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Monday, August 31, 2009

To Speak with God

Job says of God, “See he will kill me; I have no hope.” Jesus promises his followers, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus gives the easy yoke and the light burden (Matthew 11:30). Jesus loves people so much, when he sees them far from God, he weeps over them (Luke 19:41).

When we meet God through faith in Jesus, we realize that God loves people to the extent that he allowed his Beloved Son Jesus to die the horrific death on the cross so that sins would covered – all sins. In Jesus, we find that God is love, grace, mercy, peace, and hope. A discerning reading of the Old Testament shows God has always been these things.

Thus, we cannot go along with Job even though we know the story of his agony. We cannot affirm his doleful sentiment. His soul, blackened by pain, crushed by loss, shredded by agony, and tormented by confusion does not benefit from resurrection knowledge. Knowing Jesus, we know that even on the darkest of dark days, we have a Savior who is present in Spirit, and holds power over death. As the sermon goes, we know it is midnight all day long, it’s hard, and it hurts, but though it is Friday, Sunday’s coming.

Even so, Job’s words in chapter 13 are worth a Jesus follower’s serious consideration. “I would speak to the Almighty! I desire to argue my case with God!” God will give Job that chance, and Job folds like a cheap suit (40:2-7). God grants all that Job has clamored for in chapters 3-31, and Job has nothing to say except that he, Job, is small. But in the end, Job is vindicated. I think the reason is he keeps looking to God.

He’s mad! He’s hurt! He says God has become his enemy (13:24). He says God bound him (13:27). In other chapters, he makes much wilder accusations against God. But God can take it.

God will not stand for theologians who speak for him and self-righteously judge those who suffer. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar get in trouble when they try to speak on God’s behalf. God doesn’t need their help. Job needs their help. But they, intimidated by the intensity of Job’s invectives and the severity of Job’s tribulation, cave in to the temptation. In a desperate situation in which they have no answers and are starting to squirm because of the proximity to misfortune, the three friends defend God against Job’s attacks.

Job calls them on it. From his dung pile, puss oozing from his sores, he blurts out, “all of you are worthless physicians” (13:4b). “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes” (13:12a). I wonder if I ever do that. I wonder if I, like Job’s friends, see a tough situation in which someone is hurting. And I, like Job’s friends, ride on my white horse, the knight in shining armor (OK, the clergy with a shining Bible). I, like Job’s friends, speak brilliant words of pastoral care that I learned in Master’s degree studies and Doctorate studies. Or, I spout truths I learned in reading thick books that working people don’t have time to read.

And after I have heroically saved the day with my clergy wisdom, I look down in the hospital bed. And the cancer has spread. And it hurts that she has to go through this alone because she’s estranged from her son and she’s divorced. Nothing I have said has made any of it better. My prattling on has only made it tougher because she has to act like I said something that matters when she knows I haven’t and I know she knows.

Then what?

I heard an outstanding observation by my friend, a Presbyterian pastor. We were in a Bible study group discussing Job, and he said, “Instead of speaking to Job on God’s behalf, the friends should have spoken to God on Job’s behalf.” In other words, why didn’t the friends ever stop to pray for Job? They were silent for week (2:13). Then they pontificated pejorations on Job for 28 chapters.

They were silent with him. They preached at him. They judged him. Why didn’t Job’s friends pray for him?

We can’t know how Job would have gone if the friend prayed on his behalf. We know in the end, he prayed on their behalf, and God listened and forgave them (Job 42:8-10). But, what matters is not the end of Job. What matters is how the story of Job and the story of Jesus and the story of the Holy Spirit play out in the daily lives of Jesus-followers in 2009.

I don’t want to be a “worthless physician.” I don’t want to drone on with “maxims [that are] proverbs of ashes.” I want to help people discover the easy yoke and the light burden.

And when I am up against it, and when I am awash in the blood that flows from my wounds, and when my soul is thrashed and wrenched and ripped, I want the flicker of faith that keeps my turning to God. Whether I hear God’s answer or not, whether things get better or not, whether I overcome or am undone, I hope that when it is my time to wallow in the Gulag and stand in the icy rain, I will look to God and trembling, say, “I would speak to the Almighty. I desire to bring my case to God.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pain Speaks

As I delve deeper and deeper into Job, I am convinced that the book of Job exists to show that God receives it when His people speak from their pain. Job isn’t counted as speaking rightly because of what he says. He’s counted as speaking rightly because he speaks to God and he speaks with unrestrained honesty. God tells Eliphaz that God’s wrath is against him and the other friends (42:7) because “[they] have not spoken of me what is right, my servant Job has done” (42:8).

A simple analysis of Job’s comments and the friends’ comments in Job 3-27 and Job 29-31 will reveal that much of what Job says to God is not something we’d affirm. “Surely now God has worn me out; he has made desolate all my company. And he has shriveled me, which is a witness against me; my leanness has risen up against me, and it testifies to my face. … God gives me up to the ungodly, and casts me into the hands of the wicked. I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces; he set me as his target; his archers surrounded. He slashes open my kidneys, and shows no mercy; he pours out my gall on the ground. He burst me open again and again; he rushes at me like a warrior. … My face is red with weeping, and deep darkness is on my eyelids, though there is no violence in my hands, and my prayer is pure” (Job 16:7-8, 11-14, 16-17).

Who among communities of faith today would call God an enemy warrior who rushes against them? Look at the violence in Job’s words! If his description were played out in images or in a movie, it would be rated ‘R’ for being so gory. When is the last time we sang a song praise – “Praise God, King of Kings, Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Slasher of Kidneys, the God who shows no mercy”? We don’t say what Job said about God and yet Job is the one who spoke rightly about God.

On the other hand, consider the words of Job’s friends. God is sovereign, they say! Amen, we shout! God is just, they say! Amen, we shout! So many of the words about God spoken by Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar are indicative of theology we find elsewhere in scripture. It is a theology about God’s lordship and goodness. This theology is crucial to what we believe.
So Job says things we wouldn’t say. His friends say things we constantly say. And Job is counted by God as right, and his friends as wrong. In fact, they are so wrong, their only hope is to have Job pray for them (Job 42:8-9). Does this mean we are to change our theology so that it conforms to Job’s? Do we praise the God who “seizes [our] necks and dashes [us] to pieces”?

That would be a mistake. We know the story of the cross. We know that God loves us, heaps grace upon us, and desires a love relationship with each of us. We know that! What we have to do with the book of Job is understand how the Holy Spirit has used it to empower disciples in their expression of faith. The book of Job is God’s way of saying to His children, “When you hurt, bring it to me, no matter what it is.”

God does not want us to clean up our language and get our act together and then come to Him. He wants us to come when we are a mess. Remember, the rightness of Job is in the fact that He speaks directly to God, attributes all to God, and speaks completely honestly. Only when we turn our attention on God and speak with absolute honesty (transparency is another way of thinking of it) are we ready for whatever response God will give.

Beware of writers who turn to the book of Job for answers. When someone offers a neat set of precepts that reduce debilitating pain to a problem solved by following the steps, and they reference Job in support of their trite solution, it is a clear indication that they do not understand Job at all. A lot of writers do this. The most recent one I read is Rick Warren. I love most of what he does, and would recommend it. But don’t trust him when it comes to Job. He writes a piece about being free of past pain. To bolster his teaching, he turns to Job. He writes “Job says,” but then he quotes Eliphaz (5:2). We’ve already attested to the fact that Eliphaz is counted as speaking wrongly.

