September 15, 2013
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF IT ALL
Job 2:11-3:3, 3:20-25, 32:1-6, 34:2-11
The second in a series of four sermons.
C.S. Lewis led many to Christ. In particular, many whose minds get in the way. He had a brilliant mind and he had a wonderful gift for appealing to the minds of others. Christianity made logical sense to C.S. Lewis and he helped it make logical sense to the many who have read his books.
But C.S. Lewis didn’t always believe. He rejected God at an early age. He had no use for Christianity. His reason was personal. His mother had died. His mother had introduced him to God. She was a very godly woman. When she got cancer, she believed God would heal her. She convinced her nine-year-old son that God would heal her. And so this young boy, C.S. Lewis prayed so hard and with such faith that God would spare his mother’s life. But she died. And it was an agonizing death. How could God have let that happen? God was either a monster or God didn’t exist at all. Those were the only two choices as far as he was concerned. He chose atheism. God doesn’t exist at all. God is just an imaginary being to help weak and gullible people cope with a cruel would where awful things happen to the best of people.
So it seemed to C.S. Lewis until he reached age 31. That’s when he returned to the Christian faith his mother had taught him. It was what we might call an intellectual conversion. It was more a matter of the head than of the heart. He had thought through his objections to faith and he had managed to answer them one by one. It finally made sense. It fit together. In fact, in his logical way of thinking, it was now impossible for him to not believe in God. If you think it through and don’t quit until you’ve thought it all the way through, faith is the only conclusion a thinking person can reach.
And so C.S. Lewis wrote a number of books to explain and defend the Christian faith. These are the books that helped many to believe. Especially those who assumed educated people can’t believe. He showed them that it was just the opposite. God is not opposed to reason. God is consistent with reason.
One of the books he wrote he called The Problem of Pain. It was his attempt to put into words the conclusions he had reached about faith since his mother had died. How can a good God allow a nine-year-old boy’s mother to die? It’s a book that is still widely read and highly respected.
But C.S. Lewis had a friend who did what good friends occasionally need to do. He helped C.S. Lewis see that he was perhaps getting just a little too impressed with himself and the brilliance of his own mind. This friend was named Charles Williams. He was a famous author in his own right. One day these two men were discussing the Book of Job. Williams said this: Job’s comforters were “the sort of people who write books on the Problem of Pain.” We might add this morning that Job’s comforters were the sort of people who preach sermons on human suffering with titles like “Trying to Make Sense of it All.”
Last week we left Job with his life in shambles. His wealth, his children, and his health have all been taken from him one by one, in that order. His wife’s life was spared. But his wife is not too helpful. She says, “Why don’t you curse God and die?” Now I’ve always wondered why the Hallmark people have never thought to use that on one of their sympathy cards.
We’re told that three of Job’s friends make an appointment to see him. They are named Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. My spell checker insists that none of those are real names, but I promise you, they are. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to Job “to keep him company and comfort him” (2:11). It says they didn’t say a word for seven days and seven nights. They just sat with him on the ground. They kept him company. They just stayed with him to share in his grief. That was probably the best thing they did. As soon as they started talking, things went downhill fast. As soon as they started trying to make sense of it all.
Job speaks first. He curses the day he was born. He’s not a happy camper. Eliphaz answers hinting that maybe, just maybe Job has done something pretty awful and God is punishing him. It continues. Chapter after chapter after chapter. Job and Bildad. Job and Zophar. Job and Eliphaz once more. I was going to just read it for you and called it a sermon. Actually the scripture we read today skips all this. It skips from Job’s opening lament all the way to the speech of a fourth comforter whose name in Elihu. Now Elihu is a young man who disagrees with everything everyone else has said but who really has nothing original to contribute himself. The bottom line for him is the last verse we read. “He makes us pay for exactly what we’ve done, no more, no less. Our chickens always come home to roost” (34:11). That’s the conventional wisdom. You get what you deserve. Good people are blessed. Bad people are cursed. Except that doesn’t work here. Because Job is good. Job in no way deserves what has happened to him.
