This is not in response to a question but, rather, to a flood of self-righteousness I saw online right after the recent election. It follows on the heels of the last blog on the Book of Job.
One commenter asked me to do a whole series on the Book of Job after the last blog was written. I’m not sure if I am up for that at present, but I will do a few blogs on this strange book and refer you back to the God At War series (which also deals with the problem of evil and God’s part in this struggle – culpability, causality, or…?). I will also assume that you read the earlier blog which I will summarize this way:
- The Book of Job tells an old story. The story probably originated back in the second millennium BC (@1500) when these type of stories were all the rage. There are a great many of them still extant and they are very similar to Job’s story – a good man is attacked by misfortune, evil, or the gods. His friends don’t understand why this is happening but they try to help their friend. Their help, however, only adds to his pain. At the end of the story, the man is vindicated by the gods.
- The book in its present form dates from somewhere between 500-300BC. It has been edited many times by known scribes – such as Ezra – and unknown.
- This is not a problem for the Book of Job is a sermon, not a biography. It is possible that a man named Job lived and that some of these events overcame him, but that is not the point of this book. It is here to discuss the problem of evil and how it coexists with an almighty, benevolent God.
- To read this book, one must acknowledge that its language is very difficult, a mash of old Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Syriac and other tongues complete with their stories, allusions, metaphors, cultural understandings, and myths.
- None of this means that the book is not inspired. It was the fundamentalist movement of the early 1900s that taught us that every word in the Bible had to come from the mouth of God, the writers were merely secretaries, and everything in the Bible was inerrant in history, theology, and science. Before then, that was not the teaching of Christians or Jews.
This might surprise you, but it seems that early Christians just weren’t interested in the Book of Job. While they wrote voluminously about other Hebrew texts, they almost entirely ignored this book. There are only a few quotes from or allusions to this book in the New Testament (Matt.19:26 & Job 42:2; Luke 1:52 & Job 12:19; 1st Cor.3:19 & Job 5:13). Clement of Rome referred to Job in his epistle around 96AD as did Clement of Alexandria in his (@200AD). Both of them refer to Job 14:4-5 which is about the only passage from Job we find in the writings of Christians in the first couple of centuries. The first attempt to systematically study and explain this book to Christians came from Origen. He wrote 22 sermons about it in his usual style – everything was metaphor which refers to other metaphors which refers to symbols which are then applied to life. Most modern Christians reading Origen end up popping aspirin while wondering what in the world was going on in that guy’s head. Still, that was the common way of reading scripture in his day (@180-260AD). Christians habitually used the stories of the Hebrew Bible as metaphors and morality tales, not history. That upsets a lot of people today and that leads to my next point.
Before we look at this book more deeply, I want to use an example from this last week to illustrate how little people really know God, their Bibles, and our current situation. I have to reference the recent election but, fear not, this is not a polemic for or against the current occupant of the White House.
Christians were very divided over the recent presidential election. Polls and statistics now indicate that just over half of those who self identify as Christians voted for Romney. Nearly as many – including Catholics who were thought to be lost by Obama’s policies on healthcare and contraception – voted for Obama. In fact, the majority of several denominations voted for him: Catholics and mainstream Protestant churches (United Methodists, Episcopalians, some Presbyterian denominations, ELCA, etc.). And ten million Christians didn’t vote at all, it is thought, in part, because they didn’t want to vote for Obama yet couldn’t vote for a Mormon.
The upshot was that many of us were very upset to see Obama elected for four more years. As a Christian libertarian with some conservative leanings, I was among them (do not see this as an invitation to express your political views or attack mine. Stay with me. I’m getting to a point). Those who were upset at the fact that this generation is the first American generation who will pass on to their children vast debt, lessened freedom, and a weaker defense were immediately chided by people on Twitter, Facebook, and via blogs and emails that our attitude was poor and showed a lack of faith.
One lady posted six times on my Facebook page even while I was erasing her comments and sending her messages asking her to stop! She felt called by God to correct me. She said, “I’m a Bible believer and if you are, too, then you know that this is all part of God’s plan. God has a plan here and your mourning and sadness is a sign of a lack of faith in His goodness.”
Let’s leave aside the breathtaking chutzpah revealed by her blanket judgment. Let’s look at what she said and then go back to Job. Because I am Patrick and not Mr. Sweetness and Light, I challenged her. I said, “You believe the Bible?” She said she did. “Every word?” She emphatically said she did. I then challenged her. “Without opening up an ap or the Bible, quote me anything from the Book of Lamentations.” She couldn’t. “How about the Book of Ezekiel?” Nope. “Give me three verses from Jeremiah.” She couldn’t. “Can you tell me the percentage of Psalms that contain a lament or a complaint against God?” She was offended at the question but had to admit she could not. (she was offended by the very idea that Psalms included complaints and laments!)
