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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Perspective

Last time we looked at our friend Job, Eliphaz had been rebuking him with a very compelling theology. In Eliphaz’s mind, good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. God is just, so the innocent never suffer. Job should identify his sin, repent, and ask God to forgive him.
The problem, as we have seen over and over, is that Eliphaz’s theory of how the world works is too good to be true. Job is not aware of anything he has done wrong, and we as the readers have the unique knowledge that his suffering is not his fault. Those who would counsel others can learn two lessons here. First, the way you speak deeply affects the way people listen. Eliphaz’s attitude is condescending, so Job will almost inevitably lash out defensively. Second, always know that you don’t know. It is easy enough to look at a situation, hear half of the details, and recite a pre-packaged conclusion.  Things are really more complex than that, and some cases (like Job’s) may seem to be like something we expect, when they are not. With that in mind, we pick up today with Job’s reply.
Then Job answered and said: "Oh that my vexation were weighed, and all my calamity laid in the balances! For then it would be heavier than the sand of the sea; therefore my words have been rash. For the arrows of the Almighty are in me; my spirit drinks their poison; the terrors of God are arrayed against me.
(Job 6:1-4)

Job feels that Eliphaz must have underestimated the degree of his suffering. If you could weigh it, he declares, it would weigh more than the sand of the beaches and the ocean floor. Had he spoken too strongly? It was because his suffering is so great. He feels God Himself is waging war against him, leaving him helpless.
Does the wild donkey bray when he has grass, or the ox low over his fodder? Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt, or is there any taste in the juice of the mallow? My appetite refuses to touch them; they are as food that is loathsome to me.
(Job 6:5-7)

Complaining in his situation is as natural as a hungry animal making noise, or someone rejecting bland food. It needs something to make it bearable – salt for the food, complaining for the pain. While this is far from a good attitude, it is an understandable one.
"Oh that I might have my request, and that God would fulfill my hope, that it would please God to crush me, that he would let loose his hand and cut me off! This would be my comfort; I would even exult in pain unsparing, for I have not denied the words of the Holy One. What is my strength, that I should wait? And what is my end, that I should be patient? Is my strength the strength of stones, or is my flesh bronze? Have I any help in me, when resource is driven from me?
(Job 6:8-13)

Job again prays for death, and says he could die in peace, because he knows that He has not betrayed God. But, he asks, why should I have to endure this any longer? I am not invincible, and I am not an unfeeling statue, he announces. I am a human being, weak, frail, and unable to take much more. When his resources are gone, he has nothing – there is no power in himself, and all of the power he had externally had fled.
"He who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty. My brothers are treacherous as a torrent-bed, as torrential streams that pass away, which are dark with ice, and where the snow hides itself. When they melt, they disappear; when it is hot, they vanish from their place. The caravans turn aside from their course; they go up into the waste and perish. The caravans of Tema look, the travelers of Sheba hope. They are ashamed because they were confident; they come there and are disappointed.
(Job 6:14-20)

He now describes the kinds of friends he has. They are like a gully, a river that is promising in the spring when the ice first melts, but dries up in the summer when it is really needed. His friends had all of the value of such a dry river bed to a caravan from a distant land – everything they had counted on leaves them stranded, and all of their past confidence leaves them all the more helpless. Most people have friends like this, who seem so helpful when times are good, but who vanish when the heat is turned up. Job feels like his friends have turned out this way.
Have I said, 'Make me a gift'? Or, 'From your wealth offer a bribe for me'? Or, 'Deliver me from the adversary's hand'? Or, 'Redeem me from the hand of the ruthless'?
(Job 6:22-23)

His friends’ insulting behavior is made all the worse because he did not ask them for anything. They came voluntarily and sat with him, and when he discussed his pain, they reacted harshly. Their advice would have been bad enough if solicited, but seemed to him all the worse unbidden. Job is not being entirely fair here, but he is sincere.
"Teach me, and I will be silent; make me understand how I have gone astray. How forceful are upright words! But what does reproof from you reprove? Do you think that you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind? You would even cast lots over the fatherless, and bargain over your friend. "But now, be pleased to look at me, for I will not lie to your face. Please turn; let no injustice be done. Turn now; my vindication is at stake. Is there any injustice on my tongue? Cannot my palate discern the cause of calamity?
(Job 6:24-30)

Job throws down the gauntlet. If he has really sinned, let them come out and say something specifically. Their insinuations are meaningless to a man in his desperate situation. If they could imply things about him now, they are the same kinds of people who would place bets on an orphan or a friend. He challenges them to look at him, and give him a specific challenge to defend himself against. What has he said? What has he done? Nothing – he knows the taste of undeserved trouble, and this is it. He moves in to describe that suffering again in detail:
"Has not man a hard service on earth, and are not his days like the days of a hired hand? Like a slave who longs for the shadow, and like a hired hand who looks for his wages, so I am allotted months of emptiness, and nights of misery are apportioned to me. When I lie down I say, 'When shall I arise?' But the night is long, and I am full of tossing till the dawn. My flesh is clothed with worms and dirt; my skin hardens, then breaks out afresh. My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle and come to their end without hope.
(Job 7:1-6)