Harold Kushner has a theory. He’s the author of a great book on this subject that came out 35 years ago, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner believes that the Book of Job originally existed in a much simpler form. It was a “well-known folk story, a kind of morality fable told to reinforce people’s religious sentiments, about a pious man named Job” (page 32). The story is simple. Job is good. Job is rewarded by God. God chooses to stop rewarding Job for his goodness to show Satan that even undeserved suffering won’t shake this man’s faith. Awful things happen to Job and, sure enough, Job barely flinches. Not once does he complain. Not once does his faith waver. His friends tell Job he’s crazy to keep trusting a God who would do this to him. But Job keeps trusting nevertheless, patiently, steadfastly, and in the end God pays back Job for all he’s been through and then some. The moral of the story: When hard times come, don’t give up your faith in God. God has reasons for what he’s doing. You just keep trusting God, and if you hold on long enough you are sure to be rewarded.
Harold Kushner says this original version of Job was in circulation long before the version we have in the Bible was written. But the author of Job as we know have it today didn’t like it. It bothered him. He was offended by it. He was offended by what it said about God. What kind of God kills innocent people and causes horrible suffering to win a bet with Satan? What kind of religion requires and then rewards such blind and unquestioning obedience? And so this unknown, unnamed person was so upset by this original fable that he reworked it into something very different. He turned it inside out and upside down. The roles are reversed. Job is now the one who complains against God and Job’s comforters are the ones who defend the conventional wisdom that God “pays us exactly for what we’ve done, no more, no less.”
The “rewrite” turns a short and simple story into a long and complicated one. The original is still found in the beginning and the ending. But in between we find this long, convoluted, confusing dialogue. It makes it a more challenging book to read and to understand, but this book is so much richer, deeper, and truer to life than it would have been without the effort of whoever it was who rewrote it.
If you open Job looking for an answer to the problem of suffering, you are going to be frustrated. No clear, simple, sensible answer is ever given. But what is given through this endless dialogue between Job and his comforters is the answer that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work to say that we get what we deserve. Because Job didn’t get what he deserved. Blameless, righteous, perfect Job, who rises early each morning to pray for his kids who may have sinned while he slept, is hardly one who has brought on his own sufferings.
Often we do. Often conventional wisdom is right. It usually is. It’s usually true that if we work hard and live right and treat other people well, things will turn out well for us. It’s usually true that if we are lazy, selfish, and cruel we will suffer the consequences. It’s true often enough that I would really encourage you to work hard, live right, and treat other people well. The odds are in your favor if you do so! But don’t expect that living right is going to guarantee that things will turn out well for you. Things didn’t turn out very well for Job. Things don’t turn out very well for lots of other good and innocent people. Like little Bristol. Her father wrote her this letter:
My dear Bristol,
Before you were born I prayed for you. In my heart I knew you would be a little angel. And so you were.
When you were born on my birthday, April 17, it was evident that you were a special gift from the Lord. But how profound a gift you turned out to be! More than the beautiful bundles of gurgles and rosy cheeks – more than the first-born of my flesh, a joy unspeakable – you showed me God’s love more than anything else in all creation. Bristol, you taught me how to love.
I certainly loved you when you were cuddly and cute, when you rolled over and sat up and jabbered your first words. I loved you when the searing pain of realization took hold that something was wrong – that maybe you were not developing as quickly as your peers, and then when we understood it was more serious than that. I loved you when we went from hospital to clinic to doctor looking for a medical diagnosis that would bring some hope. And of course we always prayed for you – and prayed – and prayed. I loved you when one of the tests resulted in too much spinal fluid being drawn from your body and you screamed. I loved you when you moaned and cried, when your mom and I and your sisters would drive for hours late at night to help you fall asleep. I loved you with tears in my eyes when, confused, you would bite your fingers or your lip by accident, and when your eyes crossed and then went blind.
I most certainly loved you when you could no longer speak, but how profoundly I missed your voice! I loved you when your scoliosis started wrenching your body like a pretzel, when we put a tube in your stomach so you could eat because you were choking on your food, which we fed you one spoonful at a time for up to two hours per meal. I managed to love you when your contorted limbs would not ease the changing of your messy diapers – so many diapers – ten years of diapers. Bristol, I even loved you when you could not say the one thing in life that I longed to hear back – “Daddy, I love you.” Bristol, I loved you when I was close to God and when God seemed so far away, when I was full of faith and when I was angry at him.
