated frequently at weddings…

But let me make 3 observations about these words. First, for Ruth, this appears to be the moment of her conversion. The decision to follow Naomi was a rejection of false gods and an embrace of Israel’s God. This poor, destitute widowed Moabite woman rejects her upbringing and its gods to throw herself before the mercy of Naomi’s God… and it is not at all clear yet if Naomi herself believes in this God! 

Second, God uses broken, sinful people to accomplish his good purposes. Naomi is literally trying to talk Ruth into rejecting her and her God. But God, in his infinite kindness and goodness, uses that to draw Ruth to saving faith. 

And third, all of this has turned Naomi bitter. We read that when Naomi realized that there was talking no Ruth out of going with her that she “said no more” (vs 18). Translated literally, she “stopped talking to her.” Naomi was so upset at Ruth that she just decided to stop talking to her at all… which, of course, must have made for a really long walk back to Bethlehem. When they arrive back in Bethlehem, crowds came up to see the long lost Naomi. And what does she say? “Do not call me Naomi (meaning “pleasant”), call me Mara (meaning “bitter”)” (vs 20). In her mind, she left full (a husband and two sons) and came back with nothing (which, as an aside, tells you what she really thinks of Ruth). 

And yet, even as we see a woman caught in bitterness and emptiness, the narrator gives us hope. Naomi left Bethelehem in the midst of a famine (1:1), but returns at the start of the harvest (vs 22). Naomi can’t see it yet, but there may still be hope on the horizon.

Respond:

  • How did you come to faith? We read of Ruth’s conversion story. Use the opportunity to reflect on your own. 
  • When has God used you in someone else’s life even when you were angry and bitter at God? 
  • Who do you need to go confess to that, in your anger, you tried to push away as Naomi did to Ruth?