The Book of Job
November 10, 2013
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
“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 forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives, 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.” -Book of Job 19:23-27
Of all of the rotten jobs in this world. I think the one at the very bottom of the list would be the job of Job.
It is a hard job to get our heads around, Job’s job. Because the story of Job is challenging, to say the least. It is a story that stretches us theologically and existentially. A story that raises direct questions about our relationship with God and the nature and cause of our suffering. It is a story that, in many ways I think, is beyond our full understanding. And yet too, is, in many ways, so embedded in our own experience that we cannot help but relate. Every one of us knows what it is to suffer….and, to suffer unjustly…..or so we think. And so Job’s story is in many ways our story, and it is the intersection of our experience of the infinite and our experience of the temporal all wrapped up in one story.
As the scripture says, Job is a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns from evil. And one day (it must have been a very slow day) some “heavenly beings” and also “Satan,” presented themselves to the Lord. And really without any prelude or preface, or even without any reason, God holds Job up to Satan as an example of a truly and thoroughly righteous human being. Sort of out of blue God says to Satan: “have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns from evil.” And Satan snidely replies: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” And they are off! God and Satan arguing over the faithfulness of Job.
God insists…brags really, that Job’s righteousness is not grounded in anything other than his fidelity to God alone. God claims that her/his servant Job will continue to be righteous and upright, no matter what; even if he loses his blessings, even if he suffers painful afflictions, even if his health and livelihood and family are taken from him. So faithful is Job, that nothing, no hardship, no suffering, no injustice, even, will be able to erode his faith in God. “Go ahead,” says God to Satan…..hit Job with your best shot. And as we know, Satan obliges.
And slowly but surely, Job loses almost everything; his possessions, his sons, his health, his peace… and very nearly his mind. But the one thing Job does not lose, is his trust in God. And yet, he never quite lets go of his trust in himself; in his own innocence. He never quite lets go of Job. As the losses mount, Job seems less upset about what he is losing, than he is about why he is suffering. Proof positive that Job is only human.
He wants to know why he is being so unfairly persecuted. His wife and friends insist that he must have done something wicked to deserve his fate. For, this sort of suffering does not happen unless one has provoked it. We do not suffer unless we deserve it, says Job’s friends….from whence the adage comes: with friends like that, who needs enemies. And so, the one thing he want s above all others is a trial to prove that he is indeed innocent of all that has befallen him.
This morning’s reading follows a conversation between Job and his friends. In the first part of chapter 19, Job is recounting his afflictions and his isolation. He cries:
‘How long will you torment me,! and break me in pieces with words? !
…..are you not ashamed to wrong me? !
And even if it is true that I have erred,! my error remains with me. !
….God has put me in the wrong,! and closed his net around me. !
Even when I cry out, “Violence!” I am not answered;! I call aloud, but there is no justice. ! He has walled up my way so that I cannot pass,! and he has set darkness upon my paths….! !‘He has put my family far from me,! and my acquaintances are wholly estranged from me. ! My relatives and my close friends have failed me; ! the guests in my house have forgotten me;! my serving-girls count me as a stranger;! I have become an alien in their eyes. ! …..!My breath is repulsive to my wife;! I am loathsome to my own family. ! Even young children despise me;! when I rise, they talk against me. ! All my intimate friends abhor me,! and those whom I loved have turned against me. ! My bones cling to my skin and to my flesh,! and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth.
This is some serious suffering. Complete isolation from everyone he loves, even from his own servants. Children despise him and his neighbors talk about him behind his back. More than harsh punishment for a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns from evil. Don’t you think?
How could things have gone so wrong? What could he have done to deserve such….punishment?
And so Job wants his side of the story, his claim to innocence written down, in black and white…and not just black and white….inscribed forever on a rock with an iron pen.
‘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! !
Job wants a record, an everlasting record of his defense. And…..of his faith. And I wonder what Job thinks about forgiveness. I wonder forgiveness is a part of his faithfulness; if he has the ability to forgive God. It’s a radical concept I know. Forgiving God. But Job clearly feels that God has unfairly persecuted him. That God is to blame, as it were. That he, Job, has done nothing to deserve this sentence of suffering that he endures. And so without forgiveness, peace with God is impossible.
And I can’t help but think of the prescription for peace of mind that Dr. Ira Byock offers in his work with the dying well organization that he has founded. When my own mother was dying earlier this year, I embraced Dr. Byock’s recommendation for healing and wholeness when death is near. Dr. Byock says that the recipe for a good death, a well death (well as a adjective rather than an adverb), is to utter four short life-saving sentences to those we love. They are:
- Please forgive me.
- I forgive you.
- Thank you.
- I love you.
That’s it. And I found those words to be very comforting and life-giving in my last encounters with my mother. And as I have read through the Book of Job again this week, I cannot help but wonder how these sentences might have meaning in the context of Job’s relationship with God. And actually, I think that these sentences are the core of Job’s relationship with God.
Although, as we know, Job does not die. In the end, Job makes out quite well. In the last chapter, chapter 42, after all that had befallen Job, after the litany of painful losses listed in today’s chapter 19, the last section of the book reads: ……and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer. And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job…and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before…..and Job died old and full of days.” And still I wonder how Job forgave God for all of the……suffering.
And so the Book of Job always leaves me a bit disconcerted. I think about what I see as a totally unrealistic impression that God can and will heal us to our complete satisfaction, even to twice our satisfaction, if only we ask persistently, faithfully, courageously enough. I worry that we can be led to believe an outrageous claim that God is in control of our suffering and relief, and the even more outrageous blasphemy that we are in control of God, that is to say, that we can summon our own relief from God if we are good enough, or faithful enough, or patient enough, or just plain enough. I worry that this story may lead us to believe that grace belongs to us, rather than to God; that grace comes because we are faithful, and not simply because we are God’s beloveds. As Flannery O’Connor says, we can be led to see grace as, “something which can be separated from nature and served to [us] raw as an uplift.”
For I am quite sure that there are more than a few blameless, upright souls who fear God and turn from evil among the thousands of victims of Friday’s super storm in the Philippines. I am quite sure that there are myriad folks suffering from the depths of their beings, having lost their possessions and their loved ones and their own health in what many might call an act of God. How do we make sense of this? Where is the grace of God in this tragedy?
And so I do not deny that it is comforting to believe that God is in control of our lives. I admit that there is a certain sense of deep relief in the knowledge that someone is in control of our lives. But to believe that God inflicts our suffering and then delivers a corrective amount of grace for our healing, sets us up for a bipolar experience of God: that is, to experience God as always over delivering or under delivering; generous beyond belief, as in the end of Job, or disappointing beyond belief as in the preceding 41 chapters of Job.
And so I believe that our real hope is not in a God who controls all, but in a God who bears all. In a God in whom everything is forever new, forever being reborn, forever hopeful. And if we can sink our hope in that God, the God in whom we live and move and have our being, even when that being is suffering mightily, then we are home free. Which is why I think the Book of Job needs to be taken in the context of the entire Holy Scripture. The suffering and grace of Job in the context of the suffering and resurrection of Jesus.
This is the Good News. That our God is a God who is grounded in new life, always and ever. If we can reorient our trust in God, re place our hope that God will control things with our trust that God will make all things new, that none of our human suffering will be wasted, that creativity and creation is to be found in all things, then all the news after that will be Good News!
© November 2013, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw