Job sounds exhausted.
So far, we've heard that Job was a good man, successful man, good family, lots of animals, land, and servants, well liked, and a comfort to others.
Then there was monumental tragedy and loss.
The first thing Job's friends did was provide the fundamental prerequisite to healing – they comforted him. They sat with him. They were silent. They were witnesses to his story. For a long time. It may or may not have been seven days. Seven is a number to represent completeness or perfection. They comforted him as much as possible.
After that, Job opened his mouth…
The fact that he was able to open his mouth and speak is a sign of hope. When we suffer beyond comprehension it is impossible to grasp onto anything, to know where to search for help, to even have the desire or motivation to want help. The comfort from the friends is the crucial piece that moves this story forward. Without the comfort there is no movement. Comfort is like a carburetor. Okay, I'll be really sad if that is the only direct quote that you take from this sermon.
Comfort is the thing that brings Job's despair and imagination together, and cause the internal combustion necessary to move forward. I'm sure we could come up with a baking analogy too. The comfort of the friends may seem silent and sedentary, without energy. But comfort is powerful enough to bring motion to stagnant despair. After the comfort, Job opened his mouth
And he was angry. And why not? We know that anger often has the power to make us want to destroy something. Change something wonderful into something terrible. Cursing the day of his birth is a good place to start. Part of Job's goodness is that he does not have a tendency to curse God, to his face or otherwise. So he curses himself. And not just himself, but the very day he was born. Not the date. But the actual day; the light and dark of a day itself; the day that did not prevent the outcome of the procreation that began his journey to birth; and the fact of his birth; even the announcement of his birth. Everything that is related to his birth is cursed. Job cursed completely.
Maybe it's just my perspective, but I think there's something about Job's forcefulness that makes Eliphaz nervous. Nervous enough to want to speak, while at the same time knowing that he's taking a risk. “If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended?” Eliphaz wants to encourage Job to remember that he has been an example to many in the past and should take the same confidence he was able to give to so many and remember that confidence now. Maybe Eliphaz thinks he's empathizing when he offers Job his reproof and says, but hey, it's different when it happens to one's self isn't it? But he's not. He's saying I don't like your anger, I don't like how angry these thoughts make you. I can't tell if he's trying to make Job feel better or make himself feel better.
Those of us who are soft and gentle and kind and sensitive to feelings of others are often overwhelmed when those we are comforting burst forth with any kind of rage or anger. Without realizing it, we try to diffuse the situation by completely shutting down the sheer force of someone's words. Sometimes a controlled burn is better in the end, than putting out the fire.
That takes skill. Not everyone has that skill. We all have emotional needs that are triggered in different ways and it is important that we take care of ourselves. I read a really great quote yesterday from a site called [Gratefulness] Word for the Day.
“Ultimately, work on self is inseparable from work in the world. Each mirrors the other; each is a vehicle for the other. When we change ourselves, our values and actions change as well.:” (Charles Eisenstein)
Avoiding something that is not helpful for me or may hurt me in some emotional or psychic way is not weakness. It's a way of putting myself into another place, a better place, for me to help or have the impact I want to have. But before I put out someone else's fire, I have to know which of us is on fire.
Eliphaz wants to make the argument that no one can be righteous or pure before God, so Job's discomfort must be a form of reproof, a form of discipline from the Almighty. Remember that little chart I mentioned last week that describes the meaning of suffering according to where you are standing? Here is Eliphaz echoing one of the traditional religious views, the charge that suffering is a form of educational discipline.
Job's response to being put off by Eliphaz is to become angrier. In a way, even this is a sign of hope because Job has moved away from cursing his own birth. Job justifies his forceful way of speaking by explaining even more vehemently about how his calamity is beyond any measure. He adds that he is willing to listen, willing to learn, but it needs to be honest. He is basically calling Eliphaz to have a real two way conversation that requires Eliphaz to look deeper at his own beliefs. Yes, it might be painful for us to have our own assumptions challenged, but truth matters, in order to have a dialogue, in order to have a relationship.
Just as the satan swore that when he was finished with Job, Job would curse God to God's face, we see the importance of one's face for determining the level of honesty and trust one can have with another. I would add that seeing someone face to face also determines the level of fun, teasing, silly, as well as tears, compassion, and empathy that one can have with one another. Part of the fun of Zoom has been that it is so much better than not seeing people. And the tyranny of Zoom is that it is still not what we would consider being face to face. One commentator writes, “The image of the face is a profound symbol of human identity. Faces are what an infant first learns to recognize visually as it establishes a sense of social relationship. A face always makes a moral claim on another face.”
The argument Job has begun continues with fury as he unleashes on God finally. Human life is misery. Nowhere do I have peace. Not even on my sickbed as I swallow my spittle can I get any privacy! Why are you always watching me? What did I ever to do you? Stop inspecting me. When you come looking for me you won't find me because I'll be dead and beyond Your powers. The verb translated as “watching” has the meaning of being watched over, as well as the meaning as being watched in order to correct. Because of the subtlety of Hebrew words, this is not a prayer to God. These are the words of “a person who cannot “pray,” but whose conversation with God is far from over.”
The Israelites are often credited with going against the religious precedent of the time, as we see in the psalms where anger is allowed. They're not always of comfort though because they often begin and end with words of praise and trust in God. In that way, what we have here in the book of Job. It's his anti-psalm. It is not only not a psalm, the writing actively works to allow the anger without a buffer. That's the difference between non- and anti-. It is more effective to be anti-something because that implies action toward the creation of something new. “The book of Job validates the legitimacy of anger arising out of the experience of suffering, even when that anger makes others uncomfortable, and even when that anger is directed at God. Anger that settles into bitterness is not the final resting place, but often the anger of suffering has to be expressed and explored in all its dimensions before it can be transmuted into something else.” (From NIB, Job: 3:1-26)
Doesn't that sound like something applicable to our country today? Not only is there the normal life-is-hard frustration and anger and despair for so many (which shouldn't be “normal”) our fears were heightened by the pandemic which is not over, and then the blatant killing of yet another black man which no one can defend, took over. The word “anger” doesn't even begin to cover it.
Here's what anger can do. This isn't from a psychology blog, or scientific double-blind study, but from a commentator's words referring to the book of Job.1
Anger is frightening, exposes contradictions, points to scandal, discloses disturbing realities, forces us to face up to responsibility and admit and assess guilt, and questions fundamental beliefs.
Anger is frightening because it affects not only a given situation but communities, belief systems, and culture.
“One cannot minimize what is at stake. As the book of Job shows, once the contradictions are pursued, an entire belief system may be shattered. Yet that may be the only way forward to a more mature and adequate faith.”
Maybe it's the only way forward to a more mature and adequate life.
If you are angry. Be angry. I promise you that nowhere in this book about a suffering angry man, nowhere does God abandon Job. “Anyone who has experienced such intense alienation knows how infuriating much conventional religious language can be.” “At such times, it is not surprising that one wants to tear apart conventional religious language that seems intent on denying the spiritual agony of religious persons struggling with the hard realities of life.” “Taking the words of easy assurance and placing them in a context in which their shallowness is exposed, as Job does in chap. 7, is not only satisfying but also an important step toward making a more honest and adequate religious language possible.”1
The commentator is talking about Job, and religious language, but our task is to see how others are Job right now, and how we might be adding to their pain. Maybe because we've stood on others' backs; maybe because by our ignorant attempts to empathize we have caused more pain; or maybe just because we are now willing to listen doesn't mean that others want to stop and explain – again.
Job isn't the only one who is exhausted. As I mentioned last week, the book of Job offers us options. Today's friend is Eliphaz who challenges one traditional religious response to the grief and loss and anger inside the suffering of Job. If the work of life is anything but traditional for us now, we need to be challenging what we see as traditional. Maybe all of this upheaval is shattering a belief system about our country, about human behavior, about what it means to be “other,” and maybe about the role of God with us as we work to find our place. Maybe it is the only way to a more honest and adequate life.
Please pray with me….
1 “Anger claims not only that the situation is painful but also that something is fundamentally not right about the situation, that what has happened should not have happened. Anger is frightening because it often exposes contradictions in the community or points to a scandal in the belief system. It claims to disclose a disturbing reality that others are covering over with self-deceiving illusions. Anger directed at other members of the community is difficult because it requires facing up to responsibility and admitting and assessing guilt. Anger directed at God or, as in Job's words, at life itself is disturbing because it questions fundamental beliefs of the culture.” (New Interpreter's Bible, commentary series, Vol. IV, pp 371-2, 1996)
Reverend Debra McGuire
June 14, 2020