I say this about R.Warren and about other excellent writers because Christians who teach through the writing of articles and essays and books write under a sense of pressure to provide answers. But, the book of Job doesn’t offer answers! Job offers permission. Maybe beyond that, Job prods us to speak from our own darkness. In our moments of deepest pain, Job, which is poetry not didactic narrative, tells us to speak clearly, creatively, emotionally, evocatively, and even accusingly to God. God can take it. God will match our emotional intensity, and God will not abandon us. Things won’t necessarily get easier. But without God, there is no outlet for the pain and no relief. Nor is there any purpose it. God doesn’t cause it. But God will bring good from it if we stick with Him.

So, use Job as an example. Look to Job as a role model. Speak to God directly. Don’t hold back. Say exactly what you feel.

For the Rick Warren piece, go to

Monday, August 10, 2009

Defeated and Down, but Never Out

“Do not human beings have a hard service on earth?” These remarks of Job begin Job chapter 7 and come in the middle of his second monologue after Eliphaz has spoken (Job 4-5). What do we hear in Job’s words?

“Are not the days of [human beings] like the days of a laborer? Like a slave who longs for the shadow, and like laborers who long for their wages, so I am allotted months of emptiness” (Job 7:1b-3a). Brite Divinity School professor Leo Perdue comments on ‘ebed’ the Hebrew term which means ‘slave’ that Jobs uses in verse 2 (in the book Wisdom & Creation, p.143). He points out that after 7 years, the slave was to be freed (see Leviticus 25:40-41). Even though the slave may have owed much to his creditor, all debts were forgiven in the Jubilee year.

However, Job does not lean such a hope in his present outcry. Graphically, he describes his circumstance. “My flesh is clothed with worms and dirt; my skin hardens, then breaks out again. My days … come to an end without hope” (7:5-6). Have you ever experienced such calamity that it seemed hope was impossible? Has life ever been so bad, you decided hope was too heartbreaking because it was sure to fail? That’s where we find Job.

He doesn’t ask God for relief or restoration. He doesn’t dare believe that God could be on his side. Job believes God is against Him. Mournfully, he says, “remember that my life is a breath” (7:7). And, he challenges God. “Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?” Job is sure of his own innocence and he equally sure that God against him. If God is against me, what can I possible do? Thus his lugubrious lament, “now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be” (7:21). Perdue notes that Job doesn’t seek the freedom of Jubilee; rather he just wants God to leave him alone.

As I have written previously, Job’s problems began exactly when God left him alone at Satan’s prodding. A person’s life is most forlorn when that person is far from God. Whether Job’s suffering was a caricature or an accurate historical accounting of a man who went through a living hell, the principle holds. Human beings experience pain. Sometimes they go through a lot of it. It is that much worse if the sufferer is also alienated from God. Job was not, but he thought he was. His pain created despair that submitted him to the deception that God was his enemy,

I urge you, reader, to think about Jesus’ assurance of what he desires for all who follow him. I say this knowing that Jesus’ disciples in fact go through all kinds of pain (cancer and other diseases, ridicule, persecutions, economic loss, accidents, divorce, etc). Christians get hurt just like everyone else; still we lay claim to the words of Jesus. “Whoever enters by me will be saved; … I came that they might have life and have abundantly” (John 10:9, 10).

Stubbornly, we who follow Jesus hang on to those words even though the situations we are in may make those words appear foolish. We refuse to go where Job went. We refuse to despair and give up on the Jubilee (freedom, release) that God promised. When Jesus says, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32), we believe Him.

Yes, followers of Jesus get knocked down. Yes, we experience loss. We are sometimes defeated. But, we do not give up. We do not forfeit hope. Because of the cross, we will not descend to darkness of the soul that Job could not escape. We learn from his example that faithful people will go through debilitating pain. But, we learn from Jesus that faithful people will be delivered and blessed, even in times of trial. We reach out to God in the name of Jesus, and God reaches out us and pulls us through.

Friday, August 7, 2009

To be noticed by God - Blessing or Curse

To be noticed by God – blessing or curse?

“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
“You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.”
“O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

That is one of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 8. The verses quoted about (NRSV) are vs. 1, 4, 6, & 9. Obviously this is a song of triumphant praise. The singer can think of nothing better than to be noticed of God, empowered by God, and partnered with God.

