Questions and Quandaries

Timothy C. Ahrens

The First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Columbus, Ohio

October 29, 2000

Job 38:1-8, 34-41 and Mark 10:35-45

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

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There is not a more empathetic character in Holy scriptures than Job. Facing unjustified suffering for over 35 chapters of the Book named for him creates the source of our deep empathy and identification. Moses can part the Red Sea; Deborah can rout the armies of Canaan; and David can slay his 10,000 and never once do you feel personally effected. But, Job climbs on his dung heap and starts cursing the day he was born and you and I feel a common bond. Everyone has been in his place at some time or another or at least has a family member or friend who has.

A first and only child is born to a dying father whose second to last kiss is placed on his son's face and his last on his wife's lips; a vital, healthy friend whose life has been rich and blessed by physicality becomes disabled with a debilitating disease which will eventually put him in a wheelchair and then a bed at a young age; a friend with a fine mind is stricken by early Alzheimer's Disease; a woman and her children go out shopping one day and never return having been wiped from life and the highway by a drunk driver who walks away from the accident without a scratch; a tornado rips through a town killed several young families while an 85-year-old man falls asleep watching TV and has his house blown down around him only to experience the pain of waking -up with no walls intact and asking why God took them and not him; your best friend from childhood commits suicide because his mind is so messed-up and confused having gotten involved with a "Jesus-Is-The-Way," you witness the wrath of a Hurricane on Honduras (our poorest Central American sister nation) which hits devastates not once, but twice in three days time and leaves a path of destruction covering half the nation!

All of these are true stories of which I know and I know there are multitudes of more stories of which you know that make Job our contemporary in a way few other biblical characters can be. In the midst of the whirlwind, which is the power of God, Job shakes his fist at God and demands to know: "Where are you and why are you allowing this to happen? If you want to kill us off then at least make it quick (and be done with us)! There is no reason to break all our bones one by one unless you just like the sound of it!" (quoted in Barbara Brown Taylor's Home By Another Way, Cowley Publications, 1999, p. 163).

Job did everything right and was repaid with suffering every kind of wrong. Scripture tells us he was blameless, righteous, and upright. He feared the Lord God and turned away from every evil. He was also given the title of "The greatest of all people of the east." He had a loving wife, ten wonderful children, seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred pairs of oxen, five hundred donkeys and enough servants to keep track of his zoo! In other words, Job was extremely rich. After all, how many people do you know with 3,000 camels who are one foot out of the poor house?

Misfortune struck Job through no fault of his own. He was quietly minding his own successful business - praying for each child by name, feeding all the beggars who came calling - when God and Satan had a conversation about him in heaven. This Satan wasn't the devil as we now conceive of him because the understanding of evil operating separately from God develops a couple of hundred years after Job in Judaism. In Job's time, Satan was still one of God's members of the heavenly supreme court. His name was Hasatan or "the Accuser." His job was to bring people to trial when God said so, but only when God said so. He didn't take action against people unless God gave him power to do so.

Whether old Hasatan had it in mind to get Job in trouble, we can only guess, but one day God asked him about his recent visit to earth. Smiling with delight, God asked Satan if he had seen Job while he was there. God said, "There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil." Satan responded, "Why wouldn't he, God? Every time he turns around you shower the guy with blessings. He's rich, he's healthy, he has a great wife and ten kids. With all due respect your High and Mightiness, he doesn't worship you for nothing! Take everything away from him and he will curse you to your face!"

That was it. Either it was because God was so convinced that Satan was wrong or so afraid he might be right on target - God gave Satan the green light to try Job and test his premise. In a short time Job lost everything- his oxen, donkeys, and camels were stolen. His servants were all killed trying to save the animals. His sheep were struck by lightening. And his children all died during dinner when a huge wind blew in from the desert and brought the house down on top of them.

Still Job remained steadfast to God. God was right. There was no one on earth like Job. In grief, he tore his clothes off, shaved his head and lay face down in the desert sand, saying, "The Lord gives and the Lord, takes away blessed be the Lord's name." But, Satan said to God, "You haven't laid a hand on him. Hurt him and he will curse you." So God gave permission. Satan made Job have itching, seeping sores all over his body, from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. There he sat on the dung heap in tremendous pain scratching himself with a piece of broken pottery, but he was speechless. His wife told him to curse God and die, but he wouldn't. Three friends joined him there for a week and witnessed suffering so acute it made them speechless.

