Our first Scripture reading today is from the Book of Job. Job is a strange, interesting book of the Bible. It was probably written five or six hundred years before the time of Jesus. I don’t think the book is trying to tell us about a real person named Job. It’s not a biography. Instead, the story of Job is used to explore what it’s like when someone is suffering. Going through something really hard and really sad. How their community responds; and where God is, in times like that. Our first reading is the set-up for the story. You will hear God bragging about Job and how righteous he is. And then there’s this other character, the Adversary. Adversary means someone you’re arguing or fighting with. In Hebrew, the word Adversary is shatan. Satan! So we might say that this character is Satan – the Devil. But in these old, old stories, the Devil has a very special job: TESTING good people to see how good they really are. And that’s what happens here. Let’s receive the story and our other readings, and then I’ll say some more about it.
So we heard the beginning of the book of Job! Notice how it made you feel. Did you smile or laugh a little? Some people did! That’s OK! I actually think it is supposed to be funny, even though the things that happen are terrible. All these bad things happen very fast because the story wants to get to what it’s really interested in – which is how Job handles this situation; and how his friends handle it.
I was trying to think of a good modern example that’s kind of like this, and I thought it’s a little like the TV show The Good Place. The Good Place is a show about what it means to be good person. And it’s set in some kind of afterlife. So almost all the main characters, are dead. But you’re not really supposed to be sad about that. It’s just the setup for the story. I think this first part of Job is meant to work the same way.
I think if this was a TV show, I would probably stop watching because I didn’t really like any of the characters! The Adversary is certainly not very nice. Job himself seems kind of controlling and mean, actually. And God is TERRIBLE, here! Right? What an awful idea, that God would torture a human being just to see how faithful they are!
I don’t think the Book of Job really thinks that God is like that. I think the voice of this text thinks that God is hard to understand; and that life can be hard to understand. But the part of the story we heard today is not trying to tell us the truth about God. It’s just setting up a story. The Bible is complicated, and we’re not supposed to read all the pieces of it the same way.
So, what happens next? … What happens next is that Job’s friends come to visit, to console and comfort him. That’s what you do when somebody suffers a tragedy, right? You come be with them. You let them know you care and that they’re not alone.
And you know, Job’s friends start out pretty well, because they just sit with him, in silence, for seven whole days. But then they start to talk… and things go downhill fast.
After two chapter setting up the story, the Book of Job spends 35 chapters on Job’s friends and Job talking – often arguing! – about what Job’s suffering means, and about God.
His friends think they’re helping Job. But are they? I want you to think about how it feels when you are really sad or really struggling, and then we’ll see if what Job’s friends have to say seems helpful to you.
Job’s friend Eliphaz starts out. He says: Job, you say that all this tragedy just came out of the blue, but that’s not how things work. Bad things don’t happen to good people. God must be punishing you for something. You brought this on yourself in some way. So, cheer up! Your suffering isn’t meaningless; it’s happening because you’re secretly bad!
Did that make you feel better?…
It didn’t make Job feel better either. He said, you’re only saying this because my tragedy makes you afraid! You want to believe that this happened to me for a reason – so that you can tell yourself that nothing like this will ever happen to you.
Then Job’s friend Bildad tries to cheer Job up.
He says, Okay, Job; maybe you ARE a righteous person. Then it must have been your CHILDREN who were sinful. That’s why God killed them. But since YOU are a good person, you’ll be fine. God will replace your lost children and your wealth, and you’ll be happy again.
Did that make you feel better?…
Now, sometimes, it **could** be helpful to tell someone who is suffering that there may be healing and joy beyond their current situation. But it’s so easy to get that wrong, and to say it in a way that minimizes what they are going through. Also, you can’t just replace people you love with other people! Although you can trust that there will keep on being people to love.
Job tells Bildad: You are trying so hard to make sense of this situation in human terms, but humans can’t know why God does what God does.
But then Job’s friends Zophar and Eliphaz start to scold Job. They say, You shouldn’t be talking about God like this! You keep saying you’re a good person and didn’t deserve this tragedy, but that makes God seem like a villain! Your anger is pushing you away from God. Just be quiet and accept your suffering. It is what it is.
Did that make you feel better?…
Well, there might be some truth to the idea that sometimes we just have to learn to live with hard stuff. Sometimes there is no way to make sense of things. But Job doesn’t like being told to be quiet. He says, I have the right to cry out to God in my suffering. I don’t have to squash down my pain and my anger, just because you’re uncomfortable.
I am paraphrasing all of this – saying it in simpler ways than the text of the Scripture – but I want you to hear how angry Job gets! He calls his friends worthless doctors and miserable comforters! He says, If you would just shut up, that would be your wisdom!
He hears their platitudes – God doesn’t send us anything we can’t handle; everything happens for a reason; what does not kill us makes us stronger; look on the bright side and count your blessings -Job hears all that and he calls it proverbs of ashes.
Proverbs of ashes. Empty words that carry no comfort for him.
And even though I don’t entirely like Job – Job has a point. Bad things happen to good people all the time – and good things happen to bad people. Sometimes what doesn’t kill us, leaves us wounded. And I don’t actually believe that everything happens for a reason – though I believe that God’s grace can often bring good out of bad situations.
For Job, none of this means that life is meaningless and God is a fantasy. Job believes in God – and that God is good, even though sometimes it’s hard to spot God’s goodness at work until we’re looking back on something, or have some distance from it.
Job is honest about feeling abandoned and unheard by God. He says, “I cry to you, and you do not answer me.” But Job is certain that God is there. Even in emptiness and loss.
And Job insists, again and again and again, that he’s shouting out his grief and rage to God, not because he lacks faith, but because he has faith. That there is room for these feelings in his love for God and God’s love for him. Wouldn’t it be nice if his friends could just be with him in his big feelings, too?
A writer I like, Anne Lamott, says that in life it’s part of our job to hold someone’s hand and bring them juice, until it’s our turn to have someone hold our hand and bring us juice. We all have times when we need comforting. And we all have chances to be a comfort for someone else – to be a friend when things are hard or sad or scary.
We can all learn from Job’s friends – what they get right and what they get wrong. Show up. Don’t try too hard to make it make sense. Let people feel what they’re feeling. If somebody else’s big feelings make you feel kind of funny inside, the loving thing to do is figure out how to handle that funny feeling on your own, instead of doing what Job’s friends do, telling him to stop talking about how unhappy he is because it’s making them uncomfortable.
And remember: sometimes your silence is your wisdom.