Sunday, 4 March 2012

Living with unanswered questions - Job's story

It’s not a modern problem.

It is an age-old problem.

It is a problem Jesus was all too aware of.

And it was something Jesus DID NOT ACCEPT!

Devout Jewish people who had sat at the feet of Jesus for some considerable time, the disciples GOT IT WRONG!

The story is told in John chapter 9.

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ 

The disciples look at someone who is blind from birth and they draw the conclusion that either he or his parents must have done something wrong in the sight of God for such a thing to have happened, either he or his parents must have sinned.

What Jesus says in reply is absolutely categorical.

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”

Tragically, through the thirty-five years of my pastoral ministry I have repeatedly met with people who have gone down with some kind of illness and they have linked what’s happened to them to what they must have done in the past.  Worse still, over all those years I have come across parents when faced with the illness of a child whatever form that illness takes who jump to the conclusion – they must have done something wrong.

So and so is suffering – therefore they or their parents must have sinned.

The guilt people suffer from as a result of that insight is immense and deeply troubling.

And it is what Jesus categorically rejects.

Why should it be such a strongly held idea among people who are often deeply devout Christian people.

I have a feeling they have fallen into the very trap the disciples fell into.

And it has to do with the way you read your Bible.

As we have read through the Torah, the books of the Law, and the books of the Prophets we have encountered a principle time and again.  It is powerfully enunciated as the Torah comes to a close in the Book of Deuteronomy and it becomes a recurring refrain throughout the former prophets of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings and is there implicitly in so many of the latter prophets.

Obey God and things will go well for the people of God
Disobey God and things will go badly.

As those propohetic historians sat in exile in Babylon and mulled over what had gone wrong for their people and what had landed them in this mess, this principle emerged from their study of the story of their people.

As a general principle it helps in seeing where the nation and its rulers have gone wrong.  It serves as a prompt to get people to turn once again to  God.

There is a danger in that principle, however.

There is a temptation to apply the general principle backwards in specific cases in the life of individuals.

Illness or untold suffering comes upon an individual, everything seems to be going wrong in their lives.  They must have sinned.

The remedy is gross – but all too readily applied – and occasionally I have heard a well-meaning but grossly hurtful Christian believer draw the conclusion – therefore if you repent of your sins and turn to God once again all will be well.

The disciples buy into that way of reading the Scriptures.

In saying ‘neither this man nor his parents sinned’ Jesus categorically rejects that way of reading the Scriptures.

And in doing that Jesus is being true to the Scriptures in a very Jewish way.

Notice how the disciples address Jesus in asking their question.  “Rabbi, who sinned …?”

The Rabbinic way of teaching involves asking questions.  A Jewish commentator on the radio only a couple of days ago made the quip, ask a Jew a question and they will reply with two more questions!

And Jewish rabbinic teaching asks questions of the Scripture.  The Scripitures Jesus was so steeped in, the Hebrew Scriptures we think of as the Old Testament are written by many different voices over many, many centuries.  Within those Scriptures we need to listen out for conversations and dialogues that go on.

Nowhere is that more apparent than when it comes to this burning issue in the Book of Job.

The Book of Job is the nearest you get to a full scale drama in the Bible.  Having helped write a musical on the life of St Paul, A Brand New Man, and the Passion Play, the next dramatic production that I sketched out in Open the Book sessions a few years ago is a drama based on the book of Job.  It’s contemporary with the arrival of Greek drama – and it has much the same kind of feel.

The first couple of chapters are as it were the prologue that set the scene in a larger-than-life story that I would present almost in vaudeville fashion.

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. 

While reading the whole of the Book of Job you must never lose sight of that verse.  That’s the whole point of the book.  Job is innocent, blameless, upright, God-fearing in every way.  There is not an ounce of evil in him.  A happy family man with unimaginably large numbers of livestock

this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.

The action shifts to the heavenly realm where God is confronted by the Satan Figure – this scene gives rise to a rich vein of thinking about God, the nature of Satan, do different from our western almost mediaeval pictures of ‘the devil’.  But play it for fun, don’t ask too many questions – because the purpose of this is simply to set the scene.

Suffice it to say, testing times come upon Job.  Immensely testing times.  He loses his wealth.  He loses his home.  He loses his family.  He loses his health.  But in the face of it all he holds the faith.  His wife longs for him to curse God and die.  He refuses.  And the final verse of the prologue in Job 2:10 leaves us in no doubt at all.

In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Then it is that the three friends, Job’s comforters, come on the scene.  And my play suddenly becomes dark, and intensely serious.

Then we have the bulk of the book.  It works just like Greek drama.

After a long pause.

Job speaks.

He is in abject despair.

‘Let the day perish on which I was born,
I have no rest; but trouble comes

Eliphaz, the first of the friends responds and the first conversation is under way.  The first conversation happens.  There are, as it were three cycles of conversations and dialogue, three acts.  In each act each friend in turn engages in conversation with Job.

It is a gross over-simplification of those three acts and of Job’s comforters – but basically they articulate the theology of the Torah and the Prophets, of Deuteronomy and of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.  It is the very theology that has such a grip on the disciples in that conversation with Jesus.

Their mistake is to apply it backwards.

That orthodox theology of the Law and the Prophets says

Obey God and all will go well.
Disobey God and all will fall apart.

You, Job, are suffering.  You must, therefore, have disobeyed God.  Eliphaz in chapter 4 puts it powerfully.

‘Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?
   Or where were the upright cut off? 
8 As I have seen, those who plough iniquity
   and sow trouble reap the same. 
9 By the breath of God they perish,
   and by the blast of his anger they are consumed. 

