Job 1:1-22 – A Better Way Through Impossible Suffering

Satan Going Forth from the Presence of the Lord by William Blake, 1825

In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.

His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would arrange for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.

One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”

Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied.“Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”

Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them, and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
    may the name of the Lord be praised.”

In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. (New International Version)

Much of life is a mystery. We simply do not know why some things happen. And it’s likely we won’t have answers to many of our vexing questions, this side of heaven. From our limited human perspective, **** happens, and that’s about all we can say about it. 

There are times in Holy Scripture, however, when the veil between heaven and earth is peeled back long enough for us to catch a glimpse of mystery. Today’s Old Testament lesson is such a story. 

Job was a wealthy man and had everything this earthly life could offer. What’s more, he was a pious godly person of faith. It was commonly understood that those two things always went together. So, when we see behind the curtain and are privy to a conversation between God and Satan, the devil himself points this out – that Job only praises God because of how good he has it.  Even with this understanding of what was behind Job’s misery, we still see the mysterious God allowing Satan to operate with only God-knows reasons why.

Whenever calamity strikes, or bad news causes us to slump in our chairs, or adversity hits unexpectedly, or trouble smacks us upside our life like a sledgehammer, it’s only human to begin wondering what we did wrong or what we did to bring on such a terrible set of circumstances. 

But the truth is this: We just don’t always know. 

Yes, I fully understand that statement is hard to swallow; it even sucks. For example, no amount of understanding why my grandson has a rare form of epilepsy will make the pain go away. All my wonderings about his future isn’t going to help my daughter. It’s an impossible emotional place to be. It’s sad and it’s frustrating.

Yet, there is a better way.

Although there is so much we don’t know, we do know Job’s inconceivable response to the mystery of God. He made an incredible confession of faith, despite the most awful of circumstances. Job made the affirmation:

“When I was born into this world,
    I was naked and had nothing.
When I die and leave this world,
    I will be naked and have nothing.
The Lord gives,
    and the Lord takes away.
Praise the name of the Lord!”

Job 1:21, ERV

Rather than spending all of our emotional energy trying to figure out an answer to our “why” questions, perhaps the more sage response is to confess our faith in a radical trust of God. 

Using these actual words from Job can be a necessary start to navigating the troubled waters of evil which swirl around us, even if we have to say them over and over again to believe them.

I know I do.

Almighty God, every good thing I have in my life comes from you. It is your prerogative whether I continue to have those things, or not. Whatever happens, whether it causes heartbreak or happiness, is completely known to you. I trust that you know what you are doing, and I completely throw myself upon your mercy through Jesus Christ, my Savior. Amen.

Job 39:1-30 – Questions without Answers

God responds to Job out of the whirlwind by William Blake (1757-1827)

When do mountain goats
    and deer give birth?
Have you been there
    when their young are born?
How long are they pregnant
    before they deliver?
Soon their young grow strong
and then leave
    to be on their own.

Who set wild donkeys free?
I alone help them survive
    in salty desert sand.
They stay far from crowded cities
    and refuse to be tamed.
Instead, they roam the hills,
    searching for pastureland.

Would a wild ox agree
to live in your barn
    and labor for you?
Could you force him to plow
or to drag a heavy log
    to smooth out the soil?
Can you depend on him
to use his great strength
    and do your heavy work?
Can you trust him
    to harvest your grain
or take it to your barn
    from the threshing place?

An ostrich proudly
    flaps her wings,
but not because
    she loves her young.
She abandons her eggs
and lets the dusty ground
    keep them warm.
And she doesn’t seem to worry
that the feet of an animal
    could crush them all.
She treats her eggs as though
    they were not her own,
unconcerned that her work
    might be for nothing.
I myself made her foolish
    and without common sense.
But once she starts running,
she laughs at a rider
    on the fastest horse.

Did you give horses their strength
and the flowing hair
    along their necks?
Did you make them able
    to jump like grasshoppers
or to frighten people
    with their snorting?

