In the Bible I find several responses to adversity. King David, whom we read about in 1st & 2nd Samuel and 1st Chronicles and who is considered the greatest of Israel’s Kings and the “man after God’s own heart,” responded by fighting. When things got tough, David got his slingshot, prayed, and went to war.
Fighting was not always an option and even it when it was available, it was not always the right thing to do. We also hear the lonely voice of the prophet speaking God’s judgment, sometimes against God’s own people Israel, sometimes against Israel’s enemies, and in the New Testament, God’s final judgment against Satan, evil, and sin. Amos, Jeremiah, Daniel, and John of Patmos are some examples of people who responded to adversity with prophecy.
A third Biblical response comes from the Apostle Paul. He responded to everything that came up in life the same way: he shared the gospel. Whether Paul was whipped, kicked out of town, imprisoned, well-received as an honored guest, or respected, he responded by talking the salvation available to all through faith in Jesus Christ. Suffering and adversity brought opportunity.
There are other responses in the scriptures, but we narrow our focus to the book of Job. Satan challenged God, saying that the most righteous man, Job, who was a true worshipper, would turn on God and curse God, if God allowed Job to be harmed. God took the bait and allowed Satan to destroy all of Job’s property, kill all of Job’s children, and harm Job’s body.
Job’s three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come and sit with him and talk with him. They insist that Job’s suffering is from God. Job agrees. They insist that Job must have sinned terribly to have such pain and loss. His adversity is his own fault. His suffering came by way of his mistakes and rebellion.
The three friends in their speeches insist Job must submit to God. Submission, they say, is the only acceptable response to pain. Job must submit to God’s lordship, confess his sin, and repent. Then, he will be made whole.
Job will not submit. He agrees that God brought this on him. His friends accuse him of rebellion and he does indeed rebel. But his rebellion is not a sinful rejection of God’s ways. Rather, he rebels against a shallow theology that responds to real-world suffering by retreating to long-held theological presuppositions. He rebels against his friends’ insistence that he confess.
Job’s rebellion produces two responses. First, he laments. Lamentation is a form of prayer rarely used or even understood in churches today. Jeremiah, the prophet, offered lament prayers.
Here’s an example of Jeremiah praying lamentation:
7O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.
8For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long (Jeremiah 20:7-8).
And then here is a sample of Job’s lament prayer.
10“I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.
2I will say to God, Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me.
3Does it seem good to you to oppress, to despise the work of your hands and favor the schemes of the wicked (Job 10:1-3)?
Job expends a lot of energy in Lament prayer. It is not though, his only response. The lament expresses injustice sorrow. It is spoken by one defeated. It is the ultimate in honesty before God. We are so concerned with saying the “right thing” from a religious standpoint, we skip the honesty in lament prayer. We fear it.
The Old Testament invites us to enter this world of prayer. More Psalms are laments than are praises. Those Psalms along with Jeremiah and Job can be read by people today who suffer. To read those words from the heart, “Does it seem good to you [O God] to oppress, to despise the work of your hands,” is to say what you feel. This is not a condemnation of God. It is the reality that you are hurting so badly, you have to vent. You have to say it. The Old Testament gives words for when we have to let it out.
Job then goes further. After the Lament, Job will bring protest right to God. Jobs says to God,
12You have granted me life and steadfast love, and your care has preserved my spirit.
13Yet these things you hid in your heart; I know that this was your purpose.
14If I sin, you watch me, and do not acquit me of my iniquity.
15If I am wicked, woe to me! If I am righteous, I cannot lift up my head, for I am filled with disgrace and look upon my affliction.
16Bold as a lion you hunt me; you repeat your exploits against me.
This movement from lament into protest leads Job to the language of a legal trial. Job takes God to court. His is a refreshing approach, taken by a man in a true relationship with God. The friends have become people who choose the rules about God over a relationship with God. They theologize and come up with rules and then stick to those rules no matter what. Job will not. He is so committed to the relational nature of God that he is willing to defy convention and challenge God.
Just as God accepted the Satan’s challenge regarding Job, God accepts Job’s challenge regarding justice. This matters because when we respond to adversity through lament, God will hear our lament prayers as God heard Job. When we challenge God, God will accept our challenge. God may humble us as God humbled Job. But as hard as that humbling is, we remember that God humbles those whom he loves; those who treat him as one to be worshipped and loved in relationship rather than as a distant deity who can be reduced to a set of rules.
In commenting on Job’s protest to God, Old Testament professor Sam Ballentine quotes from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. The second brother, Ivan, is an intellectual and an atheist. Ballentine feels that Ivan Karamazov speaks out the very protest against injustice heard from Job. Ivan says, “I refuse to accept this world of God’s. … Please understand, it is not God that I do not accept, but the world he has created. I do not accept God’s world and I refuse to accept it” (Ballentine 172-3).