Finally, Job erupted! In Stephen Mitchell's stormy translation (which I paraphrase for young listening ears) Job's grief flies at listeners including God: "God (damn) curse the day I was born and the night that forced me from the womb. Why couldn't I have died as they pulled me out of the dark? Why were there knees to hold me and breasts to keep me alive? If only I had strangled and drown on my way to the bitter light!" (Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job, as quoted in B.B. Taylor's sermon, "Out of the Whirlwind," in Home By Another Way, p. 165).

Job's friends now speak. These three who were full of compassion in their silence now tell Job that he must have done something to deserve this. He must have done something to make God so angry. After all, God does not make mistakes this big! "God is just!" They tell him, "Therefor you must be guilty." Job knows he is guilty of nothing. God knows this too. What has afflicted this righteous man defies all logic, challenges all faith! Just like the people around suffering in every generation, Job's friends seek to come up with theories and explanations to "help" Job cope with his intense pain. The more he suffers, the more they shovel out their lame-brained explanations.

But Job sits and works on his conversation with God. With nothing left to lose, he raises his fist to God and asks the question of all questions: "I have done everything you ever asked of me! Why is this happening to me? Answer me!"

Finally, God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind. "Who is this that obscures council with words void of knowledge? ...Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me if you know so much. Who drafted its dimensions? Surely you know. Who stretched the line over it? On what are the sockets sunk, who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang together and all the gods exulted?" (Marvin Pope's translation in Job, Anchor Bile Series, p. 288).

"God's rebuttal goes on for four chapters but never really answers Job's question. Job's question was about justice. God's answer is about omnipotence, and as far as I know that is the only answer human beings have ever gotten about why things happen the way they do. God only knows. And none of us is God." (Quoted from B.B. Taylor, p. 165).

Apparently, Virginia Woolf once wrote a friend, "I read the Book of Job last night - I don't think God comes well out of it." Many readers, like Woolf get appropriately riled-up by God response at the end of Job. Believing that God is not a respecter of persons, but a bully in the cosmic story of providential reign, people point to Job as an example why not to believe in God. St. Teresa, a faithful and fiery believer speaks for all nonbelievers, when one day, while fording a stream and getting stuck there on her horse, she raised her fist and voice to heaven and yelled: "God, if this is the way you treat your friends, it's no wonder you have so few of them!"

Rather, I prefer to take my response to God from Job, who says this when God's finished God's response. "I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite. I have heard you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I will be silent, comforted that I am dust." We ask, why silent when no answer has been forthcoming? Why comfort when feeling like dust? Why? - because Job saw the face of God and lived to tell the story.

The Book of Job closes with no clear answer to the problem of unjustified suffering, except perhaps this: For most of us the worst thing to could happen is not to suffer without reason, but to suffer without God - without any hope of consolation, without any hope of rebirth, of new beginnings. That's what suffering without God truly is. It is suffering without hope. All other pain pales in the face of pain with divine abandonment. Ask Jesus about that. What did the pain of God's silence feel like in the Garden of Gethsamane? When there is nothing left - when all the flocks have been stolen and destroyed, when all the children are dead and buried, when all the riches and fame have been dashed against the rocks of time, when all you have left is to scratch sores with a broken piece of clay on the dung heap, remember who laid the foundations of the earth, set stars in orbit throughout eternity, and brought breath and hope to life. It is God. That may seem only a weak consolation, but without God all hope and future are abandoned and such loss is too great - even for Job.

That said, we do not have to practice our faith in polite, pietistic ways. We do not have to suffer silently. We have every right to be outraged with God and with the lame-brained cohorts we call "friends" in times of trouble. When in pain, we are allowed to yell as loudly at God as is possible. "Why is this happening to me? Why me?" Because in the words of William Safire, in his book The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today's Politics, "Devout defiance pleases God."

In fact, I believe God practices defiance in the face of human pain. Years ago, The Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin, Senior Minister of Riverside Church in New York and chaplain at Yale University in the 1960's lost his son in a car accident. The young man had been drinking and driving and drove his car off a bridge in Cambridge, Mass., and died as his car sunk into the river. One woman in his congregation at the viewing senselessly said to Bill, "This was probably God's judgement on your son for drinking and driving." Somehow he collected himself and with the presence of mind I could only dream of responded, "Oh no. When the car went over the bridge and into the frigid waters, God was the first one to know and the first one to weep at the loss of one so beautiful and precious as my son." That's the God I worship and believe in and follow!

Defiance and pain; weeping and suffering in the face of human suffering and weeping. Our God does not abandon us in our sinking and drowning moments of life and pain. God acts last and embraces us in this moment. As the Book of Job ends, we discover that God blesses Job with greater riches than in his earlier life. And the story ends, "So Job died, old and satisfied with life." (Job 42:17). Thus, questions and quandaries aside, God has the last word. Amen.

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