When Faith Works
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Reading the Bible Again, for the First Time”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
September 1, 2019
Job 1:1, 2:1-10 - nrsv
1There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.
2:1One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” 4Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”
7So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.8Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 9Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
When difficulties come, when we or someone we love is suffering, that’s when we better have a faith that works. This Labor Day Sunday I want to talk about a “When Faith Works.” Whether we work or are retired, there will be times in our lives when we will be tested, and our faith may be the only thing that gets us through.
The Book of Job is the story of a man who has all the blessings of life. He has family, wealth, and his health. And he is a good man. The story makes that point again and again. But then he loses everything – his family, his wealth, and his health. Ultimately, the story of Job is simply the Bible’s answer to the question of suffering. For people of faith that question often sounds something like this: “If God is all-Loving, and all-Powerful, why is there suffering?” The question of why good people experience bad things is one that has plagued human thought since there was a realization that someone was suffering. The story of Job matters for anyone who goes through what seems like senseless, tragic experiences.
The Bible tells the story of Job as an unwitting pawn in a contest between God and someone who is either one of the heavenly beings, or a gatecrasher, named Satan. It’s not clear from the wording in the text whether Satan is one of the heavenly beings who have come to “present” themselves before God. Now, most of what people think they know about “Satan” isn’t from the Bible, it is stuff made up taking a mishmash of sources including Chaucer and other medieval writers. Let’s stick to what our story tells us.
God asks Satan “where have you been?” (Makes one wonder if God is all-seeing and all-knowing why he would need to ask.) But in true literary analysis we can say this the anthropomorphizing of God – making God “human-like.” Satan answers rather indirectly, one might say, devilishly, he says he has been “to and fro - walking on the earth.” God asks if Satan has considered his pet student Job, how good he is in spite of the fact that God has let Satan take almost everything Job has. Satan says, “Humans will sell their souls to save their skins! Let me infest him the fleas of a thousand camels and we’ll see if he doesn’t curse you to your face!” God takes the bet, says do your best, just don’t kill him, and off goes Satan. But all of this is just the set up for what is the real focus of the book of Job.
Ultimately the Book of Job is a dramatic set piece to challenge the arguments people usually use to explain human suffering. Job’s so-called friends who come to “console” Job represent the main arguments people often use – wrongly – to explain why God allows suffering. Let’s look at those briefly and explain why those don’t work, and why a faith that works must be able to work for us in times of suffering, as well as in times of blessings, joys, and sunshine.
The writer tells us that the first thing Job’s friends did was sit with Job silently. For seven days and nights they sat and “no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was great.” The truth is that this is probably the best thing they did in the whole 40 chapters. They sat silently with Job in his suffering. If you want to know what works best to help someone who is going through a difficult time, it is to sit with them in silence and not try to give them advice, explanations of what caused their problems, or anything else. Just sit with them, and maybe even cry – cry with them, or cry even if they don’t. To sit with someone without words can be the most compassionate thing we can do.
After the seven days, Job begins talking. He describes his pain and suffering at having lost everything except his very life, and proclaims his innocence and asks why he is suffering so? Unfortunately, his friends begin talking then and most of their talk is not helpful. Their commentary is mostly examples of faith that doesn’t “work” in helping Job face his suffering.
Eliphaz tries to encourage Job by assuring Job if he were really so innocent he doesn’t have to worry about dying or being “cut off,” by God: 4:7“Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? Then he suggests that Job’s suffering is something he really ought to appreciate, for 5:17-18“How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. 18For he wounds, but he binds up; he strikes, but his hands heal.” These aren’t helpful approaches for someone who is suffering, we may think we are being encouraging but anyone suffering doesn’t really want to have someone else tell them they ought to be happy because that is a sign God is “disciplining,” or that God sends us suffering to teach us a lesson.
People often try to tell others that God is trying to teach something by causing suffering, but it is bad theology. It just doesn’t work. If we were a parent who wanted to teach our child a lesson by causing their suffering we would be called “abusive.” Now it is true that when bad stuff happens we can often learn from the experience and redeem it but that is not something we have the right to tell someone, nor is it good theology to make God like an abusive parent. There is a difference between causing suffering and knowing that the universe has certain laws and actions have consequences and sometimes those consequences are painful and cannot be avoided, even if we did not “bring it on ourselves.”
