God’s Own Comfort

I’ve had to wish many friends and acquaintances the blessing of God’s own comfort in the past few weeks, due to all kinds of losses: of love, of job, of health, of loved ones. I believe He extends it, and if I didn’t believe, I wouldn’t bother to pray for it. Sometimes, however, the need for that blessing comes so thick and fast and frequently that you wonder why … why do I have to ask; why isn’t it just there; why is there all this pain and loss and emptiness, and why is God not intervening to help?

Job-by-BonnatBecause of a friend losing her father this week, I’ve returned once again to the puzzling biblical book of Job and the man who dares to ask why.

When a parent or spouse or child or other loved one dies, you want to shout questions at the One who could have prevented it, and if you are bold enough you do.

That part of the book is no puzzle; Job speaks his questions and accusations at God. The puzzle is why God answers.

He doesn’t, usually, you know.

But He believed in Job, and He must have believed that Job deserved some kind of answers.

What He gave Job weren’t answers, but more questions.

And I think I have always read His answers from chapter 38 on as if He were shouting them (maybe even angrily at being accused); after all, the scripture says, “Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm.” He would have had to shout over a storm to be heard, right?

Well, come to think of it, not if He’s God.

He could be whispering these responses and still be heard … maybe just because He is that close to Job and his friends.

Re-reading the responses, it occurs to me that anyone but God shouting them angrily would sound ultimately arrogant. In fact, maybe even God would. Was that His response to Job’s questions? Anger? Shouting? An attempt to beat down Job even further into the ground? Wasn’t this the Job He believed in when the Accuser wagered that he would recant all faith? Aren’t these legitimate questions?

I’ve had to re-think what I imagined. I now have to wonder if God spoke this responses tenderly, quietly, with reassurance and comfort to the man who had just lost almost everything … the one man He could bring up as a test case before the Accuser and be certain of winning a wager.

Think of all the questions God posed to Job; more questions for which Job had no answer; more questions than Job had even thought to ask. Out of all the questions he had thrown at his Creator, Job essentially chose the one: “WHY?”

And God’s response, first of all, was (in essence): “Job, you can ask all the questions you want, but that doesn’t mean you can understand the answers.”

Secondly: “But I can.”

I have to wonder if God lovingly, broken-heartedly came close to Job to reassure him that the universe was still in good hands. That bankruptcy and destruction and death happen, but that God is still in control. That he is not forgotten or unimportant or unloved in this world where sin can make life miserable.

So I believe the third thing God is telling Job through these questions is: “Trust me. I’ve got this.”

He doesn’t say it right out. He lets Job draw those conclusions himself, because He knows Job can and He knows Job will.

Just as He knows that Job will pray for the friends who have made his life even more miserable with their own accusations against him.

Job, like David, is a man after God’s own heart.

Maybe because, deep down, when everything and everyone else is stripped away, God is a god after Job’s own heart … and Job knows that.

I had to tell my friend this week that I wish I had answers to questions of why, but that I was afraid the answers would be no comfort.

Because if they were, God would have given them to Job.

Job, the Lord, and Theodicy

I originally wrote this as a comment on an excellent, honest and challenging post called “Fight Like A Man, You Dirty Dog!” by Les Ferguson, Jr. at his blog. But I thought about it a little more and wanted to share it here, too. Les closes his post by asking these questions:

“What do you do when it feels like you have given God everything and there is no divine protection in it?

“If the Creator of the Universe doesn’t fight fair, what recourse do we have?

“I get that we live in a broken world and bad things happen to good people. I get it. I hate it. And I certainly don’t understand it.

“But what do you do when it feels like the dirty dog is God?”

So I answered:

I have struggled with this long before my current challenges began.

I continue to believe that God is good. I’ve concluded from the book of Job that evil, pain and suffering are from the accuser, not from God. I don’t understand why God permits it. Job doesn’t get a reason. God never tells Job about His wager with the accuser, or the fact that (incredibly) the Creator of all things believes in Job just as much as Job believes in Him.

That’s what astounds me. God’s answer, in essence, isn’t an answer to Job’s questions at all, but the implied reassurance that God is God, and He can be trusted.

There’s never a moment in the book of Job that I can recall where the existence of God is in question. His nature and character (along with Job’s) are debated on and on. But no one ever says, “With all these terrible things happening, there just can’t be a God.”

The whole work is a work about faith. It may be called integrity, but ultimately what Job (and his friends) must learn is that his trust can’t be in himself or others or stuff – but in God.

So I can only hope to navigate this present hell in my life by faith – and trust that His inscrutable purpose in letting Satan tear at my family is because – somehow – He believes in us.

Which is not as much help as I would like it to be when I want to grab the one responsible for the suffering and evil and pain in the lives of my family and yours and so many others … and beat him to a bloody dying pulp.

I can’t do that.

The victory is already God’s through Christ.

I have to trust in that.

It’s all I’ve got.

