A sermon by David Raey
A child dies when hit by a car as he ran onto the road to retrieve a ball. He had been bouncing that ball on the footpath and it bounced off a crack and so veered into the road. Such a tragic event raises questions for us. Why didn’t that ball bounce just a millimetre the other way and so veer off harmlessly on the other side of the footpath and avoid the road? Why was that car coming down that relatively quiet street at just that time?
It all causes those who trust in the God of the Bible to wonder what God is up to? Can’t the one who made the universe cause a ball to bounce differently? Can’t the one we call all powerful manage to delay a car coming down a road?
Anyone who figures they have a simple answer to this is kidding themselves. It seems as if God does not give us a neat and easy answer to the problem of unfair pain and apparently random tragedy. The closest the Bible comes to a treatment of this is the story of JOB. And it is this story we look at today. Not in order to discover the once for all answer, but rather to see how one man found God in the midst of his suffering.
Job suffers terrible tragedy at the instigation of the evil one who reckons Job is just a believer in God because of all the goodies he imagines God has given him. So what if the goodies are taken away? Will he still cling to God? A good question for all of us. Is God a means to another end for us? Do we use him as some sort of guarantee of prosperity or health or success? Do we attach ourselves to him or to the blessings he bestows on us?
God allows Job to be tested in this way. Here and everywhere, God is not the source of evil, but it seems he allows evil to happen. The evil one still operates, but he is on a long leash.
Job seems to have lost everything. So he pours out his heart to God. He doesn’t hold back out of politeness or a fear of offending. Unlike his companions, he is not content to mouth orthodox clichés. A reminder to us that when life doesn’t seem to make sense, when things fall apart, it is appropriate for us to be honest to God. No need to censor our pain. Jesus certainly didn’t when he suffered on the cross.
And yet we read in this long book that he hadn’t entirely given up hope. He seems to be close to despairing hopelessness but then at another time he says he knows his redeemer lives. Again a reminder that in times of pain and suffering we don’t always think or act consistently. We can be on a roller coaster and our words might not make much sense. But we dare not wait until our words are logical, coherent, or sensible before we cry out to God. Give our confused thoughts and words to God and let him make sense of them.
Job cries out that God seems to be absent, that he is making no sense, that there seems no answers, no clarity. Very familiar feelings for many of us if we are honest. And these are not the cries of an aggressive atheist. They are the cries of one who believes that God is there, but wonders if he is there for him. They are the words of one who believes in God but who wonders what he is up to. His cries of protest are not the result of sinful rebelliousness or shallow faith, but come from a heart that struggles to trust God in the face of all that has happened.
It is so easy to succumb to cynical and weary unbelief when life turns against us. Or to the way of weary resignation, reducing faith to a mere formality, a hollow shell. And it is so easy to go the other direction and resort to pious pretence by drowning our pain beneath fine sounding platitudes meant to show the world we are on top of things. Job doesn’t jump from the frying pan of faith to the fire of unbelief. He holds on to God even if he can’t locate him right now.
As we will see shortly, Job’s companions wanted to offer explanations and answers. Job instead sought God. He doesn’t seem so much to lament his material losses but rather the loss of the sense of the presence of his God. For each of us, we can bear many things, but the utter absence of God would be utterly unbearable.
And so Job is yet a man of faith, not an easy or simplistic faith, but a faith that is still there when its object seems absent. A faith that is not shelter against difficulties but belief in the face of all contradictions.
Let’s face it, sometimes when we are in trouble those who seek to help us can be rather unhelpful. They might talk too much, meddle too much, offer solutions obvious to them but not to us, give simplistic advice which helps them rather than us. Welcome to Job’s world. This man had lost everything and was in anguish as he cried out to God. Three companions came to be with him and for a whole week they said nothing. So far so good. Then they opened their mouths and the problems began.
Silence is threatening and uncomfortable for us. We figure we must fill the silence with words. But if we are so compelled, we may end up saying the wrong words. Job’s companions’ attitude to Job’s situation was along the lines of…”We are sorry you are suffering, Job. But we think we have the answer and it lies in your own sinfulness. Fix up your sin problem and all will be well. And by the way Job, if you don’t accept our advice, it shows just what a sinner you are.”
