Some reactions to suffering from the Book of Job:
I’m not making this up!
Just make it stop!
I’m innocent – I don’t deserve this!
How can I prove I’m innocent?
Everything is pointless
God is capricious and cruel
God is inaccessible
You’ve already made up your mind about me
God is a bully
God has tricked me!
There are two different gods
Maybe I do deserve it
When you’re dead you’re dead
Why won’t God come and talk to me?
Pull yourself together
Making light of his suffering
I have a word from the Lord for you
If I were you …
You must have some secret sin in your life
This is really God blessing you
God must be right, so just fess up
You’re not a very good Jew/Christian
If God really gave you what you deserve …
Who do you think you are?
Just have faith
God can do what he likes with you
Job 1:1 – 2:10 from the hungry? Lifegroup at St Swithin’s Lincoln.
Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages
All three of today’s readings are in some sense about finding (or not) God. Hebrews 4 assures us that we always have complete access to God through Jesus our High Priest, while Mark 10 reminds us that even when we find him we might also find him too demanding, such that we want to lose him again. But poor old Job has a more basic and fundamental dilemma – he can’t find God at all.
A psychiatrist in a famous joke is trying to convince a delusional patient that in fact he isn’t dead. After much fruitless discussion he has an idea: he asks his patient if dead men bleed when cut. ‘Of course not’ came the reply. ‘Dead men don’t bleed!’ So the doctor grabs a nearby scalpel and plunges it into the patient’s arm. Seeing the blood starting to flow, the patient declared in alarm ‘I was wrong – dead men do bleed!’
Job is sitting in the ash heap, bereaved, afflicted and apparently abandoned by God, and as if that isn’t bad enough he has three friends trying to help him by telling him that it’s all his own fault, as we sometimes are today by well-meaning prayer ministry team members who have had it revealed to them by the Lord in a word of knowledge that there is some secret sin in our lives which is preventing us from getting healed. The ‘comforters’, annoying though they are, can’t on one level be blamed: they are upset because their friend’s suffering refuses to fit in with their world-view where all suffering has to be the direct result of personal sin. So they try to force Job to admit his guilt by browbeating him to confess it all, to agree with them that dead men do bleed after all. Difficult thought this proves to be, it is even harder for them to give in and admit that innocent people do suffer.
Job, though, is convinced of his innocence, which of course you could be in those days before Jesus came and complicated it all by saying that to think about it is just as bad as actually doing it. He knew only too well that he hadn’t committed adultery or anything like that, so his friends’ attempts to convince him that somehow he must have done were, understandably, rather annoying to him. So what he needed to do was to get things clear with God, who, he had every confidence, would agree with his take that in fact he was innocent. The problem was that God was nowhere to be found: wherever Job looked, there was nothing but absence.
You may have experienced something like this at some time in your life, and it can be mildly comforting to know that even this sense of complete abandonment has biblical precedent. But the key verse, I think, and the nearest we’ll get to a happy ending for a few chapters yet, comes right at the end of our text. God has terrified Job by his refusal to show up and vindicate him, yet (v 17) ‘I am not silenced by the darkness’. Anyone who has known severely depressed people will know that silence is the hallmark of despair, but Job has not yet got there. While he still has the strength and will to rant against God, he is still alive, and, paradoxically still has hope. It is when we decide simply to ‘curse God and die’ that we are really love. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
The motif of God himself stepping in to care for his people because of the lack of care given by their earthly ‘shepherds’ is not an uncommon one in the OT. Ezekiel notably uses this image in chapter 34. Clearly a metaphor for the kings and rulers of the nation, the shepherds have failed to administer justice or rescue the oppressed and the victims of crime (21:12). Instead they have their hearts set on dishonest gain, oppression and bloodshed (22:17). Therefore God is going to do two things: he is going to step in and shepherd his people himself, and make a proper job of it, but he is also going to raise up a new king who will do what is just and right (23:5). It is not clear whether this will be as well as God’s own care for the people, or after it, or even whether God’s personal ministry will be exercised through this new Davidic king, whom of course we know to be his Son, and whose ministry the gospel reading for today picks up, as he ministers to sheep who have no shepherd at all.
