Faith in hard places: reflecting on the book of Job
August 1, 2012
One moment it’s the Olympics……and next it’s the Book of Job….
This is the first in a series of sermons that you’re having on Job, so let me begin by giving a quick outline of its story.
The first two chapters are the ‘set-up’. We meet Job, a blameless, upright, godfearing and very wealthy man. We learn of a wager, a kind of bet, that Satan makes with God to test Job’s integrity. Calamity after calamity strikes Job, and bit by bit all his wealth is stripped away. Even his children are killed.
Chapters 3 – 37 are the very long middle part of the book, which are really hard work…. We hear laments from Job, and speeches from Job’s friends which turn out not to be very helpful at all. We still use the phrase ‘Job’s comforter’ to mean someone who is actually of little comfort.
The final, amazing section of the book comprises chapters 38-42. Here, God speaks, and Job is transformed his understanding.
But today, we are at the beginning….so, to our reading.
There are 3 distinct sections:
- God and Satan agree that Job shall suffer personally
- Job and his wife make their initial response
- Job’s three friends arrive to comfort him.
Perhaps we could subtitle them:
– ‘ What in heaven is God doing?’
– ‘How on earth can Job bear this?’
– ‘What shall we say?’
Let’s reflect on each in turn.
1. There’s a heavenly drama going on, where God and Satan are having an argument over how righteous Job really is. God admits that he has ruined Job without any just reason; Satan pushes him further; and God agrees that Satan can do anything he likes to Job, apart from actually killing him.
Taken at face value, this paints a pretty problematic picture of God. It reminds me of that film Trading Places, (Eddie Murphy, Dan Ackroyd, Jamie-Lee Curtis), where two rich business partners are having an argument over nature v nurture. On a whim, and for a 1 dollar bet, they arbitrarily ruin a bright young trader and elevate the cleaner to the head of the company, with (as they say) hilarious consequences.
It seems as though God is treating Job in an equally arbitrary way. The heavenly beings are using human beings as pawns or playthings.
That’s not the view of the Bible elsewhere – and I don’t actually think that’s what’s going here. Throughout the Bible, the relationship between God and his people is seen as one of covenant love – not ‘what can you do for me?’ or ‘what can I do for you?’; but about a relationship where both parties are committed, come what may. The overarching story of the Old Testament is one of God’s people frequently falling away, and of God never ultimately abandoning them, but always yearning for a relationship of love.
So when Satan taunts God, ‘Job only loves you because of all the good that you have sent him; remove that and he’ll curse you‘; the God of Israel, the God of covenant love, has to bite – because the sort of relationship God wants, transcends self-interest. It’s about that covenant love.
That said, I think this part of the story still puts us in touch with a core issue for Christians and non-Christians alike. If God is a God of love, how can he allow so much suffering in the world?
It’s true that much suffering is caused by human evil or human greed, (eg violence such as we see inSyria, or the failure to share our resources). It’s also true that suffering can lead to beneficial outcomes, (it can develop gifts of character; it can make us more sensitive to others). However, a lot of suffering seems random (eg the huge pile of rocks that fell on a tourist on a south coast beach this week) and seem to be of no positive value (eg the many illnesses and conditions that I see in hospital…. perhaps most starkly in the suffering of babies and children). Somewhere, we have to acknowledge that God allows a universe in which the possibility of suffering exists, and in which the reality of suffering is acutely felt.
As Christians, we also wait to acknowledge that God does not rinse his hands of his Suffering Creation – we’ll return to this at the end.
2. For now, let’s turn to Job himself – the 2nd part of our reading.
Satan afflicts Job with sores from the sole of his feet to the top of his head. This is in addition to taking away all his possessions and the death of his sons and daughters. Job sits down amongst the ashes.
The next thing we notice is that there’s a spat between Job and his wife. This rings true to experience: suffering puts immense pressure on families. There have been times when I have visited parents following the death of their baby, and mum has been curled up on one side of the room, with dad staring out of the window on the other side. The sheer emotional weight of grief and suffering can separate and polarise…. which is tragic, because what people need at such times is connection and contact. It can of course lead the other way, to a deepening of love and sensitivity.
So Job begins his journey of experiencing suffering as a person of faith. His initial response is “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble”. It’s not a bad response – it’s accurate. People of faith have good experiences and bad experiences. Being a Christian does not guarantee us an easy ride in the suffering stakes.
