Help In Trials
On Tuesday, we met my mother and my brother and sister-in-law for supper and then attended the opera. After supper, we both drove to the concert hall. I dropped Carla off in front and then went to find a parking place. My brother left the restaurant parking lot after I did and after I finally found a place to park, walked all the way back to the concert hall and walked in, there was my brother already waiting for me. When I asked him how he had gotten there so quickly, he told me that he had parked just across the street. I asked him how he got a place so close and I had to go so far for one he replied, “because I live right.”
He was joking, but the idea is no joke. We live by it. If things go well, we think that we deserve it because we have done something right. Do you remember the song in “The Sound of Music” with the line “somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.” That line assumes the life understanding we are talking about. If something good happens to us, it is because we deserve it. If something bad happens to someone else, we look for some cause, assuming that they must have done something to deserve what is happening to them. Of course, when something bad happens to us, we are puzzled because we are sure that we don’t deserve what is happening to us.
Trials of various kinds come to us in the course of life. It may be illness, it may be job loss, it may be our car breaking down or anything else. When these things happen, we look for an explanation and we need help to cope with the difficulty.
One of the best books ever written to help us understand and deal with trial is Job. I don’t know which author it was, I believe it was a secular author, who suggested that Job is one of the most wonderful and amazing pieces of literature that has ever been written. Job is not a simple book, but rather complex and having many aspects to it. It can teach us a lot about life. One of the lessons is the lesson of trials. It has much to say about trials and how we handle them, how we understand them. This morning, we will study this aspect of Job.
I. It’s Not Fair
When my brother said that he got a better parking spot because “he lives right” I could easily have challenged him on that. Don’t I live just as right as he does? As we read Job, we come face to face with the apparent injustice of trials.
A. Job is Good
Very early in the story, one of the powerful impressions that we are given is that Job is good. In fact, this impression is sustained throughout the book. We are to understand that Job is a good man.
This idea is clearly presented right in the first verse it says, “This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” His uprightness is described in the verses that follow. We particularly notice it in verse 5 which tells us that he even offered sacrifices to cover for the sins of his children that they might have committed inadvertently when they were having a party.
This evaluation is reiterated by God in 1:8 and 2:3. Job 1:8 says, “Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
Throughout the story this impression is reinforced. The uprightness of Job is further described in chapter 31, just in case we might have forgotten. Job 31:1 tells us the desires of his heart for a pure mind. In the rest of that chapter, we find that he was concerned to walk in honesty 31:5; considerate of justice for the oppressed 31:13; he had compassion for the poor and the widows, 31:16. In James 1:27, pure religion is defined as looking after orphans and widows and keeping oneself from being polluted by the world. Job did all of this.
The word that is used to describe Job is upright. When I was building out my basement, I soon found out that as much as I might try, and I didn’t even always try, I would never be able to make the walls perfectly straight. We used a level and found that the foundation was not perfectly straight and the existing walls were not straight, which meant that we would have a hard time making the new walls straight. If there was a plumb line or a level or a transit to see if people were morally straight, Job would have measured up well. The word “upright” is a word that means straight. Job was straight, there was nothing crooked about him.
Even after all the hard things that happened to him, Job 2:10 says, “In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.” Job was as good a man as any on earth, in fact, God says that he was better than most men on earth. Job was a good man.
B. Job Loses Everything
The difficulty of the book comes and challenges every notion we might have about how things should work when we see just how devastatingly Job experienced trial. He lost everything except his life.
He lost all his possessions and became a poor man. In 1:14, 15 it describes how his oxen and donkeys were taken away. Job 1:16 tells how his sheep and servants were burned up, 1:17 talks about how his camels were carried away by the Chaldeans.
He lost his family. In 1:18, we are told that all his children died when a wind came and caused the house they were in to collapse so that they all died.
But that was not the end of his loss. In chapter 2, we read that on top of all this loss, he lost his health. He was reduced to poverty and assigned to the ash heap to scrape his wounds and mourn the loss of all he had.
When his wife came and told him to “curse God and die,” we are to understand that he lost his relationship with his wife. No longer was she a support to him.
As his friends came to mourn with him and sat with him for seven days, we think that he may still have something left on this earth, but as they begin to accuse him and find fault in him, we learn that he has also lost respect and the support of his friends. He was utterly alone.
In 7:16, we learn of the inner effects of his trials. We learn that he lost all meaning in life. He says, “I despise my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone; my days have no meaning.”
In the depths of that suffering, we learn also in 14:19 that he has lost all hope in God. He says, “as water wears away stones and torrents wash away the soil, so you destroy man’s hope.”
Suffering is about loss and Job lost every possible thing on earth. He lost his wealth, his family, his health, his wife, meaning in life and his hope in God. He was utterly and totally alone. He expresses his utter loss in 19:13-20.