Next, Job’s friend Bildad asks the rhetorical question, “3Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” and then gives Job advice saying, “5If you will seek God and make supplication to the Almighty, 6if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore to you your rightful place. 7Though your beginning was small, your latter days will be very great.” This too is a mistake. It doesn’t work as theology and it is not the basis of a faith that works either. We do not need to “defend” God in the face of someone’s [ or our own ] suffering by proclaiming God’s righteousness or by giving someone the advice that they ought to be more “pure and upright.” We are essentially saying they brought it on themselves by not being pure and upright or perfect. Well, news flash, no one is, and if that were the standard then everyone would suffer the way Job did. That is not what the Bible teaches us about the nature of God. In fact, at the very heart of our faith is the belief that while no one is without sin, no one is perfect, yet God loves us unceasingly and we believe that Jesus Christ symbolically took all the unrighteousness and sin of all of humanity onto himself and crucified it – killed it – by his death on the cross. So Bildad’s approach is not a faith that works.
Finally Zophar the third of Job’s friends takes a really great approach and seeks to shame Job for expressing his pain and asking questions of God. He says, “3Should your babble put others to silence, and when you mock, shall no one shame you? 4For you say, ‘My conduct is pure, and I am clean in God’s sight.’ 5But oh, that God would speak, …. Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” So if you don’t know it, telling someone they deserve even worse than they are suffering is not helpful. That is not the way to help someone have a faith that works.
When Job speaks in Chapter 19 his words foreshadow both our faith that Christ is our Savior and that in him we see that God is not our adversary, God is “on our side.” He says, “ 25For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; 26and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, 27whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” And God does ultimately come to Job’s side. In Chapter 38 God answers Job “out of the whirlwind,” and demands Job answer HIS questions: 2“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 4Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”
It is a breathtaking cross-examination God seems less gracious and merciful than mighty and daunting. Job responds, saying: “40: 4“See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. 5I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.” Wow! Most of us probably wouldn’t expect God to be so scary but the Book of Job reminds us that God IS powerful and mighty but that God doesn’t use that power to cause us to suffer, to punish us with tragedy.
So what does the Book of Job teach us about a faith that works. If we look past the particulars of God’s “words” that the writer imagines God speaking to Job and to his friends what it comes down to is what Job says: we can know that our Redeemer God lives, that God is with us even when it seems as if the absence of God is more profound than any presence we ever experience. And I would guess few of us have experienced God’s presence as overwhelmingly as Job’s story describes. But perhaps if we think about it, even in daunting or catastrophic moments, there may have been signs of God’s presence with us in the most unremarkable ways, but with us nevertheless.
A colleague of mine wrote about this based on his experience in facing cancer. He talked about going in to the doctor’s office, sitting in the waiting room, wondering just how bad it was. What “Stage” was he at, what would be the treatment and how bad would the effects of whatever treatment he might go through, would he live or die? All these kinds of questions and more rattled through his head. He says as he sat there and looked around he realized that the 30 or so other patients and family members sitting there were asking themselves the same questions, suffering the same worries, fears, and in fact their own mortality. He said as he was pondering this suddenly, without warning, his nose twitched from some unknown irritant and he sneezed. And, of course, all 30 or so of those folks, all facing their own mortality and their own suffering did what everyone does when someone suddenly sneezes. They all said almost in unison, “God bless you!” Some murmured it, some spoke it quite boldly, but it seemed as if all 30 declared by their instinctive, habitual, automatic reaction to someone else’s sneeze, that God was with him, that he might be not being punished or taught a lesson or disciplined for his failures as a human being, but was “blessed” by God. He said at that moment I realized again that what I needed most at that moment was to know God was with me, and in something so unremarkable God’s presence with me was announced by all those others there suffering as I was suffering. Too small a thing? Too unremarkable an answer to the problem of suffering for you? Well, don’t dismiss a sign of God’s presence no matter how insignificant or unremarkable it might seem.
A faith that works when we go through suffering or evil or even seemingly small difficulties does not give us easy answers, or teach us how much we deserve to be punished. A faith that works is one that allows us to know God will bless us, that God is with us, and that God will be with us no matter what. May we never miss the smallest sign of that, and may we be signs to others that God is with them for blessing and for life and for hope. That’s a faith that works. AMEN.