The Story of Job

or, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

A Skit in Two Acts (of Satan, and One Act of God)

Narrator: Of all the people of the East
no one like Job was found.
He owned eleven thousand beasts,
and sacrificed year ’round.
For his children, ten in number,
he gave offerings each morn
fearing that while he slumbered
they might have done some wrong.
One day when angels faced the Lord,
the one called Satan thought
that he should also have his word
and stood with all the lot.
The Lord: “Where have you come from?”
Narrator: asked the Lord,
and Satan said with pride,
Satan: “From roaming up and down the world
and going far and wide.”
Narrator: Then the Lord replied to Satan,
The Lord: “Consider Job, then, if you would.
There is none on earth so patient;
none so upright; none so good.”
Satan: “Does Job fear God for nothing?”
Narrator: said Satan,
Satan: “You’ve shown him only grace!
Take what you gave — take everything —
He’ll curse You to Your face!”
The Lord: “All right,”
Narrator: the Lord said,
The Lord: “Take his wealth,
his family, flocks and herds.
But do not touch the man himself,
and you will eat your words.”
Narrator: Then Satan left the Lord’s presence
and scurried to his task,
for there’s nothing more that he resents
than getting what he’s asked.
One day Job’s mesenger arrived,
and sadly said to him,
Messenger 1: “Of your servants, only I survived,
the rest: killed by Sabeans!”
Narrator: While he yet spoke, another came
and said,
Messenger 2: “The fire of God
burned all your sheep and slaves
and I alone there stood!”
Narrator: And still another, rushing up to him,
Messenger 3: “By Chaldeans we were surprised:
they stole your camels, killed your men,
and only I have survived!”
Narrator: The last one bore the worst of news:
Messenger 4: “Your children were all feasting at home;
it fell on them when the wind blew
and I’ve escaped alone!”
Narrator: At hearing this, the man called Job
could take no greater pain;
he shaved his head and tore his robe,
and called on his Lord’s name:
Job: I owned no thing when I was born,
nor when I die and am raised.
God gives and takes as He has sworn,
May the name of the Lord be praised.”
Narrator: Another day the angels came
to stand before the Lord
and Satan also called His name
to accuse the one God adored.
The Lord: “Where have you come from?”
Narrator: asked the Lord,
and Satan said with pride,
Satan: “From roaming up and down the world
and going far and wide.”
Narrator Then the Lord replied to Satan,
The Lord: “Consider Job, then, if you would.
Though your hand I put his fate in,
he still calls me only good.”
Satan: “Skin for skin!”
Narrator: then Satan answered,
Satan: “No man wants his health to waste —
Make his bones and flesh all cancered,
and he’ll curse You to Your face!”
The Lord: “All right,”
Narrator the Lord said,
The Lord: “Take his health;
afflict this man so strong.
But leave the man his life itself,
and you will see you’re wrong.”
Narrator: Then Satan left the holy throne
and hurried to his work,
for he likes nothing more, it’s known,
than making people hurt.
So from his head down to his heel,
with sores poor Job was scarred
and when they grew and failed to heal,
he scraped them with a shard.
Then Job’s wife said,
Job’s Wife: “Do you still claim
your innocence now? And why?
Curse God who’s cursed you! Curse His Name!
Perhaps He’ll let you die.”
Narrator: Job said,
Job: “Only foolish women
would speak that way — not you!
Shall we accept the good God’s given,
without some trouble, too?”
Narrator: In all this, Job refused to sin,
or blame evil on his Lord.
Then three friends came to visit him,
and for a week, said not one word.
At last, Job spoke, his voice forlorn,
and cursed the day of his birth:
Job: “I hate the day that I was born!
May it perish from the earth!”
Narrator: His friend Eliphaz, next to him,
sat in the ashen dust,
and said,
Eliphaz: “Does God punish good men?
Don’t you think God is just?”
Narrator: Bildad the Shuhite then agreed,
Bildad: “You surely must have sinned.
You think forgiveness you don’t need?
Your words are blustering wind!”
Narrator: And Zophar added his advice,
Zophar: “Devote your life to Him,
sweep from your tent your secret vice,
and He’ll forget your sin.”
Narrator: So Job argued with his befriended,
and proved he’d done no wrong.
About the time his words had ended,
Elihu came along.
Elihu: “You all are old, and I am young;
and that’s why I must speak.
The answer’s on the tip of my tongue;
the one that you all seek.
God is so good, so kind, so just,
that if He held His breath,
All mankind would turn back to dust,
and all deserve their death.
He made the world so perfect,
so that life might never end.
But now there’s every defect
because evil entered in.”
Narrator As if to punctuate these words,
and give them physical form,
an answer in the voice of the Lord
called to Job from a great storm:
The Lord: “Who questions what is clearly true
with dark words that can’t see?
Brace yourself, man; I’ll question you
— and you shall answer me!
“Where were you when I made the earth
and measured out the land?
Who made the stars all sing in mirth?
Tell me, if you understand!
“Who shut the sea behind its doors,
and gave it clouds to wear?
Have you walked on the ocean floors?
Or stirred the winds of the air?
“Who sounds the thunder, spreads the dew,
reserves the hail for strife?
Would you accuse me of wronging you?
The One who gave you life?”
Narrator: Then Job replied to his great Lord:
Job: “I know You can do all;
You asked, who questions with dark words?
Before You now I fall.
“Before, my ears had heard of You,
but now my eyes can see.
I must repent; I know it’s true:
You’ve given so much to me.”
Narrator: The Lord commanded Job’s three friends
to sacrifice and pray
because they had to make amends
for what they’d had to say.
Then doubly blessed was this man Job
with twenty-two thousand beasts,
three prettiest daughters on the globe,
and seven sons to host their feasts.
Of Satan, no more words are said
in this book — but I feel
he takes all his licks in the head
and barely strikes the heel.

