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Monday, October 29, 2012

A Creative Response to Suffering (Job 10:1-17)

            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:

Bottom of Form

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.



Job's Oath of Innocence

Job 27:1-6

Job again took up his discourse and said:

2“As God lives, who has taken away my right, and the Almighty, who has made my soul bitter,

3as long as my breath is in me and the spirit of God is in my nostrils,

4my lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit.

5Far be it from me to say that you are right; until I die I will not put away my integrity from me.

6I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.


            “As God lives …” says Job.  Robert Sutherland, a lawyer and student of ancient legal codes describes Job chapter 27 as Job’s “oath of innocence.”  He writes, “The Oath of Innocence was a self-contained lawsuit understood to have been given by God himself and reserved for those most difficult of cases where the defendant … could not be compelled to come to court.” (Putting God on Trial, p.50).  Sutherland’s book is called Putting God on Trial.  A self-contained lawsuit: Sutherland contends that Job was bringing God to trial for imposing unjust suffering.  Job was admired because he lived righteously.  In fact, it was said he was blameless and God confirmed this assessment.  Yet, after Satan and God argued over him, God permitted Satan to inflict horrendous pain and loss on Job.  Job knew nothing of Satan.  He counted God as guilty.

            “[God] has made my soul bitter,” Job laments.  OT scholar Sam Ballentine writes that Job approached God as an equal partner in dialogue (Prayer in the Hebrew Bible, p. 176).  Taking it further, OT scholar Leo Purdue says Job sees himself as a prince and expects God to give him the royal treatment.  Job’s disputation is based on his sense of injustice, with God in the role of offender.

            Ballentine, Perdue, Sutherland are experts in law, the language of Biblical Hebrew, and the theology of the Old Testament.  Are these academics right?  Is Job so audacious as to bring God to trial?  There was a Biblical precedent.  Recall Solomon praying when the temple was completed in 1 Kings 8:31-32:

“If someone sins against a neighbor and is given an oath to swear, and comes and swears before your altar in this house,32then hear in heaven, and act, and judge your servants, condemning the guilty by bringing their conduct on their own head, and vindicating the righteous by rewarding them according to their righteousness.


            Recall God’s words from Deuteronomy 1:17,

You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. Any case that is too hard for you, bring to me, and I will hear it.”


            When Job says, “As God lives,” he is swearing on God’s name.  His claim is on God’s promise from Deuteronomy, which King Solomon relied on in establishing terms of justice in the newly constructed temple.  When no other justice is possible, the victim can turn to God and claim by oath his case, and God swears he will hear it.  Job uses this promise of God to bring trial against God and his foundation for the trial is the name and word of God. 


            Who cares?  What does this have to do with you and me?  So Job, according the conventions of ancient times, takes out an oath of innocence.  So what?  So Job uses God’s own terms to bring a case of injustice against God.  How is that relevant here and now?  What difference does this make to us as we try to figure out how God relates to our lives in America in the year 2012?

            Ballentine, whom we referenced earlier, puts it this way.  Job staked his life on the belief that God could not deny his plea.  We like to think God is without limits, but Ballentine is saying Job risked his very existence not just on the idea that God would hear his prayer, but on the idea that God would have to agree to the validity of it and would thus have to rectify Job’s situation.  Do we ever pray like our lives are at stake?  Ballentine is saying that is what Job did.

            Sutherland takes it further.  He sums up 27:2-6 this way.  Job is saying, “I’ll be damned if I do anything other than declare my own innocence” (p.51).  In our everyday speech, someone might see something extraordinarily surprising and say, “Well I’ll be damned.”  He doesn’t really mean he’s going to spend eternity in a fiery inferno.  He just means he’s very, very surprised.  In that case, “Well, I’ll be damned” is a crass way of expressing shock.  It is swearing, cussing.

            Sutherland says Job is saying, “I’ll be damned if I do anything other than express my innocence.”  He has been through three exhausting rounds of debates with his so-called friends, all of whom have insisted he confess, repent, and turn away from sin.  Now he’s fed up.  He won’t do it.  Sutherland suggests that he is willing to barter not just life, but his eternal life.  He will declare his innocence and demand that God acquiesce, and he fully believes that if God rejects him, he will either be utterly annihilated or damned for all time. 