He feels like a laborer on the earth, working hard for a time until he cannot handle any more. Worse than that, he feels like a slave who doesn’t even have any payment to look forward to, and can only long for a little relief of shade before he must work again. When he sleeps, he thinks about when he will get up, as he lies in pain. When he is awake, he is like a woman sewing, quickly finishing with one part and cutting the thread again. I believe many seasons of life are like this, where it seems like you can’t win for losing, and like you can never get ahead. We push through those times because we know they will be over soon enough, and can often place a specific time on when that will be. When there is no hope of release, we are instead trapped in despair. Here is Job’s real problem with his suffering at this point – he sees no way out. He is living a life without hope, when hope is the currency of the human soul. The times when you have felt the worst in your life were not when you had the worst problems, but rather when you could not imagine how they would end.
"Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good. The eye of him who sees me will behold me no more; while your eyes are on me, I shall be gone. As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up; he returns no more to his house, nor does his place know him anymore.
(Job 7:7-10)

Broken in faith, Job switches seamlessly to a prayer. He thinks of the brevity of human life and anticipates his own death. He will be gone, and will never experience good again. He imagines that death must be a place of total meaninglessness, where he is with his friends one moment, watched by God, and the next gone, never to experience anything good again, separated even from God. The still darkness and thick air of a tomb is all that awaits him – no one who goes down to Sheol (the grave) will ever leave again! Even if he did, he is so soon forgotten that no one would recognize him. For Job’s clouded eyes, there is no hope of release even in the only thing he wants – death.
"Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. Am I the sea, or a sea monster, that you set a guard over me? When I say, 'My bed will comfort me, my couch will ease my complaint,' then you scare me with dreams and terrify me with visions, so that I would choose strangling and death rather than my bones. I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Leave me alone, for my days are a breath.
(Job 7:11-16)

Is he a mythical monster, that he must be guarded? Why are they bothering him? His anguish is too deep. When he imagines sleep, Eliphaz terrifies him with his talk of spirits, and Job feels there is no retreat. He would rather be destroyed than have strength again, and the idea of living forever disgusts him. It is easy to daydream of eternal life when things are good, but when everything is crushing calamity, there is nothing but the desire of an end, even if that too is hopeless. He asks to be left along again, using the singular, not plural verb. It is God he has been speaking to, not his friends.
What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him, visit him every morning and test him every moment? How long will you not look away from me, nor leave me alone till I swallow my spit? If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of mankind? Why have you made me your mark? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity? For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be."
(Job 7:17-21)

Job asks a very provoking question of God. Why do you care what I do? Why can’t you just leave me alone? He sounds like the demons here: “What do you have to do with us?”[1] Job feels like God is picking on him, and will never leave him alone. It seems unfair to him that he is subjected to the kind of scrutiny which God brings. He feels that someone as insignificant as he is should just be allowed to die and cease. That is how deep the grief of our friend Job has gone. In Hebrew, the speech ends with something like: You look – but I am not! Imagine the pause before anyone spoke up again. He believes that God looks for him now, only to abandon him in death. What a hopeless existence and a despairing way of looking at the world. What can we possible draw from this?

I do not want to remove the tension that the author has created for us too easily. There is much pain here and some of what Job says makes sense. He cannot, with his limited understanding of the future, understand how God will make his suffering right, while we know much about the afterlife. Unlike Job, who was confident in his despair that no one ever returned from the grave (and in Job’s day, no one had, even temporarily), we place our confidence in the One who did. Job felt he was under a greater burden than he could handle, and every resource was taken from Him, but we know we have a resource which will never leave us.[2] But I think the best response is one of perspective. Job marvels that God would put him and his sin under such unfair scrutiny even in his weakness, but clearer heads must prevail, and we must see an inspired writer, guided by God to pen a greater truth. While Job and the Psalmist may never have read each other, they echo the same thought. Read the last part of Job’s speech and then the 8th Psalm.
Psalm 8:1–9 (ESV)
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!


It’s all in how you look at it. Job saw his weakness, suffering and God’s attention as burdens. The Psalmist looks at the same answer and sees God’s greatness and love. The difference is how you look at it.
http://deblogs.depaul.edu/guest/Documents/boat-land-perspective1.jpeg




[1] Mark 1:24.
[2] Hebrews 13:5.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Scales of Justice


As we continue our journey through the book of Job, we come to the first speech of Job’s friends. The three of them have sat in silence for a week, and have waited for Job to speak. When he did, what they heard bordered on blasphemy, so one of them responded. Before you are too critical of his friends, imagine what you would say if you heard someone say the things Job said in the previous chapter, and if someone had experienced everything Job did. Would you start to wonder if maybe he had done something wrong? The challenging thing about Job is that all of his friends will mingle truth with error, forcing us to very carefully examine their words. Let’s look at Eliphaz.

Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered and said: "If one ventures a word with you, will you be impatient? Yet who can keep from speaking? Behold, you have instructed many, and you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have upheld him who was stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees. But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed.

(Job 4:1-5 ESV)

 

Eliphaz is very polite initially: “If I speak, will you become upset? But I must speak.” Eliphaz’s first point is that Job has been a genuine hero in the past. He has given good advice and has helped other people. He has led some to repentance and has kept some strong who were weak. But now, Job is experiencing the same thing he has helped others through, and he is ready to collapse. Eliphaz steps on my toes a little here; how many times have I failed to take my own advice? I know how I should think, what I should do and why, but these do not always translate into actually following through. When other people encounter temptation or need guidance in how to treat other people, I am usually aware of the best way for them to do it, complete with (if they are at a point to hear it) a Bible story or passage to back it up. When it comes to my own temptations, my insights are limited. Like Job, we get too close to a situation and do not see it rightly, so we make mistakes.

Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope? Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed. The roar of the lion, the voice of the fierce lion, the teeth of the young lions are broken. The strong lion perishes for lack of prey, and the cubs of the lioness are scattered.

(Job 4:6-11 ESV)

 

Eliphaz challenges Job on a relatively simple point: isn’t your faithfulness to God your hope? Innocent people don’t suffer, only guilty people do. Men who behave like animals (lions) will die like animals. The implication is plain. If Job is suffering like this, he must be being punished by God, because God is perfectly fair. Eliphaz now relates a vision he has had:

"Now a word was brought to me stealthily; my ear received the whisper of it. Amid thoughts from visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on men, dread came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake. A spirit glided past my face; the hair of my flesh stood up. It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance. A form was before my eyes; there was silence, then I heard a voice: 'Can mortal man be in the right before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker? Even in his servants he puts no trust, and his angels he charges with error; how much more those who dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed like the moth. Between morning and evening they are beaten to pieces; they perish forever without anyone regarding it. Is not their tent-cord plucked up within them, do they not die, and that without wisdom?'

(Job 4:12-21 ESV)

 

Whether this was a vision from God, Satan or his own imagination, we cannot tell. What he says is true, but irrelevant. At some point, Eliphaz was convinced that man is fundamentally too wicked to stand before God. Even the angels are impure before God, so feebly human beings are destined for destruction. In a moment, they are torn apart and forgotten, their whole lives leaving no lasting impact.

There is some truth to what Eliphaz said. This is the way of the world: you live for a season, fall short of the glory of God and die. But his theology, though accurate for what it is, is terribly out of balance. He has put his finger on God’s justice, but missed His mercy, His love and His fatherhood. You cannot understand God by looking at a small piece of Him any more than you can understand a human being by staring at a piece of skin. You need the entirety to have an accurate comprehension. This is where a lot of problems creep into people’s theology. They find one aspect of God they find compelling (maybe comforting, maybe terrifying) and look at everything else through that lens. Many people do this with the justice of God, and that is the thing Eliphaz is voicing here. God is just (true) and justice requires the punishment of wickedness (true) therefore whoever suffers is wicked (false).

"Call now; is there anyone who will answer you? To which of the holy ones will you turn? Surely vexation kills the fool, and jealousy slays the simple. I have seen the fool taking root, but suddenly I cursed his dwelling. His children are far from safety; they are crushed in the gate, and there is no one to deliver them. The hungry eat his harvest, and he takes it even out of thorns, and the thirsty pant after his wealth. For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground, but man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.

(Job 5:1-7 ESV)

 

He challenges Job to cry out, but he is confident that there will be no answer. His friend has obviously fallen into sin, so God has nothing but punishment for him. Every blessing he seemed to have from God before was all an illusion, a plant which looks impressive but with no real roots, ready to wither in the heat. A foolish, sinful man’s children would be unsafe because of his sin (what an attack on Job!) and he would be totally lost. Trouble, Eliphaz concludes, does not come from nowhere, but (as surely as sparks fly upward) from the nature of the man who is experiencing it.

You have sinned, Eliphaz concludes. There is no other explanation, and no recourse until you deal with that.

"As for me, I would seek God, and to God would I commit my cause, who does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number: he gives rain on the earth and sends waters on the fields; he sets on high those who are lowly, and those who mourn are lifted to safety. He frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success. He catches the wise in their own craftiness, and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end. They meet with darkness in the daytime and grope at noonday as in the night. But he saves the needy from the sword of their mouth and from the hand of the mighty. So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts her mouth.

