ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OCTOBER 4, 2015
DOES GOD CARE?
Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Suffering is a central human experience that is shared by all. The book of Job reads like a drama on human suffering. It’s not surprising Job is the oldest book in the scriptures because questions about the cause of human suffering are the oldest ones people ask. Job isn’t a verbatim case study so much a story addressing our universal questions about suffering. Job begins in the great hall of heaven. Satan (lit. “The adversary”) has been checking things out on earth and drops by for a visit. God asks if he’s noticed Job, a good, faithful and righteous man whom God has blessed in every way. Satan sloughs off Job’s goodness saying, “It’s easy to be faithful when things are going well but I bet it would be a different story if Job were to suffer.” So it’s game on! God sets the rules and limits Satan’s power; he cannot take Job’s life. Although the reader is privy to this inside scoop, for Job his life suddenly declines for no apparent reason – his livestock die, his investments fail, he is covered in oozing sores, his children die, his family and neighbours avoid him, his wife nags him to “Curse God and die”. Job remains faithful. Now Job has three friends who drop by to “help” him. The main thing they tell Job is that he must have done something very evil in order for God to punish him so and suggest he deserves much worse than he’s getting. They accuse Job of a lack of compassion towards others. They tell him his children are responsible for their own demise. They tell him to buck up, work harder at being blameless and suck up to God. At this point Job struggles with questions of his own. Why is God judging him when God could forgive him and alter his circumstances? How is Job supposed to persuade the Almighty? Since he’s innocent, Job wonders why God won’t vindicate him. Why does he suffer while the wicked prosper? Job still refuses to curse God but he becomes sarcastic, impatient and afraid. He feels depressed and disconnected – he no longer knows himself. Along comes a fourth friend who criticizes Job as self-righteous for spending so much energy defending himself rather than upholding God. The story ends with a confrontation between God and Job.
The story presents human suffering as an objective problem to solve, however there is nothing objective about suffering. Suffering is very real and extremely personal. Suffering creates pain, confusion, fear, agony and grief. It pushes us to our very limits. It creates heart ache at the deepest level. All suffering embroils us in spiritual death. It robs us of the traits by which we define ourselves. It strips away everything we rely on – our security, our health, our abilities, our independence, our strength and our vitality. Suffering is a process in which we lose our life – certainly spiritually if not physically. We let go of what we know and enter into a dark place where we cannot see our way forward. It’s like going into a dark, cavernous cave. We cannot see our way forward and we cannot find our way back. The deeper our suffering goes, the more that our familiar life outside the cave fades away. Soon all we can do is exist inside our suffering. It’s a similar experience for the care-givers (if the afflicted person is blessed enough to have support); we are confronted with our lack of power to “fix it”. The small acts of love, that we normally do without thinking, can seem dreadfully inadequate. The care givers also loses his or her self as all that is familiar falls away. As if the suffering itself isn’t enough we often feel abandoned and forsaken – utterly alone. So although Job is a story of questions and ideas which we will talk about in a somewhat detached way, we also remember that real people suffer: that includes many here today and it will include all of us at some time.
Job’s story gives clarity to the fact that all people suffer: the good and the bad; the just and the unjust. While people can make choices thatbring suffering on ourselves, there’s not necessarily a co-relation between suffering and sin. If you’re suffering it’s not a sign that you are or have done something evil; neither is it a confirmation of your righteousness. Unlike Job, not many are so righteous that we threaten Satan. All we can conclude is that in life, whether we are good or bad, sometimes we get what we don’t deserve. Bob Hope put it well when, upon receiving an award, he responded, “I don’t deserve this, but then I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that either.” Jesus said, “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) To us this seems unjust: the good should be rewarded and the bad punished. Like children we declare, “That’s not fair!” and demand someone balance the scale. Job saw this differently, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?” (2:10). We tend to take the good things God gives us for granted, as our entitlement, like good children on Christmas morning; we also tend to grow angry at God when life throws us a curve ball. When Terry was diagnosed with cancer one very loyal friend indignantly asked, “How can this happen to such a good “man of God” who has devoted his whole life to serving others?” My response was, “God doesn’t owe us anything.” God’s blessings aren’t something we barter for with our behavior. If we’re quick to receive the good, shouldn’t we accept the bad, trusting God loves us whatever our circumstances?
Sometimes Christians get the idea we will be spared from suffering because God will protect us from all harm in spite of Jesus warning that we will suffer and be persecuted. And we have been from the earliest times. The Council of Nicaea was convened in 325 A.D so the Church could define what Christians believe. 318 Bishops attended. Of this delegation only 12 had not been imprisoned, tortured or maimed for their faith. Still today in many parts of the world including N. Korea, China, the Middle East, Christians are suffering for their faith. Oswald Chambers in speaking of Jesus and the thieves on the cross wrote, “Suffering is the heritage of the bad, the penitent, and the Son of God. Each one ends in the cross. Each one is crucified. By these signs we know the widespread heritage of suffering.” I’d add we also know God doesn’t abandon us in our suffering; the God of love suffers alongside us.
Like the two thieves crucified with Christ suffering offers us, and those around us, opportunities which we can accept or reject. The first is the opportunity to show mercy. Like Job’s friends we often judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions. Job’s friends mistakenly saw themselves as compassionate supporters but judged Job as one who failed to show empathy to others. How often do we intend to bring support to a wounded person but end up saying cruel things that add to their suffering? Comments like “Cheer up”, “have faith”, “you’ll get over it” “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or pointing out a silver lining may be well intended yet they lack empathy. They come from a detached place that isn’t very sensitive to the other person. Mercy is born from humility. We lack mercy because we place ourselves outside the experience of the other. Whether we intend to or not, when we fail to show mercy we look down on others. We can only exercise real mercy when we embrace our human frailty and allow ourselves to identify with the other in their suffering, just as Christ did. How we respond to others is a matter of choice. The other day I put the recycling bin in my car and left the hatch open so I could drop it at the top of the driveway, which I promptly forgot to do. When I got out on the highway the bin fell out and paper flew everywhere. As I was picking it up, many people drove by. One very kind woman stopped and asked if I needed help. I didn’t. As she drove away another driver flew by leaned on his horn and made an impolite gesture with his middle finger. I was struck by the divergent paths people choose when confronted with the same incident and the same opportunity. One showed mercy, the other didn’t and made my situation just a little more unpleasant. If I’m honest I was also quick to judge the hostile driver, without considering his suffering. Bonhoeffer wrote, “We must regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do and more in the light of what they suffer.” Realizing we are all wounded is the first step to compassion. Our wounds, our suffering, can lead to deeper compassion for others and for ourselves.
A key question the story of Job raises which we all ask in the midst of our suffering is: “Does God care?” The answer of the cross is that God cares more deeply than we can begin to imagine. At the Last Supper Jesus asked his followers to remember his suffering – his body broken for them, his blood spilled for them, his very human agony on the cross. At the Lord’s Table he asks us to remember. Although in Job, God is portrayed as playing fast and loose with Job’s life, in Christ’s suffering we see the depth of God’s love. As we come to the table bring your imperfection and your faithfulness, bring your open wounds, your scarred memories, your broken heart, your losses, your pain, your fears and your suffering. Bring your life and your very self. Give it all to Jesus who “made our salvation perfect through his sufferings” (Hebrews 2:10). Taste and see how deeply God cares.