In asking ourselves the question why bad things happen to us, we may consol ourselves with the thought that someone else is worse off, but Job could not do that. There is no one who has suffered like Job suffered. His lot is absolutely the worst. He is described as the best man that could be and his suffering is described as the worst it could be. The utter contrast is given to jar our complacent thinking. If the best man who has ever lived could suffer the greatest suffering that could be, then something is terribly wrong according to the way we understand that things should be.
II. How Do I Handle It?
In a few moments, we will deal with this difficulty, but first, let us learn, from Job, a few lessons about handling such difficult times?
A. Yes, It Is Hard!
James 5:11 talks about the patience of Job and when we read in 2:10 that Job did not sin in what he said, we agree that he was patient and had perseverance and accepted his suffering. But that is not the whole story.
Where was the patience of Job in chapter 3 when he began to curse the day of his birth. 3:3 says, “May the day of my birth perish, and the night it was said, ‘A boy is born!’” He continues with such expressions of hopelessness expressing the wish that he had never been born.
Where was the patience of Job when in chapter 6:2 he expresses the terrible suffering he was experiencing. “If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery be placed on the scales!”
Where was the patience of Job when a few verse later, he expresses the wish that he could die. “Oh, that I might have my request, that God would grant what I hope for, that God would be willing to crush me, to let loose his hand and cut me off!” Job freely expressed that death would not be as bad as what he was suffering.
Where was the patience of Job when repeatedly he requested an answer from God, when he accused God of hurting him without cause. Listen to the angry, anguished cry of Job in chapter 30:20-31.
What does this teach us? It teaches us that the cry of anguish, the words of anger directed towards God, the questioning and mourning and wondering are not mutually exclusive of patience and trust. Although Job was brutally honest in his reaction, there was a basic direction that did not change. In the end, he is evaluated, as we see in the New Testament, as a man of patience. His patience is demonstrated in that he continued to address his complaint to God. He continued to look in a God ward direction. He did not turn his back on God, but kept on looking to God.
When we read the Psalms, we see the same kind of a thing. We see that expressing our confusion, hurt, pain and struggle honestly to God is not against faith in God. It is when we do what Job’s wife suggested when she told him to “curse God and die” that we step outside of patience and faith. There is a vast difference between cursing God and dying, giving up on Him and rejecting him and, on the other hand, speaking to him honestly and deeply about what is our concern. We are told in Scripture to “call upon the Lord.” Expressing the depth of our trials before him honestly and talking to God freely is also calling upon him. When we try to handle it on our own or give up on God, then we lose faith.
We see in Job, faith which struggles in the midst of suffering. This is real, this is life.
B. Don’t Believe Everything You Hear
There is another important lesson which we need to learn in the midst of suffering. Three of Job’s friends came to him and for seven days they were wonderful. They sat silently on the ground and said nothing. So deeply were they moved by the intense suffering of Job that they could not say anything.
But finally, they could bear their silence no longer and after Job finally spoke to them, they responded and blew all the good they had done when the sat quietly with him.
Job presents three cycles of conversation. Eliphaz speaks first, then Bildad and then Zophar. They speak in turn with Job answering them each time. The first cycle of conversation takes place from chapter 3-14.
Then the second cycle of conversation in which they all speak again takes place from chapter 15-21.
There is a third cycle of conversation that takes place from 22-31, but this time, Zophar does not say anything.
In chapters 32-37 a new character speaks whose name is Elihu. Most of Job is taken up with this cycle of discourses in which the friends of Job try to explain his suffering to him and he replies to their words.
Do you know what they say? Do you know what a great pile of wisdom is added to the debate of how trials and difficulties fit into this world? They say very little. In fact in all their cycle of arguments and all their many words, they say only two things.
Their most often repeated argument is that there is a cause and effect relationship between our actions and suffering. Over and over with increasing vehemence they tell Job that the reason he is suffering is because he has done something wrong. There he is, sitting in the ashes, scrapping scabs off his skin, with nothing left to his name and his dear friends come and accuse him of wrongdoing and tell him to admit it and repent. We know, because we have been told, that Job has nothing to repent of. Yet they keep on hammering away at him.
The first one to start this line of reasoning is Eliphaz who says in 4:7 “Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed?” That is his basic theology. Wrongdoing is punished and good is rewarded, and so, Job, you are suffering because you did wrong and you better repent. From there on, right through to the end of Elihu’s discourse, the same argument is rallied against Job.
Many times we share that point of view and there is truth to it. If you drink and drive and as a result have an accident, it is a consequence of what you did wrong. If you live a violent lifestyle it is not surprising if you come to a violent end. If you work hard and are kind to your neighbors, you will likely prosper and have lots of friends. There are a whole bunch of clichés that support this kind of thinking. "Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." "The early bird catches the worm." "You reap what you sow."
The other argument is somewhat similar, but a little gentler. In 5:17, Eliphaz goes on to say, “Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” This is another common thought in the midst of suffering. We think it and others may well volunteer to let us know about it. The reason you are suffering is because God is trying to teach you a lesson. If you will learn the lesson, then the suffering will stop. Be patient and discern what God is trying to teach you and you will not suffer any more.
There is a problem with these two arguments. Although there is truth to them, they do not adequately answer the problem. At one point Job points out that if he deserves such terrible punishment, they had better watch out because they are no better than he. Furthermore, Job defends himself by demonstrating that righteous people die and wicked people prosper. Job himself demonstrated the problem. The book presents him as a righteous man. What sin had he committed? He honestly does not know of any. What lessons did he have to learn? He also did not know what God was teaching him. Sometimes there is a clear and direct correlation between suffering and a wrong we have done, or suffering and something God needs to teach us, but that is not nearly always the case and so the question remains as intense and difficult as ever.
An important lesson to be learned from these discourses is that quick and trite answers to our trials are not adequate. The friends of Job are accused by God for their wrong thinking. People will try to help us with these kinds of arguments. The lesson to be learned is that such shallow and inadequate answers do not solve the issue and we should not listen to them. In 13:5, Job says to his friends, “If only you would be altogether silent! For you, that would be wisdom.”
III. Put It In Perspective
As we listen to this cycle of argument, we become more and more agitated. We find ourselves agreeing with the friends, sympathizing with Job, on Job’s side regarding his righteousness and finding no answer to the whole thing. Job wants an answer from God and so do we. He expresses in 31:35, “Oh, that I had someone to hear me! I sign now my defence—let the Almighty answer me; let my accuser put his indictment in writing.”
A. God Is Lord
Finally God speaks and we are knocked into silence. God draws circles around Job as he asks him questions.
His first circle is a big circle. He asks in 38:4, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.”
Job’s implied answer is “I wasn’t there, I don’t understand.”
The second circle is a little smaller. It is as if God is saying, Well, if you don’t understand such big things as how the earth began, maybe you can answer a simpler question. And so beginning in 38:12 he asks, “Have you ever given orders to the morning…have you journeyed to the springs of the sea…have you entered the storehouses of the snow? In other words, do you know you the world functions?
Again Job has to answer, “no.”
So God makes the circle a little smaller and asks in 38:39, “do you hunt the prey for the lioness…do you know when the mountain goats give birth…do you give the horse his strength? In other words, do you know anything about how the natural world works?
And Job has to answer, “no.”
God makes the circle a little smaller still. He puts it in a realm of human experience when he asks in 40:11,12, “Unleash the fury of your wrath, look at every proud man and bring him low, look at every proud man and humble him, crush the wicked where they stand.” Governments try as much as they can to overcome evil by making laws. Whole governments cannot overcome evil, they can barely control it. Job can’t either and again has to answer, “no.”
Finally, God gets to the smallest circle and asks Job, “Do you even understand one animal?” Do you understand “behemoth” and “leviathan?”
Even here, at the smallest circle, Job has to answer “no.”
The problem with Job and with all of us is that we forget who God is. We put ourselves at the center of the universe and we put God in a box that is manageable for us to understand. We live in a man centred universe and forget that it is a God centred universe. When we put God in a box and put ourselves at the center of the universe, there is a word for that, it is idolatry. As God speaks, we come face to face with reality and the reality is that God is Lord. The universe is not quite as simple as either the friends of Job or Job suggest. God is above, we do not understand everything about God.
As we humble ourselves we realize that God is God and that means that we won’t have an explanation for everything that happens to us. We cannot simplistically explain every experience of suffering. It isn’t as simple as punishment of evil or correction. God has ways that we know nothing about and some things happen that we simply won’t understand.
B. There Is Order
As people in the ancient near eastern world would have read this, they would have agreed with it. The gods they knew were above them and did many things that they didn’t understand. But they lived with a disturbing reality. They lived with the reality that their gods were random in their acts and there was no connection between what people see as right and what the gods see as right. If the universe is controlled by a God who does things that we don’t understand and who has no sense of justice that we can understand, isn’t it a rather frightening universe to live in?
I have often wondered what the purpose of Job’s restoration was. In some ways, the story ends for me in the understanding that God is God and I trust him, but we need to know one more thing.
The way the book of Job ends answers that question. Job has everything restored and many things in double measure. The God who is above us and who rules as Lord, is not arbitrary and random. He is compassionate and a God of order. This demonstrates that we can put our trust in God because he is not a random force that will do what we don’t understand. He is a God who has the same understanding about what is right and good as we do. So as we give up control of having to understand everything that happens to us, we can nevertheless put it in the hands of a God who is just and good.
So how does Job help us cope with trials? It helps us recognize that we can wrestle and struggle and even argue with God in the midst of our trials without losing our faith. It shows us that we should reject simplistic answers to the cause of our suffering. It introduces us to the choice we have to make. Will we trust God or not. It gives us reason to trust God as the one who is gracious and righteous and just and who knows and has power over all things.
May you continue to look to God in the midst of whatever trials you face. Do not let go, but look to Him and trust him even as you wrestle with Him.