For my eighth birthday, my little brother bought me a toy lightsaber. This was remarkably generous of him, being just five-years-old himself. That is until one considers an event which took place about two months prior when he took my previously owned lightsaber (spoiler alert: the birthday gift was a replica) and proceeded to break it over my head. This is why I could never get into medical school.
It was around this age that I also had a fish tank. It housed ten or so fish, all of whom I considered kin. Any death within this tribe hit me like an emotional grenade. I held funerals and marked their backyard graves with rocks that my father, unaware of the sacredness, would run over with the lawnmower.
My sister now has a similar tank for her three-year-old daughter. The other day a couple fish died and her husband rushed to the store to replace them before my niece could notice. I laughed before remembering a handful of times when, as a child, I noticed with some perplexity how my fish would change colors overnight.
The book of Job has always dropped a pit into my stomach—especially the ending, where God rebukes and then “restores” Job. To me, this story feels like God hears all of Job’s grief and accusations, responds with a “because I said so” and then replaces everything Job had lost (“happy now?”).
It’s all well and good to gift someone a toy lightsaber. But if it’s to replace one which you previously broke over their head, then isn’t there an asterisk next to your generosity?
And Job didn’t just lose things. He lost his children, friends, and co-workers; everyone important to Job dies (except his wife, who is promptly villainized). And yet, on a much more significant scale than my sister (and, apparently, my parents), God “honors” and gives Job back “everything in full.” But it’s one thing to replace a goldfish or some camels. It’s entirely another thing to do this with a friend, let alone a child. I just don’t think that falls under “we’re square.”
Job’s story is often held up as one that asks the “hard questions.” To our credit, I’ve been in many churches that have grown comfortable with asking such hard questions. But we’re still horribly uncomfortable with hard answers.
I’ve said before that I question God’s goodness. I question God’s goodness because I want to hold my vision of God to account; I want to believe that the way I imagine God leaves room for improvement. This necessitates me arriving at some sort of conclusion; it requires that I put paint on the canvas and let it dry while admitting that the portrait will fall well short of the one I’m painting.
I hate conflict. It makes me queasy and my palms sweaty, even (especially) with the people I love the most. Because conflict is predicated on vulnerability. And I hate vulnerability. It also makes me queasy and my palms sweaty. To admit “you’ve hurt me”, to make the brazenly honest proposition “that was wrong of you” creates the opportunity to be hurt again. But it also allows the other party to surprise you with their grace.
Humility requires arriving at some sort of belief even while believing that it could be pulled out from under me. I often find that my vision of redemption is too small because I’m too afraid to face hard answers that require greater reconciliation between me and God. It’s like I can’t believe that God could bridge the gap. I want to —need to— believe that God is bigger than my easy answers and half-truths, that grace can pull out the rug.
Or, as Tennyson once wrote: “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Not to give up my desire for a better answer, not to give up my desire for a better God. Because maybe that God is still waiting for me to wade through the muck of platitudes to find where—and who— she’s always been.
Today my brother is one of the more generous and gentle people I know. (I, of course, haven’t changed but only because I didn’t need to.) Which is to say that the asterisks next to one’s good attributes can be erased, but only if we have the honesty to put it there to begin with.
I’ve always learned that God gives us grace but I’ve come to think a relationship with God might necessitate us returning the favor. Maybe that’s arrogance, but it comes from the only portrait I can paint with narrow vision and the limited array of pastels that I have.
Which, for the record, is (not-so) exactly how I responded to my brother’s gift of a new lightsaber. With grace. Specifically, I broke it over his head.
A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to preach at my home church in Bass Harbor, Maine. The blessing of being able to return, participate and contribute to the worship service in a church where, in more ways than one, God’s call to ministry was cemented in my life, cannot be described. Needless to say, it was a good weekend.
Furthermore, I thought I’d share my message with the blogging world. Don’t worry though, I’m not gonna go all Jonathan Edwards here and present a Times New Roman monologue of dullest proportions. Instead, I took some time and memefied the sermon for your pleasure, amusement and (I pray) benefit.
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For those of you who don’t know my father, the two of us have quite a bit in common. For instance, I can remember countless family vacations that would open with Dad saying something along the lines of: “trust me, I was born with a keen sense of innate direction” followed by him veering off the interstate into some dusty side-road that eventually brought us to somewhere near South Carolina, which wouldn’t have been so bad except we were supposed to be in Michigan. It pains me to admit it, but I’m the same way; I hate admitting that I need help getting from point A to point B and therefore spend most of my life lost off the path of some short cut.
So last fall, after spending, oh- about three days- lost somewhere in the boonies of New England, I finally bought a GPS for my car. I must say, they’re pretty nifty devices. For one, it talks to me in a potentially charming feminine voice that either sounds really creepy or oddly reassuring, depending on how late at night I’m driving.
Furthermore, it always tells me the exact time I’ll reach my destination, knowledge I find too impressive not to pass along:
“Hey man, just wanted to let you know I’ll be there at 8:28.”
“Okay, see you at 8:30.”
“No, I said 8:28.”
“NO, LISTEN TO ME AND BE IMPRESSED, DARNIT!”
Anyways, point is, the GPS is a cool device. But it turns out that they’re not perfect.
I remember one day last winter, when I took a day off to go skiing at a major resort in the mountains of western Maine. At about 3 AM, I plugged the address of the lodge into my GPS and took off. Four hours later, the GPS told me I was getting close and needed to take the next right turn on a rather conspicuous, unimpressive side street. I turned down the unplowed road and nervously drove my car deep into the woods. I crossed a river on a logging bridge (by which I mean a bridge literally made out of logs), and the GPS told me to keep going. I went up a hill, down a hill then up another hill, then down yet another hill. There the road ended. I looked around me. I was in the middle of a logging yard deep in the Maine backwoods…not a soul in sight. My GPS chimed in and announced: “you have arrived” and I was all like:
before turning on my GPS and being like:
The truth is, sometimes following God is the same way. If I had to guess, I’d say that some of you today are in a place in your life when you’re staring at your GPS, or God’s Personhood in the Son (aren’t I clever?), in complete confusion and asking, “What on earth am I doing here?” Perhaps you’re going through a really difficult time: the loss of a loved one, unemployment, a break-up or divorce, etc. Maybe you’re sitting here today and, although nothing particularly horrific has happened in your life recently, you’re just worn down. Your career seems to be a dead-end of paperwork to make ends meet. You keep finding yourself wasting hours reading some weird dude’s blog. You feel detached from your friends, lonely, and perhaps distant from God. I’m sure I’m not the only one here who’s been lost in the middle of the woods wondering why I ended up there.
So today I want to look at the character of Job. And through examining his story I want us to be reminded of the fact that even when we don’t understand God, He still understands us and has mercy upon us. From reading about Job and relating to his plight, we can be reminded of this reassuring and crucial tenant of our faith, and my hope is that it will be a blessed reassurance in times of doubt, pain and confusion.So let’s look at Job together shall we?
In the first chapter of Job, we have an interesting scene in which Satan approaches God and asks him for permission to test Job. After some discussion, God grants Satan’s request. Before we go any further, we must make note of a crucial, albeit potentially obvious, fact that arises from this passage: Satan has to ask God for permission to test Job. Thus, we establish, from the beginning, that throughout everything that happens in the book of Job, the Bible, human history and our lives…God is omnipotent; He is in control of everything. As C.S. Lewis says:
“Satan is without doubt nothing else than a hammer in the hand of a benevolent and severe God. For all, either willingly or unwillingly, do the will of God: Judas and Satan as tools or instruments, John and Peter as sons.”
This might become a little confusing, but I want us to have that in the back of our mind as we go throughout the passage today. It may not make sense why God allows things to happen, but even when God doesn’t make sense we must remember that He is always in control.
Now we learn, right off the bat, that Job was a good man. The book opens by proclaiming that Job was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). That’s quite the description. Even God holds Job in high regard as we read in verse 8 “And the Lord said (concerning Job) ‘…. there is none like him on the earth”. Additionally, we learn that while Job was a good man he was also rich. And he’s not just like “hey, I can take my girl to someplace other than Burger King for our date” rich but he’s like:
…you get the idea.
So we know what happens next. Satan, upon receiving permission from God, strips Job of all his earthly possessions. Upon further approval from God, Satan attacks Job’s physical health and Job is stricken with terrible sores.
While none of this makes any sense to us, I want to suggest this morning the reason God allows Job to be tested is because God wants to know what is more important to Job: what God can do for Job or the glorification of God’s name. As Satan pointed out, God had given Job everything He could possibly imagine, so what happens if that’s all striped away?
And in this, we can understand a complex reality behind our God. Because, when viewed in the cultural context of this book, this situation illustrates the difference between our God, Yahweh, and other gods. In Ancient Near Eastern culture, the gods were silent (which had something to do with the fact that they didn’t exist). People took sacrifices to the gods and told them what they wanted: a plentiful harvest, offspring, victory in battle, etc. After making the sacrifice, the people walked away with the hope that what they’d offered was pleasing to the gods and their wish would be granted. If a drought came, famine struck or some other calamity hit, the people just assumed the gods were angry and went back to the drawing board, trying to guess and figure out their gods. But no matter what happened, the gods never literally spoke to them. We’ll see this later in Job
but what was truly amazing, confusing and countercultural about Yahweh, was that He spoke, not only to the Israelites but also to individuals like Job. Furthermore (and of great importance in the immediate situation) God wasn’t just a vending machine. As Job proclaims in Job 1:9: “shall we receive good from God and shall we not receive evil?” The idea that God might allow evil to happen and still be pleased with his servants would’ve prompted complete bafflement to anyone who heard of it.
The same applies today. This concept is completely counter-cultural today in a world when everything tells us the goal is to be happy. But our purpose is not to be happy; we need to understand that in God’s scheme of things, our highest purpose is not happiness.
Because God loves us so much He won’t settle with us just “being happy”. The perfect state of the human soul is not happiness but relationship with and glorification of God. Again, Yahweh, the God of Job, the Jews and our God, is different from the false gods worshiped by the rest of mankind. Because our God wants more for us than anything of earthly value and thus is orchestrating much greater things than meet the eye; namely the glorification of His name through the lives of His servants. Thus, when God doesn’t make sense, and we are prompted to question His ways, we first need to ask ourselves what is more important to us…the blessings God can shower upon us or how we can bring glory to God.
Now in Job 3, there’s a shift in the book and we leave the narrative and enter the dialogue with three of Job’s friends. Job is naturally pondering the same questions as all of us do when we read the text: “why on earth is this happening?” Furthermore, his wife is of little support:
So it’s safe to say Job may have been relieved at the prospect of consolation from his friends. When Job’s friends first see him, however, they are dismayed. Job by this point has not only lost everything of value, and thus is undeniably overcome with grief, but his physical well-being has also been attacked by Satan. We know that he is covered in sores from head to foot and was using a piece of pottery to scrape them off of him. So the first words out of his friend’s mouths certainly weren’t “Well, you look good.”
After a period of silence, Job starts a dialogue that will last for the next thirty-four chapters, and he starts it by cursing the day of his birth. This part of the book is remarkably philosophical and hours could be invested in its discussion. Essentially the question being discussed here, and the central theme of Job, is: why do bad things happen to good people? It’s a fair question and Job, by his account and ours, seems to have a pretty good case. Because like my story with the GPS, many of us seem to find ourselves in Job’s shoes quite often. We find ourselves sitting in the middle of the woods of life, looking around us, wondering how we’ll ever make it out alive and why on earth God has lead us there. And so Job spends page after page spilling his heart out to his friends. Their response is culturally logical but hardly encouraging: “you must’ve done something wrong, for you are not perfect nor can you claim to be blameless” to which Job’s response can be summarized as:
Furthermore, Job sticks to his guns, continuing to proclaim his innocence and demand an answer from God. And then, in a moment that would be mind-blowing to anyone hearing the account of Job in Ancient Near Eastern culture, God answers.
In chapter 38 God breaks the silence and addresses Job. He says: “Dress for action like a man, I will question you and you make it known to me.” And Job’s like:
God is not happy thus He spends the next couple of chapters proclaiming His power and goodness. These passages could be analyzed in great detail, but for now it’s worth noting that the gist of His message is: “I am God, you are not.”
Now on the one hand, God certainly is angry with Job. Job overstepped his bounds and presumed that God was accountable to him (an assumption, if we’re honest, I’m sure everyone of us has made). But I want to make a point here that, in the midst of His anger, God is also being incredibly merciful to Job and this dialogue is really, truly, an act of love. Have no doubt, if God wanted to strike Job dead, he would have; but instead He talks to him. And this is significant when seen in light of an event that’s probably taking place around the same time.