            At this point we must remember the story’s beginning.  Chapter 1, verse 1- Job is defined as “blameless.”  After Satan has hit him, taking all his property and killing his children, God declares Job blameless.  After Satan comes again and adds misery to misery, covering Job with loathsome sores, the narrator says through it all, Job did not sin in his speech.  From God and from the storyteller, we have confirmation.  Job is without sin in this story – blameless.  His oath of innocence, his desperate clinging to his own integrity – it is based on truth.  At the end of the book, God declare Job has spoken rightly. 

            Fine.  Here is the problem.  Romans 3:23 – “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”   Now, Job’s integrity is not in question.  Ours is.  Can we believe Job and the narrator and God when they say Job is blameless?  Can we believe Paul as he writes to the Roman Christians that all people – every last one – are sinners who fall short of God’s glory?  Do we trust scripture?  If yes, then what do we do with such tension as this?

            For me it all comes together in John 14:6.  Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through me.”  Job lived centuries before Jesus came.  He couldn’t know what it means to know God through Jesus.  But there are some important lessons we learn from Job and for now we consider two of them.

            First, not all suffering is punishment for sin.  We don’t have to look far to see people going through terrible suffering.  There are individual stories where people have utterly broken lives or are afflicted with excruciatingly painful illnesses.  There are collective stories where people groups suffer enormously; think of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule; think of the overcrowded impoverished conditions of Palestinians living in Bethlehem; think of children wasting away in Romanian orphanages.  Is all this suffering a result of sin?  Yes, but not necessarily sins of those who suffer.  Job shows us that pain is not a punishment sent from God.  In fact, God loves us and wants to help us face pain and wants to rescue us from it.

            Second, Job approached God with integrity.  That meant declaring his innocence.  I am not certain we can fully reconcile the unflinching assertion that Job is blameless with Paul’s equally firm declaration that all humans sin.  I don’t know that we can get full harmony with those competing claims.  But we can accept that Job prayed so honestly he risked his own eternity.  He was that straightforward with God.

            We must be also.  For Job, honesty meant declaring the Oat of Innocence.  For us, it means signing our statement of guilt.  If we are as honest as Job, even the best among us must be honest about our sin.  If we believe all this God talk, then we believe we’ve already forfeited our eternity by our sins.  By repeating Adam and Eve’s rebellion, by turning away from the ways of God, by hurting other people, we have destined ourselves to an eternity away from God’s love and God’s presence.  We know on our own merit, without help, we are bound for Hell, whatever Hell is.  We don’t say, “I’ll be damned.”  We say, “We are damned.”  In that admission, we are as honest as Job was.

            But we remember Jesus’ words.  “I am the way.”  No one gets to be with the Father in an eternal relationship of peace, love, and joy except by going through Jesus.  But the gospel is this: Jesus has come to us and for us.  Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians 5, “For our sake, [God] made him [Christ] who knew to sin to become sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”

            In him.  The idea of being “in Christ;” it is the most precious notion in all of scripture.  Job couldn’t have it.  He lived before Jesus’ coming.  Job teaches us honesty and perseverance in prayer and in our relationship with God.  In our admission of guilt for all our sins, we realize it is only by faith in Jesus Christ that the relationship with God is possible.  But it is possible because he did come.  God’s plan was to save the world through Jesus. 

            What about poor Job who lived before Christ?  I trust God has a way of working people into His grace even if they lived prior to the Christian narrative or outside of it. 

For us Job exists as a model of integrity.  In living out that integrity, we begin in confession knowing that confession leads to good news: death to the sinful self, complete forgiveness, and new life as sons and daughters of God.  When read alongside the New Testament, Job does not show the Gospel, but subtly anticipates it.  Stepping from Job into Paul’s letters, we move from model to means.  Jesus is the means to make us righteous beyond even blameless Job’s wildest imagination. 

            Today we take the bread and the cup, the communion elements first shared by Jesus and the disciples.  As we do, consider your integrity before God.  Come clean.  Open your heart and invite Him in.  It won’t be easy.  We are humans and we have  messes in our hearts.  But He loves us enough to accept us and clean up our messes.  So this morning, don’t for a second worry about being innocent as Job was innocent.  Be true as Job was true.  The one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life is reaching welcoming arms to you.  For you, He makes a way.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Houses of Clay (Job 4:17-19)

If there is a single Biblical vision for humanity, it is shalom.  Shalom is peace: living in right relationships with neighbors and with God. 

            To have shalom, one must be righteous.  What is ‘righteousness?’  Obedience to God?  Yes.  Is it proper worship?  Yes.  Is righteousness acting justly and being humble toward other people?  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.   Righteousness is hard to obtain and harder still to define.  Yet shalom – the goal of humanity – is impossible without righteousness.

