A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on October 14, 2012.
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Today we continue a four-week journey through the Old Testament book of Job. Last week I asked you to imagine a world where righteousness is always rewarded and wickedness is always punished. I said that’s the kind of world Job lived in, or at least that’s the way it would appear. Job was a righteous man. As the author says on more than one occasion, he was “blameless and upright, a man who feared God and turned away from evil.” He was also a wealthy man. He had 7,000 sheep and 3,000 camels; he had 500 donkeys, 500 yoke of oxen; he had 7 sons, and 3 daughters. He was, as the author says, “the greatest man in the East.” But that didn’t keep him from being righteous. He would regularly offer sacrifices on behalf of his children, just in case they had committed some secret sin. “And this is what Job always did,” the author says. He was a righteous man. He was a rich man. You could easily assume that those things went together, that he was rich because he was righteous, and in fact, that’s what everybody seems to assume.
Satan assumes it. When God says, “Have you considered my servant Job, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and turns away from evil?” Satan says, “Well, why wouldn’t he? You’ve rewarded him for it! Every time he says his prayers you give him another camel or donkey. Who wouldn’t be righteous under those circumstances? But I’ll just bet that if you took all that away from him he would curse you to your face.” And, as you will recall, God gives Satan permission to do it, to take everything away from Job except his life and health. Satan does, and he does it all at once. In a single day Job loses everything, and yet he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave. The Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. “In all of this (the author says), Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.”
Job’s wife assumes it. When Satan comes before the Lord the next time the Lord says, “Have you considered my servant Job, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and turns away from evil? He still persists in his integrity even after all that you have done to him.” But Satan says, “Skin for skin! A man will give almost anything to save his own life. Let me hit him again, harder, and he will curse you to your face.” And God gives him permission, and almost overnight Job is covered with loathsome sores, from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. He ends up sitting on an ash pile, scraping himself with a piece of broken pottery, the most wretched picture of humanity you can imagine. And although we don’t really know what is going on in his wife’s heart when she says, “Curse God and die,” you get the feeling there’s not a lot of sympathy there, that she assumes Job must have done something to deserve all this.
Job’s friends assume it. When they hear about his troubles Job’s friends—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite—come to see him, and when they see him sitting there on that ash heap their hearts break. Job, the richest man in the East, has been reduced to almost nothing. At first they do not even recognize him. They raise their voices and weep. They tear their robes and sprinkle dust on their heads. And they sit with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one speaks a word to him, for they see that his suffering was very great. That was the best thing they could have done, actually. It’s the best thing almost anyone can do when confronted by grief and pain—not try to make everything OK by our words, but to sit in silence with those who are hurting, to remind them by our own presence that God is present, and that they are not alone. For seven days that’s what these friends did for Job, but eventually the silence was broken. Job himself says that he wishes he had never been born. Which gives his friends an opening to respond and, one by one, they do, reminding Job that they live in a world where the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer.
But maybe that’s not what this story is trying to teach us. Maybe it’s trying to teach us just the opposite: that we don’t live in a world where righteousness is always rewarded and wickedness is always punished, but a world where the righteous sometimes suffer, and the wicked often live like kings. In fact, as you read through the arguments of Job’s three friends the irony becomes more and more pronounced. There they are at first, trying to suggest that maybe, just maybe, Job has committed some small sin and that’s why he’s suffering. Eliphaz the Temanite starts off by saying, “If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended?” But twenty chapters later he’s saying, “Is not your wickedness great? There is no end to your iniquities! For you have exacted pledges from your family for no reason, and stripped the naked of their clothing. 7You have given no water to the weary to drink, and you have withheld bread from the hungry.” In other words, Job, you are getting exactly what you deserve. And that’s when we come to our text for today, from Job 23:1-9, 16-17:
Then Job answered: 2“Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. 3Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! 4I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. 5I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. 6Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. 7There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge. 8“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; 9on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him…. 101516God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; 17If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face! (NRSV).
Back in 1981 Rabbi Harold Kushner published a little book that became an overnight bestseller. It was called, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” A title can make all the difference, can’t it? Notice that he didn’t call it, “When Bad Things Happen to Bad People,” or, “When Good Things Happen to Good People,” or even, “When Good Things Happen to Bad People,” but, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” There’s something about that title that makes you want to snatch that book right off the shelf. It stirs up your sense of justice, makes you say, “That’s just not right!” Because on some level we all believe that good things should happen to good people and bad things should happen to bad people and when they don’t we don’t know what to believe. What’s at stake here, in a very real sense, is our faith.
