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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Words about God spoken wrongly

I am taken aback by the beauty of the poetry in Job, specifically Eliphaz, as he speaks in chapter 4. The problem with saying that of course is that Eliphaz and his partners are condemned in the end. “The Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what right, as my servant Job has’” (42:7). From beginning to end, we operate with the idea that we can’t trust what the friends say. After all, God rejected them.

Is there anything worthy holding on to from the speeches of the friends?

The apostle Paul thought there was. He quoted Eliphaz. Paul said of God, “he catches the wise in their craftiness” (1 Corinthians 3:19, a direct quotation of Job 5:13). In fact, Eliphaz’s entire message in chapter 5 is something we would absolutely say is true of God.

Job 5:8-16 (New International Version)

8 "But if it were I, I would appeal to God;
I would lay my cause before him.

9 He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
miracles that cannot be counted.

10 He bestows rain on the earth;
he sends water upon the countryside.

11 The lowly he sets on high,
and those who mourn are lifted to safety.

12 He thwarts the plans of the crafty,
so that their hands achieve no success.

13 He catches the wise in their craftiness,
and the schemes of the wily are swept away.

14 Darkness comes upon them in the daytime;
at noon they grope as in the night.

15 He saves the needy from the sword in their mouth;
he saves them from the clutches of the powerful.

16 So the poor have hope,
and injustice shuts its mouth.

Who among God believers would contest the truth of any of Eliphaz’s words in these chapters?

What is possibly more controversial is his claim to have had a vision that revealed to him the absolute sinfulness of man. I believe the Bible reveals and human history confirms that all humans are sinful. But I also believe that through the practice of spiritual discipline and the work of the Holy Spirit in a person, that person can be righteous. Obviously Eliphaz disagrees.

Job 4:12-21 (New International Version)

12 "A word was secretly brought to me,
my ears caught a whisper of it.

13 Amid disquieting dreams in the night,
when deep sleep falls on men,

14 fear and trembling seized me
and made all my bones shake.

15 A spirit glided past my face,
and the hair on my body stood on end.

16 It stopped,
but I could not tell what it was.
A form stood before my eyes,
and I heard a hushed voice:

17 'Can a mortal be more righteous than God?
Can a man be more pure than his Maker?

18 If God places no trust in his servants,
if he charges his angels with error,

19 how much more those who live in houses of clay,
whose foundations are in the dust,
who are crushed more readily than a moth!

20 Between dawn and dusk they are broken to pieces;
unnoticed, they perish forever.

21 Are not the cords of their tent pulled up,
so that they die without wisdom?' [a]

I am not a poetry critic. In fact, I have had trouble understanding and appreciating poetry. But the words of Eliphaz’s vision blow me away. I don’t know why, but they do.

So what then? Eliphaz has not spoken rightly about God. In 5:8-16, he speaks the wisdom of Proverbs and in 4:12-21, he speaks the poetry of Psalms. How do appropriate the words of Eliphaz and the other friends, and Elihu? Even Job? In his anguish Job proposes to take God as his opponent in a court of law, and Job is sure he will win. And God says Job speaks rightly!

Maybe the key is the friend and Elihu pontificated about God without truly attending to the wounds of their friend. They spoke from the safety of the ivory tower. Had they uttered the same words from the sewers that run through the ghettos, their words would be able to stand on the truth of God’s Word intersecting with human reality.

Job, irreverent as he was, spoke the truth. He was angry with God. He attacked God and accused God of attacking him. But, he did not judge others. He took it straight to God. Maybe that is why his words are deemed to be right, the words of his self-righteous friends deemed to be in error.

Friday, July 17, 2009


One of the overwhelmingly frequent seen reactions to reading the Biblical story of Job, especially from people who have themselves suffered, is loss of hope. It is fatalism. It is this beleaguered sense that there is no way out. This is not the only reaction to Job I have come across in literature, but it is a popular one. Archibald MacLeish and Elie Weisel both present Job from a beaten down perspective.

Job’s initial cries, recorded in Job 3, are from a weary, defeated man. ‘Let the day perish in which I was born. … Let that day be darkness! … Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let clouds settle upon it. … Yes, let that night be barren; let no joyful cry be heard in it. … Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? … I am not at ease, not am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes” (3:3, 4, 5, 7, 11, 26).

I had a professor who described conditions like Job’s as being “lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut.” The quip is glib but the story is real, both for Job and for many who have read Job. Sometimes life deals terrible blows – blows that are seemingly impossible to overcome.

