Friday, May 25, 2018

Loving what you can't control (Job 42, continued)

For a time in my life, my wife and I lived in different states. We didn’t choose to do that, but my job was in another state, and for various reasons she lived in our home while I had an apartment where I worked. I’d leave on Sunday evening and come home on Friday.

I have to admit I didn’t mind being alone. I spent a lot of time on the road in my career, and I loved driving by myself for long distances. Unfortunately for my family, when we’d go on family vacations I too often acted like no one else was in the car and retreated into that world where I live when I drive, where I can think and listen to music and just process whatever is going on.

My family will tell you I can get lost inside my head, and I become difficult to talk to. I can get lost in a good book and make it clear I don’t want to get interrupted. As much as I love my wife and family, sometimes I enjoyed being off by myself.

The other day my wife and daughter were talking about what would happen if my wife died before me (not sure what was going on there!). My daughter told my wife, “Mom, if you die first, Daddy will just sit in the house, read books, never leave, forget to eat, and be grumpy.”

I would have been offended except I can see where she thinks that. And, truth be told, she’s probably right.

But even with that, I can tell you I love being around people. I love relationships. I don’t have that many really good friendships(probably as a result of living so much in my head), but those I do have I value. I get recharged by meeting new people, seeing new places, going into new situations, and making new friends.

Because we are people meant for relationships – with God, with each other. God said it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone, even though Adam had God to walk and talk with, so God made Eve. That’s just how we're supposed to be.

We come to the end of Job’s story in Chapter 42, and see where Job’s position and wealth are restored.

But it’s how they are restored that is important: through relationships with other people.

It says in verse 10, “After Job had prayed for his friends” – remember how important that prayer was, that it was the final test for Job, and again Job proved his righteousness – “the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him over all the trouble the Lord had brought on him, and each one gave him a piece of silver and a gold ring.”

It says “All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before…” And I can’t help but wonder – where were all these people when Job was in misery? We never knew he had “brothers and sisters;” where was his family in all this misery? And all those people he had helped in his role as counselor, giving advice at the city gate, helping through tough situations – once calamity hit Job, they were nowhere to be found.

Why? Because, if we’re honest, most of us are not comfortable being around people going through hard times. I can tell you I’m not good around sick people. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to ask people "how's it going" without feeling like I’m prying. And maybe I don’t really want to know, just in case it’s really bad and they start crying. I don’t handle emotion very well, either.

And when someone loses his job, loses his position or prestige, it’s human nature to scatter. It’s like we’re afraid of guilt by association. I’ve had friends who lost really good jobs, and even known a few people who were indicted for crimes that they may or may not have committed. I can tell you a lot of people who used to flock to them suddenly looked the other way when they were in the same room; they’d find another table to sit at during a meeting. Some of it may have been mean, but I think most of it was just uncomfortable.

When I was in the media, a career that included newspapers and radio and TV, I had a lot of "friends." People used to tell me, “If you ever leave the media, you’ll be in such demand. We could really use you.” And then when, after 30 years, I did leave, do you think I heard from those people? Even when I called, those people who said they’d love to hire me suddenly were saying, “If I hear of anything, I’ll let you know.” And it wasn’t just me. I’ve seen quite a few of my friends go through the same thing.

Ah, but just like Job’s friends and family, they show up for the party at the end!

Maybe you know some people like that.

Don’t misunderstand my tone. I may sound bitter, but I’m not. I get it. I really do.

But it’s wrong.

Still, for Job, once everyone got the word that God actually showed up and spoke to Job, and that the people who shunned Job would only be forgiven if Job forgave them, suddenly they were all over him, bringing him gifts, helping him get started again in his business, bringing pot luck meals and no doubt offering to help him restart his herds.

And you know what? Job accepted their help. That’s pretty important, too.

There was nothing to be gained by being bitter, by accusing them with “where were you when I needed you?” My guess is that Job, being the righteous man of God that he proved to be, forgave and welcomed these people back into his life, accepted their gifts, went back to work to rebuild his business and his family and his position in society.

Could God have done this without those relationships, as shallow as they seemed to have been? God can do anything, of course – but God chose for Job to get his life back through relationships.

Relationships are, by their very nature, reciprocal. People want to know you, you have to want to know them. People want to hang out with you, you have to want to hang out with them. And that can get messy, and uncomfortable, and even have risks (like getting sick, too, if the person you visit is ill; having people wonder about you if the other person has been indicted for a crime). But most of us think we're worth the risk. Therefore, aren't other people worth the risk too?


The story goes on to say, “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys. And he also had seven sons and three daughters. …”

I don’t know about you, but it kind of bothers me to think that 10 new children could replace the 10 children Job had lost. He and his wife had already raised 10 children to adulthood. My children are out of college now, and as much as I love them and the way they’ve turned out, I can’t imagine starting over. My wife loves babies. She’d gladly have more, if she could. Meanwhile, I had a dog for 18 years who travelled with me and lived with me when I was away from home and I loved, but as much as I miss him now that he died, I just can’t do the puppy thing again.

But somehow Job and his wife – the same woman, I assume, who told Job to “curse God and die” in the early part of the story – come together and had 10 more kids. There is a lot of reconciliation going on here.

The bigger question I have is, how much courage did it take for Job to become a father again? I have read stories of Holocaust survivors who were terrified to bring children into the world because of what they went through and the fear that it could happen again. I read stories of people who say they just think it’s wrong to bring children into a world of such pain and suffering.

Job has seen the absolute worst that life can bring, and he chooses to do it all again. Job – and his wife - choose to bear children again. Job chooses to love and live, even when he knows the potential cost of loving and living, the potential for pain and loss that comes with any relationship.

And while it says Job’s wealth was doubled, meaning he got twice as much of everything this second time around, he didn’t get twice the children. He only got the same number as he had when the story started. Maybe that’s because God knew the first 10 could not be replaced and would never be forgotten; maybe it’s because while those 10 died, they were still alive in heaven which means that Job actually did have twice the number of children.

If I may be so bold, I think there is an underlying question that God is really posing as He talks about the universe and the plan that only He can see. It’s a question that we all face – Job and every one of us.

The question is this: Can you love what you do not control? It is a question worth pondering, as we look at this creation that we can’t control; the ups and downs of life’s events we can’t control; the people we love – even our own children – that ultimatly we can’t really control; even, ultimately, the wild and unpredictable Creator of it all.

Wife, children, job, friends - Job couldn't control any of them. To a certain extent - at least for a time - he lost them all. But he gladly and unselfishly accepted it all back, even knowing the pain of having been rejected by those very same people. Just like you and I have been hurt by (and have hurt) our wife or husband, our children, our friends, our boss, our pastor, our church, our neighbors. The question is, are we willing to get over it, to accept their apology and attempts to restore that relationship, to look past their own imperfections even as we hope they look past ours?

To me, that's a reflection of our relationship with God. We love Him, we reject Him, we want to come back to Him and God accepts us over and over and over. It's the children of Israel in the Old Testament, it's the Gospel of the New Testament, it my life and, my guess is, it's yours.

So the question is, are you willing to love what you cannot control?