(Job 5:8-16 ESV)

 

Eliphaz’s advice is to repent, and turn to the God who can provide, who quickly punishes the wicked. He lists many true things about God’s justice, but his basic assumption remains in place. Only wicked people suffer, and God only allows bad things to happen as punishment. If Job repents, his trouble will immediately end. Eliphaz lives in the comfortingly simple world we talked about before, where God is simply the distributor of karma and everything behaves predictably. Eliphaz’s explanation of this is incredibly beautiful:

"Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal. He will deliver you from six troubles; in seven no evil shall touch you. In famine he will redeem you from death, and in war from the power of the sword. You shall be hidden from the lash of the tongue, and shall not fear destruction when it comes. At destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth. For you shall be in league with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field shall be at peace with you. You shall know that your tent is at peace, and you shall inspect your fold and miss nothing. You shall know also that your offspring shall be many, and your descendants as the grass of the earth. You shall come to your grave in ripe old age, like a sheaf gathered up in its season. Behold, this we have searched out; it is true. Hear, and know it for your good."

(Job 5:17-27 ESV)

 

Again, there is truth here. The discipline of God is good, because it does not last. You may experience troubles, but God will deliver you and protect you. As David would later write:

For [God’s] anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

(Psa 30:5 ESV)

 

Trouble may last a little while, but God will ultimately deliver you from it. The problem is, again, not that what Eliphaz says is untrue. It is simply incomplete. Yes, God does deliver us from trouble. Yes, God does protect us. But Eliphaz is too short sighted, and does not realize that God has a much bigger plan in place than what we can see. He is working on an eternal timetable, changing lives and exploding the gospel of His Son. We may suffer up until we die, and our restoration may occur in Heaven. Christians may suffer, but God is using them for something greater, changing them to be more like Jesus. Remember what Paul wrote:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

(2Co 4:16-18 ESV)

 

There is a fascinating solution to the problem, if you can bear it. God is working on something infinitely greater than all that we can imagine. God is just, and the righteous will never be forsaken. But God is also accomplishing something fantastic beyond our wildest dreams, and He may not deliver us in the way we expect.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why?


So far in Job, we have seen a great man come crashing to his knees through no fault of his own. He has lost everything: property, children and health. Even his wife has betrayed him. He is now surrounded by three friends who have not spoken a word to him, sitting with him as a quiet comfort in his grief. If you have missed any of the segments leading up to this, I highly recommend you go back and read them, since this is a unified story. Remember that Job knows nothing about the conversations Satan and God have had behind the scenes. He only knows that he did nothing wrong, but he has gone from being a wealthy, happy man, to sitting alone on the town burn pile, scraping the pus from his skin with broken pieces of pottery.

We pick up at the third chapter.

After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. And Job said:

"Let the day perish on which I was born, and the night that said, 'A man is conceived.'

Let that day be darkness! May God above not seek it, nor light shine upon it.

Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.

Let clouds dwell upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it.

That night—let thick darkness seize it!

Let it not rejoice among the days of the year; let it not come into the number of the months.

Behold, let that night be barren; let no joyful cry enter it.

Let those curse it who curse the day, who are ready to rouse up Leviathan.

Let the stars of its dawn be dark; let it hope for light, but have none, nor see the eyelids of the morning, because it did not shut the doors of my mother's womb, nor hide trouble from my eyes.

(Job 3:1-10 ESV)

 

Explaining this is sort of like explaining a joke, so I will try not to overanalyze it. Job is asking a central question here: why was I ever born? Why did God create me, if this is the kind of life I am destined to live? His family was accustomed to celebrating birthdays – it was during the feast celebrating that of his oldest son that he had lost everything. Now, he prays for it to be a day of cursing instead of blessing, so people would weep when they remembered the day of his birth, instead of rejoicing over it. He wished that God had never allowed his birth to happen – that entire day should have been simply blotted out of the calendar. There should be no one excitedly saying “It’s a boy!” There should simply be silence.

He does not go as far as Satan had been sure he would, because he does not curse God. He cries out for the day to be cursed, and asks for the people who have the audacity to summon up Leviathan (a dragon in ancient Near Eastern mythology) to curse it, but he never attacks the One who allowed the day to exist directly. He is upset with what God has done, but his devotion to God stops him from total infidelity.

Isn’t this amazing? Job had experienced so many good things in his long life, but they were not blotted out entirely by suffering. Job would have passionately objected to what Tennyson wrote: “I hold it true, whate'er befall; I feel it, when I sorrow most; 'Tis better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all.” As beautiful as the English poet’s words are, the Hebrew one seems truer to our experience. When arrested by grief and trouble, all of the good things we have experienced in the past seem insignificant. The depths of pain are much more compelling than the memories of pleasure. So in his incomprehensible grief, Job cannot escape the unanswerable: Why was I even born?

