by David Baer, July 17, 2016
Text: Job 3:1-10,4:1-9,7:11-21
This is our second week in the book of Job, and last week I pointed to the way Job received the news about all the terrible things that had happened to him—the loss of his property, his servants, and finally his children. One messenger after another comes with yet more terrible news, each speaker interrupting the last. Do you feel that way lately? I don’t mean about things that are happening to you, personally—at least I hope not! I mean the waves of tragedy from our country and our world that keep breaking over us. I’m still heartsick over the shootings by police in Minnesota and Louisiana, and then the killing of police officers in Dallas. And now an attack in France, a country whose citizens have experienced devastating violence in the recent past. I think of my own family out watching the Fourth of July Fireworks, worried about nothing more than a little rain. It’s upsetting just to imagine how scary and confusing it must have been for the sense of enjoyment and even safety all of us feel when we’re celebrating a national holiday with neighbors ripped apart.
Do you ever wonder what to do when something terrible is happening? How are you supposed to act? How are you supposed to pray? Most often, it’s not folks on the other side of the world. Sometimes it’s someone in your family or on your street. And sometimes it’s you. One of the things the book of Job does is to give us choices about how we treat one another and how we relate to God when awful things happen. This story is not a historical account. It’s a work of fiction, like the parables of Jesus, but it’s meant to give us wisdom about just how much of a mystery suffering is, and to lift up a couple of important ways we can respond when suffering comes into our life or our immediate circle.
Last week we heard about how Job came to suffer the things that happened to him. God beamed with pride and bragged about Job to Satan. Have you seen Job? God asked. He always does what is right. Satan scoffed and said, That’s because you give him such a cushy life. Take away his wealth and his children, take away his health, and he’ll curse you to your face. And God takes that bet. Virginia Woolf wrote to a friend, “I read the book of Job last night - I don’t think God comes well out of it.”1 If we read this as a literal, historical account, rather than a work of fiction, we’re left with a picture of a God who can be provoked into rashly gambling with human life, which doesn’t fit with the God we know in the rest of scripture. I think we’re meant to understand from this that Job’s suffering has nothing to do with him, that it’s a mystery that’s only clear in the hidden realm of heaven, and not that this is in any way an accurate representation of how God deals with us.
In any case, Satan turns out to be wrong. Job at first is patient in his suffering, giving rise to the expression “the patience of Job.” But now patience has given way to impatience. Job curses all right, but he doesn’t curse God. He curses the day of his birth. He evokes the language of the creation story, where God says, “Let there be light,” only he turns it on its head and says, instead, “Let there be darkness.” He wishes God would unmake him, to unwind his existence from the very start, so that he never would have had to experience loss and pain in his body and his spirit.
And that sounds so human and so familiar, doesn’t it? When a relationship or a job ends badly, sometimes we do wonder whether it was worth our time and heartache. It’s important to recognize that this is not a reasoned judgment from Job. It’s not as though he’s taken a calculator and totaled up the good things and the bad things he’s lived through and come up with a negative balance, and so that’s why he’s saying, “I wish I’d never been born.” And there’s no sign that Job is actually suicidal; if anything, continuing to live gives him something to hold over against God: “If you’re so set on tormenting me,” he can say, “why don’t you just finish me off?”
It’s important to recognize that when Job says these things, it’s a cry from deep down inside him that is giving voice to his hurt and confusion in the strongest way imaginable. It’s important to recognize when our own friends and loved ones need to express their feelings in a similar way, and to honor those feelings for what they are. And it’s important to know that it’s OK for us to rage and lament as well. Later on in the story, God tells us that Job has spoken rightly, Job has spoken the truth. God honors Job’s anger, sadness, and confusion, and God will honor ours too.
Unfortunately, Job’s friends don’t honor him or his suffering. It’s familiar and human the way the first of his friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, butts in: I don’t want to offend you, he says, but I’ve just gotta say something! Here’s a tip… If you’re starting off with the words “I don’t mean to offend you…” then stop right there! The chances are you’re about to follow up with something hurtful and inconsiderate. Here’s another tip. If you feel like you just have to say something about someone else’s experience, interrogate that feeling. Question it. The chances are good that, no, you don’t actually have to say it. James, the brother of Jesus, says, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). That’s good advice, and it’s common sense in any age. Unfortunately, Eliphaz plows right ahead.
