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God troubles Job

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10 January 2012

Why do the innocent suffer?  That is one question running through the book of Job.  Job was a good and prosperous man, who lost his family, property and health in sudden disasters.   Some tried to argue that the good do not suffer, so there must have been something wrong with Job to cause his troubles.  Job does not accept that and complains about a world that is unjust, where the wicked prosper, get bonus after bonus, and are never called to account.  His advisers argue there is justice in the long run – for example, if the wicked man gets away with it, his sons will cop it.  Job is not satisfied with that answer.

Job 21.19  ‘You say, God stores up their iniquity for their sons.  Let him recompense it to themselves that they may know it.’   Job wants the wicked to suffer appropriately, and to have to pay up, so that they have to acknowledge and feel the wrong they have done.

Job has a strong sense of the individual before God.   So he looks for God’s wrath to be directed in justice to the precise places where it is deserved.

But that is not the heart and source of his view.  His prime concern is not that the wicked should be punished.  He is wrestling with his own situation.

He knows he is innocent or better, righteous.  He will maintain that.

But he knows that in his trouble, it is God he is facing.   He cannot stand outside his trouble, so that he is free to ask, ‘Why should God allow this, or do this to me?’   He does not say, ‘I have troubles, God is responsible, how can God justify himself?’

He rather says,  ‘My bodily troubles are bad and depressing in the extreme, but they are not my real problem.   It is rather that troubled as I am, I am before God.  God comes to me in my troubles, so he is the troubler.  In my troubles, I get no peace, no comfort.  They are the form of God to me: he does not let me alone.  Troubled as I am, I cannot say, ‘This is merely an accidental, earthly, animal occurrence, it has no personal or spiritual meaning, so my spirit can serenely rise above the suffering to be with God.’

‘No, God is after me’, says Job, ‘he will not leave me alone’.   ‘In God’s hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind’  12.10.   This general truth is emphasised and illustrated extensively in the book of Job.  Job’s trouble is a  particular occurrence of this general truth, the way it works out for him.   There is no escape from God.   You think that is comforting news?  For Joh, it seemed to mean trouble with little hope of light and peace.  Job sometimes says he wants to speak with the Almighty and argue his case with him (13.3) but at other times, Job thinks the only hope is for God to leave him alone, so that he can find a few days of brightening up, before he goes ‘whence he will not return, to the land of gloom and deep darkness’ 10 20-22.    (This is one reason why even many religious people give up on God: they sense that God might come for us, as he came for Job.   We would like to make our case to God, to speak frankly with God and call God to account, but we do not have the freedom to do that.  Before we can speak with God, God must take the pressure off.  So Job sets out the conditions under which he will talk with God: ‘Withdraw your hand from me and let not dread of thee terrify me.  Then call and I will answer…’ 13.20-22.  But sometimes, God does not leave some people alone, to get on with their life without his hand on them in a troubling way.  7.11-21: why does God make so much of human being, visiting him every morning?   ‘Will you never take your eyes off me long enough for me to swallow my spittle?’)

It is on this basis that Job appeals to his friends, who torment him with their words  19.1  They should not do this.  They should understand that even if he has done wrong, his error remains with himself – 19.4.   They should leave him alone with his responsibility and not interfere, as though they can make themselves great by humiliating him  19.5.

This is a form of the argument of Romans 12.19-20, Lev.19.17-18: Leave vengeance to God and do not interfere or try to do God’s work for him Romans 14.4.   A major issue here is knowing how to practise this wisely: for there has to be some sort of judging enacted in society by human beings.   We tend now in our secular society to ignore God altogether, and so to make social, ie state judgment final and complete.  But it is still the same as it always has been:  the human enactment of justice is often incomplete and cannot be counted as final; it leaves the victim unsatisfied, so that they have to find some other help in moving on with their lives; it is often clumsy and mistaken, and does not do redemptive justice to the wrongdoer; and when it escalates its own cruelty in order to match the heinousness of the crime it strays from the service to humanity which is the basis of its authority.

So we need human judging, but it needs to act with humility within limits.  That is what Job asks his friends  to exercise: not to magnify themselves by being haughty assured critics who humiliate him.   Job does not pursue this argument by pointing out the limits of human justice (as I have done in the last paragraph) and asking his friends to limit themselves.  Human beings, especially once they are on their high horse, are not very good at limiting themselves.  Rather Job calls God into the argument.

He does not call God into the argument to defend him against his critics (God at the end of the book 42.7 appears like that) but rather Job asks them to limit their own critical humiliating endeavours  by taking note of God in the situation.  ‘Know then that God has put me in the wrong and closed his net about me’  19.6.   They can see Job is in trouble, and so they speak down to him, diagnosing his trouble and advising him – and all the time, they have not noticed or taken the measure of the most significant thing about Job’s trouble: God is there, not indeed as his helper or comfort but as the one who has ‘put him in the wrong’.

We should not think ourselves superior to Job’s friends for most of the time, we are not very good at noticing when God is there putting people in trouble.  Indeed good kind Christians today are as bad as other good people at not being able to imagine or feel that when people are in trouble,  they have been targeted by God and that the trouble is not to be understood except as the manner and the place of God’s coming close.   It is a terrible thing to think;  it is a dangerous way to think about people’s troubles.  Indeed part of the lesson of Job is that we should hesitate to interpret anyone else’s troubles in these terms.  But the other part of the lesson of Job is that as a human being I,  for myself, may, in the course of life, be led into troubles, and that as I live through the trouble, I discover that at its heart or alongside it, God is putting me in the wrong.   Then God becomes my real trouble.

Because Job’s friends could not interpret Job’s troubles in this way without putting themselves in the wrong, it is right that pastoral practice and spiritual direction in church does not work in these terms.   Our pastoral practice assures people that God is with them and for them;  it does not talk of God putting you in the wrong.   But it is one of the limits of the best pastoral practice that there are things it cannot and dare not say.   Job’s friends simply have to keep quiet.  Yet Job in trouble cannot be comforted with the one-sided cheerful pastoring.  Job has been picked out by God and there are dark places he must walk through, because God has  ‘walled up his way’  19.8.   The church that may not pastor in these terms can, at least, read Job, which most churches never do these days.   Without pointing the finger or interfering with other people’s relation with God, reading Job would cause us to be sensitive to strange but pressing dimensions of human living with God.   It would mean that as a community we did not build and promote a culture which blocks out the discoveries the righteous man Job made when God put him in the wrong.   Reading Job might help us to know better what we are given in Jesus Christ, who in his dying, cried out, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

Jesus took those words from Psalm 22, a very Job-like Psalm.  What it is to be abandoned, Job describes in 19.13-20.  His family and friends have turned against him – even young children despise him.  All that is the form and measure of his trouble.  Job asks his advisers who magnify themselves and humiliate him to notice his abandonment.   He asks them not to analyse his problem and tell him how to behave, but simply to ‘have pity on me, o you my friends’ 19.21.    Why should they have pity on him?  Because they want to be better than all his other friends, who have left him?  Because they remember they too are sensitive human beings and they would not like this to happen to them – Do as you would be done by?   These good reasons for decent behaviour are not what Job points them to. They should have pity on him, ‘because the hand of God has touched me.’

He brings them back to the key point:  Job’s trouble is with God.  It does not follow that his friends must help him to put right his relation with God.  Job’s relation with God has gone into territory where they have evidently never been.  And in any case, if God is touching Job it is not for them to interfere.   So Job asks. ‘Why do you, like God, pursue me?’  19.22.   Do you think God needs some assistance?   Do you want to get on winning side?’     No:  if you see the hand of God touching someone, know that it is not your business to pursue them.  You will add to their troubles, but you will not be doing the work of God.   Have pity.  Stay with them in silence.  Maybe you will get close to Job in his trouble and find yourself in trouble with God.

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