It’s a bit of a ‘head’ response – there’s not a lot of feeling in it…..that will come later. And it’s rather passive, not actively engaging with God. That too will come later. I imagine you’ll be exploring that in the weeks ahead. But this is where Job has got to for now, as he sets out on his difficult journey.
As a chaplain, many of the people I meet in hospital are at the outset of their journey. They have just received a diagnosis that will change their whole future; or they are about to have surgery that will require a long recovery period; or they have had an incident such as a stroke or heart attack for which the permanent implications are uncertain.
Often, I sense that when they ask ‘why is this happening to me?’ it’s not an explanation about the existence of suffering that they are looking for. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of the sheer panic and meltdown terror that they are feeling, as their world is turned upside down and they lose all their bearings. Not ‘why has God done this?’ but ‘how can I bear this?’
I remember going to a patient who had requested a chaplain’s visit. She began by saying, ‘I’ve just been told I’ve got to have an operation and I’m petrified’. I looked her in the eye and said simply, ‘yes’. She bust into tears saying, ‘You’re the first person who hasn’t tried to talk me out of what I’m feeling’.
It can require courage to engage with that place where pain is felt.
3. Which brings us to the third section of our reading – Job’s friends’.
‘They sat on the ground with him for 7 days and 7 nights. No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was’ (verse 13). Job’s friends get a bad press later on; but, if not three cheers, they should at least get one cheer here.
i) They make sure Job is not alone with his pain – they come and sit with him for 7 days and 7 nights. It’s a tradition which the Jewish community maintains to this present day – sitting shiva (literally ‘sitting seven’) when friends come to sit with mourners at home for a week following death.
ii) And they have the restraint and pastoral understanding to sit in silence. Someone said, “Don’t speak unless you can improve on the silence”. When we speak in response to someone’s suffering, we should really check out for whose benefit we are speaking – sometimes it’s to make ourselves feel better. Perhaps we want desperately to make things all right for someone, but often we end up missing what they really need.
The theologian Ellen Davies speaks eloquently of silence:
“Silence kept with others has a special quality. It is like a fine veil, preserving separateness, yet strangely heightening mutual awareness. Silence requires us to be present to the unexpressed needs of others, needs of which they themselves may not yet know. Cultivating the habit of silence should be seen as one of the special responsibilities of the Christian community in a noisy world. It is a powerful means of fostering mutual encouragement among us, whom God has entrusted to one another in this wilderness of pain and doubt”
Ellen F Davies
Getting involved with God
PlymouthUK: Cowley Publishing, 2001, p127
We often can’t make it all right for those who are suffering. We can sit with them. We respond most effectively to human suffering, not by trying to solve it, but by engaging with those who suffer.
4. And that seems to be God’s own way too. In our second reading, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with nard, expensive perfume, and wipes them with her hair. Jesus makes it clear that this foreshadows his death. ‘It was meant that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial’ (John 12.8).
Right at the heart of Christian belief is the understanding that God sent his own son to suffer and to die for humankind. It reminds us that God is anything but capricious about human suffering. He takes it utterly seriously. But the “answer” as to why God allows suffering is not a head answer. God’s response to human suffering is i) to suffer with us, and ii) to show that we can be transformed through that suffering.
That’s both a challenge and a hope for Christians. It’s a challenge, in that we follow someone who suffered. Soberingly, we cannot then expect to be immune from that aspect of following Christ. But it’s a hope, in that it’s an Easter hope. Just as Christ was transformed through suffering, so our experiences of suffering can transform us.
However, I repeat, the route to transformation lies through engaging with suffering. We pass through Good Friday before we arrive at Easter Sunday.
Your Church website speaks of this church being on a journey of faith. It says “We welcome fellow travellers – bring your doubts, struggles and questions along with you. We don’t claim to have all the answers, but as we open ourselves more fully to God, we find ourselves resourced for living in a different way”. I love that. And it tallies so well with what we’ve learned from Job this morning:
In the mystery of suffering, we don’t have all the answers; it’s okay to have doubts, struggles and questions. Job will need to journey further with his suffering – to listen to others and engage with God. So too for us.
But as we open ourselves more fully to God and to listening to one another, so we too will find ourselves resourced for living in a transformed and different way.
Martin Kerry, St Columba’s Crosspool, 29.07.2012.