            Job’s friend Eliphaz stands before Job as Job suffers from loss, heartbreak, shock, and physical pain.  No one has suffered like Job.  He maintained that he was suffering unjustly because he had been blameless.  God said exactly that in the gathering of heavenly beings in Job chapter 1. 

            But Job’s friend Eliphaz does not believe he is without fault.  We can dismiss Eliphaz because we know he contradict God, but we shouldn’t write him off too quickly.  “Can mortals be righteous before God?”  Eliphaz asks.  God does not even trust his angels.  How can He trust us, humans who live in houses of clay whose foundation is dust” (4:19)?


            Each human being from the president to the guy driving the trash truck; we are houses of clay.


            In the days of the prophet Jeremiah, God asked,

            5Then the word of the Lord came to me:

6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.

11Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. (Jeremiah 18:5-11)


            “Just like clay … so you are in my hand.”  We can ignore  Eliphaz, but God is the speaker in Jeremiah.  God says to his people, “Now … I am a potter shaping evil against you.”  It was because of sin, but even so, does God do evil?  Well, how we can ask such questions?  We’re clay.

            The Apostle Paul, in Romans:


But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?  (Romans 9:20-21)



            Are we angry?  The preacher says we’re nothing but clay, mud.  No, not the preacher, the Bible.  Jeremiah, Job, Paul; it seems there’s Biblical consensus that humans aren’t much in the grand scheme of things. 

            We go back to Genesis, back to the beginning; we need some help here.  We’re just clay?  That can’t be right.  What does Genesis offer?  From Genesis chapter 2:


“The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Gen. 2:7)


            Eliphaz’s question is blaring now.  Can a mortal, a mere house of clay, be righteous?  We are formed, created.  There was a time when there was no Rob Tennant.  In 1969, no one had ever heard of Rob Tennant.  I had not existed.  I was born in 1970.  If I live 83 years, I’ll in die in 2053.  I am a blip on the screen of history.  I will die and my corpse will be consumed by maggots.  I am dust, clay, earth.  Can a mortal be righteous and enjoy Shalom?  Can Job?  Can I?  You? 

            What does ‘clay’ mean in the book of Job.  Eliphaz says human beings are houses of clay.  Zophar, another friend of Job’s, like Eliphaz and Bildad before him judges Job to be guilty.  He rejects Job’s innocence saying that God’s wisdom is unattainable for humans, and it is by God’s wisdom, Zophar implies, that Job is found guilty.  Job says to Zophar, “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay” (13:12).  Clay when dried crumbles and blows in the wind like dust.  When hardened it is weak and easily smashed.  Dust; nothing; weak. 

What about the young man Elihu?  He says to Job, “Before God I am as you are; I too was formed from a piece of clay.  No fear of me need terrify you” (33:6-7).  Job, I’m clay like you, nothing to fear.  Nothing to be impressed by.  Nothing. 

You and I, church, we are houses of clay.  Can we hope to be righteous?  Can we hope to live in right relationships with God and with each other?  Our best efforts shatter as does a clay pot if it dropped onto concrete from just a few feet in the air. 

Is clay mentioned any more in the book of Job?  Actually, yes, by God.  Knowing Job has no possible answer, God asks,


12“Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, 13so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? 14It is changed like clay under the seal, and it is dyed like a garment.  (Job 38:12-14)


            In God’s remark, the feature of clay is different than what we’ve previously heard.  In the mouth of Eliphaz, humans, houses of clay, cannot possibly be righteous.  Whatever shalom we enjoy is a gift from God we should accept.  We also accept any misery that fills our lives because that too is from God.  To Job, clay is fragile, weak, nothing.  To Elihu, clay is unremarkable, unworthy of any reknown.  But God says something different.

            God says clay is something that can be changed.  By who?  By the potter.  Who is the potter?  Obviously there is just one, God.  Why is this important?  When we meet God we change – we become something we were not before the encounter happened.  Lost people are those who resist the influence of God on their lives.  In the book of Job, his friends, the young man Elihu, his wife – they all refuse to change.  They believed certain things about God, humanity, and the world.  As Job goes through his horrendous ordeal, they stubbornly hold onto a theology that does not fit the reality around them. 