But what is going to happen in the meantime? Clearly in context Jeremiah is writing on the eve of the Babylonian exile, and in this passage he explains, somewhat confusingly, that it is the false shepherds who have ‘scattered’ the people into exile, (v 2), but also that it is God who has done the scattering (v 3) and will also do the re-gathering. This raises an interesting question about the exile, and about our own experiences of suffering and abandonment. When in my other blog I discussed Jonah, I made the point that the whale wasn’t punishment for Jonah: it was rescue, unpleasant and scary though that rescue may have been. Is it possible, therefore, that the exile was less a punishment on the oppressed people, and more a rescue from their oppressors? It is certainly the case that after the exile the monarchy never functioned in the ways it had before: this was real and radical regime change, and it may have been the case that the old system needed not just breaking but destroying totally in order that something more functional could replace it.
Of course there are many other references to the culpability of the ordinary people and their punishment through the exile, but maybe it doesn’t have to be one or the other. When disaster hits us it is a common reaction to ask the question ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ and in some cases there will be a clear answer to that question. But I wonder whether another question, equally valid, might be to ask ‘From what or whom is this going to save me?’ Only this last week I was surprised to hear myself in prayer giving thanks to God for one of the greatest disappointments of my life, because it saved me from what would have ended up as a disastrous career move. Maybe there are things which you can see in the same way. And maybe, like me, you can find new hope and faith in the fact that God’s plans are perfect, painful though they may be at the time.
Image: “Renderklippen 058” by Koosg – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Renderklippen_058.JPG#/media/File:Renderklippen_058.JPG
Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
Being quite keen on the proper Bible I’ve chosen the Lamentations option, the one key purple passage in the book which I have discussed further here. It’s a great passage, standing proud like a lighthouse on the dark stormy seas of the rest of the book, and there is much encouragement to be had from it, but I found myself more interested on this occasion in the later verses, from v 25 onwards, and the advice it gives to suffering Christians.
This mini-section begins with the idea that God’s people (‘those whose hope is in him’) have a God who is basically good to them, although of course it doesn’t always feel like that. Therefore, in holding these two paradoxical truths together, we have to ‘bear the yoke’ and to ‘wait quietly’. It gets worse: we have to sit in silence, remembering that this is in fact God doing all this to them, and to ‘bury our faces in the dust’ in case there is any hope.
This language is uncannily reminiscent of Job’s comforters, and, whilst it reflects Israel’s Wisdom tradition, is in the end rejected by Job in favour of an inscrutable God who has the right to do whatever he likes. Indeed, reiterates the author here, it is God who causes suffering, though he doesn’t do it for fun, and he always mixes it with compassion, because that’s who he is. So are we any the wiser?
As always it will probably help us to set this passage in its historical context, so that we don’t try to make it say something to us which it never intended to say. Stuff it tells us about God is probably reliable, but not necessarily that which it says about our reaction. So let’s go back to the final days before the exile, when the Holy City has been devastated, God’s punishment on an apostate nation has been wreaked, and people are left in despair. So what do we do now?
Well, the author says, the time for penitence in the hope that God will let you off the hook is over. You had every opportunity to turn back to him, but you didn’t, and now there is no way of undoing the punishment which he warned you would come upon you. Your only hope now is to suck it up, keep your heads down and wait. You can be sure that the God who has brought this punishment on you will temper it with compassion, but you will have to sit through it. God would have loved to have seen you repent and therefore avoid this catastrophe, but you weren’t interested, so now you have to take what was coming to you.
This does, I think, put the words in one particular historical setting, and it also sets us free from believing that they apply directly to us today. They underline the importance of reading carefully, of not making blanket transfers down the years and across the miles, and of asking deeper questions about what from here we can take as truth for us today.
We have a God of compassion, but also a God of punishment (I have often said, in the face of our society’s valuing of ‘tolerance’ above all virtues, that God is not tolerant: he’s forgiving, which is a very different thing). He doesn’t enjoy putting people through hard times, but he understands when it is necessary. And, we know from our perspective the other side of the cross, that there is after all the chance to escape punishment, because his Son took it for us. This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.
Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages
The gospel this week is Mark’s story of the stilling of the storm, and the Job passage could be seen as God’s beginning to still the storm which had so viciously rocked Job’s life. After 36 chapters of Job’s agonised philosophising God finally speaks, although his words are not yet the words of comfort for which Job had been hoping. God begins by asking a series of rhetorical questions designed to remind Job who he is and how he has the right and the power to do whatever he likes. God is Lord, not just of Job’s life but also of the created world. He allows storms to scare us, although not ultimately to defeat us.
The phrase ‘Gird up your loins like a man’ is used in the OT as a rough equivalent to ‘grow a pair’. Stop grizzling about your misfortune and get on with it. This seems a bit harsh, as does God’s deliberate reversal of the question and answer dialogue. In 23:5 Job demands some answers from a silent God: if only he knew where to find God ‘I would find out what he would answer me’. But now the roles have been reversed: Job is in the dock and God at the bar, and his questions all demand the answer ‘No’. No, I wasn’t there at the creation, and therefore, by implication, no, I don’t have the knowledge to question or the right to object to your purposes.
