"Bewilderment and moral outrage" - Job part 2...

NOTE: My worship notes for Lent II 2015. My in-worship series on Job continues with a look at what Job's friends teach us about religion without compassion.
The great Jewish author and ethicist, Elie Wiesel, once said about the Book of Job that throughout his ups and downs, God’s servant never lost his faith even in the midst of his most anguishing trials.  He may, however, have lost his mind at times – and it is to that development that I want to call our attention today. Specifically, I want to share with you some thoughts and reflections based upon two broad challenges:

+  First, how Job’s friends respond to his grief and agony. These three individuals love Job. They are people of faith and integrity. But what they say and do bring no hope or compassion to Job. And in this, the book of Job offers a biting critique of the ways traditional religions often response to suffering. Job’s friends make it clear that more often than not we get it wrong – so I want to spend a little time with Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar – Job’s three pious friends.

+  And second, I want to share with you Job’s response to both his own physical, emotional and spiritual agony and the truly unhelpful counsel that comes from his friends.  For what Job shows us – and expresses – is a healthy and holy use of anger.  And because Christians are so often uncomfortable with anger, I think it could be redemptive to pay attention to what God’s servant Job does with it, ok?

So, first the words and actions of Job’s friends and then Job’s angry response. And I am going to ask you to pray with me so that we might be grounded for this time of study and spiritual searching:

Our heart is comforted in its awareness of you, O Lord, for you are the soul within our soul and the life within all life.  Center us in your grace and open us to your truth that we might grow in faith, hope and love according to the pattern of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Because this study is cumulative, I wonder if anyone might be able to recap what we talked about last week so that everyone is starting from the same place. What broad themes did I share with you last week about the start of Job’s story? What has happened to him according to the beginning of the book? Does anyone recall? 

Four things:  1) we learned that Job is an anxious man who is always worried about pleasing God; 2) that God in heaven accepts Satan’s wager that Satan can make Job curse God by bringing him suffering; and 3) that Satan’s curse results in the death of Job’s camels, cattle and sheep – his livelihood – as well as his house and all his children – his family and security.

Do you recall that?  The first three chapters of Job set things up – so in addition to Job’s suffering – the last thing that happened is that Job’s wife asked him to curse God and die, but how did Job reply?  He said all of life’s blessings come from the Lord, so we must learn to be patient with the suffering, too. Does that sound familiar?

That’s the opening and presenting picture:  a faithful person – not necessarily a Jew – but an anxious God lover who finds his life turned upside down by tragedy.  The second part of the story involves what Job’s friends tell him about the meaning of his suffering. Each person advances a theological or spiritual perspective that was popular in the day.  Actually and sadly they are still popular in many religions including our own.

+ So what these various speeches represent – and I should tell you that each of the three men give three sets of speeches throughout this book – is a religious perspective on suffering.   Are you with me on that?

+ You see, what the theologians behind the story are doing is showing us how traditional piety and thinking about suffering is often inadequate and even sometimes cruel to those who are hurting.  In order to make the climax of the story even more persuasive, they set things up in a way that forces us to wrestle with three initially loving but increasingly ugly and offensive perspectives on suffering.

And I have to tell you that I think the theological editors of Job are brilliant in their construction of this story. In chapter two they make clear that Job’s friends are not to be considered straw men or caricatures. These are men who love Job.  When they come to visit him, the Bible tells us right away that they noticed their friend’s anguish – he looked like hell – so they cried out for him. They felt some-thing of his pain. And acted in solidarity with him:  they tore their own clothes and sprinkled their faces with ashes. This was a common way to express grief. Further, they sat with their beloved friend Job for seven days in silence.  These are NOT fair-weather friends. These are men of love and trust.

And it is my hunch that this was included in the text to show us what we
should do when we want to bring comfort to our loved ones in their suffering:  silence and presence. We can’t change anything. We can’t explain it or even comprehend it – but we can share it.  How does that hymn go: I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I’ll laugh with you; I will share your joy and sorrow ‘til we’ve seen this journey through. This is a foretaste of the wisdom expressed at the end of Job – and it stands in stark contrast to what happens over the next almost 28 chapters – is that clear? Any questions before I go forward?