Monday, May 21, 2018

The Art of Asking for Forgiveness - and Forgiving (Job 42)

Ah, revenge. We love it, don’t we? To see justice done – particularly when justice involved making right some wrong that was done to us.

My family loves the movie “The Princess Bride.” The character of Inigo Montoya has spent his life seeking revenge on the six-finger man who killed his father. He’s spent nearly his entire life looking for this six-fingered man, and when he finally meets him he utters (repeatedly) one of the great lines from a movie of great lines: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Only the thing is, after all those years when Inigo finally gets his revenge, he is lost. He says, “It is very strange. I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it's over, I don't know what to do with the rest of my life.”

We get to the end of Job, and after all the theology, drama, discussion of the previous 41 chapters, it’s easy to simply be thankful Job’s ordeal is finally come to an end, making it easy to gloss over this last chapter as simply the Disney ending of “And everyone lived happily ever after.”

But I think we make a mistake to dismiss these final words so easily.

As far as we can tell, Job’s friends hear God talking to Job, which means they soon understand they have been wrong all this time, Job was right, and God is not happy with them.

God tells the friends, “So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly.”

A couple of things happen here.

One, God tells the friends to ask Job to forgive them. In fact, it sounds like God is saying not only do the friends need to ask for Job’s forgiveness, but whether or not God will forgive them depends entirely on Job.

If you’re Job, that’s pretty powerful. He can have final say over the people who have been doubting him, speaking lies about him, arguing with him that Job deserved all that has happened to him. I don’t know about you, but I like nothing better than to be proven right. I love it when people say, “We should have listened to you.” And it’s only human nature to want to see those people who spoke ill of me to experience a little misery of their own.

Once, many years ago, a young man wanted to join an organization I was part of. I didn’t think this young man was a good fit, and said so. I had enough influence to block the application, but the next week the leaders of this organization brought the application up again and used a rule to block me from having a vote. The young man was accepted into the organization.

It just so happened that I left that organization not long afterward. It had nothing to do with this incident; I simply moved to take advantage of another opportunity. But years later I ran into a few of the people from that organization who told me it was soon evident that I was right, and in fact it became something of a catch phrase whenever this person did something not in keeping with the organization, and someone would say, “Melick was right.” Selfishly, part of me was gratified.

So God tells Job, “I know your friends have spoken ill of you, and they’ve spoken lies about me. If they ask you to forgive them, it’s up to you. If you forgive them, I’ll forgive them too.”

But as Scripture tells us time and time again, we’ve been forgiven so much – our sins, and the penalty of death that those sins call for – how can we fail to forgive someone who wrongs us, some human who really has no power over our eternal destiny?

What does that say to us about how we’re to behave when we realize we’re wrong? What we’d like to do – what most of us do – is simply say, “Hey, that whole thing that I accused you of, that ruined your life? Apparently, I was wrong. Sorry about that.”

God offers a more extreme measure of how to ask forgiveness. Not that we need to go gather livestock to kill in front of the person we did wrong in order to show how sorry we are, but I am afraid that my asking for forgiveness needs to go beyond a simple, “Sorry about that.”

Asking forgiveness is, I think, not something we’re to take lightly. There is a cost in forgiveness. Jesus demonstrated that on the cross. And while I’m not comparing my willingness to forgive someone with Jesus’ sacrifice, when we’re asked to forgive someone for something they did to us there is some humility involved on our part. We could demand justice. We could react with righteous indignation. And who would fault us for that?

Maybe God.

In what we call “the Lord’s Prayer,’’ we’re told to say, “Forgive us, as we forgive others.” (My paraphrase). That’s compelling, that we ask to be forgiven to the extent that we forgive. In fact, Jesus goes on to break this down further when he unpacks it in Matthew 6:14–15: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” That’s huge.

James, the half-brother of Jesus whose language is most like that of Jesus, says in his book (chapter 2, verse 13), “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (NIV). Kind of like Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” And the Old Testament prophet Micah (6:8): “What is required of you but this: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”

And Job – for all we know, Job is still sick. He’s still scratching and sitting in ashes, miserable. When the three friends come to Job seeking his intercession with God on their behalf, it's not just their humility that is on trial. Job is now being asked to love his enemies and pray for those who abused him. He is being asked to bless those who cursed him and not to return evil for evil.

It’s like one last test of Job – even after all this, will Job still do what is right in God's eyes?

The very one that they had accused of being far from God must become their priest to bring them near to God. In other words, God is seeing to it that the only way the three friends can experience reconciliation with God is through experiencing reconciliation with Job. They must humble themselves before Job, not simply before God.

Asking forgiveness should not be easy. It should not be something like a throw-away line. It seems to me it should be serious stuff - and I know I'm as guilty of trivializing it as anyone; of simply asking to be forgiven because I want to end the argument or release the tension and about half the time I don't really mean it because down deep I can make really convincing excuses for myself.

Let me go back to my story up above. I don’t remember that young man’s name. I have no idea of what happened to him. Hopefully, we went on to a great life, and doesn’t remember me or my name either.
But I do wish I had the chance to say to him that I handled that situation wrong, and I know I offended him, and in retrospect no organization was worth the embarrassment I caused him. At the time it seemed really important; now, all I can think of is I never had the chance to at least try to make it right.

Just as the book of Job teaches us about caring for someone who is going through a tragedy, just as it offers us clues on how to comfort and give advice, now we see what asking - and giving - forgiveness should look like.

Let me close with a passage from another of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis who, in his book "The Weight of Glory," wrote about forgiveness:

"... you must make every effort to kill every taste of resentment in your own heart — every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out. The difference between this situation and the one in such you are asking God’s forgiveness is this. In our own case we accept excuses too easily; in other people’s we do not accept them easily enough.

As regards my own sin it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are not really so good as I think; as regards other men’s sins against me it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are better than I think. One must therefore begin by attending to everything which may show that the other man was not so much to blame as we thought.

But even if he is absolutely fully to blame we still have to forgive him; and even if ninety-nine percent of his apparent guilt can be explained away by really good excuses, the problem of forgiveness begins with the one percent guilt which is left over. To excuse what can really produce good excuses is not Christian character; it is only fairness. To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.

This is hard. It is perhaps not so hard to forgive a single great injury. But to forgive the incessant provocations of daily life — to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son—how can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night ‘forgive our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.’ We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves. There is no hint of exceptions and God means what He says. ..."

God means what He says.

When asking or offering forgiveness, pray that we mean it, too.




Wednesday, May 16, 2018

What ticks God off (Job 42)

There is a song recorded most famously by Ray Charles (among others) but written in Nashville by a writer named Cindy Walker called “You Don’t Know Me,” and the first verse goes:

You give your hand to me
And then you say hello
And I can hardly speak
My heart is beating so
And anyone can tell
You think you know me well
But you don't know me

I think it’s basic human nature to want to be known. Some of us want to be known more than others. But even those of us who want, basically, to be left alone would like to have someone who doesn’t just know us, but – and here’s the real key, I think – understands us.

Have you ever heard yourself described by someone else? I was a minor public figure for awhile and used to hear people talk about me, and realized they didn’t really know me. I have worked for or with far more famous people, people who are well-known, but realize they are often not understood. It is amazing how people will talk about them very confidently, but as someone who knows the person being talked about reasonably well I can tell, “You don’t really know them.”

