How to get through times of pain, doubt, and uncertainty
This sermon based on the book of Job talks about living with assurance in times of pain, doubt, and uncertainty. The epitome of living in such times was Job. This book in the Bible deals with the hardest questions of the human condition but it doesn’t provide easy answers. Yet, I believe it’s a tremendous source of the wisdom we need for facing life’s ups and downs. In fact, the book of Job is found in the section of the Bible called “Wisdom Literature” because it provides us with the godly wisdom we need for facing life’s challenges.
Most of the wisdom literature from books like Proverbs makes the case for how living a good, moral life reaps great rewards spiritual and physical. If you are a good person, doing the right things life tends to go very well for you. Much of it sounds like if you live by the right formula everything is gravy. But this is not always the way life works. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes got inserted into this wisdom literature to remind us that sometimes bad things happen to good people despite their best efforts to be good and faithful.
Job’s story appears to have been in circulation for centuries before it ever got written down. Most of it is a long poem, like the great Greek classics of The Iliad and the Odyssey. Before its inclusion in the Bible, someone attached a prologue and an epilogue that are written in prose.
The proposition bet
Here’s a condensed version of the story. Once upon a time, there was a man named Job who lived in the land of Uz. He was a good person, blameless before God. And he prospered.
One day God gathers the supernatural beings and Satan is there. In the text, the word Satan doesn’t mean guy in a funny red suit and pitched-fork. It just means “accuser.” God asks, “Accuser, what have you been up to lately?”
“I’ve been walking the earth, checking out your people.”
God says, “Ah, have you considered my man, Job. He’s one righteous dude!”
Satan asks, “Does he fear you for nothing?” That is, you’ve made him prosper. Maybe he doesn’t really revere you, he only worships you because he gets stuff.” This is the big question that launches the narrative. Do we pay attention to God only because we want something from God, or is there something deeper that connects us? How do you answer that for yourself today?
The accuser says to God, “I’ll bet that if you pluck away his possessions, all the rewards for having lived a moral life, then Job will curse you to your face.”
God says, “Nah. No way. You’re on like Donkey Kong.”
Job’s terrible horrible no good, very bad circumstances
Suddenly the spigot turns off and all the blessings that had flowed to Job became a river flowing in reverse. All his stuff, his ranch, his animals, his house, gone. His children die in a windstorm. But Job does not curse God.
The accuser is like, “Okay. He lost his stuff, which happens to people all the time. What if you hit him where it really hurts? Attack his physical wellbeing, ruin his reputation, let his friends turn on him…have his wife turn on him.
So, all this horrible stuff happens to Job. Boils on his body, pain, and misery. He scrapes his flesh with broken shards of pottery. No one wants anything to do with him. His friends make things worse by telling Job that he is a bad person. They say, “We know that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. You are clearly being punished. God is punishing you for being a horrible person.” There is no situation so bad that someone adding a little guilt can’t make it hurt just a little bit more.
Better to sit with someone and say you don’t know than throw around platitudes
One of the key reasons the book of Job is in the Bible is to say yes. You obey God and pray and follow the way of life of being honest and fair and generous and hard-working, usually, good things are going to come your way. But not always. It’s not a mechanistic world where religion is a magical potion that gives you immunity from bad stuff. Bad stuff happens to good people. Good stuff happens to evil people. Jesus said, “The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.”
Job’s friends pose all these questions, throw around blame, and empty religious platitudes, like “Everything happens for a reason.” It comes across as hollow and evasive. After a few days, the friends can’t sit with Job in solidarity when bad stuff happens, they have to cast blame. The story does not favor this kind of approach. It’s better to sit with someone and be there rather than to throw around religious language. In 16:1 Job labels his friends, “miserable comforters.”
Job’s wife turns on him, too. Job 19:17 finds Job in lament, listing the things that have gone wrong and he says, “Even my breath is repulsive to my wife.” It’s a fun memory verse. But in Hebrew breath is the same word as spirit. The issue isn’t likely a case of simple chronic halitosis. The fact of his breathing repulses her. She despises him, believing he is rotten from the inside out. She asks him, “Why don’t you just curse God and die?” She was done.
Not so patient Job
There is an expression that talks about “the patience of Job.” I don’t think anyone who has read the story would describe him as patient. He complains a lot about his situation. He’s no steely-eyed stoic, silently absorbing the blows that came his way. He expresses his frustration in a melodramatic fashion even cursing the day he was born. But he refuses to curse God.
