I’ve had interesting talks in the last two weeks with two godly friends who have both found themselves, one in the past and one in the present, in very difficult family circumstances. The husband of the first left her years ago when they worked together in ministry and had 2 young daughters. The second’s husband moved out a few months ago after distancing himself from her at every level (financially, spiritually, emotionally, and physically). Both have recounted how uncomfortable it seems to make others in the church. A young widowed friend had a similar experience. She wanted to say, “Um, it’s not catching!” When asked how she was doing at church, another was honest about her situation and pain. The response she got? “Wow. That makes me uncomfortable.” At least the responder was honest, putting into words what everyone else who heard her story seemed to feel based on their nonverbal response.
I thought about writing this article long ago as I contemplated my own godly sister. I am fortunate to have a biological sister who is also my spiritual sister. I can always count on her to give me strong, Biblical encouragement no matter my struggle. Her husband left her for another woman 5 or so years ago. It was TOUGH. She wasn’t perfect and would do much differently now. Yet she loved the Lord, volunteered in prison ministry, sang on her praise team, had her children in church every week, prayed diligently, and studied the Word regularly. Even so, it all fell apart.
It hasn’t been easy for her being a single mom. But if ever there was a phoenix rising from the ashes, it is she. I sat in her small Sunday school class last year and was awed by her teaching. And was struck–she has so much to say, she says it so well, and what she says is right and true, taught in Scripture and confirmed by her life testimony. Yet, I know of so many in Christianity that would have no natural desire to listen to her, much preferring the woman who saved her marriage and children through faith and obedience over the one who lost it despite her best attempts.
Therein lies the point of the title of this article. Pariahs are outcasts who are generally avoided. The term comes from the caste system of India. Our Christian culture has its own caste system, and it is out of line with Scripture’s presentation of sin and redemption. There is no caste system in Scripture. ALL have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. And God loved ALL and gave His precious Son for us. There was a group of alienated strangers (Ephesians 2), and we were all in it. But now in Christ Jesus, everything has changed. And that HAS TO MEAN SOMETHING when a believing woman’s world falls apart, be it ancient Ruth or modern day Alice.
I think it is personal fear that feeds this unspoken but real Christian reaction to such things. I understand the fear well. Watching my sister’s marriage fall apart shook me. I loved my brother in law. I LIKED him too. And when it happened to them, I knew it could happen to anyone. It could happen to me! And I so much do not want it to happen to me. I overcompensate looking for all the ways my marriage isn’t like theirs. All the things I’ve done right that they didn’t do. I run from the fact that her prayers and dreams are the same as mine, and hers seemed utterly ignored by God. Facing it calls me to examine hard things. How strongly do I believe in the goodness of God? In the sovereignty of God? In the TRUSTWORTHINESS of God? It’s easier to believe that my sister didn’t pray well than to believe that a good God didn’t answer to save her marriage. But I know her prayer life. I’ve seen her prayer journal. I know her weekly fasting schedule. The Christian woman whose life falls apart challenges our IF/THEN view of Biblical blessings. We don’t know what to do with such devastating unanswered prayer.
I’ve spoken before of the prosperity gospel of conservative evangelicals. It’s a tightrope to walk since Scripture does speak of blessings that follow obedience.
4 The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life. 5 Thorns and snares are in the way of the crooked; whoever guards his soul will keep far from them. 6 Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. … 9 Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor. … 11 He who loves purity of heart, and whose speech is gracious, will have the king as his friend.
We know that proverbs are different from promises per se. But can’t we take away anything tangible from a straightforward reading of these verses? Neither of my friends from the opening of this article have riches. Instead of honor, they received betrayal from their husbands. They each have children who have rejected God. Yet for all of their shortcomings, they are humble women who fear the Lord.
We get the timing of the IF part of God’s promises. I know that such obedience, humility, and fear of the Lord is for me to do in this very moment. It’s the timing of the THEN part that’s always been our stumbling block. It’s easier to think of our friends as missing the IF in the first place. Surely they dropped the ball somewhere. (They did by the way, just not measurably more than you did. That’s why it’s called grace.)
What we really need is an eternal perspective of the THEN. You likely have a good friend (if not you yourself) who is watching her life fall apart according to her earthly hopes and expectations. God does have an answer for this. Wait. Endure. Hope. Live strong and confidently for the long term EVEN IN THESE CIRCUMSTANCES. Because more than a life that seems outwardly blessed, a woman that is planted toward God long term in her painful loss, much like Job, brings great glory to His name, especially in the heavenly realm. Her THEN will be beautiful even if it is not NOW. It’s those women who get books of the Bible named after them. Young Christian women naively want to be like Ruth because they think Boaz is all that. But Ruth has a book named after her because, when society viewed her as an outcast, God called her to look to Him with outstretched hands though (even because) her life had completely fallen apart. She did, and He did. The THEN of God’s promises is coming for you too, woman who fears the Lord even in your circumstantial misery. He is trustworthy with His promises, and He is trustworthy with His proverbs. He didn’t drop the ball when He chose you to endure these things. And though His timetable is obviously not yours, your prayers are not cursed. The blessing IS coming, to the praise of His glorious grace! Rest there today, dear sister.