Suffering God

Readings
Job 42.1–6, 10–17
Mark 10.46–52

 

Those with whom the crucified Jesus is identified in his abandoned death are both the godless, who experience their own turning from God as God’s abandonment of them, and the godforsaken, who experience their suffering as God’s abandonment of them. — Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, Kindle ed’n, loc.182

______________________

When Karen and I lived in West End in the 1980s, we got to know a Greek neighbour. A devout member of the Greek Orthodox Church, he had come to Australia many years before to grow tobacco in Central Queensland. He wasn’t prepared for the climate out here though; after some years of working to make his farm succeed, a series of droughts broke him. He walked off the farm with his family and came to West End. By the time we met him, he was no longer an Orthodox Christian. No, he was an atheist. For him, there was no God.

Suffering can pan out in different ways. In particular, it can deepen a person’s faith, or destroy it. 

Another story. Karen and I were visiting relatives in England a few years ago. My uncle had seen a lot of injustice in the slums of Sheffield when he was growing up. He said to me out of the blue, ‘Thi’s no God, lad.’ He couldn’t reconcile any belief in God because of the way ordinary people were made to suffer.

The Book of Job contains the model scriptural story of suffering. But it doesn’t answer the one question everyone asks: Why? Why do people suffer? Why me? Or, the ‘what’ question: What did I do to deserve this?

In this book, Job loses almost everything. In the terms of his day back in ancient times, he was a squillionaire. We read this about his wealth: 

There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. (1.2–3)

Job loses the lot. His children die in a freak storm, his servants are killed, his animals are carried off by marauders.

What does Job do? He

arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshipped. He said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ (2.21)

Soon afterwards, Job himself is inflicted with ‘loathsome sores…from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head’.

Soon, three friends come to visit. Visiting sick and grieving people is good, right?

Because it’s an ancient tale, they have ancient names: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Job was so disfigured, his friends didn’t recognise him at first. So they wept and wailed and tore their clothes and threw dust on their heads and they sat with Job in silence for seven days and nights; ‘and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great’. 

Wow, that was a good thing to do. It shows their hearts were in the right place. But Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar have a bad reputation, you know? If folk talk about someone being a ‘Job’s Comforter’, it’s not a compliment. It means they made things worse.

What did Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar do that was so bad? They started talking.

You know, I often hear people saying ‘I wouldn’t know what to say’ when they wonder about visiting a friend who has suffered the loss of someone they love. The answer is: Don’t say too much. Just be there with them. Make a cuppa, bring a meal, get some shopping in. Hold their hand. Sit with them. Give them a hug. 

Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar (they sound like a firm of solicitors, don’t they?) went downhill quickly once they started talking.

They didn’t wonder about what they should say. They knew exactly what to say to Job. Eliphaz said

Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?
Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity
and sow trouble reap the same.
By the breath of God they perish,
and by the blast of his anger they are consumed. (4.7–9)

They gave the standard answer, the then-orthodox doctrine: If you suffer, you must have sinned. Their world is a very tidy one. You reap what you sow, the poor deserve their fate, karma reigns supreme.

Job didn’t buy all that. He maintained that he was innocent. He wished he’d died at birth rather than suffer like this: 

Why did I not die at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire? (3.11)

At least he would be at rest in the earth, and not enduring endless suffering. Soon, Job is exasperated by the endless insistence of his friends that he deserves his fate:

…miserable comforters are you all.
Have windy words no limit?
Or what provokes you that you keep on talking? (16.2–3)

In less poetic terms, Job is telling them to shut their gobs up.

They don’t shut up though, and the argument goes on for some time, throughout most of the book. 

By the time we get to today’s reading, God has joined the conversation. And wow, does God have something to say!

Who is this that darkens counsel
  by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
‘Where were you
  when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.…’ (38.2–4)

I suppose it’s fair enough to suppose that when God joins a conversation, the focus shifts. God asks Job questions like

Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads its wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes its nest on high? (39.26–27)

Or—in words that picture God as the mother who gives birth to the sea—

who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band…  (38.8–9)

God asserts God’s authority, power and knowledge of all things. Job must make an attempt to answer:

See, I am of small account;
  what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice, but will proceed no further. (40.4–5)

Job knows when to shut up. But God keeps going. Finally, Job says

I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.…
…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself, for
and repent in dust and ashes. (42.2, 5–6)

That last verse from Job we read may have been the original end of the book:

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself, for
and repent in dust and ashes. 

The Book of Job gives us no final answer to the question Why? Why do people suffer? Yet when Job encounters God his questions are stilled. No more theories for Job, no arguing his case; he bows his head before God.

That may be enough for some people, but I still feel a niggle. I find my help in the God who takes on the pain of the world in the body of the crucified Christ. Here, God shares the suffering of the godforsaken. Here, God takes the world’s pain into God’s very self, so that we may know God’s life, God’s Spirit, ourselves. It’s a vision of the suffering God that helps me to live with suffering and do what I can to relieve suffering. 

Do you remember those two men I mentioned earlier? When I spoke with my friend the Greek atheist, the conversation invariably turned to God. Michael couldn’t let go of God. He talked about God all the time with me. He said he was an atheist, but he was angry with God, he couldn’t let God go. He really reminded me of Job, shaking his fist at God. God didn’t let Job go, and I hope and pray God didn’t let Michael go.

When my Uncle Bob told me ‘Thi’s no God, lad’, I said that I thought the suffering he had shared with other ordinary folk in Sheffield caused God to be sad, to weep. I could see this was a brand new thought to him. My hope is that it planted a seed to help him to gain a new vision of who God is. 

Suffering can pan out in different ways. In particular, it can deepen a person’s faith, or destroy it. We’re all human beings; perhaps it’s more accurate though to call us human becomings. The unbidden and unwanted experiences that come to us—often experiences of difficulty or suffering—can be the spur that opens our eyes as Bartimaeus’ eyes were opened. And that leads us to trust God in the midst of it all. May it be so.

 

Preached at West End Uniting Church, 28 October 2018

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1 Comment

Filed under sermon, suffering

One response to “Suffering God

  1. Thanks for this, it is something I have been wondering about for many years and I shall, no doubt, go on wondering as God is beyond what my human mind could expect to grasp.

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