Throughout the conversations Job plumbs the depths of despair, is in agonies of anguish – but he searches his soul and is adamant – he is upright, God fearing, he has not sinned.

There are wonderful moments of insight.

Job 19:25ff

O that my words were written down!
   O that they were inscribed in a book! 
O that with an iron pen and with lead
   they were engraved on a rock for ever! 
For I know that my Redeemer
   and that at the last he
 will stand upon the earth; 
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
   then in
 my flesh I shall see God, 
whom I shall see on my side,

   and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

        I know that my redeemer lives – and then in Job 28 a wonderful song to God’s presence in all things that is one of my all-time favourite passages in the Bible celebrating as it does mining and geology and the wonders of nature.

‘Surely there is a mine for silver,
   and a place for gold to be refined. 
Iron is taken out of the earth,
   and copper is smelted from ore. 
Miners put an end to darkness,
   and search out to the farthest bound
   the ore in gloom and deep darkness. 
They open shafts in a valley away from human habitation;
   they are forgotten by travellers,
   they sway suspended, remote from people. 
As for the earth, out of it comes bread;
   but underneath it is turned up as by fire. 
Its stones are the place of sapphires,
   and its dust contains gold. 

‘That path no bird of prey knows,
   and the falcon’s eye has not seen it. 
The proud wild animals have not trodden it;
   the lion has not passed over it. 

‘They put their hand to the flinty rock,
   and overturn mountains by the roots. 
They cut out channels in the rocks,
   and their eyes see every precious thing. 
The sources of the rivers they probe;
   hidden things they bring to light. 

‘But where shall wisdom be found?
   And where is the place of understanding? 
Mortals do not know the way to it,
   and it is not found in the land of the living. 
The deep says, “It is not in me”,
   and the sea says, “It is not with me.” 
It cannot be bought for gold,
   and silver cannot be weighed out as its price. 
It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
   in precious onyx or sapphire. 
Gold and glass cannot equal it,
   nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold. 
No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;
   the price of wisdom is above pearls. 
The chrysolite of Ethiopia cannot compare with it,
   nor can it be valued in pure gold. 

‘Where then does wisdom come from?
   And where is the place of understanding? 
It is hidden from the eyes of all living,
   and concealed from the birds of the air. 
Abaddon and Death say,
   “We have heard a rumour of it with our ears.” 

‘God understands the way to it,
   and he knows its place. 
For he looks to the ends of the earth,
   and sees everything under the heavens. 
When he gave to the wind its weight,
   and apportioned out the waters by measure; 
when he made a decree for the rain,
   and a way for the thunderbolt; 
then he saw it and declared it;
   he established it, and searched it out. 
And he said to humankind,
“Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
   and to depart from evil is understanding.”  
After three sets of questions Job’s comforters depart – and they have brought him not one ounce of comfort.

A fourth friend appears, Elihu and we arrive at the fourth Act.  The arguments are nuanced in beautiful ways but remain essentially the same.

Then it is that Job is left on his own.  And we reach the climax to the play.  Act 5.  Out in the elements Job becomes aware of God.  He encounters God – but God does not resolve any of the theological dilemmas the book has explored.  God plies Job with questions he has no answer for about the wonder of the world and its immensity.  In 38, 39, and 40 Job is brought as it were face to face with the God who is so much greater than anything any human can conceive of.

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 
‘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. 

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
   Tell me, if you have understanding. 
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
   Or who stretched the line upon it? 
On what were its bases sunk,
   or who laid its cornerstone 
when the morning stars sang together
   and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? 

‘Or who shut in the sea with doors
   when it burst out from the womb?— 
when I made the clouds its garment,
   and thick darkness its swaddling band, 
and prescribed bounds for it,
   and set bars and doors, 
and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
   and here shall your proud waves be stopped”? 

It is not in the orthodox theological arguments of those comforters that he has any consolation.  But it is in an encounter with the God who is full of mystery and immensity that Job discovers the possibility that it is not necessary to have all the answers, but possible to live with unanswered questions.

His attempt to ‘understand’ what’s happened and happening to him is to no avail.  What is important is simply to sense the presence of God and put all into God’s hands.

I first encountered the Book of Job in the New English Bible and love that translation of the final moments when Job reaches that point …


Then Job answered the Lord:
I know that thou canst do all things
And that no purpose is beyond thee.
But I have spoken of great things which I have not understood,
Things too wonderful for me to know.
I knew of thee then only by report,
But now I see thee with my own eyes.
Therefore I melt away,
I repent in dust and ashes.

The drama done – there is an epilogue.  You need it in such great drama.  And at the very end in my dramatisation the vaudeville returns as Job is restored, his livestock and family come back to life and he lives happily ever after.

Happy ever after endings don’t by any means work out in the real world.  And that is the point of the Book of Job.

With the book of Job and with Jesus let’s reject the mistaken orthodoxy of those three friends and those disciples.

In its place Jesus offers us his presence.  At his parting he offered his friends, and he offers us another Comforter, even the Spirit of truth who will be with us forever.  And that offer of another comforter was made at his last Supper, as it were the first in that chain of suppers that have been shared by Christian believers down through the centuries, that Lord’s Supper we are about to share.

Here we seek once more that presence of God in Christ that in the face of sometimes untold suffering enables us to live with unanswered questions.

1 comment:

  1. Their understanding was that suffering was caused by sin. Job was a great man who suffered. Away from the reasonings of his friends came the realisation that we do not really understand how the world works (ie suffering is not caused by sin in that sense).