Just for a moment, lock into a memory that’s challenging for you personally, a time of challenge. Sometimes you feel as if you are caught in the river, headed over the falls. God, how will this turn out?
Maybe you’ve heard someone describe a person who has “the patience of Job.” It’s probably better to talk about the persistence of Job, because he wasn’t exactly patient. But in his faith, he was persistent. With God’s help, we can also be persistent in our faith, in the long haul, we might even be more faithful because of our suffering. Stronger because of our challenges.
JOB 1:1 There 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.
2:1 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. 2 The 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.” 3 The 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.” 4 Then Satan answered the LORD, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5 But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6 The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.” 7 So 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. 8 Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But 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.
The Suffering of Job. Yikes. How’s that for an unpleasant image? The bible is a story about our relationship with God, about a fight between good and evil, and about how human suffering began with people named Adam and Eve. It ends with God stepping into our world – our history – through Jesus Christ to experience suffering first hand and to overcome the evil. Some people think that by becoming Christians their lives are supposed to get easier. But believers find out that in some ways, life actually gets harder.
Suffering is not easy, no matter what it is. It’s real and it hurts. Sometimes the pain is unbearable. Sometimes it seems you’re alone with your suffering, but you’re not. Sometimes, on a Sunday morning after the worship service, I realize that I’ve shaken hands with a lot of pain. You know what I’m talking about. Everyone in this room has suffered in some way, at some point. You might be in the midst of it right now. It might be why you’re here.
The story today is about suffering – something most of us know a thing or two about. It’s about Job, whose name creates an image of suffering. This is an ancient story, possibly the oldest book in the Bible. It explores peoples’ motives for believing in God. You get the gist of it by comparing the main characters. It can mean more when you put yourself in Job’s place, which is what you are supposed to do.
Job. Job is a wealthy tribal chieftain with a lot of children and plenty of material reasons to be thankful to God. In the first chapter of his life, he “won the lottery.”
God. Everybody knows who God is, but this story shows God in different setting than we might be used to. God is the CEO of a kind of heavenly board of directors who are administrating things on earth. This board of directors includes a rebellious member who doesn’t see eye to eye with God: satan.
Satan. Satan means “accuser” in Hebrew, and in the book of Job, it isn’t a proper name with a capital S. This being should be called the satan, or the accuser. When God asks the satan where he (or she) has come from, the answer is always the same: “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” Let me paraphrase:
“Satan! Whatcha doin’?”
“Where ya goin’?”
The satan has no specific purpose except to walk around aimlessly, doing nothing but accusing. Accusing – assigning guilt. You are charged with the crime of __________ (fill in the blank). Many of us are good at that, and we think that the purpose of faith is to limit our behavior through guilt. The bible is full of legal terms and the satan is the plaintiff who brings the accusation. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is called, “the Advocate, who will be with you forever.” (John 14:16) This is God on your side, your defender.
And the satan is the accuser. I’m sure you’ve heard the satan’s voice at one time or another. The satan invites you to nurture your doubts, to obsess about your doubts. The satan loves it when you have a better handle on what you don’t believe than on what you do believe. The satan is whispering, “Did God really say ‘Don’t eat that fruit’?” (Genesis 3:1) Did God really say anything? The satan invites you to mistrust God, to turn your back on God and walk away. The satan says things that sound good, that may not be completely true, but make a certain amount of sense. Confusing half-truths. But don’t misunderstand, even if the satan tells truth part of the time, the satan is not on your side. The satan wants you to fail in your faith and to give up on God.
Because God is a judge between good and evil, the satan knows that if evil can be found in human beings, God will judge them and they will be separated from God. The satan says that Job is only good because God rewards him for being good, therefore, his goodness is only on the surface. So God depends on Job to prove the satan wrong. And Job depends on God to get him through the suffering. They depend on each other. And the strange thing is that God and Job hardly speak to each other throughout the story. This is called faith. God has as much faith in Job as Job has in God.
Job loses everything except his wife, and her advice is to “curse God and die.” The satan never has to talk directly to Job because she takes the words right out of the satan’s mouth. Meanwhile, Job has a skin disease that makes him an outcast (sitting in the ashes, which means he sits in the town dump, where people burn things).
It’s not surprising that along the way, Job gets angry, and says angry things. He loses his temper with his wife, with his friends, and with God. He eventually has to apologize for the things he says in anger. But he never curses God, that is, never separates himself from God. Believe it or not, God is okay with anger (read the Psalms!). Somehow Job knows that God is the only one he can count on – the only thing that the satan can’t take away from him. It’s hard, but he holds on.
