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Suffering companions

Job 3:1-10

Job 4:1-9

Job 7:11-21

I wasn’t really sure I wanted to wade into Job’s life this summer. As if we haven't got enough suffering in this nation and in the world right now… do we really need to focus on more suffering? Why not choose some passage like Psalm 145, blessing God's goodness. But really, Job’s story is exactly worth looking at right now, maybe even essential. His circumstances offer us a lot to think about. Job is a sufferer....

Early on, Job sat in a privileged position— he had plenty of wealth (in the form of animals), a rich heritage to pass on, a future in which he’ll be lauded by his children and descendants, both good health and a respected status in the community, and committed friends. You might even say Job had everything a person could want or desire. Until he doesn’t. In a short span, his wealth dissipates, his beloved family and future heritage are wiped away, and even his own health is gone. He sits in silence, in ongoing mourning and chronic pain, joined by his friends who come to sit shivah with him. All of that was chronicled in Part One of our sermon series, so I won’t spend much time on it here.

His friends start with a good turn—sitting in silence, as good friends should when the unbearable occurs. But they can only handle Job’s silence for so long, and when they decide to speak, it’s not helpful.

The book of Job is not a theology of suffering, it’s not a theodicy—why do bad things happen to good people? Where is God in this? Did God cause this suffering?

This story is not a theology of suffering, but a theology of a sufferer, a sufferer’s theology.

We’ve all suffered trauma in our lives, in greater and lesser ways—we’ve suffered bankruptcy, miscarriages, deaths of loved ones, suicides, job losses, homelessness, systemic racism, physical ailments, mental health challenges, patriarchal or misogynistic structures, pandemics… you name it. But Job’s story suggests that we pay attention to our engagement with God—and God’s engagement with us—especially during those times of suffering.

Last week, we leaned into Job’s silence, and the silent companionship of Job’s friends. This week, we see how Job finally moves out of that silence, and what he says when he speaks. In the words of theologian Ellen Davis, “Trusting God is often a central preoccupation of the biblical writers, but not in this book. Rather, silence pushes Job to challenge God. When Job finally finds words, he demands steadily that God enter the abyss of loss and be revealed to him there.” Job holds on, refusing to release God, crying out to God, he’s angry with God, demanding of God.

Job 7.16-19

Let me alone, for my days are a breath. 17 What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, 18 visit them every morning, test them every moment? 19 Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?

Job takes a familiar passage—from Psalm 8, one that speaks of God’s care for us trivial little humans—he takes that familiar passage and turns it on its head:

1 O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. 3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, 4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? 5 Yet you have… crowned them with glory and honor.

Job, in the midst of his suffering, critiques God for not leaving him alone—“Why do you make so much of us humans? You visit every morning, you test every moment, won’t you look away from me for awhile?”… like a bad penny that keeps showing up, or the pesky mosquito that won’t stop biting, or your shadow you can’t escape from, God insists on harassing him, Job complains.

We sit in the middle of Job’s complaints, his laments, his wrestling with his suffering and the role he perceives that God plays in it.

What I love about this is that this is canon, this is scripture!—the people of Israel decided super early on that it was okay to include entire books that lambasted their God! And that God seemed to be okay with that. That God is okay listening to us shout obscenities in God’s direction. This is a normal—dare I even say it’s an acceptable?—way of sorting through suffering.

We aren’t at the end of Job’s cries yet, but hopefully you know how it ends.

“Job is more than the theology of suffering; better, it is the theology of a sufferer,” says Davis. “The sufferer who keeps looking for God has, in the end, privileged knowledge. The one who complains to God, pleads with God, rails at God, does not let God off the hook for a single minute—she is at last admitted to a mystery. She passes through a door that only pain will open, and is thus qualified to speak of God in a way that others, whom we generally call more fortunate, cannot speak. Does the book of Job teach us sympathy for the sufferer? Perhaps. But more than that, it enables us to honor the sufferer as a teacher, and as a spiritual resource for the community.”

There are others whom we listen to because of their suffering, but right now I think of this especially in light of listening to members of the black community, and the years and years and centuries and centuries of their cries and responses to God.

But listening to the accusations, the laments, the anger of those who suffer probably makes many of us uncomfortable. So it’s worth going back to look at Job’s friends again, represented by Eliphaz’ speech in chapter 4. Davis: “The crowning blow to all Job’s bitter losses is the intolerance of his friends. It is a tragic irony that they are unable to bear the words that their silent companionship helped him to find.”

Once Job finally speaks, they’re troubled by what he ends up saying. Eliphaz critiques Job:

5 But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed. (NRSV)

6 Isn’t your religion the source of your confidence; the integrity of your conduct, the source of your hope? (CEB)

7 Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? (NRSV) Or where were the upright cut off? 8 As I have seen, those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.

Putting this into 2020 context:

Are white Christians the friends of Job?

Do we sit in silent “companionship” with the black church but find ourselves intolerant of the bitter words and actions and laments that are finally released in protest? Do we find ourselves saying, like Eliphaz, “be patient”—when our black sisters & brothers have been waiting over 400 years to be treated as fully human in this land?—“you are impatient!” Are we tempted to say that those who plough iniquity or sow looting and window breaking are not really suffering? Job’s friends didn’t like the words he finally came up with.

I’ll repeat Davis here: “Job demands that God enter the abyss of loss and be revealed to him there.” I usually work to make sure to include a way to connect to the good news of God in Christ, the “gospel.” We’ll get there eventually. But I’m not going to end this post with Jesus entering the abyss, revealing God to us. Not just yet. We need to sit with the discomfort of Job’s angry cries, the sufferer’s cries of anguish for a while longer. White Christians, are we uncomfortable being likened with Job’s friends? We’ll eventually see what doors pain opens. What sufferers can teach us. And if we listen to the story, we’ll see that Job’s friends were denounced by God for how they spoke to Job, and what God required of them as they repented (Job 42:7-9).

References: Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cambridge, Mass: Cowley Publications, 2001).

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