When we were children we were taught to pray: “God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food,” but when bad things happen to good people we begin to wonder: “If God is so great why doesn’t he do something? If God is so good why doesn’t he seem to care?” Theologians call this “The Problem of Evil,” and Frederick Buechner frames it in an unforgettable way. He says: “God is all-powerful. God is all-good. Terrible things happen.” He says we can reconcile any two of those propositions with each other but not all three. When terrible things happen we can either conclude that God is good but not very great, and therefore can’t do anything to stop them, or that God is great but not very good, and therefore may, himself, be the cause of them. Or we can do what some people do and simply deny the existence of evil altogether, but that doesn’t really work either, does it? Is there another answer?
Last week I asked you to imagine a world where the righteous are always rewarded and the wicked are always punished. This week let me ask you to imagine another kind of world: the world you would create if you were God. British philosopher John Hick used to say that when most people do this they tend to think of a “hedonistic paradise” (like some of those all-inclusive resorts you can go to in the Caribbean). That’s the kind of world they would make: a place where it’s all pleasure and no pain. And to the degree that this world doesn’t meet those expectations they assume that God is either not loving enough or not powerful enough to create such a world.[i] The Scottish philosopher David Hume used to imply that God—as an architect—was not a very good one. He said, “If you lived in a house where the windows, doors, fires, passages, stairs, and the whole economy of the building were the source of noise, confusion, fatigue, darkness, and the extremes of heat and cold, you would have no hesitation in blaming the architect.”[ii]
I have to say: I like the idea of a hedonistic paradise, and if I were creating a world for myself that is almost certainly the kind of world I would create. But if you had asked me 25 years ago to come up with an ideal world for my children it wouldn’t be that kind of world at all. I wouldn’t want them lounging by the pool all day, drinking fruity cocktails out of coconut shells! I might dream up something that was a cross between a Christian academy and Scout camp. I would want my children to be smart, and to have skills! Or, think of it like this: a playpen is a good place for a baby. It’s safe and comfortable. You can fill it with her favorite toys. It’s fine when she’s 21 months, but not when she’s 21 years! It’s certainly not what I wanted for my girls. Even though it was hard for me to let them grow up, even though some part of me wanted them to stay tiny and adorable forever, when they crossed the street for the first time by themselves I was proud. I watched, with my heart in my throat, while they waited for the green light, looked both ways (twice!), and then started across the intersection. When they got safely to the other side I nearly burst with pride. “Look at that!” I said. “My little girl is growing up!” Imagine that what I wanted for my girls then is what God has always wanted for us: he wants us to grow up. And so, instead of putting us in the world’s safest playpen, he has put us in a world like this, where bad things can and sometimes do happen to good people.
You might argue that it didn’t start that way and it won’t end that way. The Bible tells us that life began for man in a kind of paradise, and Jesus tells the thief on the cross that that’s where it will end. But in between those two extremes we find ourselves in a world the poet John Keats described as “a vale of soul-making.” This is the kind of world where souls can be made, where character can be formed. If what God wants us to do, ultimately, is “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15), then this is the kind of world where that can happen. And if all we ever saw was a little suffering—just enough to build some Christian character, enough to make us better people—we could probably accept that answer. But more often than we care to remember we have seen suffering that goes way beyond that, and Job is a good example. Do you really have to crush a man to teach him a lesson? Do you have to take away everything he has?
I’ve watched people struggle with cancer—good people, godly people. They were already mature Christians when they were diagnosed. If we assume that God inflicts suffering upon us to help us grow up these are not the kind of people he would choose to inflict. I have to believe something else. I have to believe that we live in a world that has cancer in it, and it’s not that God inflicts some people with cancer and not others but simply that cancer happens, and that it can happen to anyone, and that when it does you begin to see very quickly what those people are made of. They are made of flesh and bone, first of all. They are mortal, which means that they are “subject to death.” But they are also made of stronger stuff—of faith and hope and courage that defy the circumstances of their lives. They keep on believing even when their loved ones tell them to “curse God and die,” even when their best friends ask, “What did you do to deserve this?” They might come to a place where they give up believing that God is going to make them well but they don’t give up believing in God. And when you’ve been in the presence of such people—wow!—there’s something holy about it, as if they had already been to the other side, and caught a glimpse of how things are going to be, and somehow found peace with it all. Their faces begin to shine. They start comforting you instead of the other way around.
That’s the kind of world we live in. It’s not a world where the righteous are always rewarded and the wicked always suffer. Sometimes it seems to be just the opposite of that. And it’s not a world designed for our hedonistic pleasure—a tropical paradise where we lie by the pool sipping fruity cocktails forever. It’s a world where we can grow up, where souls can be made, and maybe that’s the point of it all. Maybe what God wants for his children even more than pleasure is joy. And maybe he knows that the way to joy is not around suffering, but through it. This is the way the author of Hebrews puts it: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him…so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” (Heb. 12:2-3).
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
[i] John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1966, 1977), p. 257.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.