Job 14:7-15; 19:23-27
Today we continue with our study of Job. At this point in Job we come to see a man who is suffering intensely. And his friends have been worse than useless: they have been adding to his pain. Rather than being supportive listeners, they have basically been telling Job that it must be his fault, that he would not be suffering if he hadn’t deserved it somehow, that God was punishing him for crimes that he must have in his heart if nowhere else, and that he needs to repent in order to be released from his suffering. Again, the book of Job confronts this idea. One of the ways in which it does that is to show the errors of it in the form of Job’s friends’ speeches. Like most of us when someone we care about is in pain, they are unable to do what is most helpful and most needed in difficult times, which is to simply be present with the person who is suffering. Job’s friends also, unhelpfully, tell him to keep quiet, to shut up. They tell Job that he has no right to express his pain and even less right to speak his frustration about his situation to God.
But Job’s pain is total and all compelling. And while his first response was silence, we have moved far beyond that at this point in the story into a totally different stage of grief. As I said last week, he doesn’t ever curse God, but his pain is so full that he does curse his own life: the day he was conceived. His pain has become so intolerable to him that he cries out in unbearable anguish. He starts by yelling at his friends – who are you to tell me to shut up? I’m upset, things are bad, I am in PAIN. And finally in today’s passages he turns in his crying to God.
We are familiar with Job’s cries. Especially now in this time and in this place. Job’s cry is the cry that we have been hearing in our communities the last few weeks. Job moves in today’s passage also from a crying out of sheer pain into a demand for justice, into an anguished request for things to be righted, for a system that is broken (in Job’s case, he believes God’s system is what is broken) to be fixed. It is too much to bear. We are seeing this now in our own communities. The cries of the black community and those who care about them have moved from a place of deep pain into a lament and a long, deep waling that is a crying out for justice, for an unjust system of prejudice, racism, and oppression to change. Job is crying out about a relationship that is so broken he can’t take it, and so intense that he can’t be rid of it. And this is the cry of God’s people now.
Job’s friends believe this to be unfaithful. But Job’s pain declares that he is beyond caring if that is the case. He demands for God to hear him. He will be heard and he will not be silenced.
But what I want to say to you today is two things. First, I want to note the immense power that his speaking out gives to Job, for his own life, for his own experience. Jewish belief at this time was that death was final. It was absolute. It was an ending and a separation from all that one had known, all that one had cared about. It was THE END – written with capital letters.
Job talks about the tree that, once cut down will sprout again. I think about the fact that many of the trees in the middle east are olive trees. At our house we had this huge olive tree that was a problem for a number of reasons. First, it blocked the sun from coming into the family room. But second, it also caused a huge host of allergy problems for my family as well as a huge olive stain mess in the house. So we had it cut down. But every year since we cut it down, little olive branches have begun to grow from under the ground around the stump. The stump, the sign and symbol of what was a full life but is no longer is still there. The stump is the scar that shows that the plant suffered the tragedy of being cut down. But it kept trying to live again through these little branches growing up. This is what Job would have experienced too – that cutting down the tree did not end the possibility of life, of renewal of new growth. Job says that in contrast humans are more like a dried-up lake that can no longer hold water. He expresses this as a reality, one that he has been taught through his cultural and religious heritage. When he begins to speak he is in ultimate despair of the dried up water that will never regenerate.
As I read this, I again found myself thinking about our world at this time. It is so easy for us to lose hope when there are so many problems that seem beyond healing. The racism, the destruction of the environment, the huge growing discrepancy between the rich and the poor, the undeniable oppression of the most vulnerable in our society… it is too much. Holding on to hope in these times feels difficult to say the least.
