Here’s this weekend’s sermon on Job. Two notes so this makes sense. I’ve always thought the beautiful poetry of the Book of Job hides the scandal of Job’s emotions and masks the piety of his friends. For that reason, in this sermon, I rewrote the friends’ dialogue to make it sound more contemporary. Additionally, I asked two actors to reenact the dialogues during the course of the sermon. Thanks to Bailey and Elliott!
Many months ago, around supper time, I was in the Emergency Room, standing behind the paper curtain, holding a mother, who wasn’t much older than me, as she held her dead little boy, who wasn’t much older than my boys.
She wasn’t crying so much as gasping like you do when you’ve sunk all the way to the bottom of the deep end and have just come up for air.
She was smoothing her boy’s cow lick with her hand.
Every so often she would shush him, as though if she could just calm him down she might convince him to come back.
It was Opening Day. That afternoon my boys and I had gone to see the Nats lose to the Braves.
I still had my hat on and popcorn crumbs in my sweater and mustard stains on my pants. I didn’t look like pastor or a priest.
So when the mother got up and went into the hallway to try and get a hold of her husband and left me with her boy and when the chaplain stepped in to the room and saw the hat on my head and the mustard stains on my clothes and the tears in my eyes, she didn’t think I was a pastor or a priest.
She just thought I was part of the boy’s family.
She put her hand on my shoulder and, after a few moments, she said to me: ‘It’s going to be alright.’
‘What?’ I said, stunned.
I’ve been a pastor for 11 years.
And in that time I can’t tell you how many ER’s and funeral homes I’ve been in, how many hospital bedsides and gravesides I’ve stood at and heard well-meaning Christians say things they thought were comforting but were actually the opposite.
I know people in this congregation who’ve been told- by other people in this congregation- that God must’ve given them cancer as punishment or to bring them closer to God.
I know people here who’ve been told by well-intentioned Christians that their spouse’s or their child’s death must be part of God’s plan.
I know people who’ve written God off entirely because some Christian tried to console them with talk of ‘God’s will.’
Most of us- we don’t know what to say when there’s nothing to say.
Job loses every one of his children. He loses his health, his last dime and maybe even his marriage.
For days Job is mute with disbelief.
But when Job finally does speak, his friends aren’t ready for the pain he voices. They can’t go there.
“God, I wish to Hell I’d never been born! My life would’ve been better if I’d died in my mother’s womb. Why did God give knees for me to rest on or a mother to nurse me if God was just going to do this to me now?”
Anger is almost always what follows grief’s numbed silence.
Yet, ironically, anger is probably the most taboo emotion among Christians.
Because anger doesn’t just claim that this situation is painful, anger claims that this situation isn’t right– that what has happened should not have happened.
That kind of anger can be frightening because it calls our assumptions about God into question.
So when we’re confronted by that kind of raw, righteous anger very often our reflex is to make it stop. To silence it.
That’s how Eliphaz reacts to Job.
“I’ve been praying for what to say to you, and the Lord finally put the right words on my heart.
Have you forgotten everything you used to tell others?
You were the one to encourage people in grief. You’re the one who talked about comfort and hope. But now it’s your turn, now you’re the victim, and…what?
That’s not you. Where’s your faith?
I know you think you’re a good person and you don’t deserve what’s happened to you, but remember what scripture says: ‘we’re all sinners and fall short of the glory of God.’
I understand how you feel, but this isn’t like you: to be angry at God. Have you listened in on God’s calls and come away with his plans? What do you know that we don’t?
You know what scripture says: “God’s ways are not our ways.”
God works in mysterious ways. We can’t understand why God took them from you; we can only take comfort in knowing your kids are with him right now in heaven.
Remember what Jesus says: ‘I go to prepare a place for you in my Father’s house.’ Maybe…maybe it was just their time to go home to HIM.
Don’t throw away your faith now when it could really help you.
If I were you- I’d put that anger into prayer instead. Throw yourself at God’s mercy. Look to him for help and he’ll answer all your prayers. I know it.“
Job: “If my sorrow were put on a scale, it would outweigh the sands of the ocean. And now you have turned against me too.
