The Persistence of IntegrityOctober 8, 2000, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do people suffer, when there is no apparent reason for their suffering? Does bad come from the hand of God as well as good? If God does not actually create evil, and is superior to evil’s power, why does God permit us to experience its work in life? These are questions that are as old as humankind.
There is another set of questions that accompany those, if you think of the issue from God’s perspective, which is what this book is attempting to get us to do. Can humans love and serve God simply for God’s self alone? Can humans trust God to know what God is doing when circumstances make absolutely no sense from a human perspective? Is the human divine relationship one which truly recognizes God to be God and honors and worships God for that alone, or, must there be some sort of quid pro quo working - must there always be some payoff for us before we love and serve God? These are the questions which lie behind the book of Job.
Most scholars view the book as historical fiction. Now when I was a school boy I learned that non-fiction was true and fiction was not. Sorry, that was my fifth-grade teacher’s limited view. Only later would I learn that there are some things so true that only fiction can express them, which is the case with this book. The story seems based upon the life of a well known, God-fearing and righteous man from antiquity who, in spite of his saintliness, suffered notorious calamity for reasons not of his own causing. Through it all he remains persistent in his integrity. That is how God describes Job to Satan in today’s lesson. Job is unlike any other person on the earth, says God, “a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. After losing everything he had, he still persisted in his integrity.”1
A few words of explanation about the book might be helpful here, for we will be reading it all of this month. First of all, Satan in this story ought not to be confused with the Devil of the New Testament. The name “Satan” in Hebrew means “adversary” or “accuser” and has far more in common with a District Attorney than a drug lord, is more like a quality control engineer than someone maliciously setting out to do in production all together. In the development of Israel’s theological consciousness at the time this is written, God is the source of both good and bad in one’s life. It all depends upon how one lives. And so, Satan here is not the New Testament’s angel in rebellion against God, wreaking evil and warfare against God and God’s people. Rather, Satan is God’s quality control agent, a member of the divine court who has been dispatched to roam up and down on the face of the earth checking out God’s most curious and unreliable creation – humankind. If you ponder that for a moment, it begins to make plenty of sense. Can you think of any other creature God has created more in need of quality control than human beings? That is Satan’s job in the Old Testament.
Second, the word “fear God” is not about quaking in terror at the likelihood of unlimited divine retribution if one steps out of line. Rather this is the ancient use of the word “fear” which means to revere, love and respect. In fact, this is what is at issue in Job. This book turns on those two questions with which I began this sermon, one asked on earth and the other in heaven. From our side the question is “Why do the righteous or innocent suffer?” From God’s side the questions is “Can humans love and serve God for God’s sake, or must there always be something in it for them?”2 Is Job truly a saintly man in every regard who loves God for God’s own sake alone? Or, is his devotion predicated upon what’s in it for Job?3 Now in case you didn’t notice, we skipped a full chapter in the reading of the lesson. In that chapter Satan has filed his charge against Job. Job is saintly, alleges Satan, because it pays off. Look at the way the Lord has rewarded Job, building a fence of divine protection around him, his house and all that he has, causing him to prosper in all regards. Take it away, says Satan to God, and watch, Job will curse God to his face.4 And so God gives Satan permission to take it all away.5
Now before you go running headlong into allegations of your own against God, asking, “How can the Lord let himself get drawn into such a wager with Satan?”, remember that this is first and foremost a story, and its focus is on Job, not God. And, the reason the story is being told is that calamity has come to the community in which there are some known to be blameless, or at least think themselves so. Consequently, there are a significant number of people not only blaming God for their predicament, they are about to give up on God altogether because the relationship with God has not produced the security they had expected. Scholars think this book was written just about the time of the Babylonian exile. If that is correct, it addresses those who were blaming God for their loss to Babylon, the destruction of the Temple, and their consequent captivity and slavery. “How can God let this happen to me?” It’s a very common human response. “What have I done to deserve this? Is God punishing me for that dishonest business deal, my participation in the atrocities of war, too many years of smoking, or not taking better care of myself?” Notice, if you will, that each of those things just described is quite capable of exercising its own judgment in a person’s life without God so much as lifting a finger. Much that we indulge in brings its own judgment, whether or not God exists. God is not necessary for the consequences of any of those things to come home to roost. Why then do we inevitably seek to blame God when they happen? Because it seems easier to blame another and make ourselves a victim than to accept responsibility for our own actions and behaviors. The Book of Job is about innocent suffering, not suffering that is the result of our own behavior.
Job is innocent. Job is a victim. He has had nothing to do with this. In fact, it is his very rectitude, his uprightness, his unwavering fear of the Lord that has made him a candidate for victimization. Let me pause for a moment to remind us that this is still a truth about life. We still live in a “go along and get along” world where we are regularly asked to compromise what we hold dear about life, our values, beliefs and commitments. And those who make the compromise seem to move along unscathed, at least for the moment. Occasionally there is a discovery, a scandal as people get caught with their hands in the till, or setting prices, or participating in other illegalities for the sake of a little extra profit. And always, we ask ourselves “What were they thinking?” What they were thinking was that it was better to go along and get along than to hold onto their integrity. It was better to fade a bit, vacillate just a little, than to be singled out and bear the brunt of scorn or rejection by the boss if not the group.
