by Daniel Harrell
Our theme is Biblical light, but we’ve spent a good deal of time in the dark in recent weeks. We’ve stumbled through darkness as mystery (the cloudy abode of the Lord), darkness as evil and sin place Jesus says that we love more than the light), and this week into darkness as suffering, expressed no more representatively and bitterly than in the gut-wrenching cries of the blameless man Job. Back at creation God said “let there be light” and called it good. Here Job says “let there be dark” and calls it necessary. “Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come…? Let the stars of its dawn be dark; let it hope for light, but have none; may it not see the eyelids of the morning—because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb, and hide trouble from my eyes.” Add the gloom of pending winter outside, and this might have been the morning to skip church.
Job has had a bad day. An upright man without guile, he tragically lost his house, his kids, his business, his money and his skin. But this is the real shocker: it was all God’s fault. The Lord gets embroiled in a presidential debate with Satan, though I’ll let your own political proclivities sort out which was the Democrat and which the Republican. At issue was the record of the incumbent, in this case the Lord, who in his defense invites the devil to consider his Job record. “Consider my servant Job. There is no one like him on earth. He is blameless and honest and reverent and moral.” Satan concedes that Job’s a fine man, but counters that nobody’s that good for no reason. Satan hisses, “You pamper him like a pet! You make sure nothing bad ever happens to him or his family or his possessions! You bless everything he does! But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away all that is his? He’d curse you right to your face.”
This is no small line in the cosmic sand. As with Noah and Moses and Abraham in their day, Job is exhibit A when it comes to righteousness on earth. Should Job turn out to be a poser, God’s entire relationship project with people would be exposed as fraudulent. Do we worship God because he is Lord? Or merely for the benefits he promises? Where do true loyalties lie? We confess to love the Lord with all of our heart, soul and strength, but there’s only one way to know. As with the ludicrous command that Noah build a boat on dry ground, or the insanity of Moses rescuing a whole nation from slavery with a stick, and that atrocious request that Abraham sacrifice his only son Isaac, the Lord allows for Job to be run through the ringer. To be sifted like wheat. To be put to the test. God kills off Job’s cattle and camels, his house and his servants, his sons and his daughters. Job’s loss is total and cataclysmic. And he passes the test. Despite the enormity of his suffering, he worships the very God who has brought him to ruin. “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”
Satan is not impressed. He cynically rebuts that the real test of faith is endangerment to one’s life. A man will always give up everything to save his own skin. Our genes are wired for self-survival. To see Job’s true character, wreck his body. Make him sick. “Skin for skin,” Satan says. You know it’s bad enough that the Lord and the devil are still on speaking terms, badder still that God lets Satan have at it. The devil does his dirty work, inflicting Job with malignant sores on from the sole of his feet to the crown of his head. “And Job took a broken piece of pottery with which to scrape himself as he sat among ashes.” Job’s wife had enough. She watches her pious husband and loathes him for accepting his doom. “Why do you try to hold on to your integrity?” she screams. “Curse God and die!” But Job replies as he scrapes at the pus, “shall we accept only good from the Lord and not anything bad?”
We have reached a high point in human ridiculousness here. An absurdity of faith. Jewish tradition regards Job as an incomparable saint, but not one single Jewish child has ever been named after him. Jacob and Noah and Daniel remain popular baby boy names from the Bible, Jacob being the top boy name overall this year. But Job? According to the Social Security Administration, no child in America has ever had that name. Why risk it? Job seems to agree: “Let the day be erased in which I was born,” he cries, “that night that said ‘a boy-child is conceived.’ Let that day be darkness, that night—let thick darkness seize it! Let it be blotted off the calendar, never again to be counted among the days of the year.”
Job, with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, is assigned to those books of the Bible labeled “wisdom,” leading many to conclude that Job’s story of Job is more morality tale than real life event. If only that were the case. In our own congregation we’ve prayed for the Thomas family, Jennifer and Bob, who on their way to the funeral following the tragic death of Jennifer’s cousin, got word of the declining health of Bob’s mother. He went to be by her side as she died, only to then have Jennifer’s beloved grandmother die too. At the same time, Bob’s job was in upheaval as his department got eliminated, and then their daughter fractured her elbow playing in the yard. All this occurred as Jennifer planned an annual benefit to raise money for MS Research, a disease that she suffers herself. The dark woes of Job may be consigned to wisdom literature, but they are hardly fictional.
