~ Job 9:1-4;32-35, Sermon 3 in Sassy Love, Sacred Faith series ~
“I don’t know how my mother walked her trouble down/I don’t know how my father stood his ground/I don’t know how my people survived slavery/I do remember that’s why I believe/I don’t know how the rivers overflow their banks/I don’t know how the snow falls and covers the ground/I don’t know how the hurricane sweeps through the land every now and then/Standing in a rainstorm I believe” (Sweet Honey in the Rock).
The first time I heard those words I was working as a chaplain intern at the National Institutes of Health. I had been assigned to give care in the oncology day hospital and on the infectious disease floor. Every day, I would make my rounds among those in various stages of living and dying. And every morning, before the rounds began, my advisor would insist that the interns have a daily devotional together. One morning, after asking us to sit quietly, my advisor flipped on the song by Sweet Honey in the Rock. And as I listened, tears began to fall from my eyes and spill down my cheeks. I really didn’t know how my mother had survived her upbringing in rural North Carolina. I really couldn’t understand how my father kept his dignity during those years of riding in the back of the bus and being called, “boy.” And I certainly didn’t have it in me to understand how all my mothers and my fathers before them had survived slavery. I wept apart from any sense of comprehension, knowing only that these people created a culture. Out of mass rape, lynching, and all the micro indignities that stop life, my people — who were never meant to survive – did (Lorde).
“Slavery,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates, “is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It a particular enslaved woman, whose mind is as active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream. . . ‘Slavery’ is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved . . . For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night” (70). Then Coates adds something that has never left me: “you must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law . . . the enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine” (70).
Many of us in this room are people of faith. We are those who remember and who believe. Yet believing, how can we avoid making the victims of history chapters in our own story of personal, ethnic, or national redemption? How can we take evil and the suffering it causes seriously? Can there be any explanation for the gratuitous suffering of American slavery and the Nazi Holocaust? And if we seek explanations, are we providing an important frame for such atrocities? Or are we silencing those who have suffered?
Before beginning this series, I knew I would come to a moment when I would have to talk about evil and suffering. Not at a glance or from an angle. But directly. The suffering caused by moral evil like the genocide of native peoples, the perpetuation of wars, the slaughter of children. And the suffering caused by natural evil such as hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, mudslides. From diseases such as Bubonic plague, influenza, malaria, HIV/AIDs, Ebola. Not to mention genetic flaws that are not caught but rather are inherited. How can we as people of faith talk not only about such things but about God in light of such things? Does everything happen for a reason? Or does everything just happen?
In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan, an intellectual and skeptic, says this to his brother, who is a novice at a monastery: “I have a child-like conviction that the suffering [of the world] will be healed and smoothed over, and . . . that ultimately, at the world’s finale, in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice not only to make forgiveness possible, but also to justify everything that has happened . . . Let all of this come true and be revealed, but I do not accept it?” (Ehrman 266). Later, Ivan adds, “I absolutely renounce all higher harmony. It is not worth one little tear of even that one tormented child who beat her chest with her little fist and prayed to ‘dear God’” (Ehrman 269). For Ivan, innocent suffering cannot ever be justified. He chooses solidarity with the innocent sufferer, and especially innocent children who suffer, over any explanation by God in the end, no matter how eloquent. At the most fundamental level, innocent suffering is indefensible in Ivan’s eyes. And that reality cannot be erased or explained away. What strikes me is that Job seems to share Ivan’s conviction.
In the first week of our series on the book of Job, we talked about how Job begins a pivot toward a sassier way of relating to God. His suffering will not allow him to praise God without reservation. Then last week, we talked about how chapter 3 of the book shows us a picture of a man who uses cursing and lament to begin coming back to life. This morning we’re going to leap ahead a few chapters and consider chapter 9. And you’ll have to forgive my English teacher ways, but since I’m a fan of close-reading, let’s read the text together one more time. Feel free to read along with me in the pew Bible.
Then Job answered:
2 “Indeed I know that this is so;
but how can a mortal be just before God?
3 If one wished to contend with him,
one could not answer him once in a thousand.
4 He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength
—who has resisted him, and succeeded?
For he is not a mortal, as I am, that I might answer him,
that we should come to trial together.
33 There is no umpire[a] between us,
who might lay his hand on us both.
34 If he would take his rod away from me,
and not let dread of him terrify me,
35 then I would speak without fear of him,
for I know I am not what I am thought to be.[b]
Between chapter 3 and this chapter, Job has listened to the council of his friends, Eliphaz and Bildad and he has responded once. Now, Job speaks again and seems to start out in agreement with their perspectives. However, in reality, Job is at it again with his sass. He seems to agree that it is impossible for humans to be without sin before God. But he actually uses a rhetorical question to manipulate the words of his friends to assert that it is impossible to be legally innocent before God (Newsom). At this key point in the book, Job introduces the language of the courtroom. In verse 2, Job uses the words, “contend,” and “answer” to develop the legal metaphor. (Newsom). Interestingly, this verse can be translated a few different ways with either God as the plaintiff and Job as the defendant or Job as the plaintiff and God as the defendant (Chase). Even if we accept a translation that places God in the seat of plaintiff, the import of much of the rest of the book is that it is God who is on trial. The implication is that the Prologue has been reversed (Ballentine). Whereas the book started with God putting Job on trial to see if Job serves God disinterestedly, now Job insists on putting the shoe on the other foot. But the problem for Job is that he and God are so unequal in terms of power and wisdom that a fair trial is impossible (Ballentine). After all, “who has resisted him, and succeeded?” Yet, the futility of such a trial does not seem to change the fact that Job needs to imagine such a trial taking place. All of his children have been killed and he suffers chronic pain every single day. He seems to say, “May it please the court, I’m Job from the land of Uz, here to plead my case against God. My personal experience should count and not only theological tradition, history, and the witness of creation (Chase). May it please the court, God is powerful but that power is chaotic. May it please the court, God is wise, but that wisdom is intentionally hidden (Ballentine). May it please the court, this God “snatches away” and no one can stop him. (Job 9:12). This God crushes people for no reason (Job 9:17). May it please the court, I am innocent, and my suffering cannot be justified” (Job 9:20-21).