Starting in chapter three and moving through chapter 38 of Job, there are a series of speeches and reactions – a theological dialogue, if you will – between Job’s friends and then Job himself.  Here’s my summary of what takes place – and you can read it all yourselves, of course – but here’s the USA Today version: 

Job’s first friend, Eliphaz the Temanite, starts off mild and composed but soon grows increasingly harsh.  The essence of his message is simple:  God does not punish the innocent; rather, only the wicked experience suffering. So, if you are suffering or experiencing travail, you must be wicked and sinful. Eliphaz tells this to Job over and over again: your suffering is proof of your sin.

+ This is an ancient but not forgotten approach to suffering. It is known in all theological and religious traditions and is grounded in the belief that God’s justice is experienced in this life unquestioningly.  If you are suffering, it is because you are guilty.

+ Some traditional Christian understandings of suffering have sprung from this harsh and uncreative interpretation of Deuteronomy and Leviticus that emphasize God’s justice in human experience. In his book, Why Does It Hurt, evangelical author Philip Yancey writes there are some traditional Calvinists who jump to this conclusion based on their fundamentalist reading of Scripture:  God knows all things – God fully rewards faith and punishes sin – therefore, if you are suffering there must be some sin you have neither confessed nor repented – and so your suffering continues.

Any one want to comment on that: what do you think about this approach to suffering?

Now here’s a challenge: Job essentially agrees that his Eliphaz is right – he, too, believes and trusts that God is just – that God punishes the sinful only as they deserve. But try as he might, Job can’t find any evidence or proof of his own sin – it doesn’t exist – and yet his suffering continues.This is what makes him lose his mind according to Elie Wiesel’s commentary, ok? His mind starts to split because his experience and reason are in high conflict with his theology. Eventually, Job cries out that his friend is unkind and cruel - Job asks God to let him die.  Because he can’t get his mind around the fact that his under-standing of God’s justice demands punishment for sin – and that no longer works for his experience.

It made me think of the transgendered teen, Leelah Alcorn, in Ohio last December who stepped in front of a 17 ton tractor trailer truck along Interstate 71 because her parents defined her as a sinner. After years of fear and judgment, she saw her only option as death by suicide because a harsh and narrow theology had turned her parents and her church into enemies. That’s just what Job concluded – so let’s never think the consequences of such theology are just for another place and time. They are tragically alive and well all around us.

Job himself begs for death rather than shout at God because his mind is breaking and his heart is sick: his life no longer jives with what his theology and he doesn’t know what to do. Notice one more nuance: Job never says that God doesn’t punish injustice with suffering. Not at all. Job never puts limits on the One who is Holy. He simply says if there is only ONE way that God works in the world, something is out of whack because my life no longer fits – and it is making him sick.

Enter Job’s second friend, Bildad the Shuhite, who takes the story from bad to worse.  Bildad’s position is essentially:  you must be a hypocrite, Job, because your pain is so awful. (How’s that for friendly compassion?) The more you complain, the more you mock the Lord and prove your guilt. “God never betrays the innocent or takes the hand of the wicked. God will fill your mouth with laughter (only) if you stop protesting and acting like a hypocrite.”

This is essentially a war of competing syllogisms. Job’s friends say: suffering comes from God; God is just; therefore Job is guilty because he is suffer-ing. Job says: Suffering comes from God; I am innocent; Therefore, God must be unjust (this is what breaks his mind.)

+ Sadly, nobody (except God at the end of Job) says: Suffering may come from the Lord; God is just; and Job is innocent (with NO therefore!) It would seem that both Eliphaz and Bildad are locked into very harsh notions of God’s eternal judgment, yes? (Stephen Mitchell, Out of the Whirlwind)

Now Christians have been known to say similar things albeit in a highly
sanitized manner. Have you ever heard – or said – something like: “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Whatever that might mean to the speaker, whenever a person hears it, it means shut up and deal with your problems, right? How about: “God has a plan for everything; if you wait faithfully you will find out what God wants to give you from this hard time. Just trust in the Lord.” Or even: “You may never know what this is all about but you will when you meet God after your death.”

