Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Last Sunday we began our study of the Old Testament book of Job by focusing on a common misunderstanding, one promoted by Job's so-called friends or comforters, and one that finds widespread support even today. It goes something like this. Since we believe that God rewards the good and punishes the bad, if something bad happens to you, you must have done something to deserve it. It's the assumption that people only get what they deserve, or at least that we deserve what we get. That we're ultimately to blame for whatever suffering we encounter in this life.
The biblical book of Job resolutely insists this is NOT the case. Job was blameless and upright, a good and faithful man. The fact that he suffered terribly had nothing to do with anything he did, and certainly nothing that he did wrong. It was Job’s friends who were mistaken in their assumptions, not Job himself. God even affirms in the end of the book that Job spoke what was right. He really was innocent. One of the conclusions we can draw from the book of Job is that people DON'T always get what they deserve. Sometimes good people suffer, for what appears to be no good reason.
Another common misunderstanding stems from our reading of this brief passage in the NT book of James which in many translations refers to the "patience" of our friend Job. Patience as most of us understand it implies putting up with things, waiting and accepting, letting things run their course, bearing without complaint. And the expression "the patience of Job," as it's found its way into contemporary idiom, calls to mind all of this to the nth degree. ("If ever ANYONE was patient, it was Job. Remember everything he had to put up with!")
But since the author of James presumably had the same book of Job in front of him as we do, we ought not jump to conclusions about what "the patience of Job" means until we're fairly familiar with the guy the NT author is talking about here. As we heard in our second Scripture lesson this morning, the kinds of "patient" words Job spoke actually sound more like these: "I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul." And these are just a few of many similar lines spoken by Job in the middle section of the book, typical in their brutal honesty. As the story moves along, Job becomes even more bold, accusing God of piercing him with poison arrows (6:4), of crushing him with a tempest and multiplying his wounds without cause (9:17), of hunting him down like a lion (10:16), of breaking him down on every side (19:10).
Clearly it's oversimplification and probably a serious misreading of the book of Job to say that Job bore his sufferings without complaint, that he was patient in that sense. He complained like this for some 30 chapters, with some of the strongest language we ever find in the Bible for people addressing God. So where did James get off calling Job a patient man? If, like me, you were familiar with this NT evaluation of Job long before you ever encountered the words of Job himself, you might well find yourself wondering what happened to that silent, stoic calm you were expecting.
But here's where we need to be careful. In the Greek, the word that James uses to describe Job is hypomene--which actually means something more like "standing fast," or "holding one's ground," or "endurance" (as our pew Bibles more accurately translate it). Hanging in there, yes. And hanging in there with God, in spite of it all. But not necessarily bearing without complaint. Job bore his sufferings, yes, and endured, and persisted in his integrity and his faith, but he was also brutally honest with his friends and with his God about how miserable he was, how unfair his situation was. And he demanded that God respond.
So it's partly a misinterpretation of James' interpretation of Job that leads us to think Job was patient in the sense of passively sitting by and letting things happen to him, as if he were somehow tolerating it all with a gentle smile. Far from it! He stood before God with his fists held high and demanded justice and fairness, using the same standards of justice that God had given him and applying those to God. And in this, Job was not thought to be uttering blasphemy or saying things that ought not be said to God. In fact, he was standing solidly in biblical tradition. Elsewhere in the OT--in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, in the book of Lamentations, and particularly in the psalms of lament--people of strong faith struggled with God, speaking out from their experiences of suffering, crying out in pain, expecting that God would honor their honesty, that God could handle their complaints, and that God would respond.
Job also bears some similarity to the figure of Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom in Genesis 18, a story of Abraham's "holy protest" against the injustice he felt would be done if the innocent were destroyed along with the wicked. The spirit of lament and the spirit of "holy protest" are both well represented in the Scriptures. Job's is not an isolated case. In the Bible, the kinds of things Job said--and even the boldness with which he said them--were felt to be within bounds, one of the ways people of faith could appropriately address God.
We've somehow lost this tradition of lament as people of faith, and gotten away, too, from the tradition of protest that stands there shaking its fist, demanding that the Judge of all the earth do what is right. So it's important to be reminded from time to time that God expects complete honesty from us. True faith can include protest. Genuine prayer may at times need to incorporate complaint.
I've heard people offer prayers of simple acceptance of God's will in situations in which there's a complete disconnect with what they're actually thinking and feeling. Before the 'dear Lord' and after the 'amen', there are powerful, genuine expressions of anger, fear, hurt, and frustration. But once heads are bowed, all this gets swept under the rug. Why is that? Perhaps because we've been taught that true faith means graciously, calmly accepting whatever comes and never questioning its justice or injustice. But this doesn't accurately reflect the range of biblical teachings on prayer. Job carries on a dialogue with God for more consecutive chapters than most anyone else in the Bible. I would think, then, that the presence of this book in the Scriptures suggests we can expand our definitions of what is and is not allowed in prayer. Do we really think we're fooling God when we spit out the words we think we're supposed to say while everything in us wants to cry out in pain or anger? God treasures real conversation with us, and that requires complete honesty on our part. Saying not just what we think God wants to hear, but what needs to be said. Might we all, in this sense, approach the injustices of our world with the so-called "patience" of Job!
The painful truth of the matter is that life can be incredibly hard at times.
The beautiful truth is that we are allowed to say so – even and especially to God – trusting that God’s not going anywhere. Bring it on, folks. He can take it!
Far from being hurt or offended by our honesty, God welcomes it, and holds us, and loves us, through every difficult moment we could ever face.
It’s been said that we pray not so much to tell God what our concerns are. God already knows them, after all. We pray to remind our concerns who God is.
So come as you are to this place of worship, bringing your most painful grievances as well as your deepest joys, and let us celebrate honest conversation and true communion with our Lord. Amen.