My anguish frightens you. But show me how my feelings, MY feelings, can be wrong? Can’t I tell right from wrong? If I’d sinned, if I’d done something to deserve this, wouldn’t I know it?
God has broken my heart and now I can’t even speak honestly with my friend.
You’d rather argue away my despair. I’ve heard enough of your ‘consolations.’
Eliphaz is genuinely concerned for Job, but at the heart of what he says is fear. He’s afraid not just of what’s happened to Job; he’s afraid of Job.
Part of what’s troubling about Eliphaz is how it’s not clear at all who he’s trying to comfort: Job or himself.
Anyone who’s been with someone whose grief is raw and immediate, whose despair seems to open onto an abyss, anyone who’s been in that situation, knows the temptation to put a lid on it.
Because Eliphaz is so uncomfortable with what Job says, he presumes to speak for Job. He puts words in Job’s mouth and tells himself he’s just helping Job find his true voice.
Eliphaz reminds Job of who Job used to be, the beliefs Job used to have, so that Eliphaz doesn’t have to deal with who Job is right now.
The words he puts in Job’s mouth are cliches. Platitudes.
Whatever your intentions, when you speak in one-size-fits-all platitudes, when you say:
God has a plan.
God’s ways are not our ways.
God never gives us more than we can handle.
With God all things are possible.
God must’ve needed him or her in heaven.
It’s going to be alright.
When you speak like that to someone who’s suffering, what you’re really doing is signaling to them what’s out of bounds:
what they can say and what they cannot say
what feelings they can express and what they absolutely must not express.
You censor their grief, and you make it worse.
And so when there’s nothing else to say, do not resort to one-size-fits-all platitudes. Because just like one-size-fits-all clothes, they never fit.
Bildad, Job’s second friend, is less concerned about finding words that fit Job’s situation and more concerned with fitting Job into his belief system.
“God, I wish to Hell I’d never been born!
“Be sensible. Stop. Stop ranting and stop filling our ears with this nonsense.
Should the laws of creation- the laws of God– all be changed for your sake?
God protects the righteous and punishes the wicked. The bible said it; I believe it, and that’s that. Maybe you are innocent. Maybe you don’t deserve the pain you’re in, but can you really be sure that your kids didn’t do anything to deserve what they got?
Look, I know it’s terrible now. But if you just give it over to the Lord, commit yourself to HIM, you will get over this. God never gives us more than we can handle.
In fact, you should use this as an opportunity for the Lord to teach you something. It’s like the bible says: ‘we should rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.’
See this as a chance to grow closer to God. That’s what will get you through this- not shaking your fist at the sky.”
How kind you are to me! How considerate of my pain! What would I do without a friend like you? And the good advice you’ve given me?
Who made you so tactful? And inspired you with such compassionate words?
I know: God’s workings are mysterious. But don’t make my suffering worse with your beliefs.
Tell me, who’s done this to me if not God? Why do you have to hurt me now too with your answers?
You honestly think I’ll get over this? I’ll get past this?
You want to know what really makes me shudder? That you don’t understand me at all and aren’t willing to try.
You can say whatever you want to excuse God, but I will never agree with you.
It’s easy to write Bildad off as insensitive.
But we’re kidding ourselves if we think Bildad is the only person to believe that there’s a reason behind our suffering.
We’re kidding ourselves if we think Bildad’s the only person to assume that God causes our suffering to teach us a lesson or to punish us.
And Bildad is hardly the only person who would back that up with scripture, chapter and verse.
But hear me: to think God causes suffering to punish you for your sin does in a very profound way nullify the cross.
Because in Jesus Christ we see that the way God punishes sin is to suffer it in our place.
It’s true that you can learn and grow from suffering but that is not the same thing as saying God makes you suffer to teach you a lesson.
When St Paul writes that “suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” that’s Paul reflecting on his own experience.
That’s different than taking Paul’s words and imposing them on someone else’s experience.
For Bildad there’s a disconnect between what he thinks he knows about God and how Job describes his experience.
