When There Is Nothing to Say
Job 38:1-11, 16-18 | May 30, 2021
I trained as a chaplain in my final year of theology school at Grady Memorial Hospital. The hospital was Atlanta’s equivalent of Chicago’s Cook County Hospital. I had no idea of just how deep and unprepared I was for what I was about to encounter. If I had, I likely would have run as fast as I could from the experience. There were no cell phones then, with a variety of pleasant sounds you can choose from, through which the hospital staff could contact me to the area of the hospital where I was needed. There were only pagers with a loud blaring sound that went off at all times of day and night to let me know that somewhere in the hospital there was a crisis that demanded my immediate presence. I was a young, unexposed privileged white boy attempting to make a difference in a place where seasoned pastors would be challenged.
Late one night, as I was settling into the chaplain’s overnight room, hoping to have a peaceful night with some sleep, the pager stunned me to attention. When I called the emergency department, I was told that the matriarch of a large African-American family had died suddenly of a heart attack and that the my presence was needed immediately. When I was at the end of the hall, I could hear the screaming and the crying of the family. Before entering the room, I was told by a stressed and stern emergency room nurse that they needed me to get the family out of that room as quickly as possible.
The noise and the chaos made it difficult to know who to first to approach or how even to get their attention. I stood there, overwhelmed, simply not knowing what to do; I made some faint attempt to announce that I was the chaplain here to help them, but no one seemed to notice. One younger woman, a daughter, had wrapped herself around the body her beloved mother as if clutching for dear life. She was beyond being consoled.
I felt a need to say something and break my own discomfort with my silence, so not knowing what else to say, I said to the daughter, “Would you like me to pray with you?” She turned to me, looked at me with tear filled fierce eyes and shaking her fist she said, “Can your prayers bring me back my mother? Why would your God take my mother from me? She is all I had.” It was not a question she was looking for me to answer for her, which is a good thing. I sure did not have one and was stunned into silence.
The questions about the pain and the suffering in the world is a question that nags at us all.
• Much of the time, we manage to find a way to put such questions aside and go about our lives, and, if we do entertain them, we often do so in detached intellectual speculative mode, as some college students do late night in their dorm rooms.
• It is not until we experience heartbreak and tragedy that the questions become focused with emotion, as it did that night for that daughter at the hospital.
• Why do we have such suffering and evil in this world? How can God be loving and all powerful and allow evil and cruelties to happen to the innocent?
Today I do not pretend to have a definitive answer to what is the most difficult of questions in our faith. But I do believe that the writer of the Book of Job offers us a reframing of our perspective and help for our faith.
Sometime thousands of years ago, someone whose name we do not know sat down and put pen to paper and created a dramatic narrative that still speaks to us in our own time. What becomes clear when we observe this ancient drama is that this writer must have known much about the suffering of the innocent and was no longer buying the traditional explanations for it. He could no longer accept the idea that if bad things happen to us then we must somehow have brought it on ourselves by sins we have committed or the good we have failed to do. For him, the world does not operate by that simple formula. There is some truth in the idea that the good you put into the world often comes back to you and the evil you put in the world comes back to bite you. That argument is diminished by the reality that good people suffer terrible things that they have done nothing to deserve, while evil people seem to escape unscathed.
The writer begins his drama: “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” That line, for some, suggests that this is an historical story, but I hear it as a great line written by a gifted writer setting up the theme of his book or drama. He is telling us, in no uncertain terms, that the star of the drama, Job, is as good of a human being as has ever lived.
But then, one day, God is in heaven surrounded by His court of heavenly beings and advisors. One of them, a respectable member of God’s royal court, has just returned from a trip to earth and comes to report back to God. His name in Hebrew is ha-satan, not to be confused with Satan, an idea that in Judaism does not develop for another 200 years. This accuser is not a separate operator in opposition to God, but rather a sort of prosecutor who finds fault on earth and presents the evidence of wrong-doing to God, so that God may issue His judgments.
God says to him, “Have you seen on earth my good servant Job? There is no one on earth like him, he is blameless and upright and always turns away from evil.” “Yes, I know Job, a good man, but have You really ever considered that the only reason he is that good is because You have blessed him with everything? A loving wife; all those children; thousands of animals and all the servants he needs to take care of them. You have put him in a bubble so that no harm ever comes to him. No wonder he is so good. Who wouldn’t be that good if they were given so much. But I bet you something. You take away all that he has and we will see just how good this servant Job is.”