And yet …

I was reminded in a Bible study that another man in the Bible suffered terribly and without hope and for no reason. Jesus. He plaintively cried out, “My God, my God, why have forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46)? Jesus maintained his reverence for God even as he desperately reached out to God, only to receive silence for Heaven. God turned Jesus’ tragedy for good. In his death, there is salvation for all.

Maybe God accomplished much for the good of many in Job’s story. It is not as clear to me, but I think it possible. The voice of Job’s sorrow that is heard in chapter 3 and throughout the dialogues is not the only voice. The reaction of anger aimed at Heaven or satirizing God (in MacLeish’s J.B.) is not the only reaction. There has to be more. I have felt this as I have read Job most intently and intensely than every before, and I have felt is I have talked to others about Job.

Maybe our hope is God’s sovereignty. I share two stories to illustrate.

Recently, a man went for gastric bypass surgery. He was supposed to be in the hospital less than a week. Everything that could have gone wrong did, and six weeks later, he is still in the hospital and fighting for his life. Before this surgery, his faith was somewhere between indifference toward God, and a chip on the shoulder toward either God or the church. During the early days of his hospitalization, when it was clear things weren’t right, the man became angry.

He and his wife were both angry at the hospital. They know UNC is a teaching hospital, but they did not want students practicing on him. The man was becoming bitter. Then things got worse and he began to really fear for his life. Around that time, the pastor of his wife who is a woman of faith came to visit. It came out that as a kid, this man has accepted Jesus. His “faith” had been dormant (or it never existed) for 50 years. Now, staring at death, this man told the pastor he wanted to accept Jesus.
When I visited, I rejoiced with him, his wife (whose anger was completely gone), and his sister. I asked them what they would rather have: (a) a surgery that went by the book, no complications, and no “come-to-Jesus” moment, or what they got, (b) all the complications but also the salvation of his soul. Of course they all chose option b. Then his wife said, “Isn’t neat how it seems like God has always been in control? We’ve been through a lot, but God always knew he’d get us here.”

What struck me about her comment was it was similar to something my sister Christy said recently. She was pushing my son 2-year-old son around my parents’ neighborhood in stroller. She said she would go wherever Henry wanted to go. He had no idea where he was or where he wanted to go, so he just randomly called out and pointed. When he got tired of that and just trusted Christy, she got him home just like she always knew she would.

Christy said God is like that. He lets us make choices, but he knows where he wants us to arrive. When we stop going our way and go God’s way, we get there – just like God always knew we would. Another interesting point Christy observed is that things were harder on her when the two-year-old was calling the shots because she had to be with him and protect him from himself.

Maybe it’s harder on God than on us when we mess up because He loves us and stays with us even in our wanderings. Maybe Job wasn’t hit the hardest in the story of Job. Maybe God suffered even more because he had to watch His beloved Job go through it. People praise Job for staying engaged with God. Let’s praise God for sticking with Job and for sticking with us. Is there hope? In the end, Job is restored to prominence and health. In the end, Jesus rises from death. In the end, God gets us home.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Job's Wife

This blog is my column in my church's newsletter for the week of July 12-19, 2009.

“Curse God and Die” (Job 2:9b)

The Biblical book of Job prompts endless discussion, and theological speculation in several directions. The number of angles and opinions are impossible to keep up with. Once people start talking about Job and the issues raised in Job, they can’t stop. This is the surest sign that Job is (a) brilliantly conceive and written, and (b) literature in which God is still at work, still speaking.

The multiplicity of views includes a variety of thoughts on Job’s wife. Though she appears only in Job 2:9-10, she impacts readers greatly. Upon an initial reading, she strikes me as antagonistic. I read Job and I am ready to dismiss his wife as faithless, negative, and unhelpful.

Recently I shared these views, judgmental as they are, in a group discussion. I wasn’t imposing my views on the group, just sharing what I thought. My voice was one among many, and there were definitely other opinions. “She has lost all her children, and her wealth,” one person said. I paused in my thinking on Job’s wife, and took a step back. It dawned on me that even though she is only heard from in these two verses, she is there, a part of the story. Furthermore, hers is a complex character, even if a silent one.

Bible scholars who read with a feminist bent would be justified in pointing out that even though she isn’t mentioned in chapter 1, Job didn’t have those 10 children by himself. She was there and she had a say, even in her silence. She mattered greatly. Also, we remember that in ancient Semitic cultures all a woman had was her father, and then her husband, and ultimately her sons. Job’s wife was wealthy because her husband was wealthy, and respected, and they had 10 kids including 7 boys. Due to her wealth, Job’s wife was an important woman in the community.

