Job's DemandOctober 9, 1994, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Innocent and upright, Job sits on the ash heap surrounded by three friends. Oblivious to the dialogue in heaven between God and Satan, which has brought on his suffering, Job is a victim of Satan's double accusation which Job alone can dispel. Is Job's love for God, his righteousness and uprightness simply offered for what's in it for him? Or does Job love God for God's own sake, regardless? And, does God have influence over humankind to evoke love and goodness in us for their own sakes rather than how we might be rewarded for living that way? Must there be a reward attached for us to love goodness, and walk in God's ways? That is the allegation. Only Job can answer these questions. And, he must answer without God's help in any way. He can't even know that this is a test, and that God knows he is upright and innocent in all of this.
Job sits suffering in silence, saying nothing, lest in doing so he unwittingly voice one of the conflicting thoughts assailing his mind -- thoughts of doubt about himself, thoughts of doubt about God. Enduring the emotional roller coaster of such introspection, he moves like a sine wave from high to low, from insight to confusion, from hope to despair.
Such thoughts are part of the human condition when we encounter hardship or difficulty. What have I done to deserve this? We each know that one. What could I have done to avoid this? That usually comes later. What is the judgment of God for me in this? It is a question worthy of consideration when confronted with adversity or trial. There is always something to learn. But in the cross-fire of self-questioning it is increasingly clear -- Job is innocent and knows it; God, he thinks, should know it too. Why then his suffering?
Three friends arrive to bring comfort and wise counsel. Approaching from a distance, they do not recognize Job, so profoundly has his affliction changed him. Tearing their robes, covering themselves with dust and ashes, they weep. Judiciously they sit with him in silence for seven days. They know it best to say nothing, lest they prove themselves fools, speaking the accuser's treacherous words, as Job's wife had done, or claim to understand what Job is going through, as so many foolishly do when trying to provide unsought counsel to one in grief.
On the eighth day the silence is shattered. Job erupts in a series of curses: Damn the day of my birth; God damn the day I was conceived. Better I should have died at birth.1 Remember, I told you last week, Job is anything but serene in his suffering. Though he will not curse God and die, Job curses his own life. He knows that what he is living through is worse than death and begins to plea for it, hope for it. Cautiously, solicitously, a friend ventures a word, reminding Job of how in the past, Job has instructed others in hardship. Why is it, now as hardship has come to Job, he should be impatient or dismayed? Does Job not know that the innocent never perish. The upright are not cut off, whereas "those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same."2
Thus begins a series of poetic dialogues between Job and his friends in which they first discuss, and eventually argue about life, God's justice and blessing, and Job's motivation for serving God. Behind and within these twenty-four chapters of dialogue lies not only exquisite poetry but the sum of the religious wisdom of the day. The friends argue that righteousness always brings prosperity and wickedness misfortune; that prosperity is proof of divine favor, and misfortune proof of sin. The formal name for this is the doctrine of individual retribution - the orthodoxy of the day. Israel's very life was built on the conviction that walking the ways of God's torah would bring life and peace, and abandoning God's ways would bring judgment, both nationally and personally.3 Notice in the psalter alone, how often and in how many different ways this conviction is affirmed:
"Do not fret because of the wicked; ...
they will soon fade like the grass.
Trust in the Lord, and do good;
you will enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart."
Finally, "I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken,
or their children begging bread."4
It is a wonderful sentiment if you have more than you need, but a particularly cruel one if you are a refugee mother whose child is starving, or a father who has lost his job through no fault of his own.
Granted the Bible continues to press on us the goodness of following God's ways. But is it a quid pro quo? After all, as early as Genesis 4 we see innocent suffering as Cain slays his righteous brother Able. Righteous and faithful Uriah becomes a victim of King David's lust. Again and again Jesus reminds his listeners that people's blindness is not the result of their sins, that calamities and disasters are not signs of people's sinfulness.5 Still, Job's friends press their orthodoxy upon him. Obviously he has sinned, if only in some secret way -- this is the reason for his suffering. If he will confess it, God will restore him.
Needless to say, his friends' counsel does not help. We, at least know what they do not know -- Job is innocent! And, his innocence proves that their answers are wrong. To Job, the reasons behind his unjust suffering remain as tangled and unclear as the reasons you and I seek sitting with one we love who is undergoing unexpected, unearned pain, whether physical or emotional. It is as senseless as the chaos we see in our daily papers, or the loss of one we love who has died too soon. It doesn't square with the loving, good God we have been taught to believe in, much less love and trust. But it doesn't square with placing the blame on the sufferer either, much less ourselves.
