Tuesday 19 October 2021

Job. Reflection 3


In spite of Satan’s wandering round the world and his watching of all that was going on, it was really God that drew Job’s life to the attention of Satan, saying:

Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless – a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil (1:8)

And from there, it was Satan’s contention that Job was only a devout man because of all the blessings that God had bestowed upon him and because Satan had said this, God allowed, if you like, Satan to subject Job to such horrendous trial and suffering, the loss of all his worldly wealth and the deaths of all his sons and daughters. And yet the first chapter of the Book of Job concludes, by saying:

In all of this, Job did not sin by blaming God. (1:22)

Now, as we turn to the second chapter in this story, we begin to see as things unfold, that Job’s troubles are far from over. Again, we see the heavenly court once more in session with all the angels gathered round the throne of God. And as the good book tells us, Satan was there with them and so we read:

Then the Lord asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless—a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil. And he has maintained his integrity, even though you urged me to harm him without cause.”

Satan replied to the Lord, “Skin for skin! A man will give up everything he has to save his life. But reach out and take away his health, and he will surely curse you to your face!”

“All right, do with him as you please,” the Lord said to Satan. “But spare his life.” So Satan left the Lord’s presence, and he struck Job with terrible boils from head to foot.

Job scraped his skin with a piece of broken pottery as he sat among the ashes. His wife said to him, “Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die.”

But Job replied, “You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” So in all this, Job said nothing wrong. (2:1-10)

Now Satan was nothing if not persistent, and so it was he argued that it wasn’t that Job would never forsake God under any circumstances, it was simply that Job hadn’t suffered enough, and surely, he reasoned, that there is nothing like physical pain and suffering that in the end, would bring Job to curse God to his face.

‘All right do with him as you please’, say God, ‘But spare his life’. So, in the second chapter of the story we see Job being handed over to the not so tender mercies of Satan. Here Job now begins to encounter the midnight hour, the hour when all will seem lost, where the light of hope is fading and all the past certainties and comforts are either no longer there for him or at least certainly cannot be relied on in the same way. What sort of abject misery is it that can leave a man literally sitting in the ashes of his own despair scraping his skin with shards of broken pottery, infected as he was, from head to foot with oozing and painful boils? If ever there was evidence of the absence of God in a world devoid of meaning and yet full of senseless suffering, then there it was, inexplicably and explicitly manifest in the life of a devout and successful man brought to the depths of such misery.

When things are going well in life or even amid the predictable humdrum of routine we do not entirely appreciate perhaps as we should, the comfort of home, and the security and the support of family life, the companionship of friends and all that that should mean. But now for Job, amongst the ruins of all that previously made life sweet and dependable came another bombshell:

‘Are you still trying to maintain your integrity?'  said his wife, ‘Curse God and die.’ Job’s wife: it’s the only mention she gets in this story. But she has her story too, Job’s tragedy is her tragedy as well, this ‘riches to rags’ story, she has to endure too, her descent into poverty, her loss of status and no doubt, her loss of most of her friends and the loss of all her children. Let’s look at it like this, if she really knew what the source of all this misery was, she could argue that she was being made to suffer because of Job, because of who Job was. After all, because of who Job was, his personal traits and qualities were of course the very things that had led Job to be singled out by God in the first place and the very reason why Satan became interested in Job.

I’ve recently come across a compilation of the work of the American twentieth century evangelist, Aiden Wilson Tozer (1897 – 1963). Why do I mention this? I mention this because shortly after his death in 1963 this work was published as a book, entitled, Man the Dwelling Place of God. Man, the dwelling place of God. Political correctness apart, we all know that the word Man is used to signify humanity, either man or woman, but more significantly we can grasp from that book title, Man the Dwelling Place of God that the dwelling place of God exists in each person we meet, there is that of God in everyone that we meet. So, we may speak of our ‘Christ nature’ or our ‘inner Christ’. Jesus told his listeners that they were the light of the world and that they should let their light shine before others so that others could see their good works and thus give glory to God. In other words that light that we must let shine that inner light is the very light of God that exists in each one of us and it must be nurtured and grown. This is what Christians mean when they say that we should let Christ enter into our hearts. In the Book of Revelation, we have Jesus saying, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.’ It is the awakened soul that hears that calling that gives over their heart, mind, soul and strength to the love of the Lord to the love of God. It is the awakened soul too that can look on the beauty of creation say with love, with awe and with wonder:

 O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!
Your glory is higher than the heavens. Praise the Lord! (Psalm 8)