Then, we turn to Job 7:17-18. He is, he says, speaking in the “anguish of his spirit” (7:11). “I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” (also verse 11).

“What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment?”

Don’t Job’s words sound a lot like Psalm 8?
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them” (Psalm 8:4)?
“What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them” (Job 7:17)?
Syntactically and rhetorically, these verses are incredibly similar scholar Michael Fishbane says. But how different is the message!

The singer of the Psalm yearns for God; Job yearns to be overlooked and ignored by God. He just wants God to leave Him alone. Ironically, the very reason Job is in his fix, diseased and burdened by the loss of wealth and the death of children, is God did in fact leave him alone. He removed his “hedge” (Job 1:10) of protection. Job begs God, “Will you not look away for a while” (7:19)? But it is when God took away his protection that Hell broke loose in Job’s life. The very thing Job asks for as he complains “in the bitterness of his soul” is what created that bitterness.

But, he doesn’t know that. Job is completely oblivious to dealings of Satan and God in chapters 1 & 2. He doesn’t know about Satan or care about Satan. Job’s only recourse is from God. When His life was grand, he gave God all the credit (see 1:5-6). Now that it is all gone, Job lays all the blame on God. In good and bad, for Job it is all about God.

That is worth noting. How bad, or how good is life for you right now? Either way, deal directly with God. No matter the emotion that bubbles and burns in you, deal with God. Don’t let losses turn you away from God. Don’t let successes lead you to become narcissistic and forgetful of God. Bring it all to God. In saying that though, I don’t say do as Job do. We do well to do what Job did, but not the way He did it.

A disciple’s faith is truly developed when even in times of great grief, he can sing Psalm 8. Our faith is resilient and unyielding and unbroken, when in the worst of times, we can truly believe Psalm 8. We truly believe that God is Lord and that God cares for us mortals and that God notices us mortals. When, no matter the circumstance, we trust that to be noticed of God is a good thing, then we are walking the road of discipleship.

Job’s pain was speaking when he begged God to “let [him] alone” (7:16). In the same breath, he asked God to leave, but talked to Him unendingly. I once had a church member kick me out of her house three times. She was so angry with me, she said, “Go.” But, then she unloaded an illogical vituperative harangue. Then a second time said, “You need to leave my house.” Before I could put on my coat, she dumped another load of vitriol. Then a third time kicked me out. Even when I left, she only half meant it. Job threatened to take God to court. Job accused God of being his enemy. Job said broke him to pieces and God shot him through with arrows (16:12). But Job also kept on talking to God.

What I suggest here is that we likewise keep on talking to God, but not lose sight of God’s absolute love for us. It may seem God has given up on us, but He hasn’t. In the midst of the trial, we show our faith when we sing the praise of Psalm 8.

To do this, I prescribe to you, dear reader, and to me, a simple exercise. In bland times (those days that are unremarkable, not worth remembering for good or bad reasons), memorize Psalm 8. Fix it in the mind and heart. Pray the reality of the Psalm into the soul. One day, all day long, pray, “O Lord, show me what it means that you are “mindful of human being.” Another day, all day long, pray, “O Lord, teach me what it means in my life that I am “a little lower than [the angels].” And line by line, pray for understanding of this Psalm. As we pray, God will give that understanding. Furthermore, the Psalm will become so familiar; the words will be a trusted resource when hard days come.

And finally, when we meet Job, we must give compassion. We will surely encounter in the journey of life that bitter person who “complains in the bitterness of [his] soul.” We do not represent Jesus well if we judgmentally tell that hurting one he ought to buck up and praise God. No, we silently sit by his side, hold his hand, encourage his spirit, pray on his behalf, model joy and hope, and walk with him no matter how broken he is. Will he eventually walk out of his misery and happily praise God? That’s between him and God. Our responsibility is to love, even as we stand in the power of the love God has given us.