I admit I don’t mind if people talk about me and make me sound better than I am (and that’s not hard to do!).

But I don’t think any of us like being talked about in a way that doesn’t reflect who we really are, in a way that misrepresents our character, our intentions, our words, our true nature.

And as we wrap up the story of Job, we find out that God doesn’t like being talked about incorrectly either.

In Chapter 41, it says, “After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me …”

If I may be so bold as to help clarify what I think God is saying here, it is something like, “You thought you were speaking about me and on my behalf to Job, but you were only speaking from your own wisdom, which turned out to be foolishness.”

Good intentions – which Job’s friends were full of (at least initially) – don’t cut it. Particularly when God has gone to great lengths to reveal Himself (as we discussed in previous posts).

I led a study one time on the so-called Minor Prophets (are any prophets of God really “minor?”) based on a book called “What Ticks God Off” by Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz. It was a really good introduction to those books at the end of the Old Testament, back where the underlining often stops until we get going into the New Testament.

What we see here in Job is one of the things that “ticks God off” is people talking about God as if they know him. And you hear it all the time – preachers who confidently tell you what God thinks or does or would do in a given situation. But very often, just like Job’s very smart and well-meaning friends, they are just flat-out wrong.

I was reading the book of Ezekial the other day, and it spells out God’s reaction to those who take it upon themselves to speak for God without really knowing Him.

This is Ezekiel 13, from Eugene Peterson’s “The Message,’’ because the language is so straightforward (and I’ve edited it for space).

“Son of man, preach against the prophets of Israel who are making things up out of their own heads and calling it ‘prophesying.’ Preach to them the real thing. Tell them, ‘Listen to God’s Message!’ God, the Master, pronounces doom on the empty-headed prophets who do their own thing and know nothing of what’s going on! …. All they do is fantasize comforting illusions and preach lying sermons. They say, ‘God says . . .’ when God hasn’t so much as breathed in their direction. … Aren’t your sermons tissues of lies, saying ‘God says . . .’ when I’ve done nothing of the kind? Therefore—and this is the Message of God, the Master, remember—I’m dead set against prophets who substitute illusions for visions and use sermons to tell lies. The fact is that they’ve lied to my people. They’ve said, ‘No problem; everything’s just fine,’ when things are not at all fine. …”

So how do we know about God?

Now we get to the point (and forgive me, but I know I’ve written this before).

The primary way we get to understand God is by reading the Bible. God’s Word. Holy Scripture. As Luther would say, “Sola scriptura,” which means that Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian. The Bible is complete, authoritative, and true.

I’m not talking memorizing Bible verses, although that’s not a bad thing. Personally, I can’t give you chapter and verse, yet when someone starts quoting a verse of Scripture chances are I know it and can say it along with them (in one translation or another). I know people who can give you chapter and verse and I wish I was like them. I even bought a little book called “52 Verses Every Christian Should Memorize” or something like that, and really worked on memorization. At the end, I knew the verses – but still couldn’t recall book, chapter and verse!

What I’m talking about is just reading. Letting the words seep into your brain, your heart, your soul. It’s reading with a purpose – not to make ourselves smarter, but to know God better.
Jesus, in Matthew 22:37-38 (I know the verse by heart, but had to look up the reference), said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.”

All your heart, soul and mind, which is pretty thorough. And as we have seen in Job and Ezekiel, wrong thoughts about God produce wrong belief about God. You can’t really love what you don’t really know.

Paul writes in Philippians 1, “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” Love “abounds” with knowledge and discernment.

Paul, again, in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

We become what we behold. When I was a kid, I wanted to be like the characters John Wayne played in the movies. So I watched and, without realizing it, studied them, trying to walk and talk like the heroic characters John Wayne played (which conjures up a pretty funny image, I know).

Likewise, when we read and study God’s Word, we find it transforms us. We find ourselves suddenly losing interest in doing things we used to do; find that better person that reflects the image of God that resides in us. We start to actually act more like Christ! (Paul says we should be “imitators” of Christ in Ephesians 5).

Paul, in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Most of us want to do “good works.” Young people today in particular seem more interested in getting involved in making the world a better place to live than they are in getting a good job, a career, etc. Many young people honestly desire to do something for God. But what Paul said is pretty clear: you can’t be equipped to really do good work until you are immersed in the word of God.

The Bible shows us God’s priorities, His values, His mission, His heart. It shows us what he has been doing in the world, and what He is doing. It shows us, as one writer said, how to love “the forgotten and the misfit. It shows us the value of shepherding our families. It introduces us to the generosity of other Christians (2 Corinthians 8:1–7), and calls us to be openhanded with what God gives us. It heralds the sanctity of every human life and inspires us to fight for the unborn. It declares that race should not be a barrier to Christian unity, but a beautiful occasion for it.”

But along the way, we have to know how to speak correctly about God. And that only comes from knowing God’s Word.

It’s not emotion (although certainly our emotions react to God, which is important). It’s not how we imagine a “fair and loving” God to be. It’s not what we honestly believe God “should” be like. All of that is exactly how Job’s friends talked about God – their vision of God and God’s motives – which clearly made God angry.

At the same time, we’re going to make mistakes. I have grown up in the church, and at various times had roles of leadership in my local church. I know I have said and taught things 20 or 30 years ago which I now regret because I know I was incorrect, even though I was expressing my best knowledge of God at the time.

In high school, I had a terrific youth pastor named Dan DeHaan who once gave us all a piece of advice (what that advice was is not important to this story). Years later, when I graduated college, I went back to Dan and told him I was struggling because I was trying to follow that particular advice and Dan told me, “Oh, I wish you hadn’t remembered that. I wish I’d never said it. I was wrong, and I know I’ve caused some people some pain with those words.”

We’re called to talk about God, to share our knowledge of God, and yet warned to be cautious – to speak only what we know to be true of God. It’s really a pretty awesome responsibility.

Job didn’t have Scripture. It’s one of the oldest – if not the oldest – books of the Bible. But clearly God had revealed Himself to Job. That’s still true today, that God reveals himself to us and, as it says in Romans, we are “without excuse.”

I don’t know exactly where I heard this so I don’t know who to give the credit to, so let me just say this isn’t my original idea. But the words went something like, “This world is not falling apart; God’s plan is coming together.” I like that. It is a great reminder, and a great comfort. But I don’t understand what God’s plan is unless I see the picture presented in Scripture, and really try to understand what Scripture means.

God wants us to know Him. He wants us to talk about Him. In Deuteronomy 11 it says about our children that we should tell them about God’s laws by “… talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”

Or, again to use the language from The Message, “Place these words on your hearts. Get them deep inside you. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder. Teach them to your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning until you fall into bed at night.”

It’s amazing that Job, for all his complaints and concerns about God, is never accused by God of speaking incorrectly about Him. I think that speaks volumes about God – that he can take our doubts, our anger, our frustration as long as those doubts, anger and frustrations are expressed within the confines of our faith; and that even in the midst of those issues we don’t lose sight of who God is.

