Perfect Suffering and Devilish Doubts

Passage: Job 2:1-10; Hebrews 2:5-12
Date: October 08, 2006
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
Guest Preacher:

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There are two times in the book of Job when everybody just shuts up. No one speaks. They're silent. I sometimes think these two times are the best parts of the book. I think that - maybe the best response to the suffering of Job - or anyone else - would be for us all to sit in silence together.

At the end of chapter 2 when Job's friends first show up, the text reads that they "sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great". And then after 31 chapters of cursing and questioning, comes the line; "the words of Job are ended". After that line, Job only speaks again, briefly, to God, in repentance.

Silent community - is certainly one good response to suffering.

But I don't think it's an accident that for 31 chapters in between these silences there is a WHOLE LOT of cursing and questioning. Because I think another - nearly unavoidable response to suffering - is cursing and questioning.

So - as much as some of you - might like me to just be silent for 15 minutes - I'm going to wade through a little of the cursing and questioning. For that matter - as much as I might like to sit down now - and be silent - I'm going to say what I can about where God has led me in these texts - about suffering. And I do that partly - because of my own experiences of cursing and questioning and recent time spent with some of you in this congregation - - unavoidably - faithfully - cursing and questioning - in between the silences.

There's a poem about questioning.
The poem leads us to question - what some people call - fate.
The title of the poem is: "Who makes these changes?"
Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow RIGHT - it lands LEFT.
I ride - after a deer - and find myself -
- chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want - and end up in prison.
I dig pits to trap others - and fall in.
I should be suspicious - of what I want.

There's certainly more - to this poem than a simple reflection on fate and chance. It's also a comment on human will-full-ness - - and sin. But that's part of the discourse in Job. It's part of what comes up in the cursing and questioning. That is - what we want - and what we get - and whether or not it is fair - or based on any kind of justice.

For those of you who have not read the book of Job - ever - or recently - it's about a man who suffers. And the bulk of it - is a lengthy discourse between Job and three of his friends - who show up to console him - and end up trying to make sense of his suffering. They ask him all sorts of questions about his life - to look for a reason for his suffering. Later a younger man asks questions about the nature of God, and kind of berates the three friends. All the while Job wails about wanting to die, and reports terrible dreams, and suffers from sores all over his body.

All this - after a brief introduction in which - we learn that in God's opinion - Job is a good blameless man - who has never done anything wrong. The suffering is attributed to Satan - - testing him. And the game seems to be - to see if Satan can get Job to curse God.

Now I don't want to ruin the end - but for all the cursing and questioning of Job - he never explicitly curses God. So he stays in some kind of relationship with God through the whole book. Tense though it is at times. And God never looses faith in Job - harsh as God seems at times. And none of the questions really ever get answered, as such. Though maybe they do get answered - by this unbroken relationship. A relationship between Job and God - that persists - nevertheless.

When I was preparing for the ministry - I had a mentor named Jim. He's a pastor who helped me through a lot of hurdles as I prepared for ministry. He preached at my ordination. And the last I heard he was a pastor in Missouri. But that position didn't come to him easily.
You see - he had a stroke. In his mid thirtys - having just accepted a call to this church - with two young kids - he had to lie in a hospital paralyzed - and ponder his fate. Would he have to tell the church no - end his career - and what about his family? Cursing and questioning. Why? But he recovered. And the church - waited as he recovered. And he became their pastor.

In the midst of his doubt - and questioning - the congregation had faith in him.

Another story.

My grandfather smoked heavily. He was a doctor. He smoked at a time when it was more common and fashionable than it is now. He did eventually quit - having diagnosed himself with emphysema. The story goes that one day while he was smoking in his office he looked down at the ash try - it was a square one - with a place for a cigarette at each corner - and there was already a lit cigarette in each of the four corners and no place for the one he held in his hand. So that day - he quit.

Grandpa Henry was a great man. He started groundbreaking procedures for reforming practices with restraints in psychiatric hospitals. He was published in journals. And he taught me to play checkers as a little boy. He was strong willed and committed. He instilled in me - some sense of the fear of God.