+ From my perspective, those things may sound pious and spiritual but they are untrue and cruel. There’s no compassion – no solidarity – no heart-to-heart connection in such words.

+ In fact, as Stephen Mitchell notes in his commentary, the point of such sayings really has nothing to do with God and everything to do with human reactions. These are words that distance us from another’s pain – they use God as an excuse for pushing another away who might cause us sorrow or involvement or tender love.

Notice what the gospel for today tells us about Christian connections and authentic love.  After Peter confesses that Christ is Lord, Mark’s gospel says: "then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Authentic love makes a connection – and it includes suffering – for such is the true way of the Lord.  Peter tries to keep himself and his beloved Jesus safe by arguing with the Lord, but Christ calls him out saying with some anger and passion: Get thee behind me, Satan.

+ Using pious and religious language to diminish the cost of discipleship and the consequences of compassion are never of the Lord.

So let’s bring Job’s third friend, Zophar the Nahmathite, into the mix: he doesn’t add a lot that is new except one twist:  he wants Job to repent of his sins so that God might forgive him with mercy.  Zophar emphasizes a God who is more like a “Stalinesque tyrant” (Mitchell) than the author of Psalm 22 but he wants to remind us of God’s mercy. I think he truly wants God’s grace to come to Job even when he becomes mean spirited and belligerent in the process.  Have you ever said something stupid or cruel to someone you love when you are frustrated? I know I have – and the older I get the more examples I have to confess to the Lord.  Zophar goes too far – and in this he also makes a mess of things because he doesn’t take the time to really trust Job. He has a one-size fits all theology and he’s going squeeze Job into it no matter what.

Literalists tend to do that with theology, forcing their limited understanding of the sacred upon the rest of us, and that is never good for anyone. For those with a narrow take on how God’s justice works, everything that happens is directly controlled by the Lord – including our pain.

+ Some suffering they believe is given to teach us something; other pain comes to us to warn us away of deeper trouble and sin. And some anguish will never be fully understood in this realm, but will be explained as part of God’s loving plan after this life is over.

+ I think there is some truth in all of these claims. Some suffering teaches us not to touch a hot stove, right? Some pain warns us away of further danger and sin. When I was 8 I carelessly lost a neighbor’s electro magnet I had borrowed for a school science project. After hemming and hawing and avoiding this mistake, my father finally took me over to our neighbor’s house to explain what had happened, to ask for forgiveness and to work out a repayment plan. That pain taught me there are consequences to my actions and while I hated it, I also learned from it, too. Some pain warns us away of worse things to come.

+ And there is some pain I will never fully comprehend and trust that because now I see as through a glass darkly, later I shall see face to face.  All of these things are true – they are also incomplete. Not all pain is edifying. Not all suffering gives birth to greater moral wisdom. And certainly not all of our anguish is part of a cosmic lesson that will only be revealed further along and by and by in the sky.

Job’s friends give him every reason to be angry – and that is exactly what
happens as the book of Job unfolds.  It is poem written to give us permission to do what Job does: express bewilderment and moral outrage.  “My mind is breaking, Lord, because what I know of you is too small!  What I can figure out is too harsh. I KNOW you to be the source of life that drew me out of my mother’s womb and made me safe at her breasts.” (Psalm 22) So HELP me!

Beloved, we can never be too angry with God. There are no mysteries we must keep hidden away or silent about. And there is NO immediate certainly that we will grasp God’s compassion in the midst of our anguish.

This, beloved, is the path of Biblical wisdom. Don’t be in a rush for answers. Don’t be afraid to question the Lord with vigor. Never accept sloppy agape or cheap piety from your friends or your church in place of compassion. And always know that you can bring everything to the Lord in prayer – even those things that frighten or disgust you – even your sense of abandonment – because the mystery of God’s love is greater than even our wildest imagination. And so the journey of Lent deepens….

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2) www.wikiart.org
3) www.gopixpic.com
4) imgkid.com
5) art.ekstrax.com
6) michellehinz.com


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