When God Questions Us
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, May 26, 2019
Reading: Job 42:1-6, 12-17
I fell into a big trap this week that I swore I would never fall into. I used a phrase that seemed to come out of my mouth automatically, as if I'd been programmed to say it. What I said was what I like to call subway talk, or phrases you hear quite often, and have no idea what they mean. I heard it used when I was standing right next to two people on the subway who were talking about how one of their friends had been suffering, and gave a blow by blow description. It was dreadful. The other ended the conversation with, "It is what it is."
I confess, I used the phrase: “it is what it is” to end a conversation this week. I'm not sure whether this is purely a symptom of the times or if the phrase has been around for a while. Certainly, in its future tense, it has been used as “que será sera”, whatever will be will be, but, “it is what it is” is terrible.
There are psychologists who have actually spent time looking into the phrase, and they have concluded that part of it is a sense of potentiality. In other words, when we say something is what it is, we recognize that it can be two different things at the same time. An example used is a baseball bat. On the one hand a baseball bat can be a toy that brings great pleasure, (unless you're a Blue Jays player) or it can be a weapon used to brutalize people. But it is what it is; it's a baseball bat. It's a way of saying it can be one thing or another. But it is also a phrase of resignation. In other words, there’s nothing further to debate, no depth of meaning; "It is what it is," and what more can you say after that?
I would like to suggest that our passage today from the ancient Book of Job is the antithesis, the exact opposite, of “it is what it is”. The Book of Job, probably like no other in the Old Testament, goes right to the heart of trying to find meaning, rather than simply washing over things, it discerns what suffering means. It tries to understand God's role when there is suffering, to understand why good people suffer and, at times, why evil seems to flourish.
It's the story, as many of you will know, of an innocent man called Job. This innocent man, this righteous man, this religious man had tremendous gifts. He had a wonderful family, a business, good health, he had everything going for him. Then he lost it. Everything he held dear disappeared. Some of his friends tried to make sense of it all. And while there are subtleties in their arguments, in essence they just throw out old orthodoxies like this: "Job, you must have done something wrong to lose all of this."
But there was a spiritual dimension. Enter the character, Satan. Satan has a conversation with God about Job, and says, "I'm convinced that this so-called good, righteous man you have here, will lose his faith in you when he loses everything," In other words, Job won't be able to withstand the anguish of suffering. In this kaleidoscope of arguments and debates, we have this wonderful story of the life of Job. He both wrestles with his friends, he wrestles with God, and he wrestles with himself, but he does so in the context of his suffering.
When you really think about it, it is so pertinent because so many of us think like Job's friends. When you scratch the surface of our thinking, do we not at times, think that when people have suffered, they must have done something wrong to deserve it? At times, they do. People put themselves in peril and do silly things, but at other times it's a fallback position. It's a bit like saying, "It is what it is." If you suffered, you probably did something to deserve it. That permeates the thinking of many people. They do it uncritically, believing they are right.
Similarly, what Satan expressed to God is also very real for some people when they face difficulty, they lose their faith in God. They question divine providence. They wonder if there is any meaning. Maybe you, at some point in your life, have felt exactly the same way. Where was God, and have I faith in God that I can continue to keep?
Job is the opposite of “it is what it is”. Job goes right to the heart of things, and the heart of things is that Job himself changed because of all this suffering. That is the power of the story. Job, in this terrible, dire situation, changes his view of faith. You see, essentially, at the beginning of all of this, Job was quite complacent. He had his family, his beautiful daughters, he had his wife, he had his business, and he had his faith. He thought he was a fairly righteous person. He obeyed the law as much as could be considered obedience, and he felt that he had a nice little package, and this was all part of his faith. This is what Job had. This is what Job believed in.
But it was, to use a New Testament phrase, a little bit of self-justification, a sense that he had everything nicely worked out. And in this nice, neat little world that he had, he believed in himself, really. And while he believed in God, he also thought that he himself was a righteous person, and all these wonderful things had come his way because he had been faithful. He thought he was prosperous because he'd been pious. That's what Job really thought.
When he suddenly loses everything, when everything is taken away from him, he questions his faith. Is it any wonder? He'd put his faith in his own piety, and now he's starting to have all these doubts about his faith, about God, and friends opinions play on those doubts, so Job is unsure of himself. He lost all confidence and faith because his faith had been placed squarely in his own piety, his own religious outlook, and in what had been a very nice little formula that he had lived with.
I think that when people face suffering, they have a crisis of faith in the nice world that they have created for themselves, where they are on good terms with God; they're obedient, and everything is working out well until it isn't, until everything falls apart. And when everything falls apart, that's when a crisis comes.
When I was in high school in Bermuda, I was writing my exams when there was the most horrendous sound. It was a terrible crash. None of us in the arena where we were gathered, on a warm June day in Bermuda, knew exactly what had transpired. Eventually, along with the teacher, we ran outside only to realize that one of our classmates had been hit by a bus right outside the school. With all these beautiful oleander bushes and hibiscus blooming, lay, on the ground, one of the boys from our school, and a horrified bus driver. None of us could make sense of this.
I remember the funeral, his brother, Brian – I knew him well – got up and spoke about what happened. He said, "Because of what happened to my brother, I will never live the same way again." He was so grief-stricken, so wounded in the face of the greatest tragedy that he deemed he could never live the same way again.
When Job encountered his crisis, he knew he would never live the same way again. The beliefs he had held onto were shattered, the things he loved taken away. He could never be the same again. I think that's often what happens when we suffer. Our faith is challenged, our self-confidence crumbles, and we'll never live the same way again. Oh, there will always be those who come along and try to fix things for us with their pat phrases, but we know that won't do any good.