And I watched as his body deteriorate with his illness. There came a time when he could not walk across the room. Did he deserve to die - because of his choice to smoke heavily? After all - you'd think a doctor would know better.The question seems cold. And yet - some people - seem to want to ask it - or questions like it? Whatever you answer - does it really take us any further - in an understanding of human suffering - and the ways of God? It's the kind of question - the three friends ask. It's the kind of question we all might be drawn to ask on some level: The question of, "Why me?"

I have read this book of Job before - and other parts of the Bible - and lots of theology books - and I know that "Why me?" is supposedly bad theology. God doesn't bring suffering in payment for sin - and some people suffer innocently. But when bad things happen to me - I still pray, "Why me?"

And whenever there is anything - unresolved - in the midst of suffering - I feel a sense of guilt. No one else deserves their suffering - of course - or at least I'm not going to make a judgment - lest I be judged - - but I - - on the other hand - I must deserve my suffering. It's not rational - but it is how I sometimes feel. Maybe that's part of what Job is getting at? But it doesn't make any sense - when you really think about it.

Look at all the innocent suffering in the world. Victims of roadside bombings. Widespread famine and disease. Hurricanes and Tsunamis...When I get to this point - I am inclined to take a moment of silence. [ pause ]

And back up to what we can say - more or less for sure...

Let's start with suffering. We know that people suffer. We know that Job is reported to have suffered. According to the book of Job the suffering was not because of any behavior. We know Jesus as one who suffered. According to the book of Hebrews - Jesus was made perfect in suffering. And so there is something about suffering - and about the kind of people who suffer - namely that sometimes good people suffer. And that suffering - changes the one who suffers. So we know some things about suffering.

Then there is doubt. The doubt is expressed in raising questions. Questions are raised about the nature of God. Questions are raised about the nature and behavior of people. Most of the time there are no good answers to the questions that lead to doubt. It is as if the questions are an expression of the doubt - or a tool to produce the doubt. If we go with the story in the book of Job - it is as if the Devil tries to cast doubt - by raising questions about suffering.

But in the midst of all the questions, cursing, and doubt - - there is also faithfulness and trust. And in the midst of the SUFFERING - - there is also faithfulness and trust. And WHERE - - is the faithfulness and trust?
God. God has faith and trust in Job.

God said of Job, "Hey Satan, you want to cast doubt? Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on earth. He's amazing! He's blameless. I have utmost faith and trust in Job. And I don't believe that even you - can do him in."

It's as if - the answer of the book of Job - to suffering and doubt - is God's steadfast faith in us. Rather than trying to bolster up our steadfast faith in God, Job reminds us - that God - has steadfast faith in us - - - even when we suffer and curse and question.

If ever the image of God as a father were helpful to me, it is here. Imagine your parents. Or if you are parents - - think about yourselves. According to the Bible, God is like a father to Jesus. And in the garden of Gethsemene Jesus prayed to God - to take away the impending suffering of the cross.

I'm not a parent. At least not biologically nor legally. But one thing I am pretty sure of about parenting - and I do parent from time to time - is that parents can NOT take away the suffering of their children. I have walked through a lot of tragic events recently. Tragedy involving children of all ages. Suffering in the lives of this congregation.

And I can tell you - the parents I have sat with - want more than anything to take away the suffering of their children. And parents can not - take away the suffering of their children. Nor prevent their death. Children suffer. Job suffered. Jesus suffered. And the parents I know - are steadfast. Even parents with faults - are steadfast.
Perfect parents I haven't met - anywhere.
But I've met some pretty amazing parents in this congregation.
And I've met some parents - in families outside this congregation - which have made me angry - and led me to question God and God's justice. But I can say with - near certainty - that the bond between parents and children is powerful. The bond between a mother and a baby - is - well - indescribably so. And that doesn't mean that - because of that bond - a perfect parent/child relationship will develop. It doesn't mean that there won't be abandonment. It doesn't mean that the child won't suffer. But most every parent I have met is steadfast in their faith in their children - on some pretty deep level. Now think of some of the best examples of that that you can think of.

And now think of God. God - we are told - is steadfast - and faithful - and trusting - - - when it comes to us. And that is the best answer to suffering and doubt that I know. God's steadfast - faith - in us. God's lack of doubt - about this crazy broken - beautiful humanity.