book review: a sweet and bitter providence (john piper)
As providence would have it, the Sunday after I miscarried Kali Grace in 2008, Fred Coleman introduced me to the song "God Moves in a Mysterious Way." Because Kali's name means "rosebud," the stanza that sang "The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower" held immediate and deep significance for me. (You can read more about that here.)
When I saw John Piper's title A Sweet and Bitter Providence, I was intrigued. And, like my sister-in-law when we were opening Christmas presents this year, I was even more excited when I learned that the substance of the book was the biblical story of Ruth. (It also helps that CBD has had this book on discount for several months, the hardback marked down to $3.99 -- from $17.99!)
Each of us faces different challenges in the sovereignty of God. There are challenges with relationships, with culture, within our own hearts. There is suffering and pain. And there are plenty of unanswered questions and switchbacks (as Piper calls them) where we can't see the path in front of us until we've come around a sharp bend on the mountain road of life. The question that comes to many of us is, "Can I trust and love the God who has dealt me this painful hand in life?"
If I were to answer that question with facts and statistics, it may be hard to swallow. But a beautiful story of grace and love and providence -- the biblical story of Ruth -- now that I can take in. Isn't it amazing how geared for story we humans are? And it's especially powerful when we understand the story is true, which this story is. When we realize Ruth and Naomi and Boaz are real people, with like passions and emotions as yourself and myself, who lived during a difficult season of history (the time of the judges) and whose lives impacted down through ages (even to our lives, through Christ) -- that's amazing and worth our time to consider.
Throughout the book, Piper does come back to William Cowper's hymn, weaving the rich theology of that song into the commentary of the biblical text. I say commentary loosely, for this is not a thick academic study (it reads very easily and personally), but it does work through the passage with appreciate interpretation, explanation, and application. And in fact, for the book of Ruth, it's the most understandable and accurate treatment of even the challenging passages that I've heard/read. Piper treats Naomi fairly. He paints the midnight proposal appropriately, underscoring the beauty of purity. He even gets to the hot topic of racial harmony (sadly still a necessary note, but gloriously a possibility because of Christ's work). And he draws helpful parallels to other biblical characters as well as more recent individuals who have walked with faith, hope, love, and strategic righteousness.
Because the book of Ruth is written down, and we can read the ending as well as the beginning, it helps us see how God works. As Piper points out, "[God] is at work doing a thousand things no one can see but him" (23). And that's true for our lives as much as Ruth's.
"Like all Scripture," Piper writes, "this story is inexhaustible" (120). But he's done a great job helping us get started and encouraging us to continue our pursuit after God and our ongoing study of His precious Word.
I have every confidence that no matter how long you've been a believer, no matter what stage of life you're in, and no matter what circumstances you're presently working through, this book will be a blessing and encouragement to you. And I won't be surprised at all if some of you find yourselves buying extra copies to share with those you love.
Multiplied grace and peace,