How many stories are in the Bible? The answer, really, is just one – the story of God. All Scripture is designed to reveal God to us, through many mini-stories, if you will.

And you begin, as Job did, to get a sense of the majesty, the power, the sheer greatness of God.

I read a story recently that Theodore Roosevelt had a habit of staring up at the night sky with a friend. They would step outside on a clear, starry night and point out the stars and galaxies and constellations. It was said the conversation went something like this:

“That is the Spiral Galaxy of Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It is seven hundred and fifty thousand light years away. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our own sun.”

Then there would be a pause, after which Roosevelt would grin and say, “All right. I think we feel small enough now. Good night.”

Or, as Job said at the start of chapter 42, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

We are called to know God ... in order to make Him known.

Truthfully.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Who does God think He is? (Job continued)


The church I grew up in was a Baptist church south of Atlanta, Ga. There are a lot of things I could say about this church. It was a great church in many ways: for supporting missionaries, for turning out young people who went into ministry, for teaching Bible memorization, for creating a sense of community, for teaching the importance of sharing your faith.

On the other hand, it wasn’t a very tolerant church – at least the leadership wasn’t - when it came to race relations or long hair (this was the late 1960s-early 1970s) or rock music. I say, “the leadership wasn’t” because many of the rank and file members were some of the most Godly people I have ever known, whose positive influence on me they may never know. But there was a period where a certain pastor came in and a cabal of Deacons took power and a whole bunch of us younger people simply left (or felt chased away). Not long after, a number of our parents left, too. After my junior year of high school, I never went back to that church.

But the church itself had what seemed, to a small kid, this huge auditorium that angled down to the pulpit and choir loft. Above the choir loft was a huge map of the world, with all these yellow lights representing every place that the church had missionaries that it supported. The baptistry, if I remember correctly, was right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (perhaps appropriately).

But I’ll never forget the words written across the map of the world: “To know God … to make him known.”

I have come to recognize that we cannot know God unless He reveals Himself to us – which He has, of course. Not only in Scripture, but Romans 1:20 says “For since the creation of the world God's invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been understood and observed by what he made, so that people are without excuse.”

Psalms 19 says “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world …”

However, we do try to imagine what God is like. We try to create Him in an image we are comfortable with, so we say things like “A loving God would:
- Never allow suffering
- Never allow pain
- Never allow evil
- Never (fill in the blank).

These things sound good, but they are nothing more than human arrogance defining God by what we think God should be like.

We say things about God like Job does: "Oh, that I knew where I might find Him, that I might come even to His seat! I would lay my case before Him and fill my mouth with arguments . . . Why are not times of judgment kept by the Almighty, and why do those who know Him never see his days?" (23:3–4; 24:1; 13:23–24).

Well, after much dialogue and discussion and arguing over theology and the nature of guilt and sin and blamelessness among Job and his four friends, God does show up - but it’s not what Job expected. Rather than Job getting to question God, God questions Job.

It is interesting to me that God comes to Job as a voice in the whirlwind, in a storm. I wonder what Job thought about that, since it was a whirlwind/storm that killed his children!

But then the truth is, very often God speaks to us through our suffering; certainly He did with Job.

Let me say a few things about pain.

Pain is one of the loudest voices you’ll ever hear. It can drown out what you know to be true with lies – lies that say “You’ll never feel better. You’ll never be able to live a normal life. You’ll never be able to be the person you were before. You’ll never be able to do anything fun again. You’ll never be a good partner or parent. You’ll never …”

Having lived with someone who lives with chronic pain, I know there are times when pain changes the personality of that person I love, when the pain causes them to become someone different. I also know pain can convince some people there is no reason to go on, that life is not worth living if it’s going to be lived in pain. Pain truly is Satan’s voice, the father of lies, drowning out what you believe, what you know to be true, your ability to think clearly and reasonably.

But my wife has told me there are times, right in the worst of the storm of pain, that she can hear that still, small voice saying, “You are my child, you are worthy, your life has purpose and meaning. Trust me. I’m right here with you.”

Just as with Job – and so many other people in the Bible who saw God – in the midst of the storm, God often shows up.

For the first time since the second chapter of Job, God enters the story. For us, as readers, we know it’s the second time. But for Job and the other participants, it’s the first time they hear from God.

In speech after speech, Job cries out to God – pleads, argues, cajoles, whatever – and now, even as the fourth friend Elihu is speaking, (Job 32–37) a thunderstorm gathers and fills him with awe. It is as though Elihu senses the approach of God in this storm and brings his words to a close. And sure enough, somehow, out of the whirlwind comes the voice of God to Job (chapters 38–41). It’s almost as if God has grown tired of the ranting by the friends.

Now, I read recently where pastor Rick Warren noted there are 365 verses in the Bible that say, ‘Fear not.’ Warren recently wrote on his website. “It’s interesting that almost every time God talks to someone in the Bible, the first thing he says is, ‘Don’t be afraid!’” You know story after story where an Angel of the Lord’s first words are “Fear not!”

Yet here are God’s first words, as recorded in Chapter 38:
“Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?" (38:2). Job doesn’t respond.
"Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me" (38:3). Job keeps quiet.
"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much" (38:4).

One question would have been enough for Job, but it isn’t enough for God.

"Do you know how its dimensions were determined and who did the surveying? What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone, as the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?" (38:5-7).

The questions simply keep on coming. They pour like sheets of rain out of the clouds as he watches God Almighty define who is who in the universe.

So much for “fear not!” These are not great tidings of comfort and joy.

Rather than give Job an “attaboy” speech, God jumps in with both feet, banging on the proverbial table, and basically says to Job, “Have you ever run, much less created, an entire universe? If not, then I suggest you simply say ‘thank you’ for every breath you take and leave being God to God.”

That sounds kind of mean spirited, doesn’t it? So what is God doing here?

I think God’s questions weren’t intended to comfort or even teach, but to stun Job and his friends. They aren’t to enlighten them with knowledge as much as to awaken an appreciation for who God really is.

And God lays it all out – the mountains and valleys, the birds and animals and monsters of the sea, the stars and suns as well as the depths of the ocean.

He talks about big things, like the power to control the oceans. (Job 38: “Or who enclosed the sea with doors when, bursting forth, it went out from the womb; When I made a cloud its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and I placed boundaries on it, and set a bolt and doors, and I said, 'Thus far you shall come, but no farther; And here shall your proud waves stop'?”

He talks small things, like watching over the birth of a baby deer. (Job 39: “Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn? Do you count the months till they bear? Do you know the time they give birth? …”)

It is an amazing picture of all the things that are on God’s plate, a reminder that God didn’t just create the universe and then walk away, but watches over it all.

Isaiah 40 is a very Job-like passage where it says, “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance? Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord, or instruct the Lord as his counselor?”

In other words, who is Job – or who am I, for that matter – to challenge God?

Finally Job’s feeble hand lifts, and God stops long enough for him to respond. "I am nothing - how could I ever find the answers? I lay my hand upon my mouth in silence. I have said too much already" (40:4).

God’s message eventually connects: Job is a peasant, telling the King how to run the kingdom. Job is an illiterate, telling Shakespeare how to write a play. Job is the clay, telling the Potter not to press so hard. "I owe no one anything," God declares. "Everything under the heaven is mine" (41:11).

And Job couldn’t argue. God owes no one anything. No explanations. No excuses. No help.

Which makes the fact that He gave us so much even more astounding.

How you interpret God's thundering response is critical. You can interpret God’s speech as a divine "in-your-face" tirade if you want. You can use the list of unanswerable questions to prove that God is harsh, cruel, and distant. You can use the Book of Job as evidence that God gives us questions and no answers.

But that is not how Job heard it. All his life, Job had been a good man. All his life, he had believed in God. All his life, he had discussed God, had notions about Him, and had prayed to Him. But in the storm Job sees Him! He has a personal encounter.

And no longer does Job expect or even want a straight answer from God. He realizes he can’t be like God – knowing all things. Instead, Job sees himself as a creature under the care of the Creator.

Don’t misunderstand what is happening here. God is not saying, “I can do these things because I’m God and you can’t stop me.” God is not irrational, using His power capriciously.

No, God says no man can imagine what it’s like, making decisions on how to run the world. But there is purpose, and that purpose is to uphold God’s Glory so that man can (as the Confession says) “enjoy Him forever.” We live believing, as the Psalmist said in Psalm 84, “God withholds no good thing from those who walk uprightly.” Of course, it is precisely because God not only sees the big picture but painted the big picture that allows Him to know what those “good things” are.

Few of us have had or will have the experience of God that Job had. But if we’re watching, we can see God for ourselves.

Where?

Well, in Jesus of course; the Light of the World who enables us to walk with Him when it darkness abounds. He is the One who is patient with his disciples, but who tests their faith in the storm, so that when he speaks the storm is stilled and his disciples exclaim '‘Who is this that the wind and waves obey him?’ Here we realize that we won't be left as orphans but that Jesus will come back to bring us into the family; who, until that days, lives within us in the form of the Holy Spirit. We have Jesus, who has been tested in every way as we have and yet triumphed over sin. And one day we will look back on the story of our lives and proclaim, “It is well with my soul.”

God isn’t bragging. He’s showing Job how much bigger God is than Job could ever imagine. And that it’s not all about Job – there are so many other moving parts to this earth that is under God’s hand and make up God's plan.

We know sometimes that what we see as tragedy, God means for good; and that what sometimes what we think is a blessing turns out to be a curse.

There is a Buddhist story that tells this tale:

The old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically.
"Maybe," the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed. "Maybe," replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "Maybe," answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. "Maybe," said the farmer … and so on. You get the idea.

We have one response to God: Worship. Faith. And humility – that it’s not all about me.

My wife was hit by a drunk driver and no one on the scene expected her to live. We were told that if we had not been so close to a Level One trauma unit at UAB Hospital, that if she had to been taken to a lessor hospital to be stabilized before being flown to the proper center, she wouldn't have made it.

I know that UAB hospital wasn’t built exactly where it was at the time that it was just for my wife’s accident. It has saved the lives of countless numbers of people. But it was also in exactly the right place at the right time to save my wife’s life. There we so many ‘coincidences’ to our story, a whole list of "coincidences'' from the head of the emergency room who just happened to be on duty that morning, to the most unlikely stories concerning my kids' travel home, to even people who happened to be on call at the hospital that weekend. But as much as everything was perfectly prepared for us that weekend, we were not the only people in the hospital that Saturday morning, that week, that month. I met many others in the waiting room whose family members were in serious condition and who were being helped by the same doctors that helped us. It would have been foolish for me to declare: these doctors are only here for my benefit. They only care about me.

It’s the same with God. Like those doctors (at the risk of adding to the God-complex of doctors) who cared about us individually, but also collectively, so God works in us as individuals while the massive pieces of the universe continue to fall into places.

Like Job in chapter 42, we can say to God, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

And live in the assurance that, despite what we see and feel and fear, the only thing we can know about God for certain is that He in in control.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

When you can't keep your mouth shut (Job and the art of giving good advice)

Silence is golden.

But it is difficult. We're creatures that can make a wide variety of noises, from beautiful songs to embarrassing grunts and groans.

We are creatures meant to be in relationships, and as my wife has often reminded me, good communication is essential to a good relationship.

So we talk. Part of talking is sharing experiences in the hope that some of what we know will be helpful to someone else, or that hearing some of what they have gone through helps me with my situation.

As a writer, one of the greatest compliments I have ever received is when someone has said to me, "What you wrote is exactly what I was feeling and couldn't figure out how to say myself." I have friends who are song-writers, and one of those friends likes to say, "I was writing that song the day I heard it on the radio,'' by which he means someone else has found a way to say exactly what he wanted to say.

Our words can encourage, build up, give confidence, inspire, bring healing, educate, unite ... and they can do all the opposite as well.

For Job's friends, the quiet ran out after seven days. I guess they couldn't stand it anymore. They wanted their friend to deal with what was happening, and so they offered their best advice, their learned suggestions, and shared their frustrations of watching Job go through what he was going through.

It was only natural for them to begin to offer reasons for Job's pain, and solutions for getting over what was happening.

Among their suggestions:

Job 4:1-8 – basically, bad things happen to bad people.
Job 5:6-9 – things don’t happen for no reason. Turn to God and perhaps He’ll forgive.
Job 8:1-4 – maybe your children sinned and you’re paying for that.
Job 11:4-6 – whatever this is, it’s less than you deserve.
Job 15:1-6 – your arrogance condemns you.
Job 22:21-23 submit to God and be restored

Here’s the point. All of these statements have a basis in truth. They certainly sound legitimate. I guarantee you there are times in your life (and certainly in mine) when this type of advice is right on the mark. Job's friends are not considered foolish, and, like Job, they were probably used to offering counsel.

And yet, they are wrong.

Have you ever sat and listened to a Christian give bad advice? I have. Heck, I’m sure I’ve given bad advice in the name of bringing Christian comfort or Christ-like council.

But while we know Job’s friends meant well, from our perspective we can recognize that they, too, were being used by Satan to try to bring Job down. I don’t think any of us ever want to be the tools of the great Accuser working for evil in the lives of our fellow believers!

Reading Job has caused me to pause before offering up advice. I recognize that, in a sense, I’m offering advice as I write this blog, but I feel compelled to take that chance. Maybe it would be better if I left the pages blank and just kept my mouth shut. But lets consider a few guidelines for giving advice – or for receiving it.

First and foremost, ask yourself: is it Biblical?

One of Job's friends said, "We have examined this, and it is true . . ." (Job 5:27) But how do I know that what I’m hearing from a friend or what I’m about to say to a friend is indeed true? Only if I have spent enough time in God’s Word so that I have a basis for knowing what is really Biblical advice or not. The Bible is called a "double-edged sword" capable of penetrating to the deepest places, and "judging the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).

My own personal observation and opinions do not necessarily equal fool-proof counsel. Even what was true for me in a given situation – a verse that really spoke to me or the wise counsel of a friend that got me through something – may not have the same effect on someone else. Honestly, there are so many differing opinions available to any of us from a variety of sources that to assume that all opinions are true would be one of the most foolish decisions anyone could make. As one Christian write put it, "Only the Bible is trustworthy for perfect counsel, and when you can lean on clear, Biblical teaching, you are leaning on a rock that will not move."

Secondly, is what you are saying based in truth??

Job's friend Zophar urged Job to "put away the sin" that was in his hand, and to "allow no evil to dwell" in his tent. (Job 11:14) Zophar couldn't look at Job's condition without assuming that Job had sinned greatly against God. Likewise, Eliphaz shared the same counsel with Job: "Those who sow trouble reap it." (Job 4:8)

But the facts simply didn't support their observation. God had called Job "blameless and upright," (Job 1:8) bragging on how well his faithful servant had been living. The suffering that followed was the toughest test of Job's life, not punishment for his worst sin.

Eliphaz and Zophar's counsel, while wise in some cases, simply missed the mark when said to Job because it was not based in the truth of Job’s situation.

Careful attention must be paid to the factual information behind any counsel. If the facts aren't correct, the counsel is almost certain to be just as faulty. Slow down, and check the facts.

And here’s a tough one: is what you are going to say really necessary?

I'm sure you know some people who just can't help but tell other people what is wrong with their life, or what they could do better. If you tell them something that is bothering you, they can't help but tell you how to fix it. If you're having problems with work or your mate or children, they can and will offer answers.

Hopefully it's because those people care. But sometimes we need to verbalize what is going on in our lives without hearing someone tell us how to fix it. Most of the time we know how to fix it, or what caused it, or that there is nothing we can do; it just helps to share our concerns with a friend.

Consider Job and his friends' advice. As well-meaning and well-intentioned as I'm sure their advice was, in the big scheme of things, did Job really need these long-winded debates about sin and justice and why good things happen to bad people in those days after the greatest crisis of his life? Was it really necessary for even his wife to offer her opinion of what he should do?

Will Rogers once said, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes once said of his sidekick, Watson: “You have a grand gift for silence, Watson. It makes you quite invaluable as a companion.” The writer George Eliot said, “Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of the fact.”
It may be that the wisest comfort we can bring to someone who is hurting is to say as little as possible.

Sometimes – and maybe more times than we recognized - there are times when the best thing we can do for one another is simply to sit together in silence. Maybe even cry together. Job 2:13 tells us his friends "sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was." How wonderful it would have been if Job's friends had followed that counsel, and kept their silence past a single week. Because so much of what they go on to say was not just unnecessary, but simply wrong.

In giving advice, acknowledge you could be wrong! .

Not once in the book of Job do any of the friends leave the door open for possible error. "I've observed it," said one (4:8). "We have examined it," said another, "and it is true." (5:27).

I'm usually not one to sound overly confident. Maybe because I've been wrong enough to know better. Sometimes the smartest thing we can say is that we may never know why something happened. And in the end, when face to face with God, we realize "why" is meaningless. Job's questions of "Why" disappeared the moment he encountered God, and as far as we know they never appeared again. All of the "great debates" of the middle chapters of Job are forgotten once God showed up. As a pastor once put it, "The Perfect completely overwhelmed the imperfect."

I am always amazed at how spiritually and intellectually dense Jesus’ disciples could be. Here were these 12 men who spent three years walking with Jesus, hearing him debate others, seeing him comfort people, getting a chance to discuss the days’ events in private with him well into the night. And yet they could still, at times, be so thick-headed.

John 9 tells the story how one day the disciples were walking along the streets of Jerusalem and engaged in a theological debate. It was the kind of conversation that Jewish Rabbis and teachers had been having for centuries.

"Rabbi," they asked, "who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"

Imagine that. A blind man, almost certainly within hearing distance, suddenly becomes the subject of an insensitive, unnecessary discussion about his morality, or at least the morality of his parents. Wasn't life hard enough for a beggar who couldn't see?

And Jesus treats their debate as utter foolishness.

He says, in effect, "You've missed the point entirely. You're debating theology and philosophy and what you think are lofty ideas – which has nothing to do with this man’s physical condition. This has happened so God can be glorified."

Finally, do the people you are talking to know you love them?

As this dialogue continues between Job and his friends, it gets more heated. Job insists he’s justified, and the friends are frustrated that Job won’t admit he's wrong. Bildad, in chapter 8, even takes a cheap shot at Job’s children when he says, “When your children sinned against (God), he gave them over to the penalty of their sin." Of course, Bildad doesn’t know that Job’s children were not suffering any penalty for their sin, but that their death was an unprovoked attack on Job by Satan.

No matter how Biblical, truthful, and needed advice might be, let’s be honest: it won’t be listened to if not given in love. Paul urged one of his early churches to "speak the truth in love." (Eph. 4:14) To another, he reminded them that he could sound out wonderful truth with the voice of an angel, but without love, his words would sound more like an irritating, clanging cymbal to the person who needed to hear the counsel. (1 Cor. 13:1)

Remember, it’s not just the person going through the tough time who is to glorify God. Ideally, if we’re in a position to bring comfort and perhaps advice or counsel, we want to glorify God with what we say.

Let me return to where we started: How do you glorify God?

I wonder how many times have you met someone going through something like what Job went through - lost their job, maybe lost their family, lost their ability to provide, lost their health - and thought to yourself, “Now, that’s how you bring God glory!”

When you see someone suffering, do you ever think that person might be doing more to glorify God than, say, Billy Graham?

I’m not trying to compare here because certainly I don’t know the answer to that. But we know Job brought down Satan. In a great cosmic battle played out in the landfill of the land of Uz, Satan was humiliated.

I have a feeling that, to some extent, so were Job’s friends.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Sometimes, the best thing we can do for people is shut up (Job, continued).


Glorify God and Enjoy him Forever.

Yes. If you are a follower of Christ, I assume you want to do that. You want to glorify God. Certainly you want to enjoy Him forever.

Then I start thinking, what does it mean to “glorify God?”

So I think – Let me go rehab houses in North Birmingham and deliver food to the hungry and those shut in. Let me go dig wells and bring clean drinking water to people in Southeast Asia. Let me go with a team of doctors and tend to the sickness of people high in the mountains of Honduras. Let me start a drive to collect shoe boxes that bring not only joy but the Gospel to thousands of children around the world.

But then I look at Job, and I wonder – what if glorifying God means losing everything I have – my job, my income, my children, my health? What it if means my spouse turning on me, or betraying me (think Hosea, a prophet who was given the dubious honor of marrying a beautiful woman who turned out to be incredibly unfaithful, but to whom Hosea was told to remain faithful so his life could be a living example of God’s relationship to Israel)?

Whoa. Wait a minute. Do I really want to glorify God like that?

Mother Theresa once said, “I know God won’t give me more than I can handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”

It’s like a youth director I had when I was in high school, a guy named Dan Dehaan who said, “If you are going to ask God to be humble, be prepared for him to humiliate you.” That has stuck with me. Truthfully, I want the kind of humility I can be proud of, you know?

And that kind of “glorifying God” is, to me, scary. But remember the C.S. Lewis quote on Aslan: “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

So we see Job, having lost so much, sitting outside the city gates where he once sat as a leading citizen, trusted advisor, example to all who passed before him, now reduced to sobbing over his losses and scrapping himself with pottery shards in an attempt to get some relief for the sores that have broken out all over his body.