This story is not easy to hear because God didn’t cause Job’s suffering, but didn’t stop it either. That is a hard thing to hear, that God makes no promises to stop suffering.
Instead, God promises to be there if you’ll hang on. God is there even when you come undone and lose sight of God. Even during those times when you can’t hang on. We all have had those moments. But God is just as real as the suffering. Jesus came out of the tomb with scars, but alive. God’s love through Christ is just as real as whatever illness you might have. God’s love through Christ is just as real as your divorce. God’s love through Christ is just as real as the job you just lost. God’s love through Christ is just as real as that bad grade, or that friendship you just lost. In Christ, God is there. God knows all about it. And through Christ, even when things seem to be at the blackest, at the worst, we know that this is not the end of the story.
We ask – why does God allow suffering? Consider the alternatives. Not to be overly simplistic, but think about it. If you couldn’t feel bad, how could you feel good? And if you can’t feel, you are not alive. None of that is much help to somebody who is suffering.
I’m convinced that in every family there is a story of suffering. Sometimes we bring it on ourselves; sometimes it just happens. Every one of us knows what that story is. Maybe you were directly involved, or maybe it was a parent or a grandparent. Something happened that changed the course of life, and brought suffering. Hopefully you won’t stay with that thought so long you forgot that God also gave you some blessings you never expected, blessings that could not be earned or bought.
Suffering just is, and God knows it. God suffers too. That is what the gospel is all about. Those with faith in Christ know that life is full of good times and bad times, good and evil, and it’s not the end, because Christ invites you to say with him, “I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
It’s okay to be angry with God. Anger is part of any strong relationship – and can be healthy, as long as it’s resolved. In the suffering, we might turn our backs on God for a time, but God will never turn away from us. God is willing to take a chance on each one of us. Second chances, third chances, and more.
Where is God when you’re suffering? God is right there (pointing toward the cross). God is right there (pointing to the Bible). God is right there (pointing to the table). God is right there (pointing toward my heart). God is right there (pointing to the church). On behalf of God, we are called to relieve suffering wherever we can. That can mean so many things, right?
Every month, every week, every day, we remember that God knows exactly what we are going through, and has been there ahead of us. God does not depend on us to be good as much as God depends on us to believe. God has used – and will use – the suffering to make us stronger.
In Germany there is a painting in a monastery chapel. The monks at this monastery cared for people with terrible skin diseases and people with the Plague. This painting (the Isenheim Altarpiece) was done in the 16th century by Matthias Gruhnwald. It is a painting of Jesus on the cross. That cross is a rough piece of wood and the Jesus on that cross barely looks human, he is so beaten and maimed. When you look at this painting, your attention is drawn to his hands. His fingers are tense and stretched out. He is in deep pain.
You have to imagine: around the foot of the cross, in this chapel, there is a crowd, sitting on the ground, with their backs to you. They are sick and suffering, maybe close to the end. When I look more closely at Jesus, I realize that he isn’t just crucified (as if that wasn’t enough suffering); he seems to have a skin disease. Maybe he has the plague. When I stand in front of that painting, I am one of the people in the crowd, and I remember that Jesus has carried my pain and suffering to the cross. Jesus shares my suffering, no matter what it is.
So close the doors. It was Friday, now it’s Sunday. Because he live, you are free to live. In Christ, we have overcome. God needs us to believe; God needs us to take our stories of faith and healing to our world. God needs us to be healers.
This is how the painting looks when it’s open – it’s a triptych, made of three parts with hinges in between – it’s only supposed to be open for one night. Close the doors over the cross and you see Christ rising in front of the empty tomb with wounds healed, full of life, and ready to change the world.
O God, we focus so closely on ourselves and our own suffering that we forget you suffer too. Even in our own pain, you are right there with us. Breathe faith into us. Help us feel the warmth of your hand on ours, and the strength of your arm around our shoulders. Remind us that you know the end of our story, and through Christ, you have walked this path; you’ve been there. And through you, we have a real reason to hope. Now send us out into the real world, where other real people suffer real pain. Through your Spirit, fill us with the hope of your resurrection and make us missionaries of peace, bringing the presence of your son Jesus into our living rooms, our offices, our classrooms, and our hospital rooms. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.