Reading Job 4.1; 5.6–end
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
The books of the Bible are varied, but most of them you can put on one side or another of a red line: do they welcome the world, or do they shun it? The first kind are positive about the world: it’s God’s world, they say, so you can know God’s ways by contemplating the world and the way things go in it. The others are negative: if it is God’s world, it’s a world in revolt against God; it is evil and wicked, and so the last place you should go to know God’s ways. Instead you should turn to things other-worldly, the miracle, the vision, the breaking in of God on a world that is not itself godly.
This is a crude distinction, and some books mix the two. Indeed, you probably do: sometimes the world looks a bad place from which you can learn no good: then you see some little piece of natural justice, as a person gets what they deserve (either good or bad); and you say, rather contentedly, well that’s the way the world goes, doesn’t it? You reap what you sow.
One set of writings that for the most part belong firmly on the world-affirming side are those books in the Hebrew scriptures called the wisdom literature. Read a page of the book of Proverbs and you will get the flavour, homespun philosophy you will know from our own English-language wisdom tradition: a stitch in time saves nine, you buy cheap you buy twice, and so on. Watch how the world goes, it suggests, and you will live well in it; because the world has a grain to it, and if you are wise you will go with the grain. You will be honest and fair, go to bed early. You won’t gossip, you’ll work hard, floss regularly and eat periodical prunes for breakfast. You will above all honour God, and then you will prosper, because it is God’s world, and you will be following the grain that God has put into the world. If bad things happen, it is because you have not followed this worldly wisdom that is also divine.
There is truth in this sunny view of things. There is evidence that people who laugh a lot, go to church and avoid fatty food will tend to have a fuller and longer life than those who do none of these things. And yet – you will know too many cases that don’t fit this neat theory, enough to make you feel that on its own this is a dangerous half-truth.
In one of the books of wisdom literature we see the other half of truth pushed very firmly. This is the book of Job. Job is a pious man. He does well by doing good. He honours God, he gives to the poor, and he enjoys prosperity and a good reputation. Enter Satan into God’s heavenly court. God asks Satan if he has noticed Job – God is clearly proud if him – but Satan scoffs: of course Job is a godly man – God has put a fence round him to protect him from all the ills of life – but if God allows some evil to come his way, then Job will curse God.
God agrees to let the experiment proceed. Satan sweeps away Job’s possessions, his sons and his daughters, but Job does not curse God. Then Satan smothers Job’s body with sores. Still he does not curse God. Job’s three close friends come and sit with him for a whole week to console him, and at last Job curses not God, but his own life. Why, he asks, was I ever born? This is too much for his friends. They have to try – the way some friends do – to give Job good advice, and get him to see how it’s all for the best.
Tonight we have Eliphaz the Temanite. Now don’t take this the wrong way (he says), but we all know, don’t we, how good God is. God sends rain for the fields, doesn’t he? God frustrates the crafty, doesn’t he? God saves the needy, doesn’t he’? So ‘how happy is the one whom God reproves; do not despise the discipline of the Almighty’. In other words: all those stolen animals, all those sons and daughters you have just buried, all those sores blistering your body, it’s all for your own good, Job old friend. That’s really rather wonderful, isn’t it? And God will see you alright in the end. Trust me.
The speeches of Eliphaz and the other two friends are the counter-attack of traditional wisdom, with their insistence that there is always a correlation between doing bad things and suffering bad things, and that God is good and so sends these things for a purpose; to punish you, or to teach lessons you need to learn. But their offensive peters out. They don’t persuade Job, and they don’t persuade us. Job is in this way a very modem book. It leaves the mystery of suffering as just that, a mystery. Even when Job asks God what’s going on, all he gets is a put-down: how can you understand the necessary ways of the universe?
A modern book, then. A book about us. Haven’t you been on the receiving end of concern and condolence that turns into unasked-for advice? I had a fair bit of this in a previous job after our church burned down. ‘I just heard the news – how terrible! Now, you know what you need to do next…’ Yes, kick you in the shins before you tell me.
One person said a good thing, however. It was something like, what has the fire made you think about?
My answer was that it made me ask very concrete questions – very Job-like questions, in fact – about how God acts in the world. No, I don’t believe that God sends fires to buildings or cancer to people; the way we behave might make such things more or less likely, but there are plenty of lung-cancer patients who have never smoked in their lives. No glib reading off, then, between what you do and what you suffer.
And yet out of the accident or the suffering God can speak, God can ask uncomfortable or exciting questions, and suggest answers to questions you had never even asked. And, although you would never have planned it this way, you cannot but be grateful, or at least not wish things had been otherwise. It is the pattern of life lived in the light of Jesus Christ, whose death – horrible and apparently futile – was the seed of fathomless riches.
One person said to me, after that fire,
Two years ago I started coming to this church, after I was at a carol service and loved it. I loved the building, I loved its space. People were friendly, but it was a place where I could be by myself, not be too close to anyone else. When I heard about the fire I first thought, ‘O, that beautiful space!’ But then I came to the service in the vicarage garden [the Sunday after fire], and then the services at the school [our home in exile for some the next six years] and I realised that, though the space was beautiful, that wasn’t the heart of it.
For one person that day of the fire was the turning of a necessary corner. In a tiny way it was the death – albeit a small death – that always must come before resurrection. And those who know these things from the inside can echo the words of Job’s friend, but with rather more authority than he could manage:
But as for me, I would seek God,
And to God I would commit my cause—
Who does great things, and unsearchable,
Marvellous things without number.
See, we have searched this out; it is true. Hear, and know it for yourself.