Then, Satan, with God’s permission, stripped all the wealth away by provoking the Sabeans and Chaldeans (1:15, 17). Then Satan, obviously endowed with limited elemental powers, provoked a desert tornado of sorts that collapsed the house where Job’s 10 children were enjoying fellowship with one another. Finally, Satan inflicted loathsome sores on Job’s body. The woman had nothing – no kids, no property, and her husband was reduced to grief on an ash heap.

Should she have stood by her man? Of course! Compassion and support were what Job needed more than anything. But, before we jump to quick judgment of this woman, it behooves us to remember she also suffered greatly. In truth, when we go through trials that rip at the soul, how do we respond? Blessed be the name of the Lord; or, curse God and die. Clearly, the former is the ‘right answer.’ But has that been the honest answer in your life or mine?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was an army officer in Soviet Russia when he was arrested by state police for dissidence in the 1940’s. He saw the evil wrought by Stalin, evil millions of Russians dared ignore. He even wrote about what he saw and he ended up in the misery of the prison system for 10 years. One of his closest friends in the army was Lieutenant Ovsyannikov.

Unlike Solzhenitsyn, Ovsyannikov was not arrested even though he knew many of Solzhenitsyn’s subversive views. In fact, just the opposite happened. Solzhenitsyn lost contact with his old friend during his prison years. When he tried to track him down, Ovsyannikov was evasive. Finally, he got a hold of him only to discover that his old lieutenant had gone to work for the very corrupted government that arrested and brutally tortured Solzhenitsyn and millions upon millions of others. He criticized the beast; one of his best friends became the beast (see The Gulag Archipelago, ch, 4).

The whole point in recounting the journey he took and that of Lt. Ovsyannikov was to say either man could have gone either way. “If there were only evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,” writes Solzhenitsyn, “and it were necessary only to separate the rest of us from them and destroy them; but, line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart” (p.168).

Solzhenitsyn could become the persecuted idealist, or the immoral interrogator. So could you or I. We could face the pain of life with the courageous faith to “bless the name of the Lord” even in instances of unspeakable pain. On the other hand, we could be hit with tragedies that are sad, but not all that uncommon. And yet they drive us to “curse God and die.” We each have in us the potential for spiritual success and spiritual failure.

Knowing this, I pray that our church is a place where people who want to curse God and die can be welcomed and loved. I don’t affirm that conclusion. But, I do affirm the pain of the person who is so broken he or she feels that is all there is left to do. I pray that our church will heap mercy and more mercy when we meet those who have lost their way. I pray our church will be a place where they can voice their most bile-filled vituperations at God. I don’t want to see people in that condition remain in that condition. But, we must allow them to voice their pain. Redemption and healing won’t come until they do.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Recommended Reading

In seminary, I took an elective class on the Old Testament Book Job. Much to my chagrin, I cannot find my folder that contained my notes and the class syllabus. One of the things on Samuel Ballentine, our professor, included was an optional reading list. At the time, it was all I could do to motivate myself to do the required reading. Now, 14 years later, I wish I had that optional reading list. I remember some of the works on it, and I am tackling them as I study Job.

And so, I present these selections and I will add to this list as I come across more works that may be of interest.

The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
This is Solzhenitsyn’s memoir of being arrested and imprisoned in the Soviet Union after World War II. It is long (over 800 pages). And it is graphic (Solzhenitsyn cites 31 different torture methods used interrogations). But it is worth reading because Solzhenitsyn is a good writer and his work absolutely raises the basic question people feel in reading Job – WHY? Why does God allow this suffering?

J.B. by Archibald Macleish
This play was written in the late 1950’s. God and Satan are portrayed as actors who decide to put on a play about the Biblical book of Job. The line between what is dramatic presentation and what is really happening is intentionally obscure. The interplay between the two, both in their direct dialogue and as it plays out in the affairs of Job and his family, is intense and compelling. The play absolutely opens up the characters in Job. However, Satan and Job’s wife have considerably larger roles in this play than in the Biblical account.

The Trial of God by Elie Wiesel
I just started this one. This play is a metaphor of both Job and of the way Nazis arrested and murdered Jews during the Holocaust. The setting for play/metaphor is 19th century Ukraine, where an innkeeper and his daughter are the only Jews left after a murderous pogrom has ravaged the village. Three traveling minstrels come wanting to perform for Jews on the occasion of the Jewish celebration of Purim. They are shocked to learn there are only two Jews in the village, and also to learn that the innkeeper’s personal suffering has led him to forsake God completely. This is a powerful play, but I must alert you that it is not written from a Christian perspective but from a Jewish perspective; more specifically, it is written from the perspective of a Jew who has gone through painful persecution at the hands of Christians. It’s a moving account, but it helps set expectations to know that it is Jewish and not Christian.