Job will have none of it. Notice that what has been called patience in Job is anything but equanimity, forbearance, or tolerance. Vacillating between hope and despair each passing dialogue takes Job deeper into the mystery of life. Dejected, pleading that God should allow him to die, return to the dust and sleep in the land of the dead, he spins the dreary dirge:
Mortal, born of woman,
few of days and full of trouble,
comes up like a flower and withers,
flees like a shadow and does not last.
Then suddenly, Job is again fired by the conviction of his innocence, confessing words which we regularly use in our own funeral and memorial liturgies:
"O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
who I shall see on my side."
Does Job know the full implication of what he is saying? Probably not. In the context of the poem, Job is pleading for a vindicator, an umpire, a witness who will go before him to God to prove Job's integrity. The Christian church will look back on these words and see in them a foretelling of the Christ as he comes to stand between us and God as our vindicator. But that is more than these words can bear in Job's mouth. For now, with words which say more than he can comprehend, and concepts as yet unfamiliar, the poet has, if but for a moment, broken through the ceiling of his day's religious consciousness to suggest something new -- a time beyond death when we will be vindicated in the flesh, and God will be our friend.
No sooner have the words come out of Job's mouth than he falls back into despair. But notice -- in this vacillation between hope and despair Job remains a man of faith. This is to say that hope and despair can both be acts of faith, if they turn us to God. Job has not given up on God. The despair of innocent suffering which may drive the bystander away from God and into atheism, draws the person of faith deeper into the relationship of faith. The pressing question in innocent suffering is not so much "Why?," but "Where will we turn with it?" Will we return to God and seek a redeemer, or curse God and die?
Virtually every argument that has ever been offered to answer the "Why?" question -- how evil can exist in a world created and governed by a good God -- is offered by Job's friends in these twenty-four chapters. But none satisfies, either Job or us.
Eliphaz finally counsels peacemaking with God, telling Job to confess the sin he is hiding. Job is enraged. Peace under such terms would betray not only Job, but more -- God. Job will not speak any more falsely about God than he will about himself, even to alleviate his suffering. There is only one way to answer this. "Oh that I knew where I might find him.... I would lay my case before him." Unwilling to live by the axiomatic truth of his friends, even though religious, ancient and pious, Job insists on living out of the relationship of integrity which he has always known with God. Thus provoked, Job turns from his friends to challenge God's silence. In righteous indignation Job demands to see God!
"Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him and I should be acquitted forever before my judge."6
It is not a request. It is a demand, a rebellion against the way things are, an act of resistance offered in prayer.7
Job is hounding God for vindication in the one place you and I always have permission to do that -- in prayer. For prayer is the only form of revolt acceptable to God.8 In those years I served as chaplain to a group of newly widowed people struggling with their anger at God and their sense of having been let down by the death of their spouse, I always said to them, "Take the Psalmist's cue, do as Job did, vent your anger at God. Tell God you feel let down and abandoned. God can take it. After all, our anger is only a sign of the importance of the relationship, a sign of who we know to be in control, and a sign of our final trust, a of love." For we only enter into such urgent pleas with those we desperately love and trust. Job's demand is both an act of rebellion and love -- insolent loyalty.
The words which have so long been bottled up within him, the frustration, the hurt, are now hurled at God. But the words are no sooner out of his mouth than Job again falls into despair, as he waits.
We too must wait with him. But for this day, let us remember that faith lived in real life is more an emotional roller coaster than a steady and triumphal climb to heaven. Let us remember that faith is not the opposite of despair. When falling from hope to despair, the critical question is not our desperation, but to whom we turn in it. And more, that Job's patient faith is a model for us all in adversity. We have permission to revolt against our circumstances and accost God in prayer. That is the stuff of faith when it confronts the real stuff of life. We too can make Job's demand.The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
- Job 3:16
- cf. Job 4:1-8
- Exodus 23:22ff; Leviticus 26:3-22; Deuteronomy 28.
- Psalm 1; 37:25; 69; 73; see also, Isaiah 58:6-14, Jeremiah 17:5-8 Ezekiel 18.
- 2 Samuel 11:2-27; John 9:2ff; Luke 13:15, Matthew 5:45.
- Job 23:6-7.
- Janzen, p. 165.
- Wisdom’s Word on Suffering: A Faithful Response - October 14, 2012
- Unreasonable Grace - October 14, 2012
- That Nagging - October 11, 2009
- Hope for the Forsaken - October 15, 2006
- Of Wealth, Camels and Needles - October 12, 2003
- Job's Wife Didn't Live in a Foxhole - October 15, 2000
- Do We Really Need a Savior? - October 12, 1997
- Job's Demand - October 9, 1994
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