            Job realizes his life is in the hands of a dynamic, real, living God.  God is not a far off deity who set things in motion at the dawn of creation, set up the rules, and has been hands off ever since.  God is right here, active in the affairs of humans right now.  Suffering helped Job see that.  And he realized his only hope was to turn to that God in prayer.  Sometimes it was angry prayer.  Some things said would have to be reconsidered.  But Job knew his hope was not in the commonly held beliefs of his day.  In fact his only hope was to disrupt those beliefs and reach out to God because his fate was in God’s hands.  So too is ours.

Again, Genesis 2:  “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” We are not just houses of clay; we are houses of clay filled with the breath, the Spirit, of God.  To be human is to be animated by God’s spirit.  From the very beginning we were made for relationship.

What’s the Biblical goal? Right relationship: peace and love and harmony with God and with others.  How do we attain that?  Through righteousness.  Can humans be righteous Eliphaz asks?   No.  But we can be in relationship with God who is perfectly righteous.  In fact the very reason we exist is to be in relationship with God and each other.  That’s why we are here.

Rick Warren writes, “God was there as an unseen witness, smiling at your birth.  He wanted you alive” (Purpose Driven Life, p.63).  Leonard Sweet says of faith, “Faith is not a problem to be solved or a question to be answered but a mystery to be lived – the mystery of a real, live relationship with God.”  God desired this so much He bridged the gap. 

First God chose a nation – Israel and wed Himself in marriage to His chosen people.  Then God became one of them.  Jesus is a house of clay just like you and me.  God lowered God’s self.  Paul writes in Philippians, “[Jesus] emptied himself taking on the form of a slave, born in human likeness” (2:7).  He did it because previously only remarkable individuals in history became true friends of God – Job, Abraham, Moses, Elijah.  Each one of these was blown away by God.  The house of clay cannot “know” intimately the potter.  So the potter became a house of clay. 

From Job we learn to tenaciously hold onto even the slimmest of hopes in God.  When all else is lost, we, like Job, reach to God.  There is nothing else to do.  But the lesson is incomplete if it ends there.  In our reaching, which includes full acknowledgement of all our mistakes and limitations, full confession of all we’ve done that is wrong and harmful, in our reaching we realize God reached that much farther when he came to us.

We houses of clay, animated by God’s creative spirit, become sons and daughters of God when in Christ, we are redeemed and made new by that same Holy Spirit.  We are changed.  Paul says, “Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  God told Job that clay is moldable, but that’s a good thing.  Job and you and I are molded by God.  God makes something of us.

He does this through Jesus and it is the love and forgiveness of Jesus in us that makes us what we are.  Job was not blessed to live with knowledge of Jesus.  We have that knowledge.  Jesus makes us righteous and through him we have right relationships.  Paul says that as we carry Jesus and share his love and his gospel, we houses of clay become signposts pointing to God’s glory.  “We have this treasure [Jesus] in jars of clay, so it may be made clear that this power [eternal life] belongs to God” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Can mortals be righteous?  No, Eliphaz, we houses of clay cannot be righteous.  But we are animated by God and saved by God in the flesh, Jesus.  So we can be in relationship with God.  His righteousness is sufficient for us and because of him, we can and will live in shalom forever.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

When Cherished Beliefs Fail

            A woman is a church goer.  Her son is hit by a car and killed.  She never goes to church again.  She spends the rest of her life in a complicated, tortured relationship with God.  Sometimes she meets Christians who show true love and she thinks God is good.  Sometimes her pain and loss is so intense she thinks God is the worst entity in the universe and in her heart she damns God to Hell.
            A young man feels emasculated by unemployment.  His wife is the breadwinner.  In their house, she’s also the Christian.  He thinks Sundays are for golf.  But, she convinces him to come to the weeklong revival where the pastor’s emotional appeal breaks through to his heart and he commits his life to Jesus.  Then a job comes along.  But it lasts less than a year.  Unemployed once again, he decides that Jesus didn’t deliver.  They don’t see him around church anymore.


            Attending church is not the same thing has a having a heart that’s set to seek God and follow Christ, but it can be an indication that someone is seeking.  Giving up on church can be a sign that someone is giving up on God.  Or, giving up on pretending to be a Christian.  Often suffering drives one to give up, whether the suffering is wounded pride, the unemployed guy; or anger and death itself, the woman who lost her child in an accident.


            The suffering and the giving up that follows call into question what we’ve always believed to be true.   In evangelical churches, the stated value is grace.  We are saved by the grace of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  One who claims to earn salvation is silenced; salvation by personal merit is heresy.  We trumpet loudly and repeatedly – “we’re all sinners!”  At the communion table, pastors stand and say we all need Jesus desperately because on our own, we could never achieve a right relationship with God.  Grace – it is our stated value.