The consistent theme among these works and the question that always comes up in studies of Job is WHY? Why, why, why? And faithful to Job, the answer is never easy or obvious. In fact, usually there is no answer to WHY in the face of suffering. Still, why is always asked and it must asked.

Bible Overload – A Good (but also demanding) Condition

I write this acknowledging that the nature of my work (church pastor) allows me to put in a lot of time reading the Bible; I am, in fact, expected to do that. Even so, it can be overwhelming.

My current daily devotional reading is in Leviticus. I read a chapter and write my reflections/responses in a journal. So I began Wednesday with my Leviticus reading. That was still fresh in my mind as I shifted to my sermon prep work. The text for the sermon is Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council. Finally, after I had worked on the sermon for several hours, I did some reading on the book of Judges because I am thinking of preaching from Judges in August.

Judges – Acts – Leviticus; they were each competing for my thought and attention. And, I have not even mentioned Job. These days, with all the reading I am doing on that Biblical book, Job is constantly on my mind. So, as I headed for home, my brain felt as if it were swimming, tossed wildly in large waves. In some ways this experience was exhilarating. It was also exhausting. Overall I appreciate the experience.

I am specifically grateful for the way the different texts informed each other. I believe all scripture is inspired word of God (as it says in 2 Timothy 3:16). I also believe God’s Spirit is at work in my mind and heart as I read. So, a passage from my devotional reading (Leviticus 20:26) ended as a part of my sermon on Acts 15. And, this morning, as I read the section on Job in Norman Gottwald’s book The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction I found information that will be helpful in my work on the book of Judges.

All of this leads me to an obvious but refreshing conclusion. Job fits in the Bible, and the rest of scripture has something to say in what we learn in Job. Often when I am leading a Bible study group, I challenge the participants to imagine that the only Bible they have is the particular books we are studying (be it Genesis, Job, Matthew, Revelation or whatever). Reading in this way, I ask the group to talk about God as that particular book describes God and presents God.

Here, I offer the opposite insight. When studying Job or any other book, we do well to consider the message of the rest of the Bible. It will enrich our understanding both of Job and of God. Job is such a unique book; it is hard to locate it in a genre category (Gottwald, p.576). At the same time, Job takes its place in God’s Holy Word. Therefore, in concert with the rest of the Bible we meet God in the pages of Job, and the message there informs our faith.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Theology of Blessing

20Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21And he said, "Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD" (Job 1:20-21).
As I write this, I am nearing the end of a fabulous, week-long vacation. Our time has been split between my parents’ house and my aunt’s lake-house. My sons, 2 and 7, have had a great week of connecting with my generation of cousins. There are 15 in my generation and my boys got to meet and spend quality time with 6 of them (including my sister and me) as well as some of my aunts and uncles and my parents and grandmother.

How many people would say they have a restful week-long vacation with their parents? My wife also has had a good time. So many people become adults and have acrimonious relationships with their parents and adult siblings. We have been truly blessed.

And that is really my whole point here – blessing. I have lived a blessed life; the life of Job before Satan got a hold of his possessions, family, and health. So, do I respond as Job did by leading my family in worship and praying for them? YES! And what would happen if I lost it all?

I shudder to even imagine that eventuality!

But, it is worth thinking about. What is the proper theological response to blessing? The book of Job raises theological questions about suffering, but what is a proper theology of prosperity and blessing?

In short, two answers come to mind. The first is thanksgiving. I was sitting with my dad on the back patio. I was reading the Bible and writing in my journal. He was reading the morning comics. We were both enjoying coffee and bacon. When my journal entry was complete, I asked him to pray with me because I always pray when I am done journaling. I thought about the blessing of having a dad, who is a good friend and a brother in Christ, and I thought about all the blessings of the week, and I led us in a prayer of thanksgiving.

Without doing any complicated theology, I think the first response to blessing is to say thanks to God. We don’t wonder why we are blessed and another is not. We thank God.

A second and equally important response to blessing is generosity. A friend of mine, a missionary named Phil, really tipped me on this. I was writing some newsletter pieces for our church about tithing. He said, “You know Rob, the real New Testament teaching about money and giving is generosity.” Jesus and the New Testament writers do not teach us to give 10% of our paychecks. Generosity is modeled, taught, and commanded.

So, all disciples of Jesus are called to extremes in generosity. And our generosity should reflect how “blessed” we have been financially and relationally. We give our money, we open our homes, and we open our hearts. Just as it is unwise to blame God during times of hardship, it is unwise to take credit during times of wealth God. We thank God profusely, and we share the blessing with an extravagant, unending flow of generosity.