“Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning.”
When is the last time you said words like these? Was it today?
Or maybe there’s someone you know who could be saying them right now?
If they’re not your words today, these or words like them have been yours in the past, and they will be again in the future. The degree and severity may vary, for we are not all afflicted equally or in the same ways. But pain and suffering, and the bitterness which results is an integral part of the human condition, indeed it is part of what makes us human.
Sometimes, it gets worse. What if you lost everything, your home, your possessions, your family, what if your body was racked with pain, and someone came along, a friend, someone you trusted, and that friend told you it was your own damn fault?
That’s where we pick up the story of Job in today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. Job is still sitting on the ground among the ashes, inflicted with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. His possessions are gone, his children are dead. And he is blameless. Job is a good man, a righteous man, we know that because in the prologue to this story God himself has said it. This is not Job’s fault.
But the friends who come to comfort him in his suffering tell him that he is to blame.
That sounds harsh. But we still do it. When a friend of mine was diagnosed with lung cancer, the first question many asked was whether he was a smoker. When disaster strikes in our world, we want to know why, and the answers we like best are the ones that shift the blame onto something or someone in a way that allows us to feel safe.
When I was doing an internship at the Royal Ottawa, I met a man who was profoundly depressed, the worst I’ve ever seen. After a long time caring for him he told me that the reason he was so ill was that he had done wrong and God was punishing him for it. I didn’t believe this, and I could see that this understanding was causing him an incredible amount of harm, but it was a belief that was hard to dislodge because he was a Christian and the roots of his belief can be clearly found in the Bible.
It is the worldview of retributive justice, and it is laid out in detail in the 28th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy:
“if you will only obey the Lord your God , by diligently observing all God’s commandments … all these blessings shall come upon you; … But if you will not obey … then all these curses shall come upon you.”
This is the worldview, the theology, the understanding of how the cosmos works, that is shared by Job and the three friends that come to comfort him, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. In fact, one of the reasons that the book of Job was written was to contest this theology of retributive justice. This is scripture arguing with scripture. The book of Job argues that the theology laid out in the book of Deuteronomy is too simplistic and too limited to deal with the reality of human suffering. It is an argument that Jesus himself will take up in the gospel of Luke when he is asked about people who were killed by the collapse of a tower. Jesus’ rebuttal notwithstanding, the worldview of retributive justice still persists today, and it certainly was the working theology of Job, and even more so of his three friends.
So that when the three friends observe Job’s suffering, their immediate reaction is to tell Job that he has sinned. You are being punished for your sin, so acknowledge your wrong-doing, accept your punishment, repent, turn to God and beg for mercy. In other words, it’s your own damn fault.
But Job insists that he has done nothing wrong, and we as readers know that this is true, because God himself has said so. Job knows the rules of the cosmos as well as his friends do, that those who are righteous are blessed and those who do not obey are cursed, but he insists on his own innocence, over and over again. Job’s insistence that he is innocent threatens his friends’ nice orderly theology, and they start to react to Job with increasing vehemence:
“Is not your wickedness great?” cries his friend Eliphaz to Job. “There is no end to your iniquities.”
You know the expression – with friends like these, who needs enemies?
And so, having suffered greatly, having been blamed and condemned, Job sinks into depression. “Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning.”
He turns away from his friends. He turns towards God.
Because he is angry with God. Because God is not following the rules of the cosmos that God himself set up. Job knows that he has done no wrong, and therefore by allowing Job to suffer God himself is not following the rules.
“Oh that I knew where to find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. There an upright person could reason with him and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge.”
This is angry prayer. This is the prayer of lament. And our scriptures are full of it, here in Job, in the prophets and especially in the psalms.
This is prayer that cries out to God in anger, that cries out that life is hard, that I’m dying here, and that the story that you’ve been telling us of a nice orderly creation that works to bless us if only we play by your rules is a crock of s***, that if this cosmos does have rules, you God are the one that’s forgetting how it’s supposed to work, and it’s about time you get your s*** together and remember your promises and come and save us.
And here is the astonishing thing: Job’s prayer, with its anger, with its blaming of God, with its rough, insulting language, this prayer is being held up for us as a model.
Job is angry, Job wants to take God and shake God, to argue his case before God, to reason with God – but then there is another problem: God is gone.
“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”
In that moment, Job has no experience of God’s presence. For Job in that moment, God is absent.
Let us acknowledge that as part of our human reality too. No matter how faithful we are, no matter how good or righteous, no matter how often or how well we pray, there will be moments that we experience God as absent. Moments when we lament, and yet we don’t know if we are being heard.
God’s absence is even more crushing for Job than his friends’ condemnation.
“God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.”
And then, the closing verse of today’s text:
“If only I could vanish in darkness and thick darkness would cover my face!”
For me this is one of the most astonishing verses in the book of Job. Because it has a dual sense in Hebrew which can be translated in two ways.
The first way acknowledges Job’s depression and his desire to die. Job is having suicidal thoughts. This is dark and it is scary. But it is not wrong. Job is still the hero of this story, still a model for us. We are not to condemn him or blame him for his depression or his suicidal thoughts. These are not his fault; they are his experience, and they arise out of the painful reality of his particular human existence. The first way of translating this phrase acknowledges that reality:
“If only I could vanish in darkness and thick darkness would cover my face.”
But the second way of translating this verse picks up a different, more defiant nuance in the Hebrew phrase.
“Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.”
Yes Job is in pain. Yes his friends have condemned him. Yes Job is in a dark place. Yes Job is angry. Yes, Job experiences God as absent. Yes, Job doubts whether God is listening.
But he will not be silent. He will go on speaking, trusting that God is indeed present, trusting that God is indeed listening, trusting that God will indeed respond.
He will speak for a long time, what for Job must seem a desperately long time.
And then out of the whirlwind, God will speak.
We’ll hear that next week.
Homily: Yr B P 29, Oct 21 2018, St. Albans
Readings: Job 23.1-17, Ps 22.1-15, Hebrews 5.1-10, Mark 10.35-45
Image by magrelacanela, Creative Commons