"Why did I not die at birth, come out from the womb and expire? Why did the knees receive me? Or why the breasts, that I should nurse?

(Job 3:11-12 ESV)

 

If I must be born, Job asks, why could I not die immediately? He felt like his mother’s instincts should have seen the terrible life which would curse her child and reject him immediately. He goes into his understanding of what death would be like.

For then I would have lain down and been quiet; I would have slept; then I would have been at rest, with kings and counselors of the earth who rebuilt ruins for themselves, or with princes who had gold, who filled their houses with silver. Or why was I not as a hidden stillborn child, as infants who never see the light? There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest. There the prisoners are at ease together; they hear not the voice of the taskmaster. The small and the great are there, and the slave is free from his master.

(Job 3:13-19 ESV)

 

Remember that Job does not possess the entirety of the Bible, and a great deal of what he does know has been blocked out by his grief. His understanding is primitive, but still insightful. He sees death as the great equalizer: babies, kings and princes all lay the same in death. The differing levels of glory they experienced in life are all consumed in the same stillness. Hearses rarely carry U-Haul’s.

In death, Job continues, the wicked no longer trouble you, and people who are so tired can have rest. Sometimes that is the hardest part of the Christian life: the need for rest. There is always something else to do, someone else to help and some problem to solve, until you long for the cessation of it all. In my experience, the temptation is always there to run yourself to the very limit, so when something else is added to your plate, you have no room for it and you snap. Job, as a wealthy man and one who helped others (as we will learn) must have lived his life with a great intensity. When the other shoe dropped, this kind of despair was waiting.

He looked, as one who had lost so much, at death as the place where that would no longer matter. The slave and the master lay side by side in the ground, neither of them bothering the other. Rich or poor, it makes no difference. It is this kind of levelling which Job longs for, and which convinces him that all of his former happiness was worthless. When he dies, he will not have any of the things he worked so hard for. In his primitive view of the afterlife, he may not even have realized he would be reunited with his children. He saw his problems in such a human way (I have been rich and now I am poor, I was a master and now I am a slave) that he looked for human solutions.  He could not, in all of his grief, imagine the kind of God who really lives, and just looked for silent rest as the best possible outcome.

As Christians, we can escape this problem by realizing that rest does not come through death or even stillness. The energy to continue doing life comes from contact with the Life, and rejuvenation comes with relationship with the Living God. Remember the amazing words of Jesus:

At that time Jesus declared, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

(Mat 11:25-30 ESV)

 

Jesus prayed and thanked God that a relationship with God would not come through wisdom or human effort, but by a relationship with the Son. Jesus then calls out to those who are weary from trying to satisfy themselves and invites them to come to Him. When we follow Jesus and are brought close to God in Him, we have rest in true life, rather than in death. Hold this hope in contrast to Job’s despair, but still pity him. These things are easier to see in the light of day than in the darkness of night. Back in our text, he moves from his specific circumstances to ask two universal questions.

"Why is light given to him who is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it comes not, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures, who rejoice exceedingly and are glad when they find the grave?

(Job 3:20-22 ESV)

 

In light of our society’s discussion and debate about assisted suicide, we may wonder with Job – why does God continue to let people live who are happy to die? Many people with dire diseases will linger for a long time, wondering why they must still live. This is more than a question about people who actually desire death itself; the real issue is the kind of God who would not give such people the desire of their heart. His second question follows up on this:

Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in?

(Job 3:23 ESV)

 

Why would God let someone live, if He has trapped them in trouble and they wander around aimlessly? If these questions are not poignant to your situation, maybe you can imagine someone else’s condition that has made you ask them. When people are hopeless, why must they keep enduring? The simplistic Sunday School answer that things will get better is obviously not true. I have stood by the caskets of people who were sick for years and by people who died in an instant, and their death is the same. Many who suffer never improve, and many of the sick never rise.

His heart moves back to his own situation:

For my sighing comes instead of my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water. For the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, but trouble comes."

(Job 3:24-26 ESV)

 

Instead of meals throughout the day, Job sighs and groans in despair. These are his sustenance now, and it seems to him like the pain is the only thing sustaining him. Everything he feared the most had occurred, and still he had no rest. Maybe your mind came up with some answers to Job’s universal questions. Imagine yourself talking to someone who had been through everything Job had experienced: would you feel confident in your explanation? As he finishes speaking, his three friends will offer their interpretation of the events.