Before horses are ridden
    into battle,
they paw at the ground,
    proud of their strength.
Laughing at fear, they rush
    toward the fighting,
while the weapons of their riders
    rattle and flash in the sun.
Unable to stand still,
they gallop eagerly into battle
    when trumpets blast.
Stirred by the distant smells
and sounds of war,
they snort
    in reply to the trumpet.

Did you teach hawks to fly south
    for the winter?
Did you train eagles to build
    their nests on rocky cliffs,
where they can look down
    to spot their next meal?
Then their young gather to feast
    wherever the victim lies. (Contemporary English Version)

God has a way of asking questions for which he already has answers to.

The older I get, and the more understanding I gain, the more I realize how little knowledge I truly possess. When I was eighteen years old, I thought I had the world pretty much figured out. Since then, it has all been downhill. With each passing year, my ignorance seems to grow exponentially.

I suppose this all really makes some sense when talking about God’s upside-down kingdom. So much more of life is a mystery to us than we realize. Turns out that those with understanding need to become stupid before they can truly be wise. Seems like the biblical character of Job found this out the hard way.

If there is any person in Holy Scripture that would be wise and understanding, its him. God speaks highly of Job in the Bible. Regarding the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem, God said, “even if these three men—Noah, Daniel and Job—were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ezekiel 14:14). Job is held up the model of patience under suffering: “As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11).

Yet, with all of Job’s integrity, patience, and righteousness his understanding can barely get a movement on the Richter Scale of God’s expansive knowledge. Being a conscientious follower of God, Job is careful to live uprightly. He acknowledges God in all things and worships him alone. Yet, suffering befell him – for no other reason than that God allowed it. Job knew fully well that there was no personal sin behind his awful ordeal of grief and grinding pain.

So, Job contended with God. For an agonizing thirty-five chapters (Job 3:1-37:24) Job questions God and respectfully takes him to task – as Job’s supposed friends questioned him and assume his guilt. Through it all God is there… silent, saying nothing….

Then, just when we think God is paying no attention, he suddenly speaks. And what is so remarkable about God’s speech is that for four chapters God gives no answers (Job 38:1-41:34). It is all questions. God said, “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you and you shall answer me” (Job 38:3).

It becomes abundantly clear after just a few questions that it would be impossible for any human being to even come close to having the understanding to answer anything God asks. And that was the whole point. God is God, and we are not. Our questions, however legitimate, real, and raw they are, come from a very puny perspective.

We just don’t know as much as we think we do.

To Job’s great credit, he keeps his mouth shut and listens. At the end of the questioning, Job responds in the only wise way one could after such an encounter: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3).

None of this means that, for us, we need to face our hardships and our sufferings with a stoic keep-a-stiff-upper-lip approach. Trapped grief will inevitably come out sideways and only cause more hurt.

I believe God allowed Job to express his terrible physical, emotional, and spiritual pain for chapter after chapter because he needed to. Only when God sensed it was the proper timing did he jump in and bring the perspective Job then needed. And even after being challenged by God about his vantage point, Job still did not receive answers as to why he had to endure the awfulness of loss beyond what most of us could comprehend.

It just might be that, even if God directly answered all our questions, we still would not understand what the heck is happening to us.

Most likely, God protects us from knowing things that might bring irreparable damage to our human psyches. Yet, this is all pure conjecture. Which leaves us with perhaps one of our greatest challenges as human beings: We must eventually come to the place of being comfortable with mystery – and even embracing it. We simply will not have all things revealed to us that we want to know. And that’s okay.

Anytime we try to pin God down to nice, neat, understandable categories, he typically colors outside our human contrived lines and demonstrates he cannot be contained in our ramshackle box.

God is unbound by any human knowledge, understanding, ideas, or plans. God will do what God will do. God will be who God will be. “I Am who I Am,” he once said. Now that’s a God I can put my trust in.

O Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me.

O Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me.

O Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, grant me your peace. Amen.

