By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Job 3:3-5, 11, 20-26
Life is not fair; pure and simple. “Just deserts” are a myth. No matter who you are or how you behave, there will be – undoubtedly – days when, despite your most noble efforts, things go horribly wrong and you will want to rail against God and shake your fist toward the heavens. While on other days, you will humbly bow your head and give thanks that you got off so easy.
This morning marks the second week of a sermon series on prayer. It is based on a book I’ve been reading called Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer by Catholic priest William Barry. Last week I introduced the premise of Barry’s book that prayer can be understood as our conscious awareness of God’s presence; an awareness that is cultivated through honest communication that results in mutual self-revelation.[i] Last week I discussed the impact of communication on a relationship. First, communication builds or constructs a relationship. But secondly, communication reveals something about the nature or character of that relationship. Both of our biblical creation stories reveal that our God is a relational God and that God desires a friendship with the humans he creates. It is a desire voiced by Jesus to his disciples in the gospel of John when he tells them that he no longer identifies them as servants because servants are clueless about their master’s affairs; ignorant about the master’s business. But Jesus identifies his disciples as friends with whom he has shared intimate divine knowledge. To be in a real and authentic relationship with God, we must be in communication with God and that communication must be honest, not merely reverent and polite.
Now, while we might like to cling to clichés like “you reap what you sow” and “what goes around comes around,” the reality of everyday life betrays that myth of “just deserts.” And when life is not fair, we do no service to God, ourselves or others to pretend that we are not sad or angry or frightened. Times of sorrow and suffering should call forth honest communication with God, truthful prayer. As I’ve often told people, there is nothing you can say to God that will make God stop loving you. And, there is nothing you can say to God that God can’t handle. God can take it.
Within his book, in the chapter entitled “Telling God about Your Sadness,” Barry references many of the lament psalms in which the psalmists pour out their hearts to God. The lament psalms of our bible follow a clear 5-part structure that includes (1) appealing to God for help, (2) describing their trouble or affliction, (3) justifying why they should be heard by God, (4) affirming their confidence in God’s willingness and ability to do something about it, and (5) promising to praise God when the deliverance comes. Lament psalms are beautiful in their poetic form. Yet sometimes life is so messy, it defies all structure and form and it can get ugly. So, while Barry references many wonderful psalms of lament, this morning we will look at a messy, unorthodox lamenter by the name of Job.
The story of Job is well-known. It’s even spawned clichés like “the patience of Job…” though it’s a rather poor cliché since Job is anything but patient.
The book of Job begins by introducing us to its main character, a man whose life has, up to now, been picture perfect. Job is one of the shiny, happy people; righteous and abundantly blessed… That is until a satan, an adversary (that’s what the word “satan” means), offers up to God the possibility that Job is only righteous because he has been blessed. Would Job be so holy, the satan queries, if his life weren’t so easy? And so God permits the satan to strip away Job’s blessings to discover what lies beneath. Job’s children perish; his herds are decimated; his wealth and reputation evaporate and, finally, he is plagued with sickness. Thus the experiment begins and this biblical book of 42 chapters raises two existential questions: 1) why do the righteous suffer? And 2) what is the motivation for their righteousness? Are we good merely because we hope to earn God’s favor? To what degree is “righteousness” a strategy to ward off evil?
Struck by tragedy and stripped of all blessings, Job’s initial response is to profess faith in God regardless and resolutely cling to what is appropriate and orthodox. But eventually, Job sinks into a silent despair. Three “friends” arrive to console and comfort him. They weep and rend their robes and heap dust upon their heads. They sit in silence with Job. But after seven days and nights, Job seems to rouse from his numbed state of shock and finally gives voice to his despair. I shared a portion of this initial soliloquy as this morning’s scripture. Job goes so far as to curse the day of his birth, even the night of his conception and such words turn out to be more than his so-called friends can handle. In the ancient world, it was widely accepted that suffering came directly from the hand of God as punishment for people’s sins. That was the party line and – so long as you weren’t the one suffering – it was a good and comforting theory. But here’s the truth: our holy scripture (not to mention life itself) provides no single, uniform cause for suffering. In fact, even within our gospels, Jesus gives more than one rationale for suffering and, let’s be frank, there’s not much comfort in that. Job’s so-called friends want to cling to the party line and so they challenge Job’s self-proclaimed innocence. They refuse to entertain the possibility that he has done nothing to merit this unimaginable horror. As bible scholar William Brown puts it, “Job unleashes a barrage of questions and accusations against God that so perturbs [his friends] that they must brand him as an unrepentant sinner [in order] to maintain their [own] moral sensibilities, if not their sanity.”[ii]
Most of the book of Job then consists of this back and forth between Job and his three “friends.” In chapter 32, yet another character enters the story. A young man named Elihu. He is more forceful in condemning Job than Job’s friends and peers. He speaks boldly in God’s defense. I mean, if God ever needed a public defender, this would be the guy and he is determined to make a closing argument that cannot be rejected. The young Elihu, Job and his three friends have had a great deal to say about God; but after 35 chapters of people talking about God, God finally speaks on his own behalf when he answers Job from a whirlwind. But the answer is not nearly so clear-cut or comforting as one would hope. In fact, Job’s individual suffering is never really addressed. While Job has been complaining and accusing God, our gaze has been narrowly focused on Job; he has been the center of his own universe. But God zooms wide the lens to offer a cosmic perspective on life, a cosmic view of the universe. God reminds Job of how vast and intricately woven his creation is. How can we even begin to comprehend it all?
