Asking the Wrong Question
Text: Job 38
Job’s story begins in the strategic headquarters of heaven. God is surrounded by a company of advisors, one of whom is the satan, the Adversary, who challenges God to reconsider why Job is so faithful. “Anybody can be faithful who gets all the breaks in life,” argues the satan, “but I bet if Job had the props knocked out from under him, his faith would fail and he would curse you to your face, God.” Confident in Job’s faithfulness, God takes the bet, giving the satan a free hand to deal with Job as he will, with one caveat – “spare his life.” Soon, Job’s life collapses into a pool of agony and his cheerful countenance turns into a lingering lament about God’s injustice. Repeatedly, Job asks God, “Why?”
It is not long after Job’s life falls to pieces that his friends arrive. They come equipped to answer his question to God about why. Their responses are logical and consistent. They insist that Job has brought this suffering on himself and no matter how much he protests, they insist that Job is guilty and that God could not possibly be culpable. Job, though, rejects their answers. He holds firm to his conviction that he is the victim here and that he has not caused his own suffering. From the opening bet between God and the satan, we know Job is right. So, no matter what his friends have to say, Job shakes his fist at the heavens and shouts God down with the words, “Let the Almighty answer me!” (31:5)
I can’t speak for you, but like Job, I have shaken my fist at God and have shouted, “Let the Almighty answer me!” I have not suffered like Job, but I know the terrain of suffering and I too have shouted God down demanding, “Let the Almighty answer me!”
When our forebear in the faith, John Calvin, writes about Job, he sounds like Job’s fourth friend. Calvin suggests that every sermon on the book of Job end with the refrain: “Now we shall bow in humble reverence before the face of our God.” (John Calvin, Sermons from Job, trans. Leroy Nixon [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1952], 293). John, I know that I am creature and God is the Creator. But, I also believe that God is a just and good Creator, so like Job, I want some answers from God, not the silent treatment. My soul is not ready for “humble reverence,” thank you.
Like Job throughout this lengthy book, I want answers from God. God, why do you stand by and watch while Hamas commits unspeakable atrocities and Israel prepares to unleash devastating retaliation? Why do you stand by and watch while more children in America are killed by handguns than any disease? And God, on a personal front, tell me why you stood by and watched when my only brother died in the prime of his life? Answer me, God! Was it because you had another side bet with the satan? Why, O God, why?
For all who suffer, especially for all who suffer senselessly, Job 38 cannot come too soon. For those who suffer in Job’s “Amen Corner” and want to know why, at last God is going to answer: Why the cancer? Why the pink slip? Why the floods? Why the war? Like Job, our question is most often not nuanced or subtle, it is clear and straightforward and simple, and that is the kind of answer we expect from God.
Finally, in chapter 38, God arrives on the scene. It is a chapter that begins with great promise. God is no longer distant and silent, but God has arrived to address Job’s suffering and lament. Just as God appeared before Moses in the burning bush, so now God comes to Job in a whirlwind, a tempest. This is Old Testament code language for theophany, God showing off the powers of God.
The promise of chapter 38, though, begins to totter a bit when the response from God is not clear straightforward prose, but elaborate and wandering poetry. I love to read and write poetry, but let me tell you, when I am knee deep in my own suffering, I don’t want poetry. I want straightforward answers in straight up prose, or as Jesus will later encourage, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’.” Job wants a straight up answer from God but what he gets in chapter 38 are questions, and lots of them.
Job scholar, Sam Balentine, asks: “What exactly does God’s answer teach Job? . . . [some] have concluded that God’s answers are no less evasive and no less irritating than those of all Job’s friends. What do words about snow, rain, ice, clouds, and ostriches have to do with Job’s suffering? . . . William Safire’s quip may be more colorful than others, but it speaks for many, including some highly regarded theologians: ‘It is as if God appears in a tie-dyed T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Because I’m God, That’s Why’.’ The gist of the stormy answer he blew at Job was fairly summed up by . . . John Calvin in five words: ‘Who are you to ask?’” (Sam Balentine, Job, Smyth&Helwys).
Dr. Balentine goes on to wonder: “Are God’s questions intended to put Job in his place or like in Isaiah 40 are these questions a form of encouragement to believe that the Creator of the world can construct new possibilities where none seem to exist. If all poetry is a ‘raid on the inarticulate’, as T.S. Eliot says, then perhaps God’s rhetorical questions are a raid on Job’s despair about what seems incomprehensible” (Balentine, Job ).
What if God’s answer to Job in chapter 38 is far more sincere than sarcastic? What if God’s answer to Job is not the wrong answer or finally an evasive answer or simply a put-Job-in-his-place answer? What if God’s answer is an invitation to see beyond the pain of Job’s very real suffering to the new possibilities being borne in the imagination of God? What if Robert Frost got it right in the final stanza of his poem, “Misgiving”:
I only hope that when I am free,
As they are free, to go in quest
Of the knowledge beyond the bounds of life
It may not seem better to me to rest
Robert Frost, “Misgiving” from The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. E.C. Lathem (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1969), 236.
What if chapter 38 is an invitation not to rest content with mindless faith and silly questions, not with being timid as a church mouse before God, but an invitation to bang on the gates of heaven for answers, even if the answers come in the form of ponderous questions? What if chapter 38 is an invitation to move out of the boring land of prose into the mystical land of poetry, where truth is not a static commodity to be plucked off the shelf and where paradox lives comfortably next door?
What if chapter 38 is not only a reminder to Job that God is greater than the measure of Job’s accumulated suffering, but it is also the beginning of an apology from God for a lapse in divine judgment? What if chapter 38 is not only a reminder to Job from God but also a self-reminder that Job can never be expected to live like God, but God can?
What if God, the midwife who births the sea and wraps it in the swaddling bands of cloud and darkness, is the same God who hears Job’s cries and listens to his friend’s faux comfort and will not let Job endure his suffering alone for one more second? What if God, the midwife who watches Mary wrap her child in swaddling bands of cloth, is the same God who first hears the infant cries of Jesus and then hears his crucified cries from the cross and then hears every last one of our cries of confusion and lament in times of suffering? What if God, the dawn thrower who raises the morning sun, is the same God who is the death thrower who raised the Lord of the Dance? What if Job is not a person but a parable that invites in us into a deeper faith, a faith that does not fear to ask God the most troubling and the most important questions?
I wish I had some pithy theological statement to tie up all the loose ends of this ancient parable. I wish I had a final answer for all of Job’s and all of our questions about senseless suffering. What I do have is the enduring hope that the same God who would not finally remain silent before the most strident cries of Job and the most agonizing cries of Jesus will not remain silent to our cries.
In the end, maybe, that is enough.