Paul Tripp has said that “No one is a bigger influence in your life than you are, because no one else talks to you as much.”[1] Every time you experience something, your mind filters and interprets it. Sometimes it does a good job, and other times it does not. Job, though a good and a godly man, has begun to see everything through the lens of his despair. How do you interpret the world? When you are those you love are faced with problems, do you see it in light of the biblical narrative, especially the summing up of all things in Christ? People have a unique talent for keeping their eyes on the wrong things. We are always looking for answers and explanations, but may God grant us the right questions.                                                                                                                                       



[1] Theology Refresh podcast, April 2, 2014.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Long Night


A few days ago, we were introduced to a man named Job, caught in the middle of a cosmic drama. He was a righteous and wealthy man (the way we expect things to be, where good things happen to good people) and was quite content in his life. Then, behind the scenes, we come into contact with a God who does not always behave the way we expect Him to God challenged Satan, who had been out tempting people in the world: “Have you tried my servant Job? He is a righteous man who fears me and hates evil.” Satan, convinced that the world works on a me-first mentality, told God that Job’s worship was only because of the good things which God allowed Job to enjoy. God gave Satan permission to use his power against Job’s possessions and household, as long as Job’s own life was not touched. Tempting greedy men and using explicitly supernatural powers, Job lost the entirety of his wealth and all of his children in a single day. Crushed, but with a heart well trained to follow God, Job got up, shaved his head and tore his clothes in the oriental display of grief, and fell back on his face to praise God. Despite having everything he had ripped from him too quickly for him to process, Job refused to curse God. He continued to trust his Lord, no matter what happened.

If this response seems too wonderfully unrealistic, I hope you get to meet some godly people, because I know some who have responded exactly this way to trouble, and others I am sure would. One example from more recent history is the writer Horatio Spafford, who lost his business to a fire, and then his four children to a shipwreck. When his own boat was situated over the place where his children had drowned, Spafford went into his cabin and wrote the hymn It Is Well With My Soul, with the first stanza: “When peace like a river attendeth my way/When sorrows like sea billows roll/Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say/It is well/It is well with my soul.” People close to God will respond in a godly way. Imagine mourning your children by praising God like that.

Already, we have learned some things about God and Satan. Both of them are people, neither is an impartial force, so they behave in complicated ways. Satan is powerful, and can control the weather or influence people, but requires God’s permission to act. God allows Satan to tempt people, at least partially, to put His power on display in the righteous lives of people. This is a similar thought to that of Ephesians 3:10, where Paul writes that God entrusted him with the gospel “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” In ways which we cannot understand, our actions are being used by God to accomplish some heavenly purposes. We also see that God is intimately involved in the lives of His people. The fact that bad things can happen to good people is initially very difficult to come to terms with, but is ultimately very rewarding – we are not purely victims of cause and effect, but everything which comes our way goes through the filter of our loving Father. God will never allow anything to happen to you which is beyond your ability[1] and will use everything you experience will be used by God to make you into who He intends for you to be[2]. Isn’t Job a complicated book? Things are not as straight forward as we would like for them to be, and a God who makes decisions is less comfortable than a god would could predict, but so much better.

Job has passed the test, which takes us back to the heavenly throne room.

Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. And the LORD said to Satan, "From where have you come?" Satan answered the LORD and said, "From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it." And the LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason."

(Job 2:1-3)

 

Satan presents himself to God again, and God gives the same description of Job as before: he is righteous, respects God and hates evil. He has gone through trials, and God looks at his reaction the way that any proud father would. Even though there was no reason for him to allow Satan to attack Job (God speaks as if He did it in the last verse, but this is just a reference to His allowing it), Job still stood firm in his convictions.

Then Satan answered the LORD and said, "Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face." And the LORD said to Satan, "Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life."

(Job 2:4-6)

 

 Satan, still convinced that Job must be self-serving, decides that they had simply not gone far enough. Job had lost all of his possessions, but he still did not curse God because he feared that God would kill him for it.  His motivations, the accuser was convinced, were still quite selfish. When we are consumed with a sin, we usually assume that its hold over everyone else is just as strong as it is over us. This helps us to justify to ourselves why we just can’t help it, and conveniently helps us judge others who are tempted differently. God, again violating our expectations, tells Satan to go ahead: destroy this man’s health like you have his property and family, then he will curse you. This third attack will go directly at the man – he has struck at a distance through his property, he has struck closer through his family, now he will directly attack his health, and break him.

So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.

(Job 2:7-8)

 

Satan gave Job a disease, covering his body in painful, seething ulcers. Due to the highly infectious nature of diseases like leprosy, Job was probably forced out of town and to live alone, where he sat on a pile of ashes and scratched himself with a broken piece of pottery. He has lost his wealth and his children, now he was in constant physical pain and was isolated from the city, sitting in ashes as a sign of his grief. While we can’t tell it from the second chapter, we will find out later that this continued for months, with no relief. Constant pain, near isolation and the continuing grief of so much loss must weight heavy on a human being. For a long time, with the dreadful anticipation of a hanging guillotine over your neck, Satan does nothing.

