Today I’m using a reading from the book of Job, the beginning of chapter 38. It actually appears in the lectionary in October, but I can’t wait! I can almost hear you saying, “Job. Oh goody! That’s my favorite one in the Bible!” It might seem strange, but I love the book of Job. There are all kinds of good stuff to be found in it.
Obviously, in speaking of “good stuff,” I’m not talking about the numerous disasters that are visited upon our title character!
There is chapter after chapter of beautiful poetry. The poetry is bracketed by prose narrative at the beginning and at the end. This narrative is thought by many to come from an ancient legend—the story of a man who was wealthier than anyone else in the land.
But more than that, he was “blameless”; he “turned away from evil” (1:1). He was a good and righteous man. In fact, he was so righteous he would offer sacrifices to God just in case his children had done something wrong!
Of course—just his luck—an argument breaks out in heaven, and the Lord points him out to the Accuser. This creature is “the satan.” He isn’t yet considered to be the evil Satan of later centuries. A bet is made that Job can be forced to curse God. (I don’t think I would want any part of that wager!)
He loses all of his wealth, then his children, and finally, he loses his health. We are told “that his suffering [is] very great” (2:13).
Does he break? Does he curse God? According to the scriptures, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10). Understand, there’s no comment on what must have been going through his head! As we see in the poetic chapters, Job does have some questions. He has plenty of questions—plenty of soul-baring, agonizing questions!
If the saying, “the patience of Job,” applies to the Job we meet in the prose section, it definitely does not apply to the one we meet in the poetry. This Job is anything but patient!
Job still has some friends, though: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. They have traveled a great distance to exercise what we might call the “ministry of presence,” albeit with mixed results.
(On a side note, understanding that some here in the congregation have an interest in science, I wonder if that reaches to archaeology? I mention that because of some recent discoveries. Among them was a surprisingly well-preserved fragment of pottery. It seems to have belonged to Zophar himself. Etched on it is Zophar’s second name. Apparently, it was “Zogood.”)
Actually, for Job’s friends, it really is “so far, so good”: at least, regarding their behavior. They’re doing a very difficult thing. They’re actually being there with their friend in the midst of his pain. Anyone who’s simply been with a suffering friend or family member knows that it isn’t fun. It requires a sacrifice of self.
It isn’t until they open their mouths and start giving advice that Job calls them “miserable comforters” (16:2).
Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar can’t understand how their decent and honorable friend is forced to undergo the tragedies that have come his way. And they can’t understand how their decent and honorable friend is asking the questions they hear. After all, everyone knows the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished.
“So Job, you must have done something wrong. Why don’t you just repent? All of this terrible stuff will go away!” Job’s friends have to say that, because the way they look at God, and at life itself, is being challenged. And they aren’t able, or willing, to question themselves.
Questions sometimes associated with the book of Job are, “What is the origin of evil?” or, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Why do bad things happen to good people? We’ve all asked that question: maybe not with those exact words, but the unfairness of life inevitably occurs to every human being at some point, usually when we’re still quite young. I say it’s inevitable; it can’t help but happen, because we’re created in the image of God. And part of what that means is we have an innate, an inborn, sense of right and wrong. We have a sense of justice. How we act on it is an entirely different conversation.
If we approach the book of Job seeking the answer to that question—Why do bad things happen to good people?—we may come away feeling…unsatisfied. We never see one secret formula or one explanation that solves the puzzle. Instead, in today’s reading, what do we see when God begins to answer Job?
Things certainly are dramatic. We see that “the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind” (v. 1). The whirlwind, the storm, the tempest—aside from any literal meaning in the text, all of those are pretty good descriptions of what Job’s life has become.
As I just suggested, the answer might be unsatisfying. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me” (vv. 2-3). If I were Job, I don’t think I would like where this is going! “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (v. 4).
In his book on Job, Stephen Mitchell makes it sound even more abrupt. “Who is this whose ignorant words smear my design with darkness? Stand up now like a man; I will question you: please, instruct me. Where were you when I planned the earth? Tell me, if you are so wise.”
Job is presented with questions to which he either can’t possibly know the answer, or the answer is obviously “no.” Here’s a quick sample from later in the chapter: “Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (v. 19). “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?” (v. 31). “Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’?” (v. 35).
This goes on for four chapters.
Our poet seems determined to point out Job’s ignorance. There seems to be a concerted effort on demonstrating this whole business of the unknown.
So, does that mean Job is wrong in asking the questions?
In the final chapter, here’s what the Lord says to Eliphaz: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). Eliphaz and his friends have positioned themselves as the defenders of orthodoxy. They are the defenders of the faith, and there are some questions you just don’t ask! Apparently, the Lord disagrees.
Could it be that questioning faith, provided it’s not done in an insincere, disingenuous way, is actually a good thing? It must be so, that is, if we follow Jesus when he says in Mark 12 to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (v. 30).
Job asks some angry, demanding questions of God. And his friends are horrified. As I’ve suggested, if Job is the good, honest, even holy man they’ve known him to be, then something doesn’t compute. Their worldview begins to collapse; it’s in a state of free fall.
What about us? What about our questions? Have we been trained to not ask the anguished, soul-searching questions? Have we been told to not admit it, when honestly, we doubt some stuff, maybe a whole bunch of stuff? Has that defender of orthodoxy told us that to do so is wrong?
In her book, The Psalms for Today, Beth LaNeel Tanner talks about this kind of thing. These aren’t “the nice salutations contained in [our] Book of Common Worship… [She’s a Presbyterian; that’s why she mentions it.] How can we speak to God in such a disrespectful manner?”
She continues, “To speak honestly and demand that God come and do something, speaks volumes about the relationship between the one praying and God. If I dare to speak my fears and my greatest hurts, then I am also acknowledging the importance of this other to me and the power that this other has in my life… It is praise not because it is polite or politically correct, but because it is brutally honest and open.”
It is only the voice of faith that can ask those sacredly brutal questions. I think a lot of us here are in that category.
Job is the role model: loss of wealth, loss of children, loss of health—loss of identity. And loss of friends! There are friends who no doubt mean well, but you just want to say, “Please keep your opinions to yourself. I beg you. I don’t want to be harsh, but please, shut up!” Has anyone here ever felt that way—or sadly, been the one who needed to hear it?
Of course, questions need not be about suffering. When we ask questions with sincerity and love, we can be accountable the way a community of faith should be. We help to bear each other’s burdens. That especially happens when we don’t have the answers.
In fact, learning to ask the right question is often, if not usually, more important than having the right answer. Too often, the church is ready to give answers, but less ready to ask questions—and much less ready to simply listen. So I’ll pose some questions for us to consider, as we continue our journey together.
“What do you mean by that?” That’s one I’ve posed to Banu many times. I’m not trying to be obstinate or difficult; it’s just realizing the same word can mean different things to different people. We too often use labels as shortcuts into thinking we really know what the other person believes.
“How do we fail?” This brings us back to Job and his friends. Do we fail with dignity? Are we too defensive about our failures?
I’ll finish with a quote by Richard Rohr, in his reflection on Job. “When we are feeling overwhelmed by our guilt, on those days we feel inadequate, when our littleness and brokenness seem too much to live with, when we may even get to hating ourselves, that is when we should get in touch with the humble Job within all of us.
“When you are feeling abandoned, pick up Job’s book and speak Job’s prayers and know they have been prayed before and that we are part of a great history and we are all in this together. There are no feelings we feel that others have not felt before. At such times, in our prayer, we unite ourselves in solidarity with others who suffer and who have suffered before us.”
Don’t be afraid to ask the questions!
 Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992), 79.
 Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Psalms for Today (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 61.
 Tanner, 64.
 Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996), 93-94.