Again, a bit harsh, we may think. I have written elsewhere about the book of Job as a whole, and this isn’t the place to repeat it, but nevertheless there are some parallels with Mark’s story, and therefore some insights into the way God handles us. ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ cry the terrified disciples. Behind this, and behind Job’s agony, is the assumption that God’s job in life is to keep everything nice for us, to keep the waters calm so that we may glide along across the millpond of health, wealth and happiness without so much as a ripple to disturb us. Yet Jesus sleeps while the fishermen struggle; God is silent while Job mourns. Yet in both cases there is growth and learning, which wouldn’t have happened without the rocky waters. ‘Who is this?’ ask the disciples. ‘Surely I spoke of things I did not understand’ concludes Job.
In this passage, and the chapters following, God takes job on a whirlwind tour of the cosmos, and shows him scenes he had never encountered in his comfortable life as a pillar of the urban community. He takes him where the wild things are, and shows him the uncontrollable and desolate corners of the universe, places, incidentally, devoid of any human habitation. This walk on the wild side challenges his former predictable lifestyle, and both shrinks him into perspective, yet also elevates him to the privileged position of having been taken on the tour at all. We are left with the question ‘Where would I rather be?’ settled, comfortable and completely unaware of the wildness of life, or on an adventure to see life in all its dangerous, unpredictable fullness.
This faces us up to a big question for the church. The older I get, the more likely I am to opt for comfort and safety. Last weekend my son climbed Helvellyn and walked Striding Edge. I did that once, when I was young, but last weekend I weeded the garden. I used to bung a tent in the back of the car and go off somewhere: now I book a hotel. Increasingly, as the church grows more elderly, we opt for comfort and safety. But a generation younger than us longs for adventure, danger, storms and the thrill of having overcome them. Will we let them lead the church into some of it, or will we go gentle into that good night?
My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …
I’m reading a fascinating if somewhat esoteric book at the moment, but I was struck by the point made by the author that the greatest calling for Christians is to live with joy. After all, he explains, the gospel begins and ends with joy. ‘I bring you good news of great joy’ and ‘They worshipped and returned to Jerusalem with great joy’ (Luke 2:10 and 24:52). Joy goes around the whole thing like a huge pair of brackets. Celebration invites us to life our heads above the flood of things to do and breathe in God’s Spirit. It gives us the excuse to climb the mountain and see the big picture. And of course to give thanks to God for all he is doing is the right thing to do, our duty and our joy.
Schmemann notes that ‘Of all the accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy’.
Disciples, followers of Jesus, are part of this story of joy. We are given it; we are called to live in it, and we are called to shine it out into a miserable world. We are to be spreaders of joy, and we are to know as joyful people.
Note also that the Bible calls us to joy even when life is not joyful by human standards. ‘Consider it pure joy’, says James (1:2) ‘whenever you face trials of many kinds.’ Rejoicing in sufferings is commended throughout the New Testament. It has been said that he who smiles to himself has a secret. Disciples have! We know that whatever this world throws at us, its power to harm us has been taken away. As a friend put it ‘God will never allow you to come to any harm. You might die, but you will never come to any harm’. Disciples have a different take, a different perspective, which will simply not allow us to be grumpy. We are not of this world, just as Jesus wasn’t. Disciples know where they’re headed, and the prospect of that fills us with unutterable joy, even if there are no parking spaces or the printer has crashed again.
A miserable disciple is a contradiction in terms. Not a sad one, note. Life is sad. At times it’s excruciatingly sad. But disciples are not robbed of their joy by mere sadness. We have the gift of joy, and we can’t help but share it with others.
Image: “Baby love” by Gilberto Filho from Salvador, Brasil – baby love. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –
 Schmemann, A For the Life of the World (New York: St Vladimir, 1973) in case you’re interested
 P 24
This week we come to our first book which comes under the category of ‘Wisdom Literature’, although we have already encountered some material which would fit in this genre. Wisdom in the Old Testament has nothing to do with being clever or intelligent: it might best be translated from the French savoir faire, or ‘knowing what to do’. We might also describe a wise person as someone who is ‘streetwise’, who knows the best way to handle any situation. There are three main Wisdom books in the Old Testament, and it is helpful to understand them in terms of building a house. Proverbs, which we’ll come to in a fortnight, is a book of instructions about the best way to build; Job is about what happens when that house gets struck by lightning or some other disaster; Ecclesiastes is about a house which has got old, tired and is falling down. But in addition there are other bits of wisdom literature scattered about the Bible: Many of the Psalms are ‘wisdom’ psalms, and there are some great wisdom stories, like that of Joseph in Genesis. Joseph is the ‘wise’ man who handles everything well, even though little goes right for him at the start, while his brothers play the part of the ‘fools’ who get everything wrong and are duped by him (although being a wise man he makes everything OK in the end).