These are some of the most horrible times of temptation. Sometimes you will lose faith when bad things happen. Sometimes you will give into sin as a means of distraction when life is hard. But when everything stops, and there seems to be no change, for good or for ill, you feel so alone and helpless, and the sin of despair is ready to consume you. In all of the quiet anticipation of what else can go wrong and in the absence of a clear response from God, doubt starts to eat you alive. It is in this context that we meet Job’s wife, the last of his family.

Then his wife said to him, "Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die."

(Job 2:9)

What a charmer. Job’s wife asks why he is still so holy. Since it is obvious God intends to kill him, he should just curse God and incite God to finish the job. We should pause with an eye of pity on this woman, who had lost her wealth and her children, and now couldn’t stand to see her husband suffer anymore. If you have ever stood with a grieving wife over a dying husband, you may have whispered a prayer to God to hurry the process along, and this is probably at the core of her heart here. The problem is that she is willing to have her husband sin to bring it about, a sort of suicide-by-cop, where the police are replaced by God himself. Sin is not the proper response to suffering. Briefly here, I will mention the value of a godly spouse, who will keep you strong when you are weak, and who you keep strong when they are weak.

It appears Satan predicted that she would serve his purposes better alive than dead, which is why she did not die with the children. Her distance and her bitterness weigh heavier than Job on even her death would have, because now he is stung by sharp betrayal, as his own wife no longer has confidence in him or his future. It is hard to emphasize with the sheer magnitude of Job’s tragedy, but try to remember that this is the actual record of what a real man experienced.

But he said to her, "You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

(Job 2:10)

In spite of this, Job passes again. He says she is speaking like a foolish person would, because it is wrong to accept the good from God, and not accept it when he sends trouble. In all that he endured, he never spoke an ill word.

Now when Job's three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

(Job 2:11-13)

After his wife’s breach of confidence, Job was met with another group of people. Months into his suffering, word of this great man’s fall had spread to his friends far and wide, and a group of them came to comfort him. When they saw his despair, and didn’t recognize his boil covered body, they sat on the ground outside with him for a full week, never saying a word to him, but patiently waiting in silence. Solidarity is sometimes the best that a friend can provide.

The interesting thing about friends is that they can either be very good, or very bad. A good friend’s kind words will rescue you from despair, while a bad friend’s kind words will push you on to destruction. In the Bible, David’s friend Jonathon comforted him when his heart was breaking, but David’s son Amnon’s friend convinced him it would be okay to rape his sister. Like a good spouse above, friends are so intimately connected to you that they have the potential to be of great help or great hurt. So far, like the rest of Job’s life, these friends seem promising. According to the New American Commentary: “If the identification of [Eliphaz’s home] and Job’s location is correct, it meant for Eliphaz a journey of over a hundred miles.[3]” The other two friends are from cities which we cannot locate, but they probably all came a long way and travelled for several days to reach Job in his time of need.

Before we saw that Job did not give up on God when terrible things overwhelmed him; now we learn the harder lesson: Job did not give up on God in the face of long silence and gradual decline. Job continued to endure and trusted God. His life was a piece of artwork which God had not yet completed. The preliminary strokes did not yet make a picture, but Job trusted that they would soon enough. In our next section, we will see his friends break their silence, and that conversation will comprise the majority of the book.  



[1] 1 Corinthians 10:13
[2] Romans 8:28.
[3] Robert L. Alden, Job, vol. 11, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 69.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Round One


                Yesterday, we came crashing into a God who does not meet our expectations. He behaves freely, and allows Satan to attack the possessions of a man who has done nothing to deserve it. I am not sure if this is comforting but not satisfying or satisfying but not comforting. But we must come to grips with the reality that God is a person, and He will make decisions which will defy understanding. He is not a karmic force, responding formulaically to people’s sins or incantations.

                When we last cc cbcleft our story, Satan had left to go and wreak havoc on Job’s life, confident that when stripped of the good things God had given him, Job would forsake God. Satan’s basic assumption, as we have seen, is that Job operated on the me-first mentality of humanity, and he would do whatever seemed most profitable at the time.

                Before we move forward, do you operate according to that mentality? It is easy for us to assume we don’t, because we have never really committed any major acts of rebellion against God. But what if He let Satan push you just a little bit harder? Where is your breaking point, where you simply could not stand anymore and you would start looking out for number one? You never know how far you can go until you do, and Job is about to find out just how much he can take.

Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother's house, and there came a messenger to Job and said, "The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them and struck dowc.f. fvn the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you."

