Where do you head to when you go into a bookshop or library? I’m sure there are shelves that you aim for. Some people make a beeline for the novels – all suitably alphabetised according to the surname of their author. Others skip the general novel section and home in on Crime writing: line upon line of books by Ian Rankin, Patricia Cornwell or Jo Nesbo and the queen of crime, Agatha Christie. On the next shelf you’ll find ‘True Crime’ and not far away there will be Fantasy and Sci-Fi: Elves and goblins shoulder to shoulder with space exploration and ghosts in the machine as AI takes over the world.
Non-Fiction? The gardening section is ever popular, as is cookery, and history….and within this the unending churn of books that fall under the title of ‘Military History’. ‘Self help’ and medical are awkward places to stop and ‘mind, body and soul ‘can throw up some weird and wonderful titles. But there’s one place I can’t ever remember visiting in a bookshop: Philosophy. It’s there in Waterstones and most second-hand stores. You’ll find it between 100 and 199 in the Dewi decimal system of categorisation in the library, cheek by jowl with religion and theology…but who buys philosophy books?
Our bibles are libraries – that’s what the word bible means. When we pick up a bible we have a whole range of different forms of writing in our hands. Most of us have our favourite books: we feel at home in the Gospels, we read the histories, the letters and the prophets. Few of us ever turn to the laws – not a huge surprise – and, my guess is that very few turn to the books of ‘wisdom’ (as they are called) or philosophy within our bible/library. But philosophy books there are! The Book of Job (from which we heard earlier) being a case in point.
I struggle with Job. The difficulty I have is that it’s a long argument or discussion that doesn’t lend itself to being presented in short extracts. We’re not meant to agree with large parts of the book – verse after verse, chapter after chapter is given over to the words of ‘Job’s counsellors’ whose opinions are shown to be unacceptable, to be rejected by people of faith.
But I run ahead of myself. Just in case Job is a ‘closed book’ to you: Job is fictional character (his name means ‘persecuted one’) a faithful Jew who is tested by God. God gives ‘Satan’ permission in the book to afflict Job with all manner of trials: he loses his family, his home, his status, his wealth and his health. And the philosophical question is put: what are we to make of the suffering endured by innocent people?
Job’s friends or ‘comforters’ come to his aid and, in the book, they come up with any number of reasons why Job has been afflicted. But, at heart, this boils down to just one reason, which is no comfort at all to their friend who sits before them covered in sores and on the edge of death: ‘It’s all your own fault, Job’ they say ’you must have committed some sin or wrong to deserve God’s punishment.’ Job’s comforters’ view of the world is that good things happen to good people…and bad things happen to bad people: ‘simples!’ Except, this is so obviously wrong that anybody can see that what we have here is an awful version of ‘victim blaming’. Job cannot, will not accept the diagnosis of the problem offered by his friends and he rails against them …and he rails against God. Job wants God to justify what has happened to him He demands to be heard. Given a chance he’d put God on trial for the pain of the world, for his pain. At that point we feel for him: for which one of us here hasn’t asked ‘why? Why me? Why them? What did they ever do to deserve this?’
I find the book unsatisfactory. Because it doesn’t answer the central question of innocent suffering. What Job does do however is rule out categorically the idea of pain and suffering being directly connected to our sin or wrongdoing. Some pain is indeed self-inflicted, a consequence of our own foolishness or choices. Much suffering is wrought by others acting out of systems or ways of thinking that lead to conflict, that demonise others and can result in war and famine. But Job’s suffering is different: it comes ‘out of the blue’, it can’t be traced back to a cause let alone anything Job has done himself to ‘deserve’ what happens to him. Job doesn’t get an answer to his question ‘Why?’ Instead, the book ends with God revealing Himself to Job, forcing him to consider the mystery and wonder of the natural world and to see just how small he is in the scheme of things. ‘I don’t have to answer to you’ seems to be God’s answer to Job’s question. No real answer is given, and so Job is left with his question, challenged to commit his suffering into the hands of God.
Forty and more chapters! Some tremendous poetry…but no resolution to the central issue. Hmmm? Maybe that’s why I like crime novels. I want my goody to come out on top and the baddy to get his come-uppance. Even if I haven’t picked up on the clues through the story, I want all loose ends dealt with and the criminal to be led away in handcuffs as the detective heads off to the pub for a well-deserved pint. You’re not going to get neat answers if you read Job.
What you do get is a man who refuses to let go of his faith even when his whole world has collapsed around him. To quote the psalms: Job knows that ‘God is his strength and refuge. Though the mountains tremble, the seas roar, the nations and kingdoms be shaken and society be in the edge of chaos’, Job will trust in God’s goodness. And that’s what we see in our few verses this morning. ‘I know that my Redeemer lives’ says Job– such well-known words from this book. The disasters that have befallen him offer Job no reason whatsoever to utter these words but he still finds the faith, deep down, to declare his belief that God is good. Somewhere, (he knows not where), there is someone who will speak for him. Somewhere, (he knows not where), there is someone who will make his cause before God, who will stand on his side and plead his case in heaven. And even if he loses his life and even if he is swept away so that his words can only be read through being carved in stone before the world Job trusts that God’s goodness and righteousness will raise him up on the last day. Why? Because he believes that God is good, that God is just and he cares.
So what do we take from the book of Job into this coming week?
Firstly, an encouragement to ask difficult questions of God. We can’t guarantee answers but asking the questions is OK: it’s not a sign of any lack of faith to wonder or to question. God can handle anything we throw at him: it’s OK to let Him know how you feel (just read the psalms to see this in action). The very existence of Job amongst the books of our bible is a sign that it is alright to ask the hardest of questions.
And then, whilst it’s OK to ask questions we learn from the poor example of Job’s comforters that we should resist the temptation to give simplistic answers to hard questions. Sometimes people of faith come across as unthinking (and at worst uncaring) in the way we speak. Life is complicated. Job’s comforters did him more harm than good. Tread carefully – especially when people are hurting. There are some things we will never understand that need to be shared rather than explained. That’s one of the reasons we worship Jesus: he shares our suffering, he doesn’t utter platitudes about it.
And perhaps lastly, we hear Job’s words of faith and they ring true for us. To quote another of the books of Wisdom (Ecclesiastes) God ‘has set eternity in our hearts’ – somewhere deep within us we hope for more beyond our three score years and ten! To live in the light of eternity is not the same as believing in ‘pie in the sky when we die’ and it is definitely not an exercise in escapism that should excuse us from struggling to make this world a better place. Rather, it is a firm hope grounded in the central Christian discovery of the nature of God which is this: that God is Love. His love never lets us go and, as Jesus said in our gospel reading, to Him all of us are alive, always and forever.
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