The Strength to Utter What We Don’t Understand 10/25/09

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

The Story of Job: Is this a setup?

In approaching Job, we get the distinct feeling that we’re being set up … God bets an angel that Job is really and truly devoted to God.  The angel takes the bet and takes away all that Job has.  His job, his money, his land, his children, his health; Job has nothing left.  We are most certainly being set up … but for what?  Historical person or not, Job’s story poses serious questions for us about the nature of God and the nature of human suffering.  In the end, this is not a tale about the wonderful awesomeness of God.  In fact, it is a very challenging discussion of who God is and how God operates.  In the end, this is a tale of humanity, and it is a tribute to all the pain that we endure and encounter for the simple reason that we are human.

Job’s wife tells him to give up.  Job’s friends tell him that he must have majorly screwed up for God to be this angry with him.  And Job defends God!  He says, “No, I’m innocent!  I have not caused my own suffering and whatever God’s reasons are, I believe that he is and will be on my side.”  I wonder how many times we might fall into being the kind of friends that Job has.  How many times do we sit with someone in pain, not knowing what to say or how to make it better?  How many of us have heard well-intentioned people say something to us that just made it hurt that much more.  I think of those thoughts in the back of our heads … and sometimes on the tips of our tongues.  We imagine that those who cannot handle stress have high blood-pressure, those who are lazy have high cholesterol, and those who cannot cope develop depression.  But almost any health care worker will tell you that while there may be strong indicators, there are no complete cause and effects like that.  But still sometimes that thought sits in the back of our head when we look at the suffering that those around us endure. 

Or there’s the well-intentioned statement, “this must have happened for a reason.”  But try telling that to the parents of a child with cancer, or a child whose parent just had an aneurysm .  Even if Job knew the reason that all those things happened to him … I doubt he would have found it very comforting.  In fact, maybe this is a helpful reminder that life is far too complex to always be able to pinpoint blame or why something has happened, and even knowing the why may not help us with how to live in the reality that life for us humans is tremendously difficult and involves a lot of pain.

The danger of a ‘happy-ending’ mentality

But there’s something that’s even harder than living with pain … and that is living with life once the suffering is over.  Job gets everything back; his prosperity, 10 children, everything.  Does this make everything better?  I would imagine that Job still has a lot of issues to work through with his therapist.  This is not a Hollywood ‘happily ever after’ scenario where everything went perfectly for Job from here on out.  In November 1942, Winston Churchill gave a radio broadcast and said, “This is not the end.  This is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps the end of the beginning.”  The relief of suffering, as Job experienced, is not the end of our reliance on God.  It is, instead, an opening into a more honest and deeper faith in God.

There is a popular book making the rounds called The Shack by Wm. Paul Young.  Essentially, this book is asking many of the same questions that Job is.  The main character, Mack, goes to a Shack where his daughter was murdered to meet God for a weekend.  What he discovers there is difficult for him to digest, and it is somewhat fantastic in nature, but it is an invitation to know God more fully, to question God openly, and to be in relationship with God in a way that was not possible (and perhaps not necessary?) until now.

What is faithfulness?

Job, the patient sufferer, makes us ask, “What is faithfulness?”  It seems wrong to question God, to doubt God, to be angry with God, but Job does all of these things and it does not stop Job from believing in and relying on God.  Faithfulness, basically, is an honest relationship with God.  Sometimes that means yelling at God, sometimes it means pleading with God for help, other times it means praising God, and still other times it means defending God.

The tale of Job is the tale of triumph, the triumph of humanity.  While Job is still suffering, sitting in the ash heap picking at his boils, he finds the strength the rise up and utter what he does not understand.  He finds the audacity to praise God, whom he does not understand and whom he possibly doesn’t even like anymore.  The human heart is God’s triumph, because it is capable of such amazing things.  We tell these stories over and over, where someone digs just a little deeper to find the strength to cross a finish line they thought they would never see.  This is perhaps what William Wordsworth celebrates in his poem recounting a lost childhood:

                What though the radiance which was once so bright
                Be now for ever taken from my sight,
                Though nothing can bring back the hou
                Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
                We will grieve not, rather find
                Strength in what remains behind
                In the primal sympathy
                Which having been must ever be;
                In the soothing thoughts that spring
                Out of human suffering;
                In the faith that looks through death,
                In years that bring the philosophic mind.

                Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
                Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
                To me the meanest flower that blows can give
                Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears[1]

The thing that sticks out with me, is that when God restores Job, he has already been changed by his encounters with God.  God restores him to community.  Job prays on behalf of his friends, and his family gathers together to comfort Job and sympathize with him for all the evil that the Lord had brought him.  They helped him to grieve and mourn!  When enduring pain, we have the tendency to isolate ourselves from others, not knowing how to be around others and be a “downer.”  Suffering gives us the feeling that we must suffer alone, but finding the strength to rise up and mourn together allows us to struggle together in our faith.  And perhaps if we struggle well enough and long enough, we too will find the courage to utter what we don’t understand and praise God even when it does not make sense to us.

Let us pray: God sometimes it all seems to meaningless and we lose hope.  With all the pain in the world, we are scared to trust; we are scared to doubt you.  Help us to shout our questions to you and sing your praises just as loudly.  When we don’t understand cannot see clearly, help us to find the strength to rise from our ashes and claim the triumph that we find in being human and being Christ-like.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

[1] William Wordsworth.  Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, 180-190, 205.


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