Job is right there with us. Remember that he has lost everything: his home, his riches, but also those who worked for him and finally, his family – his children. They are gone. They are dead. And no matter what follows, the loss of one’s children, and in his case it was all of his children – that is a pain beyond any I could imagine. I found myself remembering a quote from the book The Life of Pi. “My suffering was taking place in a grand setting. I saw my suffering for what it was, finite and insignificant, and I was still. My suffering did not fit anywhere, I realized. And I could accept this. It was all right. [But] It was daylight that brought my protest: ‘No! No! No! My suffering does matter. I want to live!’” (177)
Job had lost everything. And the despair that comes with that is obvious. Hope is more elusive. And yet, we see in this passage an alternating between his despair and moments of hope. How did he find it when he believe that death was the end? How could he hold on to hope when everything looked so dark, so foreboding. When there is no guarantee that things will end well, but many signs that things will end badly, how does one hold on to hope? Talk of hope without facing the reality of death is dishonest. So when faced with death, what do you hope for? To heal relationships? To find peace? At the heart of Job’s despair is a sense of isolation which death will only further. Again, the idea of resurrection was not part of this Jewish reality. For Christians, this passage is often used on Holy Saturday, or the day before Easter in the Catholic church. These passages reflect the quiet of a deserted road in the middle of nowhere: shock, danger, fear. Despair.
But what I want to point out here is that in his speaking, this place, this idea of the ultimate end moves. In chapter three Job was yearning and begging for death. But here, he is hoping for and envisioning something beyond it. There comes a point in the deepest of unjust suffering, which is what Job has been experiencing, in which the accused, the one suffering, the one being oppressed must make an ultimate decision: to give up and die in despair, or to find the will to fight. Job at first was giving in, because one cannot choose to stand up and fight that kind of ultimate despair alone. But he changes. In these passages he comes to a certainty that a redeemer will stand with him. And he comes to this through his own speaking, through his lament, through his decision to confront the God he believes is harming him.
I remember reading a book about trauma and the effects and scars left by deep trauma. The author was following children in war times and now was looking at the children in Syria who had lost house, family, source of food, etc. And one of the things he found was that children who were able to write, and who journaled their experienced, were psychologically much more able to handle the crises than those who had no place to voice their pain, no place to name it, to speak it. Job is expressing his pain through words to God. And the very expression of those words changes him.
In his remembering the image of the resurrection that the tree offers, he also calls to his own mind another possibility. “If someone dies, will they live again? All the days of my hard service I will wait for my renewal to come. You will call and I will answer you; you will long for the creature your hands have made.” And then, with even more conviction he continues, “I know that my redeemer lives,… and after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”
There is hope here: deep, and sometimes inexplicable hope given where he comes from and what he has believed previously. But it is there. His expression of his pain has allowed him to move beyond complete despair and into the possibilities that he has not seen or understood the whole picture and that it might be bigger than he can imagine, more connected and more healing than he can imagine.
His words seek more than just hope for his own life: they speak of redeeming a compromised system. A commentator from Feasting on the Word said it this way: “Such stories provide a nuanced and complex way of exploring the elements that lead to a failure of justice. They allow for an honest confrontation of the corruption that besets even the best systems of law. They also provide an alternative to the complacency of those who refuse to see evil and the cynicism of those who refuse to believe that anything can be done about it.”
His words are incredible expressions from a man whose faith tradition is such that death is the end. These are declarations of faith in a God whose love extends beyond any suffering, beyond any grave, beyond even death. Despite everything, Job finds hope. He finds hope in his own laments and speeches to God. And that hope is on a grand scale.
I’m reminded of these words by Rienhold Niebuhr in The Irony of American History:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”
Job’s crying out is healing of him. Job’s crying out is what brings him hope. Job’s crying out is the beginning of an insistence on justice, on help, on reconciliation and healing.
Job’s crying out, his decision to finally speak to God, to say what he is feeling in all its fullness, his insistence that God hear him: these are acts of deep faith. The practice of lament, of speaking out to God, of raising our voices in our pain: these practices are rooted deeply in our psalms, in the book of Lamentations, and here in the book of Job.
Next week and the week following we will be talking about God’s response to this. But for this week what I want to make clear is that lament is one of the truest expressions of faith because it declares a number of things: