Have you ever tried to cut a deal with God? Have you ever been in a situation where things looked grim and you said to yourself (and to God), If you get me out of this, or if you heal my loved one, then I’ll (fill in the blank). How did that work out for you? Did God come through for you? If so, did you follow through with your side of the bargain?
Have you ever been in a situation where you wondered, “Why is this happening to me?” Why did I lose my job, or have a relationship break up, or get sick? Have you ever asked “Why am I suffering when all my friends are thriving?
Have you ever had a friend come up to you in a time of struggle and say something like, “Well, God never gives you more than you can bear?” Did you want to smack them when they said that?
Do you wonder why God allows suffering in the world—why millions of refugees have to flee intractable, violent, and unending wars in the Middle East and Central Asia; why hurricanes and earthquakes ravage across the globe, why homeless people are condemned to wander the streets at night because there is no place for them to sleep?
Human beings have asked these questions, or questions very like them, ever since we first began to reflect on our lives and mortality. We’ve also tried to answer them throughout the millennia. The book of Job is one of the most powerful of such reflections on the problem of suffering.
Last week, we heard some of Job’s complaint. This week we hear from God. As a condensed version of the book of Job, these readings aren’t enough to give us a sense of what’s really going on in this book.
Most of you know something of the story of Job. He was a righteous man, wealthy, had a large family, and suddenly all of that was taken away from him. His cattle and property were destroyed, his children and their families killed. After all of that misfortune, he continued to believe in God, saying, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Then he was beset by some sort of skin ailment, so painful that he took a potsherd, a piece of pottery and scratched himself in hopes of getting some relief. At this point, his wife told him, “Curse God and die.”
But Job refused. As he sat in the street scratching himself, three friends came to visit him. They offered counsel. They were convinced that Job’s misfortunes were due to something he had done wrong. He was being punished for his sins. They told him that if he confessed his sins to God, perhaps God would forgive him and release him from his suffering.
But Job would have none of it. He asserted his righteousness. He was a good man and his sufferings were not caused by something he did wrong. This may be the point where the story of Job as you’ve heard it diverges from the story as written. And this hinge point brings us to the heart of one of humanity’s great questions—why is there evil, or suffering in the world?
We scramble for explanations of such suffering but the answers for which we reach often seem inadequate, even laughable, as when televangelists explain a hurricane or tsunami on the evil of the place and the people who have experienced the wrath of nature. In our own lives, the answers we offer, as inadequate as they may be, help us fit our suffering and pain in a larger narrative. God may be punishing me, we think.
Job lived in a world in which there were straightforward answers to these questions. If you were a good man, God blessed you with wealth and prosperity. If you suffered in some way, God was punishing you for your iniquity. That world view is seductive even in our own day. There are those who claim even now, that God rewards faithfulness with material wealth. And even if we are too sophisticated to believe that material prosperity is a sign of our goodness, most of still operate by the notion that if we work hard and do well, we will be successful in life (of course this economy seems to be laying bare the falsehood of that assumption).
That’s what Job and his friends thought. God rewarded righteousness with material prosperity and God punished iniquity with suffering. So when his friends come to Job to commiserate with him, they urge him to confess whatever sin it was for which he is being punished. Job resists them because he insists that he is a righteous man, he has committed no sin for which he deserves such punishment.
We might be inclined to condemn him right there, for it seem rather presumptuous, arrogant, to assert one’s righteousness. But remember, God had already deemed Job righteous, back in chapter 1. And Job would continue to insist on his righteousness.
Abandoned by his wife and friends, Job turns to God for answers. In the course of a lengthy series of speeches, Although he begins by cursing the day he was born) to address God directly. He speaks from the depths of his experience, from his pain, anger, despair. He addresses God with all honesty. He begs God to answer him. And in this move the author of Job reflects his genius and his deep humanity. Job’s words are the words of one who suffers; they are the pleas of anyone who suffers great pain or loss. They are words of despair, but in the midst of that despair, they are also words of hope and faith. For even if it seems that God has given up on Job, Job has not given up on God. In chapter 13:15, Job says, “Though he kill me, yet I will hope in him. I will defend my ways to his face.”
And finally, after all of those speeches from Job’s friends and from Job; after all of Job’s complaints and his friends’ criticisms. After chapters in which it seems the same themes and ideas are repeated over and over again. For chapters, we have heard from everyone, but God has remained silent. Finally, finally, God speaks. And this is God’s response to Job:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
And what a response! What is God saying? In short, shut up. Remember who you are and who I am. I’m God, the creator of the universe, and you are a lowly human being.
Now what sort of answer is that? How does that explain what Job has suffered? Well, it doesn’t and on one level, the answer is unsatisfactory. On the other hand, God’s answer to Job remind us of who we are, who God is, and the world in which we live. God’s speeches describe the awesome beauty of creation, the diversity of animals, the majesty and beauty of nature. By reminding Job of his place in creation, God also reminds Job that he is not its center.
There’s something else in this speech that is an important message to us. Job’s original worldview (the worldview of wisdom literature of which this book is an example) insists that the universe is orderly and rational. If you do the right thing, you will be rewarded. You can derive rules for living by carefully observing the world around you. The biblical notion of creation underscores the idea that the universe is orderly, rational, and good. The Psalmist describes the universe’s order:
O LORD, how manifold are your works! *
in wisdom you have made them all;
Of course, things don’t always happen in an orderly, reasonable fashion. What Job is struggling with is the randomness of life and as he speaks throughout the text, he begins to wonder whether instead of rational and orderly, the universe is chaotic and meaningless. God’s response challenges that notion, too. It’s not just that Job is not the center of the universe, it’s also that he is unable to comprehend the order and reason that God has imposed on creation.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?”
Ultimately, we may not be able to comprehend God’s nature. God’s reasons may remain beyond our capacity to understand. Thanks be to God this is not God’s final answer to humanity. Our gospel reading reminds us. The God we know as creator is also the God who came to us in Jesus Christ, the God who died on the cross. That death on the cross, a death of great suffering in the midst of terrible oppression, is a symbol of God’s love for the world. It is also the good news that God is present with us when we suffer, God is present in the midst of suffering. We may not be able to understand it, we may not be able to bear it, and sometimes, we may not be able to sense it, but there in our suffering the God who died on the cross suffers with us, too.