While the book of Job is situated in the middle of the Old Testament, it is widely acknowledged to be the oldest book of the Bible. Furthermore, it’s estimated that the events in Job took place as early as the time of Abraham or possibly up to the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. It’s shortly after this Exodus that Moses, the leader of God’s people, makes a request of God. The story is found in Exodus 33:18-20:
“Moses said, ‘Please show me your glory’. And he (The LORD) said ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD’ (YHWH) And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.’”
So here we have the account of Moses which probably took place a little after or even during the time of Job, and Moses asks to see God. What is God’s response? It’s not “no!” but rather “you can’t”. Because God’s glory is so powerful, incredible and so completely unfathomable, that no human can see it and live.
What I want to offer to you here is this: Job asks a similar question to Moses, although it’s of a different nature. Job doesn’t want to see God physically, but he wants to understand Him in an intellectual and spiritual capacity. Job is seeking to understand God, His glory, His mind, His benevolence, His power and His majesty. What he’s saying to God is similar to what a lot of us say: “God, show me how this makes sense!” or “God, explain this to me!” and God’s answer, rather than smiting Job (and us for that matter) or even granting him his request and therefore allowing him to die, is one of mercy. He says, simply: “You can’t understand.” C.S. Lewis puts it much better than I could, when he said:
“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of “No answer”. It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head, not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, “Peace, child; you don’t understand”.
-C.S. Lewis; A Grief Observed
This hardly seems like consolation though, does it? I don’t know about you, but when I’m going through a difficult time, it’s not very comforting for someone to tell me: “Well, you just can’t understand.” I mean…
And if that were the end of God’s consolation then His benevolence could possibly be questioned. But it’s not and we have to go a step further, beyond not understanding, and remember what is promised to us; that’s where we will find true comfort. Because we cannot forget that the God who spoke to Job wasn’t just a God who spoke, though that would’ve been remarkable enough. He wasn’t just a God who stood off in a distance watching everyone and then gave His input. He wasn’t a God who saw Job’s suffering, saw the suffering of all humans, and said “well, that’s too bad…you just don’t understand why this is happening.” Rather, our God is one who saw our suffering, and though we couldn’t understand Him, He made sure that He understood us. John Ortberg puts it wonderfully and simply:
“There is a God who loves so much that He suffers.”
God doesn’t just see our pain, He doesn’t just see our hurt, shrug His shoulders and say “Well, that’s just too bad.” Instead, He sent His Son, to bear ALL the sin and ALL the pain borne by everyone in the history of the ENTIRE world for the glorious purpose of redeeming it. And this is the thing we must remember when we’re going through difficult times: God, through the redemptive power of Christ’s sacrifice, is making all things new.
We see this with Job. In the end, Job is restored and he receives twice of what he used to have. His fortune doubles; God gives him everything he could possible ask for and more! Don’t misunderstand me here; this isn’t a wealth and prosperity message. We aren’t promised fortune in this life, in fact we’re promised anything but that. But we are, most certainly, promised that everything we’ve lost in this life will be restored. I give you Revelation 21:
Revelation 21 is one of those biblical passages that, when read in the proper perspective, will blow your mind. Namely:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Behold the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, or crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated at the throne said, “behold, I am making all things new.”
Revelation 21:1a, 3-5a
Here (in convenient bullet point form) is the promise of restoration given to us:
God will dwell amongst us
No longer will we not be able to understand or see God for fear that we will die, but we’ll be with Him, we will be in the presence of God almighty
We will be His people and He will be our God
This is a promise mere “happiness” cannot even begin to understand let alone compare too, our purpose and fulfillment as human beings will be perfectly existent for eternity
God will wipe away every tear from our eyes
Every pain of this life, every hurt, every loss, every question, they’ll all be answered and their meaning’s brought to light as we are ushered into the love and comfort of the Most High
My brothers and sisters, if that’s not receiving double whatever we’ve had in this life, then I don’t know what is.
Life isn’t easy and that’s an inescapable reality; sometimes God just does not make sense. We see this in the book of Job and in our own lives. But if there’s anything we take away from reading Job, it’s that the God of this universe, the God of our lives, our pain and yes, even our questions, is a God who not only cares for us but understands. He is a real God; and not only does He speak to us through history, but He is weaving a story through our lives that will culminate in His perfect plan of restoration. He is a God who walked among us, who lived the life He knew we would live, so that He might become a perfect atoning and proper sacrifice, so that the sin which separates us from Him might be forgiven and our true restoration made complete. When God doesn’t make sense, we must remember that He understands us and, though we may not see it at the time, has mercy upon us.
In the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit