Do we have the right to an answer from God?
In the past few weeks the Old Testament readings have taken a quick trip through Job. It began, somewhat strangely, in Job 2 where Satan convinces God to allow him to attack Job’s body, having previously decimated his property. Such an attack is necessary to test Job’s righteousness, while God protect Job’s life commanding Satan not to kill him. This is part of the prologue of the book. Scholars divide it into a prologue, followed by the “poetic dialogues” between Job and his friends (chs 3-31), the “Elihu speeches” (chs 32-37) and two speeches by God each followed by a response by Job (38.1-42.6). An epilogue (42.7-17) brings the book to a close.
After setting the stage by the reading from the prologue, the lectionary catapults us into the center of the dialogue between Job and his friends. From last week’s selection (Job 23.1-9, 16-17), we got a feeling for how the dialogues have been going between Job and his would be comforters. All along Job has complained that, since he is righteous, his suffering has been unjust. All along, his comforters have said, in effect, “Job, since the fault cannot be with God, it must be with you. Think and repent a little harder, and you may make peace with God and your situation.” In short, he and his friends are not hearing each other. They are failing to communicate, however long and poetic their speeches may be. In the text, Job’s alienation from his human interlocutors goes right along with his alienation from God.” If only God was not absent,’ Job seems to say, “if only he we would come near to me! Then I could finally make myself understood. Then my pain could be communicated and thus become, truly, my own. I could become my own again.” As it is, Job intimates, I can only long for my own annihilation. “If only I could vanish in darkness,” he says, “and thick darkness would cover my face.” In fact, Job does not merely wish for his death, as though it were merely what was coming next. He also, in a sense, proclaims his death. This is the depth of his alienation crying out.
There is a recurring theme in the dialogues of mere words or inflated speech—generated by pride and sin, it seems—in contrast to the wisdom of God. The latter, God’s wisdom, penetrates to the depths of things and also powerfully orders them. The former, words produced by human pride, are empty and constitute a kind of smoke screen. They prevent the speaker seeing, or are in fact a willful resistance to, the truth. In a sense, the dialogue between Job and his friends becomes a kind of contest or debate, where the comforters repeatedly accuse Job of producing mere speech, implying of course that their own words have landed on wisdom. I think to be fair one must say that within Job’s speeches one finds some of both, empty words and true seeking of wisdom. For instance, when he expresses his longing to come before God in his dwelling his plan is to “lay my case before him, and fill up my mouth with arguments.” Perhaps he ought to be observing a rule about not talking to God with your mouth full of anything, especially argument. But, in any case, we might sense his pride rising up in such moments.
On the other hand, Job is acutely aware of the danger of concocting and rehearsing a case to plead before God as though a lawyer preparing to argue before a jury. After naming his merits, his faithfulness to God’s ways, Job interrupts his train: “But he stands alone and who can dissuade him? What he desires, that he does. For he will complete what he appoints for me; and many such things are in his mind.” These interruptions, admissions of finitude, themselves show that Job (on any sympathetic reading) at least holds up wisdom as a standard, if he does not presently stand within it. This makes the dialogue itself quite profound and incapable of smooth resolution.
In light of this, perhaps the underlying question is not so much whether we have right to an answer to God, as I suggested above. But rather, the question is whether and to what degree we truly desire an answer. I say this in part with Job’s friends in mind. While we might normally wish to sympathize with Job’s friends, aren’t they motivated by a desire we all recognize to be happy—that is, for life to be pleasant and smooth? The logic of happiness, its normalcy to us, tempts us to greet a great aberration, some instance of debilitating suffering, as something of itself foreign to what we are. We see and interpret it with a kind of suspicion that seeks foremost to detach us from it. “Objective” ideas about how God responds to, or conforms nature to, our moral merits or vices quickly come to the aid of such detached, objectifying interpretations of another’s suffering. It assumes that God is present whenever things are going well, or “my way.” One brilliant thing this text does is to represent what it feels like to be so viewed by others. To put it one way, Job feels like he is talking to the air! His words fly out by find no receptive ear to ground them.