We all suffer our own misery and affliction. Its persistence remains the foremost argument against the existence of God. If the Lord is light, how can life get so dark? We need an explanation. Job initially takes his licks lying down, but even he starts to wonder, especially once his familiar friends from the philosophy club come over to commiserate. We’re mostly remember the obtuse advice they offer later on, but their initial impulse was powerfully compassionate. They see Job but hardly recognize him, his disease and distress were so severe. But rather than draw back as we often do in the presence of extreme misery, these friends draw near and join Job in his ashes. They weep with him seven days, without a word, “for they saw that his suffering was very great.” While in college a classmate of mine died too soon, and his father recalled how at the hospital so many well-meaning church folk came by to comfort by telling him try to find something good in his son’s death. This father later wrote how he wished these friends would have simply sat and cried with him.
Job finally breaks the silence himself, with the bitter words we ponder this morning. His grief outweighed his hope. “My sighing comes like my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water. Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes.” Job’s lament opens the verbal door to his friends, whose loquaciousness runs on for the next thirty-five chapters. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is a hard question. One friend insists that it’s an impossible premise; Job must have committed some crime. Another argues that Job’s misery cannot last if he is truly blameless, while a third suggests Job repent anyway, just in case. A fourth friend comes late to the debate and tells Job to treat his troubles as a guard against future sin—all of which amounts to well-meaning church folks trying to make sense of Job’s suffering. But to Job, his tragedy is all God’s fault. Only the Lord can give him the answer he needs, even if it’s not the answer he wants.
Note that Job loses hope. But he never loses faith. To blame God is to believe in God. “I know that my redeemer lives,” he insists, with words sung every Christmas season in Handel’s Messiah and recited in every funeral liturgy. “I know that my redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and though my skin has been destroyed, in my flesh I shall see God standing on my side,” and I will get my answer.
Both happen. Job sees God and he gets his answer. The Lord appears as we have grown accustomed—in a thick cloud of darkness. God appears and treats Job’s demanding entreaty, not with condescension, but with an invitation to step up. “Who darkens my counsel by words without knowledge?” thunders the Lord. “Stand strong like a man, I have some questions for you.” It’s all very dramatic. God proceeds to riddle Job with an inquisitorial barrage, four chapters long, intended to answer one simple question: “Who are you, Job? Were you there when I laid the foundation of the earth? Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place? Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?”
God answers “who are you” by asking “who am I?” The way we see God always shapes the way we see ourselves. Here God describes himself by resorting to creation. “Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth? Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightning? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?”
Job is duly overwhelmed, though these days the argument is not so sufficient. Astronomers look at the heavens and see a chaotic cosmos, a universe expanding with increasing speed, its planets and stars facing certain annihilation as immense black holes suck away energy and dying nebulae with their roiling cauldrons of gas tear space apart, decimating the night sky. As for life on this planet, its course has been a ravenous evolutionary epic, demanding billions of years of apparent waste and futility, species extermination and organism road kill. The massive dying off has not only been rampant, but mandatory. The emergence of life depends on the death of prior life, millions of generations of mutational and reproductive failure, making for a world where the struggle for survival means cruelty and suffering are standard fare. There has been so much dysfunction, so much excess and error, so much ruin and ravage that to attribute it to any superior, intelligent and benevolent Being is practically an insult.
Of course God knows all about insults. He endured them in person as he cruelly suffered and died on a cross. And yet this darkest moment of divine life is revealed as the supreme expression of divine love. An ancient instrument of ruin and waste ends up as the emblem of extravagant sacrifice, the ultimate reminder of a creator who so loved his creatures that he would suffer everything he made for us: billions of years and billions of galaxies and billions of organisms and his only begotten son that whoever would believe would find real life. Real life that gets lived not in the vacuum of bliss and apparent prosperity, but in the clarity of knowing what truly matters and with empathy and sacrificial love. On the one hand this sounds horribly sadistic—what kind of God operates this way? Only a God willing to suffer himself with us and for us, so that on the other hand, our own unearned suffering might prove redemptive and give us wisdom.
“My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you,” Job acknowledges at the end. “Therefore I despise myself for what I have said and repent in dust and ashes.” And God blesses Job doubly more than he had been before. “I know that you can do all things,” Job confessed. “No purpose of yours can be thwarted.”
Many of us had the honor of joining Jennifer Thomas and family a her MS Benefit where she recited a lyrical and totally logical rant against the ravages of MS and all the ways it has ruined her life, ways that would make it hard to be anything but bitter. But then looking out on a banquet hall packed full of loving family and friends, she surprised us all by thanking God for her MS; thankful for all that it has given her and for all it teaches her. For light that always pierces through darkness. This is the high point of human ridiculousness here. The absurdity of faith. “I know that my redeemer lives,” Job says, “and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and though my skin has been destroyed, in my flesh I shall see God standing on my side.”
What kind of God operates this way? Only a God who suffers for the sake of our redemption, who sets a table with the emblems of his redemption that we might know he stands on our side. Rather than give us an answer, God gives himself in a silent act of love. Rather than explain with words, he weeps with us, dies for us, and then raises us up to the height of human ridiculousness–a resurrected life in him.