“Job,” he says, “people used to look to you for advice. Now it’s time for us to help you. Look, we all know that nothing bad ever happens to innocent, upstanding people. And we all know that if you do something wrong, it will come back to bite you. You are suffering now. What are the odds there’s something in your past to explain it? Pretty good, if you ask me.”
I wonder, what would Eliphaz say about a speeding truck in Nice, France? “Who that was innocent ever perished?” he asks. Who perished? Only enough innocent people to break your heart once, twice, eighty-four times over. Because the stuff that barrels down on us in this life doesn’t discriminate. Sometimes people suffer as a consequence of their own choices. But much of the time we suffer just because stuff happens. “Who that was innocent ever perished?” You could probably come up with a bunch of names on your own.
To be fair to Eliphaz, we skipped the part where he shares the theological theory that justifies his advice, something that came to him in a nighttime vision, that says that all people are sinners, no one is pure or perfect before God. As somebody in the Reformed tradition of Christianity, I believe that. But I believe it as an affirmation to be spoken in awe and wonder after God reaches down to save and transform and forgive us and raise us to new life, not because we deserved it, but because God is gracious. Instead, Eliphaz is using an abstract theory about human nature to draw conclusions about someone else’s experience. And that’s cold, and it’s hurtful. Don’t do that. Don’t be like Eliphaz.
Job is being unreasonable. On the other hand, what happened to him is also completely unreasonable. Eliphaz and his friends are trying to reason about the unreasonable, which is what gets them into trouble. Job takes a different approach. Instead of trying to reason his way through the unreasonable things that have happened to him, to make sense of them, to justify them and make them less absurd, less unfair, less hurtful, he throws all the unreasonableness back on God. The fury God has visited on him, he says, is enough to subdue the Sea, or the Dragon, which represent the watery darkness and chaos that came before creation. Am I such a threat to the entire universe, Job asks, that you attack me so relentlessly? Why do I deserve so much of your attention? What have you got against me? Job flings these questions heavenward in protest. No longer is it a question of what Job has done. He doesn’t make it his responsibility to make unreason into reason. Instead, God needs to answer for governing the universe in such an unreasonable way.
That’s not an approach to prayer we make much use of in our tradition. But the scriptures, especially the Old Testament, show evidence of this kind of prayer. For example, when God confided in Abraham that God was about to destroy the city of Sodom, Abraham took God to task. What if there were innocents in the city? Would they die with the wicked? His exact words were: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25). Abraham argues with God, until God promises that if even ten righteous people could be found in the city, it would be spared.
I read stories like this, and I read the book of Job, and what I hear is that it’s OK to take God to task, that anger and disappointment and confusion have a place in the words we address to God, that this is an acceptable form of prayer, even if it’s one that we too often deny ourselves. When God does arrive to answer Job’s complaint–we’ll hear more about that in a few weeks!—God says Job was right to speak the way he did, and his friends were wrong. God doesn’t need pious defenders. God needs more of us, not to set about accepting the things we cannot change, but to question the unreasonableness that happens to us and our friends and our neighbors across the world. Even Jesus himself, as he breathed his last, spoke those accusatory words from the psalms, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Now, Jesus’ God showed up. Job’s God shows up. Abraham’s God answered his complaint. Our trust is in a God who does hear us, who does show up, who listens to prayers even that come out of an unreasonable heart.
When we encounter unreasonable suffering, we ought to be free of the need to be reasonable. May you hold fast to God in whatever way you can—whether through trust or lament, whether with the patience or the impatience of Job—but however you can, may you hold fast like the patriarch Jacob who wrestled with the angel, saying, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” Like him may you not let go, may you hold fast with the hope of Abraham, the hope of Jacob, the hope of Jesus, the hope against hope of the women at the empty tomb, and all those who would not let God go until their struggle and their suffering and their complaint and arguing yielded up a blessing from God. Amen.
Virginia Woolf, quoted in Eudora Welty, “The Letters of Virginia Woolf” (book review), New York Times, Nov 14 1976. Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/12/17/specials/woolf-letters2.html on 7/15/2016.