Job 38: 1-7, 34-41
Poor Job, by the time, this scripture rolls around he endures 37 chapters of death, famine, disease, and know-it-all friends who have more interest in preserving their ideas about God than helping Job. Now this in chapter 38, it’s as if God says; ‘Who do you think you are Job?’ What is this garbage you’ve been spouting?’ ‘Stop whining, face me like a man, where were you when I created the earth, can you provide prey for the lions? Etc…’ ‘Know your place Job; you’ve gotten a little too high on yourself with all that righteous indignation.’ ‘Who are you in relation to Me, the creator and sustainer of the universe?’
That does seem a bit harsh to you? It did to me. So, let’s go deeper. Many scholars in the Christian and Jewish academic community believe the book of Job is originally an ancient legend that is adapted into the bible. The people of Israel feeling that it carried enough wisdom to be included in their scriptures, that it revealed something important about what it means to be human, to have faith and to suffer.
Whenever the question of suffering comes up, I am immediately drawn to the writing of Viktor Frankl, the late psychiatrist and Nazi concentration camp survivor. I figure if anybody can give me an insight into the meaning of suffering, he can. One of the most interesting comments Frankl makes is this.
“We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly.”
I always find it interesting, and I include myself in this, why we don’t question life when things are going well; ‘Why did the sun rise this morning, what have I done to deserve this?’ ‘Why does my body function so well, allowing me to do so much, why is it so loyal to me?’
Job reveals himself to be someone who doesn’t ask these questions either. The thirty-seven chapters leading up to today’s reading reveal a man who feels he has earned the right to a life free of suffering. When it doesn’t happen, he becomes angry. It becomes apparent Job thinks he has a contract with God; he has a formula for faith—If Job is obediently righteous than God will reward him. This is especially problematic in that time and place where suffering is equated with sin; you bring it upon yourself. That thinking still exists today but not to the same extent. So, Job asks the question that naturally flows from this approach to faith—”why?” “Why have you done this God, I’ve done all the right things, what have I done to deserve this?’ God reneges on the contract according to Job.
It’s an approach to faith that assumes a relationship with God exists to serve our purposes, to satisfy our need for answers and a life of comfort and ease. Job is a good man; he does his part, but God does not. Job’s friends, who hold the same approach to faith as Job insist that since God is blameless Job must be in a state of sin, he’s bringing the various calamities on himself. But Job is convinced of his righteousness; he is not satisfied with these answers and spends many chapters rebuking his friends.
Towards the end of the multitude of chapters of Job’s lament and complaint comes a single statement in 31: 35, “Oh that I had one to hear me…let the almighty answer me! Oh that I had the indictment of my adversary…I would give him an account of my steps” Do you notice the shift? Job moves from asking ‘why God?’ to asking, ‘where are you God?’ In the grief process, we would say that Job’s anger has run out of steam, he’s now bargaining with God and to bargain you need someone or something with which to bargain. It’s a shift that creates an opening for God. That why the “why” question as important as it might be in processing our anger and grief ultimately just keeps us stuck and feeling betrayed. Faith isn’t contract, so God doesn’t answer to “why?” God is relational and faith is a relationship of surrender made possible when we let go of our egos and fears and ask, ‘where are you God?’
With this shift, God begins to respond with today’s scripture. At first, it strikes me as an odd kind of response; it seems to have little to do with the explanation Job requested.
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!”
It’s not an explanation but it is a response, a response that speaks of God’s creative and sustaining power in creation. God’s response is meant to illicit awe and humility from Job and in so doing re-define the relationship. I’m paraphrasing God’s response this way— ‘Listen Job, there is no contract here, we’re not on equal terms you and I. I’m not here to serve your purpose, to answer your questions. This is who I am.’ The implicit question in that response is, ‘who will you be Job?’ ‘Will you continue to treat me as if you’ve got me in your hip pocket, ready to reward you because you do the right things? Will you continue to demand your just reward from me? Will you continue to ask me to serve your purposes, or will you surrender yourself and begin to serve mine? Will you stop demanding things from life and begin to ask what life demands of you?’
The challenge to Job is to not seek answers amid his suffering but to seek God, to move from ‘why God?’ to ‘Where are you God in the midst of this?’ The challenge for Job is to move from a contract faith of righteousness where he demands answers from God to one of seeking and surrendering to God. When he does this, things change.
Job begins to move from bargaining to acceptance. After God speaks Job humbles himself, he says in a poignant way; “I had heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you.” The story of Job ends with God restoring Job’s children and his wealth. Remember it is story, with meaning below the surface. The restoration acts as a symbol of the change that happens inside Job. But this isn’t the end yet, at the end the focus is on his daughters who had previously gone unnamed, now they are named, translated as Dove, Cinnamon and Eye Shadow. There were none so beautiful as Job’s daughters, scripture says. The focus of the scripture shifts, it moves from intellectual rationalization and righteous indignation to an experience of awe, humility, and beauty. The story ends in the comfort of faith restored—not of contract and control but of grace and surrender. This new faith is deeper, it’s not about two parties who do certain things. It’s about unity in and with God. It’s about Job and anyone of us folding our lives into God’s life. It’s about moving from asking, ‘why God?’ to asking, ‘where are you God?’ amid all life throws at us. In doing that to find a sense of peace not in answers but in presence. In the words of the poet Wendell Berry, it is to be joyful though you have considered all the facts.
None of this easy, that’s another lesson Job leaves us. There are no shortcuts to finding peace amid suffering. Here are some questions that might help. In your own suffering or in our communal suffering is it time to shift from asking ‘why God?’ to asking, ‘where are you God?’ How are you, we as a society being questioned by life right now? What do you expect from life? What does life expect from you? What is your experience of being joyful though you have considered all the facts?
On this journey may God bless us with the courage to ask hard questions and to be honest and vulnerable in answering them. May God bless us with impatience for easy answers, with companions who will listen and hold us, with humility to let go of what no longer works, with faith to surrender into the unknown. May God bless us with all this that we may know the beauty of life however it may come at us.