However, underneath this sentiment is a deeper yearning for God’s governance of the world to please the heart (Janzen). For the order of the universe to be beautiful and for the world to be a place where justice and mercy balance each other out perfectly. Instead, Job can only see a world where the distinction between innocence and guilt doesn’t exist (Newsom). A world where there is no distinction between the righteous and the wicked (Newsom). A world where the whole moral order is topsy-turvy. Therefore, Job has no choice but to sue.
The end of the chapter — the last part of our text for this morning — ends with Job pleading for an arbitrator. He does not see how he can honestly return to a state of happiness (Job 9:27). And he does not believe it would make any difference in the larger scheme of things if he were to ritually cleanse himself (Job 9:30-31). Thus, he must seek an authority higher than God who can restrain God’s power and wisdom so that a fair trial can occur (Newsom). Job longs for common ground with God but sees no way to find it (Janzen).
Now, it’s at this point that I feel like, as your preacher, I am supposed to step in and be a witness on the side of God. It feels like I should mount a defense of God. But the truth is that I don’t have the desire or the stomach to. Basically, I think Job has a good point. And, in any case, that’s not what the book of Job is about. The book is not what folks call a theodicy, a way of defending God (Chase). Job’s friends are the ones in the book who try to defend God, and, in the end, they are condemned for not speaking what is right (Chase). Instead, I think the book poses a series of questions that go underneath theodical attempts which scholar Samuel Ballentine puts so well: “What if God only invites relationships in which certain things cannot be said, cannot be examined or even imagined? What if innocent suffering is simply a given, a fact of life that makes no claim on God or on those who would be stewards of God’s justice in the world?” (181). But remember Cleveland Park that at the end of the book, Job is the one who is said to be speaking what is right. So perhaps something else is true. Again Ballentine: “What if God is not only open to but desirous of relationships in which hard questions are raised about matters of divine justice? “What if it is given to humankind to take innocent suffering so seriously that even God can be challenged to respond more decisively, more justly, one might say, more humanely?” (181).
So, this morning, I can’t offer you a defense of God. But I can offer two other things. First, I can offer a defense of Christianity. Above all else, Job longs for a God who shows up. He longs for a God with which he can stand on common ground. In my view, one of the most beautiful and profound aspects of the faith Christian’s claim is the incarnation of Christ, the Word made flesh. The idea of a god-king who chose to be born into an oppressed colony of the Roman Empire as a peasant in order to connect with humanity is simply astonishing. The Message Bible puts it like this, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” (John 1:14). And even more profoundly, we believe that the reason this god-king became human was to enter into human suffering. To be able to relate to us in it. To be able to hold us through it. It’s a crazy proposal really. Still, I think that to take suffering seriously we must ground ourselves in the downwardly mobile Christ and steep ourselves in the wonder of the incarnation.
Secondly, I can offer an encouragement to stay in the process of lament, not to be too quick to abandon it. Last week, we talked some about how Job’s curses in chapter 3 turn into words of lament centering on the question, “why.” But those words of lament – as well as all of those that come before our text this morning – center on Job seeking God’s absence (Ballentine). In chapter 9, in his seeking a way to put God on trial, he, ironically, begins the process of seeking God’s presence again (Ballentine). He longs to petition God directly and this is a further stage in his process of lament. Now, there can be no doubt that lament is an act of “hard faith” (Ballentine). As one scholar puts it, lament, “is an act of faith that dares to believe life in relationship with God always remains open-ended, not settled or closed . . . it steadfastly resists the temptation to succumb to resignation. Lament is restless for change. In the midst of affliction that would rob life of meaning and hope, lament presses God to speak more clearly and act more decisively” (Ballentine 178). Lament boldly assumes that suffering matters to God. It resists the Eliphazs of the world who say that suffering is insignificant within the larger plan of God, who say that suffering is simply God’s will. It resists the Bildads who believe that protests against God based in personal experience are not allowed (Ballentine). It trusts that through lament one can experience God and that even when answers do not come, faith can bear the burden of silence (Ballentine 179).
So not only must we be a people who ground ourselves in the incarnation. But, if we are to take suffering seriously, we must be a people who stay with the process of lament. We must be those who learn to imitate the biblical style of lament in our journals and our prayers. We must be those who instead of defending God as Job’s friends do, join in the verbal lament of others. We have to say more often, “I don’t know, but I believe.” And we have to be creative about opening up space in our homes, workplaces, and churches for genuine lament.
Job takes innocent suffering seriously and the book overall is a challenge for us to do the same. In chapter 9, Job does that by seeking common ground with God in a court of law. The wonder of it all, however, is that God also seeks common ground with Job, according to our author. When you go underneath God’s reasoning for allowing Ha-Satan to bring calamity upon Job, it is because God desires a deeper covenant with Job. The author uses a crazy image of a conversation in heaven to make the point that God seeks authentic relationship with Job, a relationship based on unconditional love and complete freedom. Cleveland Park, as we attempt to be people who take suffering seriously, such a relationship with such a God is our hope. And that does please the heart. Amen.