Job 8:1-22 – Face the Pain

Job Speaks with His Friends by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

Are you finally through with your windy speech?
God never twists justice;
    he never fails to do what is right.
Your children must have sinned against God,
    and so he punished them as they deserved.
But turn now and plead with Almighty God;
    if you are so honest and pure,
    then God will come and help you
    and restore your household as your reward.
All the wealth you lost will be nothing
    compared with what God will give you then.

Look for a moment at ancient wisdom;
    consider the truths our ancestors learned.
Our life is short; we know nothing at all;
    we pass like shadows across the earth.
But let the ancient wise people teach you;
    listen to what they had to say:

“Reeds can’t grow where there is no water;
    they are never found outside a swamp.
If the water dries up, they are the first to wither,
    while still too small to be cut and used.
Godless people are like those reeds;
    their hope is gone, once God is forgotten.
They trust a thread—a spider’s web.
    If they lean on a web, will it hold them up?
    If they grab for a thread, will it help them stand?”

Evil people sprout like weeds in the sun,
    like weeds that spread all through the garden.
Their roots wrap around the stones
    and hold fast to every rock.
But then pull them up—
    no one will ever know they were there.
Yes, that’s all the joy evil people have;
    others now come and take their places.

But God will never abandon the faithful
    or ever give help to evil people.
He will let you laugh and shout again,
    but he will bring disgrace on those who hate you,
    and the homes of the wicked will vanish. (Good News Translation)

These are the words of Bildad, a “friend” of Job. The guy just couldn’t take it anymore. As Job expressed his deep grief, Bildad grew perturbed. Whereas Job needed to be heard, to tell his story with others who would offer listening ears of empathy, Bildad was uncomfortable with all this grief junk and felt he needed to rebuke Job…. Oy vey.

There are various kinds of suffering, and the biblical character of Job experienced them all. One of the most severe kinds of hurt, and the one that gets far more attention than any other in the book of Job, are the short-sighted rebukes from Job’s “friends.” 

God had a severe mercy for Job. The friends, however, lived in a black and white world of either/or – either you confess your sin, or you don’t – as if all suffering is connected to personal sin. Bildad’s left-brained linear explanation was expressed this way: God will not reject a blameless man.

For Bildad, personal suffering equals personal sin and God’s disfavor. Bildad could only see a sequential connection, a direct line from sin to calamity. It was simply out of his equation to think otherwise. Since Bildad saw suffering as the direct result of sin, his remedy was to exhort toward confession of sin. 

The problem with this view is that we, as the readers, already know this to be a patently false understanding of Job’s suffering. Although Bildad saw the suffering, he did not discern the unseen dimension of good and evil contending behind-the-scenes between God and Satan.

It is only normal to wonder if we have sinned against God whenever finding ourselves in the crucible of suffering. But if we have done patient work to determine there is no personal reason for the pain, perhaps there is something going on that is much bigger than us. 

Our task, like Job’s, is to entrust ourselves to God. We might chafe at such counsel because we like to fix things that hurt. Suffering, however, will not last forever; it will eventually pass. And God’s way will always prevail, in the end. So, we must continually keep in mind that permanent faith transcends temporary pain.

There are four types of pain we experience in this life:

  1. Spiritual pain that arises from within us in our connection, or lack thereof, with the divine.
  2. Emotional pain that arises from our relationship with others.
  3. Physical pain that arises from our bodies and from natural forces on this earth.
  4. Mental pain that arises from cognitive disorders, childhood trauma, and all forms of abuse or neglect.

In all pain, the story we tell ourselves about the reason for the hurt is significant. We have a relationship with our pain. If the story we are telling ourselves is that the pain is all in my head, or that others have it worse than me, we are ignoring or stuffing our pain. If the story is that pain is bad and I must rid myself of it, then we will completely miss what our pain is trying to tell us.

Job was trying to come to grips with his pain. He was facing it, talking about it, expressing his wonderings concerning it, and allowing himself to completely feel all of it.

Conversely, Bildad so tightly held onto his own story about what pain and suffering is that he was unable to be the friend Job needed. And, I might add, at the end of the story, God didn’t look with favor on Bildad’s approach.

So, what will you do with your pain?

What is the story you are telling yourself about your pain?

Who do you trust so that you can talk about your pain?

Where is God in your pain?

How is your current relationship to the pain helping or hindering you?

Where will you turn, in the future, when pain comes upon you?

Loving God, take pity on my life as I seek to embrace you in both good times and bad. I belong to you; therefore, I will not forsake you, no matter how much I do not understand the suffering. Amen.

Job 7:1-21 – Why God?

Why is life so hard?
    Why do we suffer?
We are slaves in search of shade;
we are laborers longing
    for our wages.
God has made my days drag on
    and my nights miserable.
I pray for night to end,
but it stretches out
    while I toss and turn.
My parched skin is covered
    with worms, dirt, and sores,
and my days are running out
quicker than the thread
    of a fast-moving needle.

I beg you, God, don’t forget!
My life is just a breath,
    and trouble lies ahead.
I will vanish from sight,
and no one, including you,
    will ever see me again.
I will disappear in the grave
or vanish from sight
    like a passing cloud.
Never will I return home;
    soon I will be forgotten.

And so, I cry out to you
    in agony and distress.
Am I the sea or a sea monster?
    Is that why you imprison me?
I go to bed, hoping for rest,
but you torture me
    with terrible dreams.
I’d rather choke to death
    than live in this body.
Leave me alone and let me die;
    my life has no meaning.
What makes you so concerned
    about us humans?
Why do you test us
    from sunrise to sunset?
Won’t you look away
just long enough
    for me to swallow?
Why do you watch us so closely?
    What’s it to you, if I sin?
Why am I your target
    and such a heavy burden?
Why do you refuse to forgive?
Soon you won’t find me,
    because I’ll be dead. (Contemporary English Version)

Few people have ever suffered such agonizing loss as the Old Testament character of Job. He literally lost everything but his life. All his children were killed in one horrific event. He was so racked with physical pain and ill health that even his closest friends barely recognized him. 

Yet the most severe suffering of all came from the grinding silence of God about the whole affair. Job acutely experienced the spiritual pain of a seemingly distant God. He felt like God’s target, being pierced with sharp arrows, one after the other. It seemed to Job as if God was burdened with his very presence on the earth.

Indeed, when one is in the throes of grief, and there is no response from God, the suffering seems pathetically senseless. 

We are currently living in a world of pandemic. There is social and political unrest everywhere. Hurricanes and natural disasters wreak havoc. Religious persecution is on the rise. It may cause one to wonder where God is, in all this human suffering.

As families grieve the loss of home and property, as mothers lament the loss of sons and daughters, and as communities reel in shock over neighborhood violence, how can the loss of life and safety square with a God who is supposed to be sovereign over all creation?

And then there is the very real psychological suffering of mental illness, brain disorders, and unfeeling friends and family who fail to understand the biology and pathology around it – not to mention the extreme trauma of complicated grief.

“Does God understand? Is God even seeing any of this? Why doesn’t God seem to give a @#$!? Am I so odious to God that he’s left the room?” we might say, either out loud or in the deep hurt of our hearts.

It’s the silence that can hurt so badly. Groans, laments, and anguish seem to fly up and away with no easy answers and no immediate relief. 

Yet, God hears. God sees. And God knows. 

We, as readers, have a big picture perspective of Job’s life. We know the end of the story. We even know why Job suffered, even when he himself never knew. However, even with the understanding we have, there is still a large mystery to the ways and the silence of God.

It is a great temptation for many people to give neatly wrapped answers to life’s most difficult realities. But the book of Job does not allow for it. What we have is a man who never understood all that happened in his life yet held onto his integrity and his faith in the God he never fully understood. 

After all, if we understood all there is to understand about God, God would not be God at all.

Invisible God, you are not only unseen physically, but many times spiritually and emotionally unseen, as well.  Open the eyes of my heart so that I might catch but a glimpse of your working. Even though I am but a child and know so little, yet I trust in your steadfast love even in the most difficult experiences of life. Amen.