            It is not our practiced value.  In the way we run the church and in our relationships, we believe in fairness.  We want what we’ve earned, what we deserve.  If grace is our stated value, justice is our operational value.  When justice is denied, our thoughts about God, the universe and ourselves are attacked.

            A 10-year-old child is run over.  In the abstract, we call it a tragic accident.  When it is in my family, my 10-year-old, then it is a crime at the cosmic level.  I am a victim.  What I cherished was taken and it’s not fair. 

            The highly educated 25-year-old with no job is worried and embarrassed.  An economist explains that the young man is qualified.  He is unemployed because of the economy.  But this man finds his masculinity in his earning power.  Now he has to live off his wife’s income.  Oh, the shame. 

            When pain hits in full force, we forget how thankful we are for God’s grace.  We live out of our operational value.  God, what are you going to do for me here?  I am hurting and one of the first things I am going to do in this agony is cry out to you; when that fails to change things, I am going to blame you.  That won’t really accomplish much, so eventually God, I will give up on you.

            Satan and God get into an argument.  Humans have no access to the conversation, but it is in the realm of finite people that the argument will be settled.  God says his man Job is the best of humanity and Satan says, no, he’s good because he has it good. If Job suffers, he will utterly fail and will actually curse God.  Poor Job has no clue that he is about to be the centerpiece of a cosmic wager. 

Do we suffer because God and his angels and the devil and his demon horde are in some kind of contest, fought through us.  Ephesians 6 says “Our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood but against … spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  Does it scare us?  The events of life might be reflections of massive spiritual warfare happening in an unseen place. Do we, in our lives, play out the Job drama more than we ever realized?

            Satan said if you harm Job, he’ll curse you.  God said, OK, go for it.  And God allows the tempter to take all of Job’s property, kill all of Job’s servants, kill all of Job’s children, and inflict hideous, painful oozing sores all over Job’s body. 

            Next, Job and his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar talk about it.  That’s really the book of Job.  The God-Satan wager is build-up to the main story, the conversations.  Job chapters 3-31 make up the dialogue.  All the participants have the same assumptions – the same as our operational value; life should be fair, good people should be rewarded, bad people punished.  They all believe that to their core, and it is my contention that most church goers, though they talk about grace, operate intellectually and relationally in terms of fairness, justice. 

The crisis for Job and his friends is the most righteous of men, the one described both by God and by the narrator as blameless – Job – should be rewarded.  Instead he suffers the worst of punishments.  Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar – they all assume that what happened to Job was caused by God. 

Tornadoes or floods or earthquakes – they hit and someone says, “Why did God let this happen?”  Then what?

Job changed his thinking. He hit God with as full rhetorical force as he had been hit by pain and loss.  Job’s friends stuck to their guns.  If God rewards the good and punishes the bad, and Job you’re being punished as badly as anyone ever has been, then you must have been really, really bad.  It’s your fault you are suffering as you are. 

In a bit from one of the conversations Bildad asks Job, “Does God pervert justice?”  (8:3a).  The implied answer obviously is, ‘no, of course God does not pervert justice.’  Then Bildad rubs salt in the wound.  “If you children sinned … he delivered them into the power of their transgression” (8:4).  Some advice on pastoral counseling: if you have friend whose child dies, don’t say to your grieving friend, “Well, your son made dumb mistakes and God killed him for it.” 

Bildad’s brilliant conclusion is God must have done it; God must have had a good reason to do it; so, we should gladly accept what God has done.

He calls Job to repentance.  “If you will seek God and make supplication to the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, surely he will rouse himself for you and restore you to your rightful place” (8:5-6).

Bildad ignores both the narrator and God.  Both declare Job blameless.  This is repeated, but Bildad does not get it.  Job knows.  He will not let it rest.  He’s going to seek God, but not to, as Bildad put it, make supplication.

Job gives up on the notion that God is fair.  “How can a [human who is mortal] be just before God,” Job asks Bildad.  “If one wished to contend with him, one could not answer him once in a thousand.”  Job rejects the justice of God Bildad has so earnestly put forth. 

This boldness is theologically incorrect.  We talk about political correctness, but in Job’s world, one had to be theologically correct and say the right things about God.  Suffering, Job saw holes in the theological assumptions of his day.  Those holes exist in our theology too. 