I love what the great Eugene Peterson wrote: "And so our instincts are aimed at preventing and alleviating suffering. No doubt that is a good impulse. But if we really want to reach out to others who are suffering, we should be careful not to be like Job's friends, not to do our helping with the presumption that we can fix things, get rid of them or make them better."
But we do don't we? We want to fix things. We hope that, somehow, something we say, something we do will ameliorate the suffering of someone. We are driven by that even though the person suffering is going through of crisis of faith like Job. You can't fix things nor can you simply avoid things by saying, "It is what it is." Why? Because Job changed the way that he saw himself.
At the very end, Job is becoming aware of the fact that maybe he had things wrong. He said, "I spoke words, oh God, to you that I didn't understand, and I said things that were beyond my comprehension." When Job argued with God, he didn't understand the nature of his suffering. He also didn't understand the nature of his own false sense of faith, which was faith in himself.
He says, "I repent. I turn to ashes." In other words, I recognize that before all of this suffering, I have to change, and that in the presence of Almighty God, with all that has happened in my life, I didn't listen, God. I didn't understand. I didn't take notice. That is often that is the case, is it not? When you're suffering, you don't listen. When you're suffering, it's hard to understand. I get that. Job got it. God understood that Job got it, but God wanted Job to listen and to see that, ultimately, God alone, was sovereign, and that Job, by himself, was not going to understand everything that had happened to him. We don't listen very much, do we? We often don't even listen to one another when there's a tale of suffering. We're still fixated on fixing things that we don't really listen to God or others.
There's a wonderful story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who realized, as the president of the United States, that he would go to these great ambassadorial parties, and no one would listen to a thing he said. They were so fixated on being in his presence that they never listened to him when he spoke. He got so frustrated that one day he decided to try something new. He went to a meeting of foreign ambassadors, and every time that he was greeted by an ambassador, he would say, "I am pleased to meet you. Today I murdered my grandmother." He goes up to the ambassador from Argentina greets him and says, "Hello, I'm pleased to meet you. I murdered my grandmother today."
The ambassador responds, "You are a very good man, Mr President. Keep doing what you're doing."
Then he came upon the ambassador from Brazil, who shook his hand. He said, "Ambassador, I am pleased to meet you. By the way, I murdered my grandmother today."
And he said, "You are such a splendid and a wonderful man, no one would be able to live up to your reputation. I am your biggest fan,"
Roosevelt is getting fed up and finally goes to a particular ambassador who, he does not say, to protect him, and he says, "Hello," and they exchange pleasantries and finally he says, "Hello, I'm pleased to meet you, and, by the way, you know, I murdered my grandmother this morning."
This ambassador said, "Well, Mr President, I'm sure she had it coming." He was ecstatic. Somebody finally listened to him!
We don't listen, and we fixate, and perhaps we're in an era when we listens less and less, both to God and certainly to each other. Job had to hear God, and when he finally did, he changed his view of himself, but he also changed his view of suffering. There were times when Job was furious with God. He was angry about the situation because, as I'd said before, he believed that if he was pious, he would be prosperous, and he wasn't. He was now losing everything, and was frightened, and angry. He confesses this, and repents, and finally he acknowledges, in humility, the sovereignty of God, in the midst of all this suffering.
You know, there's something that struck me about the Book of Job, and I don't know how many times as a preacher I've read it over the years, but at the beginning of the story Job had everything. He had a wife, family, business, health, and then he lost everything. But look carefully at the ending with me. “The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more, more than his beginning; and he had 14,000 sheep and 6,000 camels and 1,000 yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters … and Job died, old and full of days.”
Why is this here? Is this just to plug in a happy ending after everything that Job went through? Is whoever wrote this desirous to ensure that we see Job, at the end, restored after he had been broken, or is there more to it than that? The more to it is what happens in-between. The fact that Job is reinstated and receives everything is a sign of the grace of God and the ultimate victory of God. What happens in-between the beginning and the end is what matters in the Book of Job. In the midst of all of this suffering and the difficulties of life, Job ultimately found God. He found God! For all of his perplexities, worries, anxiousness, and all the false teachings around him, Satan misunderstood. Job was still a man of faith, even though he had suffered, it was Job's faith, not in himself, his own righteousness, and piety, but in the sovereignty of God through this whole process, that demonstrated that Job was ultimately a man of faith.
And is that not really, my friends, what life itself is like? Is that not what the life of Jesus of Nazareth was all about? Did he not come into this world as a child, as a babe? Did he not come as the child of Mary, and finally die, but then lived again? Was not God in Christ throughout it all? I think the best way to make sense of Job is for us to relate it the cross and resurrection. The Father was with Jesus through the crucifixion but was there to raise him from the dead at the very end. Throughout it all God was sovereign.
A few years ago, in the face of a tragedy, the Reverend John Harries gave me a book that he thought I should read. It was by the great American writer, Frederick Buechner. In his book Longing for Home, he quotes Albert Schweitzer. What struck me was, as I recalled the death of my schoolmate in Bermuda at Warwick Academy, (Frederick Buechner went to Warwick Academy in Bermuda as well, which makes this even more poignant for me) was that suffering can make sense in a faithful way. He quotes Schweitzer, who says the following, and this is at the heart of Job: "God comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside. He came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: 'Follow me,' and sets us to the task which he has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, in the conflicts and the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who God is."
Schweitzer was saying that God goes with us between the beginning and the epilogue. God goes with us and changes us through suffering and difficulties. God walks with us in the midst of all of this, and the more we listen, and the more we're humbled, and the more we open, we learn from Job that, in the end, both beginning and end, there is always God with us. Amen.