I then said “How can you say you believe the Bible when you don’t know it? You don’t know that 70% of Psalms contain complaints and laments. You don’t know that the entire book of Lamentations is the outpouring of two broken hearts – Jeremiah’s and God’s. You say you believe the Bible but you think it is a sin to mourn. Explain Jesus crying over the fate of Jerusalem. Explain his tears at the tomb of Lazarus. Tell me why Isaiah said Jesus would be known as “a man of sorrows and well acquainted with our grief.” I went on at length but she had no answer other than accusations and platitudes.
She was a miserable comforter.
I guess I should have been glad that she was going after me rather than going around funeral homes telling the grieving to buck up and have faith.
Job’s counselors pummeled him with their words and their theology. They told him that what was happening to him was happening to him because of a reason. It was all part of God’s plans. He should humbly accept whatever happens and never question God or question whether this or that was just. His pain wasn’t important. He needed to snap out of it.
And they all used their idea of God to justify their “miserable” comfort. Eliphaz pointed out that sinful man should never question God (chapters 4,5,15,22). Bildad thought Job was sinful just because he dared to think about questioning his own guilt in the matter. Bildad went so far as to call Job a maggot when he compared him to God. “Shut up, take it, assume it is from God’s hand, and if it hurts, you deserve it” is basically his “comfort” to Job (chapters 8, 18, 25). Zophar (chapters 11,20) sounded like at least a dozen people who hammered my Facebook page this week: “your whining is showing a lack of faith in God. No wonder you are depressed!” He went on to say that it was our duty to be quiet and take whatever comes from the hand of God.
Of course, he assumes that whatever comes is God’s will and that whatever happens is part of God’s plan. Our God at War series showed that that is not a biblical construct. God often doesn’t get His way. He is not willing that any should perish but Jesus seemed to indicate most would anyway. He is the one who appointed Saul to be king only to regret it later. He made mankind only to repent of that action later. We could go on – and I did for a long series of blogs to which I refer you. If you say – as four did to me in person or via Facebook – that God Himself anoints and raises up our leaders you have to explain what God was thinking when He raised up Pol Pot, Stalin, Mussolini, Genghis Khan, etc. If “everything that happens is a part of God’s wondrous, loving plan” would you like to say that to the child being led into Hitler’s gas chamber?
If you like saying things like that, please never, never go visit anyone in the hospital and stay away from funerals. You will merely heap coals of fire on their heads and hearts and endanger their faith in the goodness of God by your platitudes. Even Job broke after the constant hammering of the self righteousness (yet ignorant) yammering of his miserable comforters. He cursed the day he was born and a whole lot more before God finally spoke and Job placed his hand over his mouth as an act of humility and repentance. Don’t go around being a Bildad, Eliphaz, or Zophar.
God dealt roughly with Job’s friends because they spoke for God without first caring for Job and seeing things through his eyes. They spent no time in mourning (although they spent days in silence) or empathy. They showed no caring, loving spirit but, instead, jumped to defend God even if it wounded one of God’s children. And they thought, by doing so, they were showing their faith. They were really showing their callousness and ignorance and God let them know it.
I believe in life after death and I believe in heaven but when someone loses a loved one regardless of age or circumstance I spend my time with them in silence or in expressions of empathy and shared pain. I do not keep throwing heaven at them as if that should make it all better. Our faith helps us, but it doesn’t keep us from mourning. We do not mourn as this world mourns, but we still mourn.
Two years ago today I was in Oak Ridge, Tennessee to speak at a local church when I got a late night phone call from a friend of mine in Michigan. My best friend, Jeremy King, was found dead by his tree stand in the woods near where we lived. He was in his early 30s and left a beautiful pregnant wife and two small children. An autopsy would later reveal that he died of a massive heart attack – and he was an active, athletic young man who was only a few pounds overweight. I was stunned, broken and messed up but my pain was nothing compared to the friend who called me (he and Jeremy had been best friends from childhood) or his wife’s. I didn’t mention heaven during the phone call. I didn’t say this was part of God’s wonderful, sweet, loving plan. I cried with my friend and kept expressing my shock and confusion.
At the funeral, I said many things. One of them was directly addressed to his young widow. I told her “One day, you will find yourself smiling again. One day, you find yourself laughing and suddenly you will wonder how you could smile or laugh again after such a terrible loss. You will wonder if you are being disloyal to Jeremy. Let me assure you that you are not. Jeremy would want you to smile and laugh again. There will be other days where out of the blue, suddenly and without warning, you will break down and sob, crying with great heaves of sorrow. You will wonder if you are being disloyal to Jeremy’s faith or to God and your belief that Jeremy is in heaven. You are not. You are merely showing that you are human and that this isn’t heaven for us. Not yet.”
I went on, but you get the drift. C.S. Lewis addressed the Pacifist Society in London with a famous speech entitled “Why I Am Not A Pacifist.” He made a great many arguments but the one I want to mention here is “because this is not yet heaven.” Because this is not yet heaven, we are to laugh with those who laugh and mourn with those who mourn. We are never allowed to wave away their shock or sorrow or lament as a sign of a lack of faith.
Don’t be a miserable comforter.