To Bildad he said, “If I summoned God, and he answered me, I do not believe that he would listen to my voice” (9:16).  Have ever experienced such dramatic anger or pain that you might believe God had forgotten you?   Jesus prayed, “My God, why have you forsaken me” (Mk. 12:34).  And he was quoting from the Psalms (Ps. 22:1).  The sense of being abandoned by God is seen throughout scriptures.  So too is the idea of anger at God.  Moses defiantly lashed out when God wanted to kill of Israel for their sin in the wilderness (Ex. 32:11).

Have you ever wanted to shout at God?  Have you known others who in anger screamed out at God?

Job says of God, “He crushes me, … [he] multiplies my wounds, and mocks the calamity of the innocent” (9:17, 23b).  People often quote Job from chapter 2 where he says “The Lord gives and the Lords takes away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  But deep into the dialogue with his friends, Job is not blessing God.  He’s accusing God of injustice.

“If it is a contest of strength, he is the strong one!  If is a matter of justice, who can summon him?  Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me; though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse. … He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.  The earth is given into the hand of the wicked” (9:19-20, 22b, 24a).  God is destroyer and God has destroyed justice and has destroyed Job. 

What do we say?  If you are sitting at Job’s bedside, in Bildad’s seat, comforting your friend, and he calls God an unjust destroyer, are you tempted to rush to God’s defense?  I probably would.  If you are Bildad’s friend, and he comes and says, “O you wouldn’t believe Job.  He’s hurting and it is leading him to say unthinkable things about God.  What do I do?”  How do you advise Bildad?  What word do we have for the sufferer?  What word for the one sitting with the sufferer?

Last week we urged complete honesty, even inappropriate honesty in prayer.  Job is speaking truthfully.  Bildad covers up the reality of the situation.  He hides the truth underneath conventional wisdom and traditional theology.  When the reality in front of him is in tension with the theology he trusts, he denies what’s in front of him and recites the same old platitudes.

Clearly Bildad’s approach is uncreative, is not compassionate, and doesn’t help.  Job says repeatedly, “I loathe my life” (9:21b, 10:1a).  What approach would help more than Bildad’s theological judgments?  We want to be honest.  We also want to read Job from the standpoint of Easter.  So we turn to an Easter story to read along with Job.  We aren’t setting Job aside.  Rather we hear Job and at the same time hear from another part of the Bible. 

It is a Sunday and like Job talking with his friends, in this story we find two people in deep conversation.  They will talk as they walk from Jerusalem, 10 or so miles to Emmaus.  Their conversation might shed light on how we can digest and hear God in the contentious conversation of Job and Bildad.

The two on the Emmaus Road are, or were, disciples of Jesus.  But, he was crucified on Friday.  They banked their lives on him, believing he was the Messiah.  But, with him dead, what would they do?  We pick up the action in Luke 24.


While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them.

They didn’t recognize Jesus even though they had been his followers.  Their eyes were kept from seeing.  They told him about Jesus’ death and he responded.

“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”

Even in their grief, these disciples stayed together and stayed in conversation.  Job did the same.  Several times says he longs for death, but he doesn’t give in to that.  He moves past the suicidal thoughts and with greater energy declares a desire to meet God face-to-face.  He stays engaged.  He’s mad at God, yes.  It sounds an awful lot like he gives up on God.  But, he keeps turning back, in the conversations, to this desire to see God. 

And God shows up.  The conversation keeps going, and God shows up.  In Job’s case, God will arrive in a whirlwind.  In the case of the two on the Emmaus Road, God came in the incarnation, God in the flesh, Jesus.  This was the risen Jesus. 

How will God step into the midst of our conversations and our sufferings?  I don’t know exactly how.  When?  I don’t know exactly when.  But the testimony of Job and the two disciples on the Emmaus Road, and 100’s of others in the Bible and in the history of the church all collaborate on this one truth.  God shows up.  Maybe the applecart of our entire belief system is violently overturned.  That does happen sometimes.  But we continue to seek God and more specifically seek Jesus, and he comes.  I don’t know what he will do.   But history has shown that when we seek Him, He comes. 

Job’s prayer – “Your hands fashioned me and made me, and now you turn and destroy me” (10:8).  We have to make space for Job to say that.  We sit with him while he suffers through his prayer.  Things might get so bad in my life that I might pray that prayer.  God will correct me if need be.  But God will come.  It’s not a good answer to why bad things happen to good people, but there is no good answer.  There is nothing to be said when justice fails.  And anyway, an answer is not what we need.  It might be what we want, but what we need it God.  And he comes.  And resurrection comes with him.

Maranatha.  Come Lord Jesus.