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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.



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