And the reason I loved you, my Bristol, in spite of these difficulties, is that God put this love in my heart. This is the wonderful nature of God’s love, that he loves us even when we are blind, deaf, or twisted – in body or in spirit. God loves us even when we can’t tell him that we love him back.
My dear Bristol, now you are free! I look forward to that day, according to God’s promises, when we will be joined together with you with the Lord, completely whole and full of joy. I’m so happy that you have your crown first. We will follow you someday – in his time.
Before you were born I prayed for you. In my heart I knew that you would be a little angel. And so you were!
I hope modern day equivalents of Job’s comforters didn’t show up at that family’s doorstep to explain why Bristol suffered and why Bristol died. There is no explanation that makes any sense. And certainly there is no explanation that will take away that family’s pain. There’s a time for explanation. There’s a time for consolation. There’s a time for just being there and not saying a word. Just letting the person know that you care.
Bristol’s dad maintained his faith. Not everyone does. But did you notice that even Bristol’s dad mentions in this letter times when God seemed far away and when he felt angry with God? I’m guessing there were a lot of those times. There were for Job.
I’m going to read what Job said at one of those times. With all these “comforters” who were making things worse, not better, Job cried out:
God has no right to treat me like this – it isn’t fair! If I knew where on earth to find him, I’d go straight to him. I’d lay my case before him face-to-face, give him all my arguments firsthand. I’d find out exactly what he’s thinking, discover what’s going on in his head. Do you think he’d dismiss me or bully me? No, he’d take me seriously. He’d see a straight-living man standing before him; my Judge would acquit me for good of all charges. But I travel East looking for him – I find no one; then West, but not a trace; I go North, but he’s hidden his tracks; then South, but not even a glimpse (23:2-9 MSG).
In other words, God isn’t there. I search for him, and I cannot find him. When I need him most, God is nowhere to be found. It’s important to remember this: Feeling abandoned by God is not the same as being abandoned by God. Feelings can deceive us. Feelings can lead us astray. Especially when we are feeling really down and discouraged. It’s only natural at times like that for it to feel as if God doesn’t care. Even to feel as if God isn’t there. At times like this, it’s important to doubt your doubts. It’s important to hunker down and ride out the storm without giving up your faith in God.
But here’s some good news. Here the grace of God. Even when we do give up on God, God doesn’t give up on us! God understands. We aren’t going to hurt God’s feelings. God isn’t like one of us who might get offended and say, “After all I’ve done for you, and you treat me like this! I’m done with you!” We might say that. God never does. God never will.
We need to do all we can to hold onto our faith, not because God will get angry if we don’t. But because we will have an even harder time of it, without faith. Our faith isn’t something God needs. It’s something we need. Faith helps us get through the storms of life and safely to the other side.
Now here’s today’s main point: Faith does not have to have all the answers. Faith does not require that everything make sense. Faith does not insist that God explain to us what on earth he’s doing. Faith is Job in anguish but still able to say, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” (13:15 KJV.)
Job actually has a lot in common with Jesus. Both were righteous, both suffered, both asked why. Remember Jesus on the cross? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) But neither Job nor Jesus actually is forsaken by God. They both remind us that God is with us even when we cannot imagine how God possibly could be with us.
Job and Jesus both remind us of the wisdom in that old prayer some of you have framed and hanging on a wall. The words of the prayer are normally printed on the background of a picture of footprints in sand. “God, I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why in times when I needed you most, you should leave me.” And God’s answer: “My precious, precious child. I love you, and I would never, never leave you during your times of trial and suffering. When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
God, you’ve given us incredible minds that we can use in wonderful ways for your service. But one way our minds often get in the way is our insistence that everything has to be explained to us, everything has to make sense to us, nothing can be trusted that our minds cannot comprehend. God, there is no way we can comprehend your love for us, every moment of every day. And yet we can trust that love. Help us to trust you in all things, especially the hard things. In Jesus’ name, Amen.