Of course some suffering can be directly traced to wrong acts on our behalf. But in Job’s case, and in many instances in our own life, this is not so. In a rush to provide an answer, his companions have come up with the wrong answer. And in fact, they scarcely dialogue with Job at all. They simply offer seemingly rehearsed speeches without interacting with him much. Their minds are made up. So they cease to listen. And none of us can offer much in the way of helpful words to someone unless we have first listened to them.
We can do this sort of thing in order to make us feel better. We want to be people who fix the problem, who bring good cheer to a sad person and replace frowns with smiles and tears with laughter. But there are times when this is not appropriate. We are urged, after all, to weep this those who weep as well as rejoice with those who rejoice. We want to come up with explanations for suffering so as to make our own worlds more manageable. If a certain sin has causes this particular pain, then by avoiding that certain sin I can avoid that particular pain.
Whenever we come alongside those who are suffering, we do well to tell ourselves we are not there to solve the problem or explain the circumstances, or even defend God. Those who turn to us in their pain are not so much looking to us for answers but for companionship and empathy. We therefore have to enter into their pain to some degree and not be detached observers or solution providers.
People may ask us what God is doing or why a certain thing has happened. We may be tempted to think we have to come up with an answer. But there not be a clear answer. And besides, in such cases the question is not primarily an intellectual appeal for information but a cry of pain. And the response is not to rush in with an explanation but offer our own presence. And more daringly, offer our own limitations of understanding. Never be ashamed to admit that you really don’t know what is going on. Much better than pretending you do.
If we are to be wise helpers to others like Job we need to put certain questions to ourselves. Can we live with mystery and unanswered questions? Can we be silent and hold our tongues? Can we face and wrestle with our own pain and suffering, past or present? Only if we have affirmative answers to these questions can we hope to be helpers to those in the depths.
Our task as wise and godly helpers to those in the dark places is not to make the darkness go away. It is to be there in the darkness while yet reminding them of the light. We don’t play God to people. We rather bring God to people.
There are times in our lives when God seems to play hide and seek with us. A bit like the sun on a cloudy day. We get glimpses but then it is gone. And this is what makes faith such a challenge: trusting that God is present even when he seems absent. The man Job is seeking God in the midst of his pain. He sort of knows he is there, but seems to be silent.
But then after seemingly endless human speechmaking, God speaks. And when he does, it is in a surprising way. He offers no defense of his actions. He offers no explanation of the problem of unfair suffering. He offers no detailed rebuttal of what has gone on before. Yet it is as if the author of this drama has now taken centre stage and all the subsidiary performers are now sidelined.
What God does is to give Job a guided tour of the created world. In a firm yet loving way, Job is put in his place. Telling Job about the wonders of the hippopotamus or the crocodile or the mountain goats may not at first seem to be helpful. But remember that Job hasn’t sought explanations but rather sought an assurance that God was still around. God, by reminding Job of his creative power, answers that question.
It seems that this guided tour of creation is meant to restore perspective to Job. It helps him change his focus, to lift attention from merely the present painful situation into a wider and greater context. It is true that if we are in a tough situation, God may choose not change the situation but to change us. This does not ignore the painful reality but reminds us of a greater reality. Job’s pain was real and great. But God’s power is real and much greater.
Reflecting on the created world is one way we can remind ourselves of this greater reality. If God can create and sustain the universe, then he can surely look after me in my darkness. But we can not only reflect on the world but on what God has done in this world. Specifically, sending Jesus to live and die and rise again so we could be in friendship with him. If God has done this major thing for us, then can he not be trusted to do what else needs to be done in my life?
When we take off in an aircraft on a cloud ridden day, for a time we are immersed in the clouds and don’t have a clue where we are. But soon we burst through those clouds and emerge in bright and clear light. The sun, of course, has always been shining, but it is just that the clouds have hidden it.
The book of Job is one reminder that beyond the clouds there is light. The last word is not suffering, but the everlasting goodness of God. Our pain is real, but so too is the presence of God. This is no answer to the problem of pain, but it gives us solid ground to stand on in the midst of it.
The words of this old hymn sum things up well…
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.
Under the shadow of Thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
And our defence is sure.
Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.
A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while life shall last,
And our eternal home.