This is not to say that he isn’t, at least at times, full of hot air himself. Nor does it mean that his friends’ words never land on what is reasonable. Job’s voice, the voice of a sufferer, is so important not to drown out for a community like the church because without it we lose the basis of moral discernment—namely, the perspective of another, especially the hurt and hurting. In a formal way, I believe, the perspective of the sufferer—who breaks out of the logic of happiness, if only (and hopefully) temporarily—serves to complicate simple, smooth stories. By rendering the texture of our story more complex, rougher, they remind us of our finitude. And this is to remind us that we depend upon one another. We cannot be truthful about our own lives without one another.
There is a further (and I hope complementary) point to be made about the import of suffering with respect to our relation to God, and this one about the individual. I have noticed that suffering tends to empty me of that self-importance which distracts me from attention and devotion to the God Christians worship. Perhaps a strong taste of the frustration that always follows putting trust in myself—something sickness often occasions for me—begins the reorientation necessary for adapting a posture of trust in God. This, I suggest, is also a way of reading Job: he is being emptied out of his arguments for his own merit in order that his pious assertions of God’s sovereignty can become real for him at an experiential level.
Our selection for this upcoming Sunday (38.1-7) takes us into the speeches of God, and Job’s responses. “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you and you will declare to me./ Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!”
So, as the speech starts, Job gets “put in his place.” It seem as though the claim of his friends—that Job’s words were nothin’ but fluff—is vindicated. Surely, what is highlighted here is the temptation of speech, words spoken in order to justify ourselves. These words inevitably cloud wisdom. It is therefore necessary to cut through them, just as God’s speech does here. It might be fine to stop here. God’s speech or wisdom seems to have a self-established quality that needs no rejoinder, no conversation partner in man. Job is addressed, which is at least part of what he wanted, and God’s speech attains wisdom. Being reminded that “God is God, and I ain’t”, is perhaps good news in itself.
But I believe that if we go beyond the lectionary selection in reading this part of Job, we can we find something further, more positive, to say about the mutual presence of God and Job. There are two things that suggest to me that it is so. First, there appears the biblical tension between man’s obvious finitude and impotency in the face of God—“Who are you?”—and his uniqueness, even exaltedness, among creation because of his unique participation in God’s wisdom. (It is the same tension, by the way, echoed in the reading from Hebrews a couple weeks ago, “You have made them for a little while lower than the angels..” 2.7.) If it is true that we are simply silenced, awestruck, by God’s ordering wisdom which is above us, it is also true that we have a part to play in it. And the text suggests how around 39.13 where we are implicitly compared to the ostrich. The imperfection of the ostrich is found in its “forgetfulness” with regard to the harmonious order God creates. Therefore, it leaves its eggs lying around where another animal may step on and crush them. This is by the design of God, who has “given it no share in understanding.” The fact that the Ostrich “forgets” God’s wisdom—in fact has been designed to do so—also suggests how we play a part in it. Importantly, we do so not by being authors of wisdom as only God can be—God’s many questions of Job here remind us of that—but by remembering or being mindful of God’s wisdom.
Second, Job has a few more lines in this drama. Dumbfounded though he is, he responds—two times, in fact. The first words he utters in 40.3-5 seem like merely a literary expression of his silence or of his having nothing whatsoever to say. “I have spoken once, and will not answer; twice but will proceed no further.” But at the beginning of 42 he finds his voice, after a fashion. What catches my attention are two verses in which Job apes what God has said to him, including “Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.” Could this be the text’s way to suggest that a sort of conversation has begun between God and Job, in which there will be giving and receiving on both sides? Job, perhaps via his suffering, is listening to God in a fresh way—“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you”—and this listening, somehow, becomes the ability to speak in turn.