With all else gone, we see that Job has still got friends. Good friends, actually. They hear about Job’s problems and come to him as good friends do.

Job 2:11 - “Now when Job's three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to console with him and comfort him. And when they saw him from afar, they did not recognize him; and they raised their voices and wept; and they rent their robes and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”

Think about that. The friends saw their friend lose everything – family, wealth, health, position, prestige – and while so many people would avoid someone like that (and we’ll see in Job 42 that apparently quite a few people did just that), these three are moved to compassion, to tears, to true sorrow over the plight of their friend.

One of the hardest things to do – at least it is for me – is to know what to say when a friend is going through something hard. We want to show we care, our hearts are in the right place. But we just don’t know what to say.

When I was a boy, I had an older cousin who was a missionary in Equador. She dedicated her life to serving God in South America, married a doctor, became pregnant, then came home to see her family and the baby died. Just months old – what we used to call “Crib death.” Our family was at the house, trying to do what we could, but I remember a pastor who came over and, looking for something to say, said something like, “Just know that your son is in the arms of Jesus.” And I’ll never forget what she said, “I’d rather my baby be here in my arms, where he belongs.”

I remember being so impressed with this kind of honesty. The pastor was right – at least, we hope he was – that the baby was in the arms of Jesus. But my cousin was hurting, and those words didn’t bring any comfort.

I know it’s hard to be with someone who is going through something difficult and not say something. I know we all feel like we have to say something, make an attempt to say something of comfort.

Is there anything worse than going through the receiving line at a funeral? We say things like “Doesn’t he look natural!” when we know a dead body is about the most un-natural thing in the world. We say, “He is in heaven now” and I think of my cousin and her response of, “yeah, well, he belongs here with me.”

We say, “Call me if there is anything I can do for you.” That’s not bad and it’s well-meaning and I’ve said it myself. But I had someone say to me, “What does that mean? Do they really think I’m going to pick up the phone in the middle of the night when I’m crying my head off and call so they can hear me cry?” I know my friends’ reaction seems a little extreme, but it was an honest reaction to all these people who she rarely saw when her husband was dying and now suddenly they want her to call.

I know a couple who went years trying to have a child, but to no avail. And a well-meaning friend actually said to them, “Well, maybe God just doesn’t mean for you to be parents.” Can you think of anything more un-comforting to say? Fortunately, this couple did eventually have children and are wonderful parents.

I read a story of a lady whose child was born with a condition that caused it to die rather quickly, and she tells of a friend who said to her, “Well, we prayed for our children every day of my pregnancy and they were all born healthy and with no problems.” The first lady, of course, was left wondering, “Did I not pray enough? Is this my fault?”

My own wife was in a terrible car wreck a few years ago, in a coma and we didn’t know if she’d live. Her recovery took months (and continues even now, years after the accident). I will never forget a well-meaning lady saying to her, “Well, you certainly look good. Look at all the weight you’ve lost!” Yes, this is what you call a “crash” diet: get hit by a car, be fed through a tube for a month …

We’re going to get critical of Job’s friends in a few minutes. But first – let’s give them credit for caring enough to stick their nose in Job’s business. They see a friend hurting, and they come to him, and sit with him for seven days, not saying a word. Do you know how hard that must have been? And yet we’ll soon see it was the smartest thing they did.

And you know what it says to me? Sometimes the best thing we can do for people is just be there. Don’t talk. Just be there. Your physical presence can mean more than anything you can say.

When my wife was in ICU and I was at the hospital day and night for a month, we had some wonderful friends who came by. But one friend, in particular, came and just sat in the waiting room. She never asked for me to come out of the ICU where I sat by my wife’s bed, she had no expectation of coming back to see us. She was just there for us.

Another friend called me and said, “Let’s go to lunch.” We walked to a fast food place across the street from the hospital. He said, “I don’t want to know how you are or your wife is or what is going on. Let’s just be normal for a few minutes.” He’ll never know how much I appreciated that. Our conversation was banal, ordinary, maybe even at times we didn’t speak, but it meant so much to me at that time.

It’s hard to be quiet. Particularly after a certain amount of time passes and we start thinking, “OK, you’ve suffered. It’s time to get on with your life.”

But then, very often we don't know the whole story. What we learn from the story of Job is that there was something more going on, greater than we could imagine, with cosmic consequences, and whatever Job's friends would say (and we'll get to that in the next blog) was just wrong. Oh, it sounded good. And in another situation, Job's friends might even be right.

Not this time, though. And that's a lesson for all of us.

Be careful - no, be thoughtful before you speak.

And there is nothing wrong with silence. Just being there can speak volumes.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

What in the world is going on? (Job 1-2)

What is the chief purpose of man?

According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism: Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

What does that mean?

A couple of verses we like to quote that we often use to bring us some comfort are Romans 8:28 (“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”) and I Corinthians 10:13 (“…God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able …”)

But then I look at the lives of so many Saints and think, I couldn’t possibly face what they faced.

Or perhaps I look at those verses and think, “What, if I wasn’t so spiritually mature, this disaster might not have happened to me?” Those that know me know my wife went through a horrible automobile accident a few years ago, with injuries from which she may never completely recover (although we always hope and continue working toward that end). If The Trophy Wife was not so mature in her faith, would she have been spared that accident? Would a friend’s child not have been born with a disability? Is the untimely death of a friend's spouse a sign of her great spiritual maturity?

Those questions are why I love the book of Job - a book that is both very disturbing in some respects, very unsatisfying, and yet one that has come to bring me great comfort, particularly in times of confusion and trouble.

It’s an interesting book. It has the longest speech in the Bible attributed to God. It also gives us a strange glimpse behind the curtain into heaven (which I discussed in the previous post). The big picture of Job is that there was a man who was, in one sense, blameless in God's sight. He was leading a basically upright life. And there is a reality called Satan who challenges God that his man is not as good as he thinks he is. God gives Satan permission to attack Job, and he does so first through his family and possessions, and then through sickness.

We learn that Job was Wealthy. A community leader. Husband of one wife. Father (good father). Feminist (includes daughters as heir; after his ordeal he has seven sons, who remain unnamed, and three daughters so remarkable they are mentioned by name in Job 42:15.) Good friend. Faithful family priest. Trusted advisor.

And then we get this event that I call “the Wager.” God is apparently pleased with Job. Satan thinks Job only pleases God because God has given Job so much. If Job were to lose everything, then Satan is convinced that Job would turn on God. On the other side, God is so confident in Job’s faith that He says, “Go ahead, do your worst – within certain parameters – and we’ll see what Job does.”

I have to admit, to think that Job is simply a game chip, the "ante" if you will, in this cosmic game between God and Satan bothers me. But of course, Job is not just a toy; he’s a human being, created in the image of God, who has, I believe, Free Will. Job is apparently free to choose how he responds to what is coming, else there is really no wager going on.

And while we, as readers, get to know the reason for all that is about to befall Job, Job never knows. Even in the end, when God shows up and actually talks to Job, God never says, “Well, see Job, Satan showed up one day and was ragging on you, and I just had to shut him up so …” No, if anything, we’ll see God never explains himself and apparently feels no need to enlighten Job as to what is going on.