And so, I return to those words which give the title to Aiden Wilson Tozer’s compilation: Man the Dwelling Place of God. Can we not see the significance of these words that if God dwells within each one of us, then the battle between good and evil that takes place on a cosmic scale takes place also within each one of us. The point is that in the story of Job the Lord God singles out Job, like a warlike king choosing the territory on which he will fight, the very battlefield on which this conflict must be fought out to the bitter end, and that same battlefield exists in the soul of each person event today as it raged then for the very soul of Job himself. Job as we shall see was no ordinary man, Job’s light shone so brightly that even God praised him from the realm of his heavenly courts When we consider this, we are reminded of God’s praise for Jesus, that praise that was manifest as the voice from heaven, the descending of the Holy Spirit at the baptism of Jesus at the River Jordan, and those words ‘this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.’ The incarnate Christ was also the ‘Dwelling Place of God’ the battleground wherein the struggle between good and evil also took place leading him to Golgotha, leading him to the cross.

We might perhaps recall the words of that famous battle song of John Bunyan, ‘He who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster, let him in constancy follow the master’. When we give ourselves to the glory of God, we must engage in the same struggle as St Paul advises in his letter to the Ephesians when he wrote:

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Ephesians 6: 10-11)

Let us return now to hear Job remonstrating with his wife and to hear the irony of her words, the bitterness, the cynicism the accusatory tone, as she utters those words of condemnation, ‘Are you still trying to maintain your integrity’ he knows that no mutual comfort may come from that quarter, deserted even by her, he finds no moral support or comfort in this time of his greatest need but only that in her opinion he should ‘Curse God and die’.

What else can we say about Job? We can say that the story of Job represents in some way the totality of human suffering although I would venture to suggest that even so, there are others who have inexplicably suffered even more than he. And yet at the height of his suffering Job was still able to admonish his wife, saying: "Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” When all else fails there is only faith and the certain knowledge that God is everything, God is all there is. To curse ‘God and die’ as Job’s wife would have it is perverse evil indeed, to ‘curse God and die’ is to forsake the ground of our own being and to forsake that love that passes all understanding, to ‘curse God and die’ is to enter the abyss, to give succour to the powers of darkness to condone the wickedness of this world and its despair, to embrace the misery of abandonment. This is why when all seems lost, we can still cling to that rock of faith and know that even in death, as we will, we may face the end, knowing that God will not abandon us knowing that God will not abandon the faithful soul, knowing that ultimately, we are spiritual beings and that death itself is merely the prelude to the resurrection and to eternal life.

Monday 30 August 2021

Job. Reflection 2



‘If God loves us so much, why does he allow us to suffer?’ It's the problem of suffering and it’s certainly one of the great challenges that Christians have always had to face either from the opponents of faith as well as from our own feelings of disheartenment as we, each one of us, to a varying degree must suffer the trials and tribulations of life. There appears to be no limits to the suffering we might be expected to endure. And occasionally we will hear that cliché that ‘there are worse things than dying.’ Job, as he suffered, began not only to wish that he’d never been born but began to long for death, to go down into his own grave, so to speak.

 Job cried out:

 Oh, why give light to those who are in misery, and life to those who are bitter? They long for death and it won’t come. They search for death more eagerly than for hidden treasure (4:20-21)

 As we begin to consider again the opening chapters of this wisdom story from the Old Testament, we will remember that (from the first part in this series) we left Job surveying the wreckage of his life, the deaths of his seven sons and three daughters and all his worldly wealth, his 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 teams of oxen, and 500 female donkeys and nearly all his servants; everything gone; either killed, stolen or murdered.

Omitted in the first instalment of this series, was that Job seemed to have instituted his own insurance policy with God. Well, it was an insurance policy for his children really, because in the first chapter starting at verse five it reads that:  

Job’s sons would take turns preparing feasts in their homes, and they would also invite their three sisters to celebrate with them. When these celebrations ended sometimes after several days - Job would purify his children. He would get up early in the morning and offer a burnt offering for each of them. For Job said to himself, ‘Perhaps my children have sinned and have cursed God in their hearts.’ This was Job’s regular practice. (1:5)

Now we have all heard the phrase ‘burnt offerings’ and as we’ve just heard Job would offer a burnt offering to God. Now a ‘burnt offering’ is not a Sunday joint or some roast potatoes that have been left too long in the oven and then offered to you for dinner. The burnt offering is of course a kind of sacrifice to God. The first mention of a burnt offering in the Bible is found in Genesis 8:20 and this burnt offering was a thanks giving to God from Noah after the Flood had receded and his family were once again able to resume their lives on dry ground:

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and there he sacrificed as burnt offerings the animals and birds that had been approved for that purpose. And the LORD was pleased with the aroma of the sacrifice and said to himself, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of the human race, even though everything they think or imagine is bent toward evil from childhood.’