So Bildad feels the need to correct Job’s experience, to explain and give answers for it.
But if love, as Jesus says, is laying down your life for another, then that also means love is a willingness to lay down your assumptions for a friend- to care more about them than your understanding of how God or the world works.
What do you say when there’s nothing to say?
Instead of saying ‘God must be teaching you a lesson’ how about saying ‘You have something to teach me. Tell me what you’re going through. I want to learn what you’re feeling. There’s nothing you could say that will frighten or offend me.’
Zophar, Job’s final friend, has a certainty that masks a possibility too frightening to consider.
“God, I wish to Hell I’d never been born!
“I’ve heard enough.
How can you be so blind? You say you’re innocent. You don’t deserve this, but how can you understand God or fathom HIS wisdom?
We’re finite and HE’s infinite. We can’t see things the way God can see them.
I know how you feel now. But you’ve got to believe God has a plan, a plan for every one of us.
I know it can be hard to see now, but everything happens for a reason. God’s behind everything. Nothing’s accidental. Nothing’s random.
If I were you, I’d open my heart to God and trust that one day you’ll understand why God’s done this.”
“It seems you know everything. It must make you feel better for there to be an answer for everything.
But I’m not an idiot. Who doesn’t know such things?
Even a child knows that the whole world is in God’s hands.
But your comfort is hollow. Would you say anything to get God off the hook? Is your piety more important than your friend?
Don’t think God won’t judge you for your empty lies.
If God has a reason for what’s happened to me then I deserve to know it. God may kill me for my words but at least I’m speaking the truth.”
I’d bet 3/4 of you at some time or another have said something like: ‘God has a plan for____________.’
And even if you’re never uttered that at the wrong time, you believe it. You think it’s true- that God has a plan for each of us.
Notice, both Job and Zophar think its true.
Both of them believe Job’s suffering is a part of God’s larger plan. Zophar just assumes that means Job deserves what’s happened to him and Job knows that he doesn’t.
But both of them assume a world of tight causality, a world without randomness, a world where everything is the outworking of God’s will.
And maybe Job and Zophar (and you and me)- maybe we assume that because the opposite is too frightening.
Maybe it’s frightening to think that our lives are every bit as vulnerable and fragile as they can sometimes feel.
Maybe it’s too frightening to think that the question ‘Why?’ has no answer.
Maybe it’s too scary to admit that things can happen to us with out warning, for no reason and from which no good will ever come.
It’s understandable that we’d want there to be a plan for each of us, (as though we were characters on Lost) but the logical outcome to that way of thinking makes God a monster.
Pay attention. Write this down.
God doesn’t have a plan for your life.
You’re not just an actor in a life that’s already been scripted.
God does not will suffering in your life because it fits into his cosmic blueprints for you.
Because God’s Plan, what God Wills, is for you in freedom to choose to love God and with your life give him glory- which you could never do if every moment of your life was predetermined and micromanaged.
What do you say when there’s nothing to say?
For God’s sake, don’t say God has a plan.
Try saying ‘there’s no way God wants this for you any more than I do.’
The chaplain in the ER lifted her hand from my shoulder when I glared at her and said: ‘What?’
She blushed and apologized. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to say’ she said.
But I wasn’t in the mood for sorry. I wiped my eyes and said: ‘When his mother comes back in here, don’t. say. anything.’
At first Job’s friends do the exact right thing. They just sit in silence with their friend and grieve with him. The trouble starts when they open their mouths.
And the scary thing for us?
What’s scary is that at the end of the Book of Job, 38 chapters later, after Job has cursed the day he was born, cursed God, questioned God’s justice, complained about God’s absence, accused God of abuse, and indicted God for being no better than a criminal on trial- at the end of the book, when God finally shows up and speaks, Job isn’t the one God condemns.
It’s Job’s well-meaning, religious friends.
I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that in our attempts to comfort and answer and explain sometimes we push people away from God.
And I’ve stood at enough gravesides and bedsides to know: that the only thing worse than suffering with no reason, no explanation, is suffering without God.
And for that reason, here’s my last piece of advice: when there’s nothing to say, say nothing.