That is what happens. God allows his servant Satan to take away everything; his children, his animals, his servants, only his wife remained and Job was spared, but not from painful boils all over his body. It is the most disturbing part of the story, but a necessary part, to setup the drama of this play.
With everything gone, Job hangs out on a dung heap as his friends (so called friends—some will say) come by to support him. They sit for the longest time in silence with him, which is about the best thing they could have done, but sooner or later what they are thinking comes pouring out. After hearing Job angrily tell them what God has done and how he has done nothing to deserve this, they begin to defend God and their world view. Surely there is some sin or omission that has brought this on, and he would do well to name it, repent of it, and maybe God will relent.
They defend an old way of thinking that you can find in Holy Scripture. The good prosper and the evil perish. Do what is right and you will have good consequences. Do what is wrong, and there is going to be negative consequences. God is the one in heaven looking down and keeping an account. Isn’t that what we tell our children all the time? You cleaned your room and got your homework done, so let’s go for ice cream. You picked on your brother when I told you to stop, too bad, so sad, you’ve lost your electronics. Understandable. But it is no wonder that as we leave home and grow up we conclude that if bad things happen to us, then I must have done something to deserve this. We find it reassuring to imagine that we are ALWAYS the masters of our destiny. How much more frightening to think maybe we just do not control everything that happens to us.
Like Job’s friends there are those who will tell us when evil befalls us that “You’ve got to dig deeper; you are missing something.
• You cut your pledge and bought an expensive new car?
• You passed that beggar, day after day, sitting there on the street and never gave him a dime?
• You worked too hard and too long of hours, and weren’t the dad you should have been? Hey, what goes around comes around.
In our story, Job defends his innocence. He knows that nothing he has done can be the reason for this. Remember, even God has said as much. Job is as good as they get. Job continues to rage at God. Off and on for thirty-seven chapters, Job pleads his case and finally says, “I have done everything you ever asked me to! Why is this happening to me?”
Then out of the whirlwind God finally speaks to Job. Gird up your loins like a man, “I will question you, Job, and you shall declare to Me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”
When God is finished, God has not answered Jobs questions. The questions of why we suffer as we do go unanswered. But Job responds with great humility: “I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” Has God just successfully side-stepped the issue, like the best politicians, and has Job been sucked in and given up? Or has something else just taken place? Maybe what has happened is that the question of suffering has been placed into a large context and we are being invited to make a paradigm shift in our thinking.
Dr. Rev. Amy Butler says we are being invited to assemble a new way of thinking about our relationship with God. We are being invited to accept that God does not place an invisible shield that will protect us from all life’s adversities and pain – for whatever reason that is the way it is. Job has come to a new place in his relationship with God. He understands that his relationship with God is not about rewards and punishments. If we accept this new way of thinking, then we are released from some faulty barter system, where we are always trying to gain God’s approval or avoid God’s disapproval and wondering if we have received an “A” or an “F.”
In this experience with God, of honest confrontation, Job’s relationship with God has been transformed. Job has said his truth and God has not punished him for doing so. Like two people who have been through an honest struggle with one another, there is an appreciation and mutual respect towards one another. God says to Job, “I believe in you, Job. Human life is full of pain and you are an active participant in the divine relationship, and I believe that that relationship is ultimately what is important.”
Think about it, for those of us who have kids, we all hope our relationship with them, one day, when they are older gets to a place where the relationship is not about them looking for getting things from us or measuring whether we think that are being good or bad or doing the right or wrong thing. We hope we can get to the place where all those misunderstandings and judgment about our parenting are not as important as they once were. We want it to move beyond a transactional relationship to one of mutual respect. Mature loving relationships cease to be about what we get or give, but about simply loving the other person for who they are. Maybe this means forgiving God, and if that makes you feel too uncomfortable, then getting to a place after a long, long, struggle where you can let go because you understand that God, through it all, has ultimately loved you unconditionally, and there are some things you will never understand about your parents, and even more so about the creator of heaven and earth.
Then we can sing that song I used to teach to my youth groups:
Our God is an awesome God.
He reigns from heaven above.
With wisdom, power, and love,
Our God is an awesome God.