One of the joys of moving every decade or so is packing old files and rediscovering something you have written and almost forgotten and written off as lost. This is one of those items. I think it’d be fun to see it produced sometime. If you do so, please post a YouTube and send me the URL!

When Opinion Becomes Conviction

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be a guest teacher in my Bible class, where we are currently perusing the book of Job in our church family’s year-long study of the entire volume of scripture, Genesis to Revelation, called Project 4:4.

In reading through the entire book this morning, what impressed me most – and for the first time – was that Job’s three friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar all shared a strong opinion which had become a conviction. Their opinion was unsupported by scripture (which, since the actual events of the story seem to be set in patriarchal times, probably did not exist). As F. LaGard Smith points out in his introduction to the work,

They try to convince him that the answer lies in a simple syllogism: God always punishes sin; suffering is the result of sin; therefore Job is more of a sinner than he is willing to admit.” ~ The Daily Bible, page 1156.

There’s only one problem with this tidbit of human wisdom: both of the premises upon which it is built prove to be false. Job points out that the wicked frequently escape punishment by suffering. And, in the prologue to the work, we discover (though Job and his friends are unaware of this discourse in eternity) that God does not cause the suffering, though He does permit Satan to inflict it, and it is Satan who suggests it. It is also Satan who accuses God of being unfairly protective of Job, and accuses Job of being faithful only inasmuch as he is being blessed by God.

Here’s what stood out to me in this morning’s reading of Job:

There is a serious danger involved in allowing a human opinion to become a conviction; a conviction that one loudly professes to be the very truth of God. The three friends become Job’s “Satans”; his accusers. Out of their own perceived self-righteousness (after all, they’re not being punished by God with suffering for their sins), they taunt and goad him to confess his sins. After having sat silent with Job in his grief a full seven days and nights, they become testy, combative, even sarcastic and insulting in reaction to his defense of his own personal integrity.

In the denouement, God declares that the three have not spoken correctly about Him, and they must offer sacrifices of penitence through Job’s righteous prayer in order to be forgiven.

And here’s the kicker:

Each of them supported his argument against Job with items that were true about God and His sovereignty, and logic that seemed to be sound.

Each of them came to the same, dead-wrong conclusion.

What about Elihu, the fourth and youngest friend who claims to speak by inspiration and proclaims God’s sovereignty and wisdom in permitting suffering to test and shape the human spirit?

The Lord makes no word of commendation nor condemnation toward Elihu.

In a film I watched as a teenager – Donald Pleasance was cast in the role of Job – I seem to remember that young Elihu called attention to the gathering storm in his address the Job and his friends … but when the Lord spoke from it, he fainted dead away. Maybe that was the director’s choice in explaining why God doesn’t even mention Elihu in His response. Or maybe Elihu just spoke what was to God the obvious truth.

Like Satan, Elihu simply disappears from the narrative after his discourse. Elihu has used Job’s own words against him, with the implication that Job has no right to question God; no cause to accuse Him (thought he has not done so); no reason to be treated any differently than anyone else. This is also an opinion that has become a conviction with Elihu. And it has some merit … we are all sinners, and none of us is justified by his own righteousness. In this life God shows no favoritism; yet He is ultimately just.

But that may have been – at the time – a truth to be held for a later time; a prophecy to be sealed up for another day. Or it may have just been an insufficiently-stated truth.

Job, out of his Abraham-like faith, has already spoken a more fully-expressed truth: for the righteous of God, there must be a resurrection, a day of accounting, a judgment, and a redemption.

Job’s conviction of faith is no mere opinion; it is affirmed by God in those closing chapters. Out of his humility, he has confessed his humanity and God’s divinity; that he is insufficient to fully grasp the fullness of God. Never has his questioning accused God, nor has he presumed a superior righteousness to God’s. He has only asked why God is making it look that way.

I believe that Job’s faith is an encouragement for us to seek God, question God, discuss God with our friends – even if all of us are wrong – to grow closer to Him through suffering; to feel free to express our lament in pain; and to live humble and righteous lives in His view whether rewarded in this life or not.

The enigmatic ending? What should we make of God restoring Job’s earthly wealth and blessing as a coda to a work which affirms that God does not play favorites in this life?

Perhaps because that restoration does demonstrate in a tangible way that God ultimately does reward righteousness; that it is His gift given at His discretion rather than the wages of our works; that He is sovereign and wise enough to test Job’s faith with blessing as well as with suffering.

But that’s my opinion … not a conviction.