Now if the story of Job were to end there, it would be a very unsatisfactory story. But there is more. After God speaks to Job in poetic and cosmic terms, God turns his attention toward Job’s companions and here is what God pronounces: that they are the ones worthy of judgment. Job spoke to God sincerely, truthfully. But his friends spoke a bunch of nonsense. God is angry at Job’s so-called friends for what they said to Job about God. They have misrepresented God. And here’s what God requires of them: they are to take an animal to sacrifice and they’re to sacrifice it in the presence of Job while Job prays on their behalf. Wow. I bet they didn’t see that coming down the pike. I love the way Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message: God Almighty says: “My friend Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer. He will ask me not to treat you as you deserve for talking nonsense about me, and for not being honest with me, as he has.”[iii]
Now, if you read what Job said to God, it’s some pretty harsh stuff. But here’s the thing: there’s no pretending to it. Job is completely honest with God; he lets it all out. And at the end of it all, God calls him friend. Friend: not because Job was polite and reverent and orthodox; but because Job was honest. He didn’t try to hide his feelings or opinions. And Job’s brutal honesty means far more to God than his friends’ neat and tidy orthodoxy.
Job does pray to God for his friends. And God restores Job’s fortune. And here is one of the most fascinating parts of this story. At the end of the story, Job has seven sons and three daughters. But we’re not given the names of the sons; only the daughters and we’re told that Job gave them an equal share of his inheritance. That wasn’t supposed to happen back in those days. Inheritance was only for sons, for males. Something curious has happened to Job; he seems now to see everyone a little differently.
Author Dorothee Soelle wrote of stages of suffering. Often, in the earliest stages, the sufferer is mute and paralyzed as Job sat in silence for seven days and nights. But this stage can be followed by a crying out, an angry cry; a cry often discouraged in the church where – like Job’s friends – we may deem it heretical. But the sufferer knows that something is not right, is not just; and they are not afraid to say so. And if they can give voice to their raw suffering, they may arrive at a place in their journey where they see life a little differently and certainly see their sojourners differently. They may learn a new way of living and believing and being in relationship with God and with other people.
When I was in middle school, I recall a conversation I had with a group of girlfriends. We were discussing what life was like in our homes. I shared that my parents sometimes had heated arguments with raised voices and angry tones. One friend was shocked. She couldn’t imagine that the pastor and his wife would argue or be angry with one another. Her parents, she assured me, never raised their voices, never had so much as a disagreement. “Never?” I asked. “Never,” she declared firmly. Within the year, her parents were divorced. Years before their honest communication had ended; it had been reduced to social niceties. But there is nothing enduring about pretense and politeness.
Friends, if there is sorrow in your life, talk to God about your sadness. Don’t be afraid to let God have it. God can handle it. You may never find the answer to why bad things happen to good people; and perhaps such an answer does not even exist. But God will hear you out and God will continue to work within your life, to form and fashion something new. God will not leave you. He’ll draw near to you. And as you pass through that valley of suffering, you may find that you emerge with a different understanding of God, of yourself, and of others. God wants to hear the truth from you; God wants to be your friend.
[i] Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer. By William A. Barry, SJ. Loyola Press; 2012. pp. 1, 7
[ii] Interpretation: a Journal of Bible and Theology; July, 1999; “Introducing Job” by William P. Brown; p. 231
[iii] The Message by Eugene Peterson; NavPress; 2002; p. 908
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