(Job 1:13-15 ESV)

 

                Fast forward to the birthday of Job’s oldest son and you will find all of his children engaged in a big party. Job, based on his habit we learned about at the beginning of the chapter, is probably preparing the burnt sacrifices to show how he has dedicated his children to God, as he asks God to protect their hearts. With his mind probably pleasantly abuzz, a messenger comes running up to him, covered in sweat and blood: “A group of raiders came and stole your oxen, your donkeys and killed your servants that were with them!” This wealthy man had just lost a fortune. While he still had much, imagine your reaction when something valuable to you is suddenly taken away. Then, his mind begins to catch up and see how great the damage is. The oxen were plowing – preparing the land for next year’s harvest. Not just the present, but his future has just been cut down. Like a rejected college application, a lost job or a broken marriage, Job is not only losing something close, but the potential of so much.

                His mind races – how can he get the animals back and avenge his servants? Where have these raiders gone? Like many of us, his mind jumps to solutions and tries to make itself more comfortable with the problem by finding out that it is under his control. He still had 7000 sheep and 3000 camels. He was not powerless, he could amass an army. This is bad, but he is strong. God has given him so much; everything will be okay.

While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, "The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you."

(Job 1:16 ESV)

 

                Before he could finish processing his plan of attack, another messenger came up. Lighting had struck the sheepfold and started an intense fire which had burned all of the sheep and the servants that attended them. Job was immediately faced with another financial loss, this time not from other human beings, but an apparent act of God. Where most Job’s mind have been at this point? He had woken up this morning wealthy and successful, and he had now lost 7000 sheep, on top of what he had already experienced. He still had a huge number of camels (3000) for travelling, but all of his immediately accessible wealth was now gone, as were his prospects for soon making more. People in the ancient east did not own property, so his wealth was entirely in his possessions. Some stolen and some burned, the urgency of chasing down his stolen donkeys and oxen now grew intensely. He could not get his sheep back, but he could gather a war party on camels, round up his servants and his sons and go reclaim their wealth.

While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, "The Chaldeans formed three groups and made a raid on the camels and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you."

(Job 1:17 ESV)

                There is nothing left to say. Another messenger immediately comes up and announces that the last of Job’s wealth is gone. He woke rich, but he will sleep tonight poor. He has no ability, as far as he can see, to reverse the losses of his fortune, and two different raiding bands had hurt him, the same day as a natural catastrophe. I don’t think he had a plan at this point, I can only imagine him standing in stunned silence.

While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, "Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother's house, and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you."

(Job 1:18-19 ESV)

 

                Stop for a moment to experience the gravity of this. An act of man, an act of God and an act of man is now followed by one more act of God, this one cutting closer to the core of Job than any other. At his oldest son’s birthday party, for which he had been preparing sacrifices from his great wealth earlier that day, a storm had blown in and crushed all of his children. His seven sons, his three daughters and all the servants that were with him laid crushed in the rubble.

                Any one of these blows would have crushed most people. Have you ever experienced more than one tragedy in a row? Before you have a chance to collect yourself, another wave comes and it feels unbearable. Eventually you look at the mountain of trouble in front of you and you cry out because you can’t take it anymore. Stress, despair and self-pity join the party, and add internal troubles to the ones you have already experienced. God gave Satan permission to come as close to Job as he wanted, as long as he did not touch Job himself, and Satan left no stone unturned. Everything good which God had given Job was gone, and now (Satan was sure), Job would rebel against God, since God no longer served him. In our simple theology, the story is about to end, one way or another. If Job still follows after God, he will be rewarded and the trouble will stop. If he rejects God, he will never recover. But reality, as we have already hinted, is much more complex than that. God is far more real than that.

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD." In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.

(Job 1:20-22 ESV)

 

                Job passed the test, as you can see. He looks at all he has lost and his mind is too numb to make any decisions. Instead, he falls into what he has already trained himself to do in the good times. He looks and trusts the God who he cannot see. While we know that it was Satan, under God’s permission, who had caused the disasters, two looked like they had certainly come from God. But Job still trusted. First he got up (he had apparently collapsed in grief-wouldn't you?) and then he tore at his clothes and shaved his head, a sign of great trouble and disgrace. He mourned, and fell to the ground again, this time not in grief, but in worship.God had given him everything, and it was God’s to take away. God be praised.

                Think about the troubles in your life lately, the things you feel were stolen from you. Can you respond like that? It betrays the deepest parts of Job’s heart that he already thought of everything he had, even his family, as on loan from God. Now, with nothing except his body and his wife, that attitude leaks out of his heart. In the dark night of his soul, he remembers that the sunrise never belonged to Him anyway.

                This is the first reaction we must cultivate. Everything is God’s, and everything will be His. When we lose good things, we must never fool ourselves into thinking we were entitled to them in the first place. Job passed the test. It should all be over now. He responded correctly, so the god we have created to follow our commands like clockwork will have to reward him now.

                But, if you have ever suffered or seen someone you love suffer, you know better than that. The Bible is true, and life is far too messy for the answer to be so simple.
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