As you might remember, I am reading a chronological Bible this year. And I have faithfully (more or less) done each day's readings. And suddenly, I'm through Genesis, Abraham has been blessed with a son, that son has sons, and Jacob has 12 sons, and becomes Israel. Joseph is in Egypt and the whole clan comes to weather out a famine.
Great! I'm ready to hear about baby Moses and deliverance. Bring on the plagues! But no - the next stop on this journey through the Bible is Job. Job - really? OK, no one really knows for sure when the events in the book of Job took place. The notes in my Bible says that tradition has it that Job happened sometime around the time of Abraham, Issac or Jacob - but it could have been as late as the Babylonian exile. I guess the Exodus will just have to wait.
So, I'm reading Job. I like Job. It's a great story and it's a troubling story. Here's the story as I learned it in Sunday school:
Job is a good man, faithful to God. One day God is holding court with all the angels and Satan is there. God says to Satan, "See my servant Job. There's no one like him - he's faithful and just and praises me at all times." And Satan says, "Sure he does - you've given him all sorts of good things. He has no reason to complain. But take away everything he has and he will curse your name." So God says, "Do you best, but don't harm Job."
In one fell swoop, Job loses all his livestock, his crops, and his seven sons and three daughters. And yet he still praises God. God says to Satan, "See, I told you so! Job is still a righteous guy, even after he lost everything he has!" Satan responds, "Well, yeah, but he's still got his health. If he was in sick and in pain and miserable, then he'd curse you." And God says, " Do your best, but don't kill him."
Next, Job gets a horrible illness complete with nasty, seeping boils on his skin. He is miserable and sick and in pain and wants to die - BUT he doesn't blame God and he still praises God's name.
God is victorious in this contest with Satan. Satan did his best and Job still praised God. So God restored all Job had - he was healed and he had even more livestock and crops and wealth than before. And he had seven more sons and three more daughters! And Job lived happily ever after.
OK, is anyone beside me troubled that Job is a pawn in a duel between God and Satan? I mean, what kind of God says, "here's this good man who didn't do anything wrong, but go ahead and heap troubles on his head? Sure, Job gets it all back - and more besides - but what about those 10 (adult) children who were killed to prove God's point? The Sunday school story is meant to lift up Job as an example to children - always give thanks to God, just as Job did. I wonder if that's really message kids take home after hearing this story.
But there's more to the story! If you stop with the Sunday school version, you miss out on the really good stuff!
Now, if you read Job, you will discover that the Sunday school version covers only chapters 1, 2 and 42:7-17. There's a whole bunch of stuff left out in chapters 3 to 42:6! Job and his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, sit and talk a long while. The conversation goes basically like this:
E: You must have sinned - God is punishing you. Confess to God and be healed.
J: I did nothing wrong.
B: Your kids must have sinned - so God is punishing you. Confess to God and be healed.
J: I am blameless.
Z: Don't be so proud. Confess your sins and be healed.
J: How can I convince you that I am blameless?
This goes on for 36 chapters! People talk about having the patience of Job, meaning being able to put up with all kinds of bad things and waiting for God to make it right. I think the REAL patience of Job is putting up with his friends' condemning advice for all that time!
Back to us and what Job means for us today. Read carefully those 36 chapters and you'll hear Job's friends tell him that if he was only more righteous, if he's only confess his sins, if he'd just pray more in the right way, he'd be healed and God would bless him again!
How many times has something bad happened to us and we think: oh, if only I had prayed more, or if only was a better Christian, God wouldn't be doing this to me? Or worse, our Christian friends tell us, "Oh if you would just confess that hidden sin. If you would just read the Bible and pray more. If you would just have more faith or believe the right way, God would bless you again. Or worst yet, we hear it from our pastor!
Hear what Job has to say: Bad things happen to good people. The rain falls on the wicked and the just. Things happen - even if you do everything right, even if you pray hard, even if you have faith. Losing your job, or having a loved one die or getting cancer doesn't mean God is punishing you.
And here's the best thing about the book of Job: Job doesn't meekly accept this with an "oh well, it must be God's will for me now and I'll just be patient and ride this out until things get better." Oh no, he doesn't! Job yells at God. Job challenges God to show him where he had sinned and if he hasn't to explain just why he is suffering.
And God answers Job. First, God reprimands Job's friends for telling him that if he was a better person, God would bless him. In fact, God says that they are guilty of telling lies about God!
Then God talks to Job. Now I am not really sure God's answers really answer Job's questions. That's the point: people suffer, bad things happen and we have no easy answers why. But God is there, in the good and in the bad, right there in the midst of all the troubles the world can bring. God is there, with us. And God is in charge, "drawing straight with crooked lines" (Father Andrew Greeley), turning chaos into order, and making all things new.
And that's why I love the book of Job. There are no easy answers, no pat explanations. It's a book of real human experience, and real human emotion and real human questioning. Instead of a story about God's duel with Satan, it's really a story about the struggle we all have with the evil we face in the world.
It's still a troubling story, to be sure. But it's troubling because there are no easy answers and we want easy answers.
It's troubling, because it's not a story about the good people being blessed and bad people getting what they deserve - but we know that's not how the world works anyway.
It's troubling, because when it comes down to it, we rely on God's grace and love and mercy to sustain us but we really deep down want a list of things we can do to achieve God's blessing.
It's troubling because it gives us a space to doubt God's goodness, to question God, to be angry at God and to demand God answers us the way we want to be answered, and we aren't comfortable with that kind of honesty with God.
But God is comfortable with it, even desires it. Because in the honesty and the doubts and the questions, Job comes to know God a tiny bit better. Honesty, doubts, fears, questions and trust are the stuff relationship is built on. And Job comes out with his relationship with God strengthened.
I love the book of Job. I love the space it opens up for me in the times when I am hurting, and my friends are not makings sense, and the world is out of control.
I love being able to just sit in the ashes with Job.