The showdown on a hill
So poor Job is saying to himself. I’m not going to curse God. I’ve been a believer my whole life. But I do have questions for God, lots of questions. So, he marches out, raises his voice and possibly his fist (like Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump), and confronts God with all his anger with all the questions we would have. “Why God? Why me? Why not someone else? I thought you were supposed to do good in the world, where is it? Are you asleep? Don’t you care about suffering, mine or anyone else’s? This is your world, why don’t you fix it?” Old Job goes on and on. He lets it all out. All the hard questions about human existence get laid.
You know, it’s okay to be mad at God, to question God, to just lay it all out there. Because you can’t hide it from God. God knows your heart. There is something cathartic about owning it and expressing it to God.
God’s evasive reply
After Job says his piece it’s God’s turn. God tells Job, “You want answers? Gird up your loins. I’ll give you answers.” God sort of comes across like Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men–condescending, abrupt, irritated at being questioned. In chapter 38, God launches into the reply. Mostly God tells Job to look at creation, how awesome and intricate it all is. Look at my work, God says. All of it. Take it in–the majesty, the grandeur, the complexity and ask yourself in comparison, who are you to think you can run the universe better than me?
The attitude is that old axiom. Where you sit determines what you see and what you see determines what you do. God has a different perspective than Job. God sits higher, sees more, sees around corners people can’t, beyond circumstances that we can’t and God acts accordingly. Elsewhere in scripture, it says that God is higher than us, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, God’s ways are not our ways.
So, God goes on like this for a long time. It’s a verbal beatdown. God talks a lot but doesn’t directly answer the questions at the root of the complaint. God doesn’t give a very satisfactory answer of why God allows bad stuff and why God doesn’t intervene as we want. The non-answer is kind of like God saying, “It is what it is.”
Submission instead of rebuttal
When God finishes the speech, we expect Job’s rebuttal, “Okay, you are big and do awesome stuff–granted. But you didn’t answer the question!” But Job doesn’t do that. This encounter with God is so transcendent that it seems his questions are insignificant–besides the point.
Job says, “I’ve heard about you and thought I knew what you were about but now that I’ve met you, seen you with my eye, now I know.” He is transformed by the encounter. Connecting with God puts his questions put at ease. He says, “I may not understand it all. I don’t get it at all. But I do see the greatness of God who is all in all and I’m just going to trust in that.”
Job shows that Satan is wrong. He worships out of a connection to something greater than himself. It isn’t about getting stuff, it’s deeper. Connecting with God transforms you, calms your spirit, leaves you with a sense of awe and gratitude for what there is instead of what there isn’t. That’s the heart of it. You want to know why God wants you to know God and trust.
Does chapter 42 undo the whole story?
It’s a beautiful poetic epic. But then the prose epilogue crashes the party. Job makes up with his friends and gets double the stuff he had before and a bunch of new beautiful kids. Some people hate the epilogue saying they should have left the poem alone. Job getting rewarded at the end seems to undercut the point of the whole story. We don’t worship for the stuff! I read a couple of commentators who say we should ignore chapter 42.
But it’s in the Bible and its part of our story. I think it belongs and fits with our Christian Easter message that pain and sickness and death never have the last word. God is with us through all of that and makes new beginnings, and brings new life out of death.
All those kids didn’t just magically appear. They came about the normal way. Over the process of years, Job built back. He remained faithful through all the ups and downs. God doesn’t let our stories end in misery and defeat. There is always a chapter 42 after a season of ambiguity and darkness.
Growth and new perspectives are born of tragedies
Chapter 42 isn’t about material prosperity. It’s about what happens after tragedy. Sometimes when we come through something our chapter 42 is a new perspective where we have a deeper appreciation of what we do have–especially the relationships. Sometimes 42 is a new mission where after we have been through something we seek out ways to help others who are going through something similar. So many cancer survivors tell me that they are willing to help anyone going through cancer. Sometimes our 42 is about healing relationships, making peace with people because the problems get put into perspective and don’t seem like they are that big of a deal anyway.
Maybe we won’t fully realize our chapter 42 in this life. Some get it in the next life, I’m sure. We honor them today. We know we’ve been blessed through them and something of them that is good lives on in us and the people who were closest to them. God is faithful. God recognizes our struggles and answers with 42.
So, when life is hard and ambiguous do what God told Job to do. Look at the majesty and power and intricacies of all creation. The more you learn about science the more your jaw drops in amazement at how delicate and intricate and complex everything is. And remember that force of goodness pulsates in you and the whole universe. Think not of how hard things are, think to yourself how great thou art and ready yourself for your chapter 42.