So what about poor old Job? The book begins with a string of disasters coming hot on the heels of one another. When he has lost pretty much everything he is met by a bunch of his friends who try to act as philosophers to comfort him by giving explanations as to why he is so deep in the muck. There are clues that the book was put together pretty late in the OT period: for example in 1:4 Job’s sons hold feasts ‘in their homes’: we know that this splitting up of an extended family’s home is a late development. We can also recognise in the words of his friends some current philosophical movements which would have come to the fore as Greek culture began to spread through the Near East. We can trace through the OT a development from, for example, Psalm 1 where the righteous get everything on a plate while the wicked suffer, to a much greater appreciation of the fact that real life is nowhere near as simple as that. It is generally thought that a common folk tale about a man who loses everything and then gets it back was extended with 38 chapters of philosophical and theological debate.
So how are we to read Job? With a damp towel around our heads, for a start. It is a horrific story, and anyone who has known suffering or watched as others have suffered will be able to recognise the agonised soul-searching of the victim. Pastorally it has much to say about our well-meaning but so often misguided attempts to help those going through the mill with platitudes which may be theologically correct but are no help at all. But it has another dimension which is fascinating: The Satan (or ‘The Accuser’) has access to God’s throneroom and is allowed to bring suffering to God’s people. While this exchange sounds, to be honest, a bit petty and nasty on God’s part, the deeper truth is that while Job is going through such agony he is completely unaware that in a parallel universe there are things going on which affect his little life down here. So much of what we don’t understand may well have an extra dimension of which we’re not aware.
But the other truth to shine through these pages is that God is God and ultimately he has the right to do what he likes. So often we hear people telling us that ‘I can’t believe in a God who …’ or ‘I don’t believe in Hell’ or whatever. In the final couple of chapters poor Job gets a right telling off for daring to question God. Who does he think he is? But at the end of the day he does question, and in doing so gives permission for all who suffer unjustly not just to submit quietly to it. Of course Job ends up with no answers, but it’s good that he has asked the questions.
As we enter Holy Week we are looking at some particularly New Testament stories as we walk through the week with Jesus and reflect on some of the events of these fateful days. But in spite of this the OT readings can help illuminate the narrative, and give greater understanding to those seeking to travel the way of the cross.
Our first passage is from one of Isaiah’s ‘Servant Songs’ which we have encountered before in this series. We’ve discussed just whom the ‘Servant’ is, and said that most likely he represents the Israelite community, not as it actually was in the 6th century, but in an idealised way: this is what Israel would be like if it was perfectly living out its vocation as the nation chosen by God to make him known to all the other nations of the world. So the first thing which strikes us, and we’re going to see this even more clearly before this week is out, is that God’s calling involves suffering. We so often live with the sense that if we were really really in the centre of God’s will life would be great: indeed much of the OT tells us precisely that that’s how it should be. Yet the Servant Songs give the lie to this: to live in obedience to God is to suffer, as so many Christians have found out. Beating, mocking, spitting: these are the daily currency of Christians in many parts of our world, reminding us of the Jesus who said that he had come not to bring peace, but rather the sword, representing conflict. As we journey through Holy Week the conflict becomes steadily more overt, and culminates, of course, on the cross.
Yet like the Servant whose ministry is perfected in him, Jesus faces his calling with determination and confidence. He knows that the Sovereign God helps him, so he grits his teeth and goes onward, knowing that there will be vindication, and that all those who have so violently opposed him will be proved wrong once and for all. ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!’ might be a translation, albeit a bit approximate, of v 8b. And have a go they do, but even death can’t keep him down. The Sovereign Lord has the last word.
I think we sometimes go through Holy Week with the kind of attitude which realises how terrible it all was for Jesus, but thanks God or its lucky stars that he did it instead of us. Isaiah would remind us, perhaps, at the start of the week that this kind of suffering is not exceptional. It is the reality for many Christians, and it ought perhaps to be ours. Certainly we are promised no immunity, and to walk Holy Week with our faces set like flint to obey God come what may might just give a sobering jolt to our British consumerist, comfort-driven faith.