There is really a lot about this story that troubles me. Here are just a few of the big ones:

Satan has to ask permission from God to do evil. Doesn’t that, in some way, make God culpable for evil? That doesn’t fit with my comfortable theology of God and the Fall and Sin.

Killing of the Innocents – Job’s children; his servants. When Satan attacks Job's possessions, ruins them all, and then takes the lives of all ten of Job’s children, we learn how terrible Satan can be. But beyond that, what did those children and those servants have to do with the contest between God and Satan? Aren’t they, in a sense, innocent bystanders? Are they just collateral damage? And think of the implications of that – what if what you feel are major events in your life are really just a small part in another person’s story?

God fails to protect one of His most faithful servants. All things work together for good? Nothing happens that is more than Job could bear? We get death of Job’s children, then the death of Job’s servants, then the loss of Job’s wealth, and then Job is hit with some kind of horrible disease: boils from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. And his wife even finally has enough and tells Job, "Curse God and die."

I don’t know about you, but I don't like anything about the story. I don’t like God having a conversation with the enemy. I don't like God watching from the sidelines. I don't enjoy the blood-letting. I can’t help but wonder, in particular, where is the fairness in Job’s children having to die.

Nothing about this story seems to make sense, and it certainly isn't satisfying.

But at the same time, there should be comfort in being reminded that Satan is subordinate to God. Satan goes to God with a desire, and must be allowed to carry it out. This is an awesome thing to realize, that Satan does nothing in this world except by God's permissive will. God is the governor of the universe. Satan does not have a parallel role to play with God, but rather a subordinate role to play under God. Anytime we think we can blame Satan for something that is happening, we must also reckon with the fact that God is permitting it, which is what Job remarkably does.

While it certainly looks like Job's children and servants were collateral damage, remember this is a story about Job. There are a multitude of stories going on all around us. Maybe for the purpose of this story, Job's children/servants were secondary characters, like the best friend in a movie who comes to an untimely death. But that doesn't mean there wasn't another story centered on them, something else God was accomplishing. I don't know that, obviously; it just makes me feel better about my own life. What I suspect, though, is that the things I think are major events in my life may be supporting stories in the bigger scheme of things. I have to leave that to God.

And we will see that God doesn't fail to protect His faithful servant Job. God did, after all, put limits on what Satan could do. It just reminds us that our own ideas of what constitutes "protection" are not God's ideas. Remember the story of the blind man in John 9, where the disciples ask Jesus, "Who sinned - this man or his parents?" Meaning that he wouldn't be blind if it wasn't the natural result of some sin. And Jesus says, "No one sinned to cause this blindness; this is so God's Glory could be revealed in him."

As for everything else that happens – death, loss of wealth, friends abandoning him, wife seems to turn on him, health deteriorates to the point that Job has to get out of his own house and go sit in the local landfill where he spends his day scrapping his sores with broken pieces of pottery – Job’s response is, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

And the writer says that Job did not sin.

Isn’t that exactly what God told Satan would happen?

Two stories from my own life that I want to share here.

One occurred when I was a sportswriter, covering the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. I was in Olympic Park that Friday night when the bomb went off. It was shocking. This was pre-9/11. Stuff like this didn’t happen in the United States. I walked around, seeing people dazed and bleeding, and when they were willing I listened to their stories. The scene went on literally all night. And all around me people were asking, “Why?”

Then I thought of friends who have lived in other countries where bombs do go off, where kids have been known to walk to school knowing there could be snipers, in countries where what we might consider the simplest of illness can mean death. And it hit me that we in the United States shouldn’t ask “Why?” but rather “Why not?” Why should we be spared what so much of the rest of the world lives with on a daily basis?

The other story occurred on the morning of September 11th, 2001. It was my father’s birthday. My father lived with us. I remember standing in my living room, watching with horror the events of the Twin Towers in New York City ( as well as the other events of that day), and thinking to myself, “I’m so glad I don’t live in New York. That would never happen here.” And I swear almost the moment I thought that, something in my heart or soul or mind said, “So you put your faith and confidence in where you live, and not in God?” That may sound silly, but it really had an impact on me. It was like the rich man who built extra barns for all his wealth, thinking he was safe and secure. He quickly found out his barns and wealth and position did not protect him.

Therefore, it is clear that Job was right to say, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away," and "Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord and not receive evil?"

Some things – most things – are just out of our control. Even if we’ve worked hard to accumulate wealth or power or good looks, most of us didn’t get to choose where we were born or who our parents are, which plays a lot into our ability to parlay our talents and intellect into a comfortable life. So much is just ‘chance’ – or providence, as the old-timers would say, properly giving God His due.

What this part of Job tells me is that all these things that I go through that I consider “epic” might actually be just footnotes in the bigger chapter of something else. Even though in my view, I’m the star of this movie and everything centers around me, Job shows me there may indeed be a bigger story, one I can’t see, one I can’t begin to fathom. I may not be anywhere near as important as I think I am.

But then again, I might be. Just as Job was.

So what is my role? To live out my faith regardless, to not think more or less of myself, to be faithful.

Because so much of what happens to us seems senseless. But maybe that part of the point. Suffering doesn't make sense. The more natural expectation in life is spelled out in the first paragraph of Job. We want for every new baby a good family, a good childhood, a good education, eventually a fulfilling and well-compensated job, a good home, and a retirement set against the sunset of a perfect life. We want the first paragraph of Job, which tells us this man was blameless, upright, righteous, and the greatest man among his people. He was a man who did without something we'd all like to do without. He was a man without suffering.

If only life could really be that way.

What the heck is going on here?

I tend to agree with Job when he wishes he could take God to court in Job 9.

32 “He is not a mere mortal like me that I might answer him,
that we might confront each other in court.
33 If only there were someone to mediate between us,
someone to bring us together,
34 someone to remove God’s rod from me,
so that his terror would frighten me no more.
35 Then I would speak up without fear of him,
but as it now stands with me, I cannot…”

Job is hardly alone in this feeling persecuted by God.

David, in Psalm 13 – “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”

Jesus, as he genuinely wrestled with the internal agony before the crucifixion. "Must I really do this?" he asked, under such stress that blood vessels popped in his forehead. "Is there no other way?" (See Luke 22:42-43)

But wait – what did Job say? Something about, “If only there were someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together?”

Who is Job asking for here? Could it be Jesus?

What does Job – way back in the Old Testament, know about Jesus? About a redeemer? A savior?

Job 19:25 “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth….”

That’s pretty profound for a guy who lived thousands of years before Christ; who lived before the giving of the Ten Commandments (the law); who wasn’t even, as far as we know, Jewish!

Maybe Job isn’t such a strange story. Maybe it’s our story – all of us. Maybe this is just part of the plan - We commit to being followers of God, so God choses, for whatever reason, to risk His reputation – His glory – on our actions.

What we need to be reminded of is that this story is not about you or me. It’s about God – His Glory.

And our opportunity to be part of a great victory for God's Glory, one in which that great cloud of witnesses shouts in triumph while the Accuser, Satan, slinks away in defeat.