There is a danger in lament and protest. It leads to us sitting with Ivan the atheist. The one suffering permanently abandons faith and gives up on God altogether. Ivan’s words become ours. “I do not accept God’s world.”
In tension with this fallout and drift away from faith is a movement toward redemption of God’s world and a claiming of the world for the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus. This is a very optimistic worldview that believes in the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. Most of the writing in recent years done along these very positive thought lines comes from theologians, pastors, and spiritual directors who are not writing from the perspective of Job’s pain. I don’t mean all these authors who have such a hopeful outlook have never suffered. I don’t mean they all have easy lives. But the hope that Christians can use their talents, skills, and experience to positively provoke transformation from within the world’s systems – education, politics, business – that hope is not coming from people who are currently suffering as Job suffered.
It is coming from people who live in joy as their very lives are offered to God. If you are a teacher, your offering is to be an outstanding, compassionate educator. If you are a waitress – you are diligent in serving your customers, especially the rude ones. Your equipment in representing Christ through excellence in your craft is patience, friendliness, and a servant’s heart. If you are a carpenter – one of the ways you acknowledge the rule of God’s kingdom is to build things that are sturdy, that last, and are of high quality. Doing what we do well and with absolute integrity is an offering to God. In this we submit our lives to God’s lordship.
Some of the leaders in this movement of announcing the kingdom and transforming culture are Andy Crouch, N.T. Right, Richard Foster, Gabe Lyons, and Rob Bell. This hope-filled theology collides with Job’s perspective of suffering, lament, and protest. How can the church today live out theologically optimism and at the same time respect and love people who are going through Job-type experiences? We’ve got to hold onto that theological hope because that’s the stuff of Easter. We are resurrection people. But even as we live in the Kingdom now, we also have to recognize that there is suffering in the world. This is a fallen world and we have to respect that people have “Job-sized” problems.
This is where the church, ours and Christians in churches around the world, can be all that God is calling us and equipping us to be. In doing what we do best – our experiences, skills, and training - God’s people band together to create a culture of compassion and care.
Jesus did this. A woman was caught in adultery. The law was clear. She was to be executed by stoning. Jesus saw beyond the law. He saw a woman who had no voice, who probably could not have resisted the man with whom she sinned, and who had no hope. He did not deny the sin. Instead he saw the big picture. He invited all those who were sinless to begin the stoning. No stone was thrown. Instead of accusing, Jesus created a new paradigm – a community of forgiveness.
On another occasion he was faced with 5000 hungry people and only a few fish and loaves, not enough to even feed his twelve disciples. Yet, he thanked God for the food and broke it and passed it out. Miraculously all were filled, there were 12 baskets left over. Conventional wisdom said, send them off. Jesus did not send them off. He asked the people to stay. He had compassion for them. He instituted a system of provision. In Acts, we see the earliest Christians continuing this practice, not by miracle, but by sharing.
How can we creatively respond to Job and the pain in the world today?
I think of my friend Caleb. He visited about a dozen orphan care points in Africa. At the time of his trip, he and his brother were running a Christian school and a Christian recording studio in OK. They had experience taking students on mission trips to Latin America. Caleb wondered if he could make a career of guiding church and student groups on these mission trips. There is not much money in that! But, he believed that God was calling him. God shouted to Caleb through a Job-type cry of pain, the pain of orphans.
Orphans, especially in places like Guatemala, Rwanda, Russia, and Ethiopia, will end up on the street as addicts. They will become sex slaves. There is little hope that a child who grows up with no one to care for him or her in a society where the weak are already stepped on will have any type of positive, meaningful life. Caleb heard this Joban cry and he knew the answer was provision for these kids from affluent Christ-followers in America. He just had to do his part – get those affluent Christ-followers to the poor kids.
Three years and about a dozen trips later, Caleb is cooperating with God to help kids move from Job-type suffering into the kingdom of God. Start an organization that caters mission trips; that’s your full-time job – who knew that was possible? Caleb certainly did not. But, he was following God.
What skills do you have to care for those who suffer? If you’re in health care or education you can obviously donate your time to heal or tutor or teach. If you’re someone who makes a lot of money, you can donate a lot of it, and you should as a part of your life as a disciple. But what if you don’t have those types of front-line skills or access to financial resources? What if all you have is time? God will use it. What if all you have is energy? God will put you to work in a creative way, walking with Job. Caleb did not have anything really except some experience on mission trips, a heart willing to listen to God, and a willingness to step outside the box.
Some of us may be going through a Job-type of experience right now. If you need to, turn to Job’s words of lament and protest. That’s OK. It is good to be that brutally honest with God. God can handle it. That response is better than pretending everything is OK and being theologically dishonest.
Many among us are doing well, not suffering. We are called to respond to the suffering around us. From the perspective of Easter, we enter the suffering applying our skills and experience and passion so that through us God creates a culture of care that respects Job and also announces that Jesus has come and there is life in His name. We are culture makers in the way we reach out to Job.