But Job is a victim precisely because he is persistent in his integrity. And to make matters worse, Satan ups the ante – “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give for their lives.”6 And so Job is subjected to intense suffering because he refuses to abandon his hope and trust in God and his conviction that he has done nothing deserving of his difficulties. He will neither blame himself nor God. Even when his wife joins the dialogue. Whether a foolish temptress or a loyal yet even more foolhardy partner, she is the first proponent of “death with dignity.” Is she trying to ease her husband’s pain and convince him to let go of his stubborn notions about God’s justice and die in peace? Or, is she herself convinced that this notion of God is a fiction, and therefore the best one can do with life is broker the most advantageous deal? Both are possible on the face of the text. The point however is this: Job does not relent.7 He is persistent in his integrity. “Foolish woman!” he says, “Can we receive good from God and not receive the bad?”
Job’s characterization of his wife as “foolish woman” is not a denigration of women’s character in general. Nor is Job questioning his wife’s intellectual ability. Rather, the word “fool” here suggests those human beings who possess no moral sense, those people obtuse to matters of faith and Spirit and the consequences of that in life. We will talk more about Job’s wife next week.
Job will not relent. His persistence of integrity enables him to endure not only the hardship and suffering, but also the added scorn which will come to him though none other than his friends. Each will arrive and bring him the popular wisdom of the day. Job will persist, challenging their assertions and resisting their easy answers. His singular trust in God and his determination to not misrepresent himself are the only things that sustain him. Job knew that God does not mete out punishment capriciously on the innocent, and he knew that he had done nothing to deserve the suffering that had fallen on him. He didn’t have any other answers, but that much he knew. What he could not know was that in his suffering, a greater purpose was being served.
This is one of the eternal truths that emerges from this book. Not all suffering is transparent. Not all suffering is deserved. True, there is much that we can trace to our own behavior. Yet, still, there is suffering in life way beyond proportion to one’s individual deeds. This book tells us that there are times when our lives are caught up in dramas greater than ourselves, and for purposes more important than our momentary happiness. The innocent do suffer. Yet, God is a God who is able to work through such suffering to bring redemption. That is, of course, what the cross is all about. There the most innocent – the only innocent person that has ever lived – suffered and died a true victim, in order that the world might be redeemed. The closest the Book of Job will get to giving us an answer to the question about innocent suffering is that God uses it for reasons we cannot understand. This is to say that you and I are never in a position to see the whole story. We can never know what God is up to, and even if we could, we would not understand how it fits in our lives. That is why innocent suffering, if it is understandable at all, is so only after the fact.
In the end, Job will take his question to the only place faith can finally take such questions – to God himself. And only then will Job get enough perspective to see what has been going on. When God finally responds to Job’s challenge, arrives and gives an account of himself, Job is overwhelmed. He is overwhelmed by God’s presence, to be sure. But more, he is astonished by the complexity of what he had thought was an easy question. Out of that experience Job receives his answer: something vaster than he could comprehend was going on in his life. His ordeal was cosmic as well as personal. And so the book closes without giving us a satisfactory answer to the question of why the innocent suffer.
But that is not its purpose. The Book of Job neither explains the mystery of human suffering nor attempts to “justify the ways of God” in dealing with humankind. Rather, the book asks us to consider Job, persistent in his integrity, so that you and I might thereby gain some insight into how authentic faith responds in the midst of suffering.8
What does the persistence of such integrity look like for you this morning? Where is it that pressures exist for you to go along to get along? Where are you suffering because you are being true to who you know God wants you to be? Is there one in your family who no longer believes he or she serves a purpose and it is time to seek what the people of Oregon euphemistically call “death with dignity?” What does this Book tell you about that? What are the moral consequences of your spiritual connections? What does your faith demand of you in the day to day marketplace of your life? Are there descendants of Job’s wife urging easier answers than the ones circumscribed in the persistence of integrity. Do you and I love God only because of what is in it for us? Or is there something about the divine/human relationship that compels us to be here simply for God’s sake? Job does not tell us why we may suffer innocently. What it does tell us is that God does not abandon those who in such suffering remain persistent in their integrity, but sustains them and brings them to new life.
When suffering comes, will you play Job’s wife, curse God and die? Or, will you, like Job, persist in your integrity, trusting that God is at work in your life?
- Job 2:3b
- J. Gerald Janzen, Job, Interpretation, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), p. 50.
- It is the religious question emerging within Israel as they settle into exile. Was their love for God only a quid pro quo to assure security and success?
- Job 1:9-11
- God’s sovereignty has been preserved, Satan is still operating only at God’s behest.
- Job 2:4b
- Job’s wife’s remark can be read one of two way: as scorn, or as a loyal wife pleading with him to give up the pretense and its pain and die.
- Samuel Terrien and Roland E. Murphy, “Job,” (introductory remarks) The New Oxford Annotated Bible, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 625 OT.
- Not Ashamed to Call Them Brethren - October 4, 2015
- Wisdom’s Word on Suffering: Why? - October 7, 2012
- Seven Staggering Claims - October 4, 2009
- Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage - October 8, 2006
- The Cost of Righting the Wrong - October 5, 2003
- The Persistence of Integrity - October 8, 2000
- Who is Jesus, Really? - October 5, 1997
- The Awful Question - October 2, 1994
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