Last week, we left Job engaged in the task of theodicy, the theological examination of why a just and all-powerful God could allow suffering and evil to exist. Job had become convinced that God was not particularly reasonable and was personally responsible for the suffering of the world. Just to remind you, Job’s words about God were as follows:
“Therefore I say, he destroys both the blameless and the wicked, when disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent. The earth is given into the hand of the wicked, he covers the eyes of its judges – if it is not he, who then is it?” (Job 9).
To paraphrase the words of David Hume, Job seems to have accepted that God must be somehow malevolent (able, but not willing to prevent evil), as he doesn’t understand why suffering should exist if God is able and willing to prevent it.
When Job’s friends arrive to comfort him, this debate continues as they all decide join in the exploration of theodicy and whether God is just, as well as defending Deuteronomy’s assertions that the wicked are punished and the righteous are rewarded.
The lectionary has made a big jump here from last week with 21 intervening chapters left out. These chapters have largely been poetic speeches by Job and his friends, where they assert Job must have some secret sins, and where Job responds by strenuously denying this. Job’s friends are still sure that God rewards the righteous and punishes the guilty, so they try to convince Job that he must repent of his secret sin. Job, however, refuses, as he believes that he is innocent, a fact we as readers know is accurate.
This lament of Job reveals his anger, loneliness and frustration. God has become very distant to him, and he cannot find God no matter where he looks. His grievance at his suffering spurs him to call out to God to demand a day in court where he can put his case to God about the injustice of his treatment, and he is convinced that he will be vindicated. His well-intentioned friends have failed to satisfy him with their orthodox answers, indeed have failed to listen to him. So even if he is being rebellious, Job decides that he needs to take a risk and deal with God directly, and he therefore becomes much more insistent and increasingly frustrated as God refuses to answer. Karl Jacobsen, in his article on Working Preacher, points out that “Job is clearly ready for his day in court. But therein lies the problem; Job can’t find his way to the courthouse…[and] God is nowhere to be found. God’s hand, it seems to Job, neither leads him nor holds him fast.”
(accessed 9 October 2021 https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-job-231-9-16-17-2)
Until God appears in the whirlwind, we have an impasse. Job has scorned the counsel of his three friends. He has decided that he they see blindly and listen deafly. They, on the other hand, cannot understand his stubbornness. They do not recognise that in his suffering, it is Job who actually approaches a closer understanding of God, as distasteful as that understanding might be. Though God might crush him, Job, almost defiantly, still declares his trust in God.
Throughout Job’s speech, there is a great sense of longing for God’s presence, for God’s attention and for God’s caring. This is surely a feeling that can resonate with us all as many of us may have experienced such feelings in tragic circumstances.
All of us have sought comfort in disturbing times through prayer, and even today, in the uncertain times of climate change, pandemics, wars and natural disasters, we continue to seek the presence of God in the midst of suffering and injustice. Suffering will always challenge a person’s sense of relationship with God, but it does not need to destroy that relationship. As Christians we believe that, in the midst of suffering God, doescome to the afflicted and affirm the presence of grace.
Job’s anger, similar to that of the author of Psalm 44 who demands that the Lord wake up, stop sleeping and hiding his face (vss23-24) raises important questions about what is and is not OK to say to God in prayer. Are we honest with God? Do we allow ourselves to lament to God about the unfairness of the tragedies we encounter in life?
Spill the Beans this week suggests that it is important that such questions can be voiced before God. They see an honesty in Job’s story that challenges the superficial type of faith that crumbles when tragedy strikes, and a freedom there that gives us permission to say what we need to say to God even if we need, like Job, to apologise later. God can take it, and surely God’s grace and love will be there waiting for us.
Part of the power of the book of Job is the fact that it realistically addresses the painful questions of life. Tragedy and suffering are never simple issues; they challenge faith and can create a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Like Job, we often find that there is no shortage of opinions from others trying to explain the pain they are not suffering, and simplistic answers are offered in response to life’s most painful questions.
The strength of Job’s book is that it allows all sides of the issue – the simple answers of the friends and the emotional turmoil of Job – to be heard and heard again. So though it seems to go on and on, repeating the same arguments over and over again, and then failing to provide any answers, this is often the way the problem of suffering is experienced, especially when it comes to the enormous issues of world poverty and economic injustice.
We need to sit as long as we can with those who have suffered and are suffering from injustice and immense suffering. And perhaps, as we ponder our own tragedies, and the fate of the uncounted and unnamed men, women and children who have died in war or ethnic violence, or pray for the current victims of poverty, famine and disease in our world, we might find our thoughts connecting with experiences and the suffering of Job.
And while we cannot measure how God heals, or answers every sufferer’s prayer, or upholds us in the experience of pain, grief or fear, as Christians who understand the grace of God we can surely still believe that God is there waiting for us, even if God seems momentarily absent, in the midst of God’s suffering people.
So from the paradox of faith, we remember:
from silence, comes the song of praise;
from darkness, shines forth the light;
from mystery, comes the kingdom of God.
It is this that allows us to continue to praise God, and to continue to seek out hope in a broken world.
Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine
Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018.
Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister.More from Rev Elizabeth Raine