Now, in the story of Job we are told of the feasts held at the houses of his sons. And these feasts were not just simply occasions for a casual barbeque or an evening meal, but rather, much more than that, they were lavish affairs of eating and drinking stretching out over several days. We can assume that Job wasn’t present at these extended parties and it would be hard to imagine that they were events that Job would have entirely approved of. Rather such occasions for Job come across as being problematic to say the least. Job as we have already seen was a highly respected man, a man who had found favour with both God and man. We have these words from God himself saying:

Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless – a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil (1:8)

Yes, ‘Job fears God and stays away from evil’. Here we come to the nub of the problem, let’s look at that statement again, ‘Job fear’s God and stays away from evil’. The story of Job is supposed to be a wisdom story. How do we square the problem of evil and suffering in a world created by a loving God? How do we do it? We all want to be in control of our own lives, because at the very least we would wish each one of us to be secure or at least to be prepared for some sudden misfortune or a foreseeable eventuality. But as Job found out, and as experience shows us, forces outside of our control often impact on our lives and our plans. As Robert Burns famously wrote:

But Mouse, you are not alone,

In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go oft awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

And so, we have it from the pen of Scotland’s greatest poet, the best-laid schemes of mice and men often go wrong. Let’s hear these words of grace from God as he speaks of Job:

He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless – a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil (1:8)

How hard it must have been for Job to live up to such standards of holiness as he faced the unholy problems of day-to-day life, like:

‘Hi dad, just to let you know I’m having another feast at my place’

‘Right son, are you celebrating anything in particular?’

‘No, not really Dad, it’s just that it’s been a few weeks since we had a get together, plenty of good food and plenty of booze; you can come if you like’.

‘Erm, well, no thanks son, I’d rather not, it’d be a bit much for me and your mum, but you go ahead and enjoy yourselves.

Here we go again, Job’s sons and daughters, getting ready for another round of good old-fashioned debauchery. The old fellow doesn’t know exactly what they are all getting up to at these parties but I should imagine that he’s got a good idea. Then in the Bible we have Job saying:

Perhaps my children have sinned and have cursed God in their hearts. (1:5)

Do us a favour Job, if you’re having to get up early in the morning after your adult children have indulged in one of these week-long pleasure-seeking parties, to offer a burnt sacrifice to the Lord as an atonement for each of them for their probable sins, like it’s some kind of pay off to the Lord, some a sort of holy insurance policy - I would rather get the impression that perhaps Job, you are trying too hard. Trying so hard that you are even trying to take responsibility for the possibility that your grown-up children are not right with God.

It all sounds a bit manic to me because it just can’t be done, we can only live the one life, actually our own life, we can’t live another person’s life even to help them, and once our children have grown up, they have to be free to live their own lives and free to make their own mistakes if that’s what they want to do. I’m not saying that Job shouldn’t have prayed for his children, of course he should, but it’s clear from the text Job was going further than that. If we look at the text again, it says:

Job would purify his children and offer a burnt offering for each of them.

But suppose that this ritual of Job is just that: a ritual. Suppose that once he’s done that, he thinks he can tick that job off his ‘to do list’ until his sons decide to have another party where again they may potentially sin, then old Job will have to have another early start so that he can put things right with God on their behalf. The question is, can anyone really buy their children that kind of indulgence from God? What kind of God do we think we are dealing with anyway? We should bear in mind the words of Thomas Merton who once said that:

What is serious to men is often very trivial in the sight of God

And Job certainly had no insight into the mystery of God. That’s the whole point of the story. We might remember that scene in the heavenly court, God asking Satan where he had come from and Satan’s answer that he, Satan, had been wandering round the earth watching everything that had been going on. Now in the story as we have it, we can read that it wasn’t Satan that brought up the question of Job, it was God. It was God that exposed Job to Satan’s attention in the first place and it was God who gave Satan permission to test Job and to make him suffer. And It’s only natural that we ourselves should seek to understand, to explain and interpret this story for ourselves.

In the Book of Proverbs, we are told that, ‘Pride comes before a fall.’ Could it be that in spite of Job’s protestations of innocence that it was true, as Satan implied, that Job really was taking God for granted? Or could it be that Job was trying too hard to be a favourite of God and as such was, he beginning to display some kind of inverted pride, a sort of spiritual pride hidden behind a mask of piety or humility? Or is the point of the story simply that we should take the Book of Job at its word, that God really meant it when he said that Job was a ‘blameless man, a man of complete integrity, a man who feared God and stayed away from evil’ and that we should just accept that God has his own reasons for all that he does and it simply is that we are not privy to the deliberations of his wisdom, his judgements and his plans. And that ultimately, we are led to conclude that we must live by faith, to trust in the Lord our God, and not to lean on our own understanding, but in all our ways to acknowledge him and know that he will direct our paths.