Have you ever scaled a mountain? Have you ever been rock climbing—the kind of climbing that involves ropes, harnesses, a fairly substantial rock, and a whole lot of faith that you can make it? Recently, my kids and I were out and about and saw one of those imitation rock walls. There are these little ledges where you can put your hands as you scale the wall; they imitate what natural crevices might be like. My kids begged me to let them do a climb, in the way that children do when they see something new to them. I wondered about supervision, harnesses, and my kids’ climbing skills. I still wonder about those ledges and their capacity to hold my kids hands and feet. Those ledges seem so small, yet they supposedly give support.
And then I found myself thinking about faith…and those small, well-placed ledges.
The book of Job is like a mountaintop whose vista is difficult to see, if you are only doing just a few verses like we are doing today. This week’s reading comes near the end of the story, following on last week, but you really need to read the whole story to appreciate just how high the mountain is that Job faces. The faith that Job describes is the kind that takes practice to build; one might even say skill. We place our feet in the text and climb slowly; wondering if we can scale its height, wondering if what we believe about God and people will hold us.
Sometimes there are such tall mountains of sadness in our news and in our hearts that we want to put God on trial. We rightfully wonder where God is in all of this; we rightfully wonder how our faith can help us to make sense of tragic events—events in which suffering is deep, pain is real, and hearts bleed with compassion. We try to imagine the unimaginable— a parent’s cry of grief, a community reeling from loss, families and friends struggling to understand the question of “why.” We’ve wondered if our faith can scale these mountains of grief and tragedy and still remain intact.
In the story of Job, we are confronted with the question of “why.” Why does a man who is “blameless and upright” suffer so much? Why does he appear to be a pawn between the Devil and God? Why does he cling so steadily to his faith, to his integrity, when it would seem easier to “curse God and die” as his wife urges? Why doesn’t just let go of the ledge that he’s on, and let go of God?
Likewise, we are haunted by similar questions. We may know someone who has been struck with a disease. We may have lost a child ourselves. We may know families who have had tragedy upon tragedy laid upon their shoulders; more than enough pain for a lifetime. We may have been hit too many times in the gut with the loss of our hopes, the loss of our dreams, or the loss of our own fortune or well-being. We’ve known bitterness, anger, and fright. And now there is this tragic, intentional mass shooting at another house of worship—the third such mass shooting at a house of worship in three years– this time targeting our Jewish brothers and sisters who, among other things, were attending a bris, something similar in some ways to our baptism ritual.
Job was the kind of guy who did everything right. He has all of his proverbial ducks in a row. He fears God, which is another way of saying that he reveres our Creator, without trying to be God himself. When evil tempts him, he doesn’t participate. He turns away from all that would cause him to sin. As a parent, he carefully looks out for his children and worries about their relationship with God. When his kids would have parties, he would rise early in the morning and make offerings to God, just in case his children had sinned inadvertently. This man had covered his bases.
Which is why we are shocked to learn that he suffers so much. What begins as a kind of contest between God and Satan has terrible consequences for Job. One by one, messengers come to tell him that his livestock and servants have been killed. If that wasn’t enough, he learns that tornado has wiped out every one of his ten children. Then we overhear a conversation between Satan and God. We might wish that we didn’t. God asks if Satan has noticed how Job has remained steadfast in his faith, despite all of his misfortune. Even after losing his family and his possessions, he is still climbing; still putting his hands and feet on those little ledges of faith, still reaching up.
But the Satan, whose Hebrew name actually means “adversary,” argues that it’s easy for Job to be faithful since he still has his health. “’But stretch out your hand now’ and take away his health, then let’s see how faithful he is,” he says. Satan wants to put Job to the test and God says, “sure, okay, just spare his life.” Very soon thereafter, Job is sitting in a pile of ashes picking at the scabs on his skin.
Many of us have trouble accepting a God who would wager with the Devil over a human soul. Many of us might have serious theological problems with a God that makes human beings into puppets, or chess pieces on a game board. We may have trouble with a theology that says that God “tests” human beings.
Is it a test when we lose a loved one in a car accident? Is it a test when the doctor says that there is no cure? Is it a test when some people lose everything that they have worked their whole lives for in a hurricane, a flood, a bankruptcy, a mass shooting, or through some evil that is beyond them?
When this text was written, folks believed that if you got sick, or lost your child, or suffered from some other kind of calamity—you must have offended God; you must have sinned in some way. Sometimes, we do suffer consequences for our own actions or bad decisions. And sometimes, evil is nurtured and coddled in the larger society. But the Book of Job emphatically says that this isn’t the whole picture; this isn’t the whole truth by a long shot. For every person who is tempted to say that one’s personal misfortune was caused by sin, God says, “Did you happen to notice my servant, Job?” He is innocent.
The story of Job begins with “why” but ends with no easy answers. We are not told “why.” If this seems desperately unfair, think about all the times in your life when you were given answers, but for whatever reason, those answers were not enough. Have you ever been given a trivial response to your suffering? Has someone ever tried to comfort you with the words, “This is part of God’s will?” Did someone ever try subtly to insinuate that you did something in your past to deserve what you are facing now? If you have ever been the recipient of such responses, then you know how Job felt.
Job’s friends try to rationalize his suffering, try to make him examine his life for one single misstep that would have triggered God’s punishment. One friend argues that it’s because of Job’s kids that things have gone so wrong. Another so-called “friend” hints that God may have been far too lenient. There are some answers that shut doors prematurely and leave us feeling raw. There are some answers that should remain unspoken.
While some situations do challenge us, they are not sent from God so that we can prove whether we have an A or an F in the “ability to cope” department. In the Hebrew Scriptures, knowing that there was someone up there pulling the strings gave an explanation, however unsatisfactory. But that same theology can lead to an image of God who is masochistic. The problem with the beginning of Job is that we start to think of God as a mean teacher setting us up for failure, no matter how hard we try. But if we can get beyond this problematic opening, we begin to see what this story is about, which is how we wrestle intimately with the mystery of suffering.
Depressed and sitting in ashes, (which was a sign of grief), Job has to listen to his wife argue with him. “Do you still cling to your integrity, dear husband? Curse God and die. After the life you have led—this is the reward that you get? It’s better not to believe. It’s better to be dead.” To be fair, Job’s wife has just lost all her children, their home, their livelihood, and her husband is covered with sores. She responds out of her pain. In her theology, if a person is righteous, innocent, and good, there should be a reward for your efforts; there should be a blessing from God, not funerals and skin lesions. If God’s system of reward and punishment is skewed, then why have any use for God? In her theology, God is a useful means to an end—a profitable end.
But believing God in order to secure some kind of reward either in this world or the next can leave us on a shaky ledge. For when our reward doesn’t come, or when we see others being rewarded who don’t seem to deserve it, we begin to cry out at the unfairness of God. We begin to be bitter, and our faith becomes little more than a house of cards. And slowly, as faith crumbles, we begin to die, each day, little by little on the inside.
Job’s response to his wife, (minus the part about her being a foolish woman), is a pinnacle of faith. He says, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Being able to trust in God during the hard times takes courage. Now right about here, I need to pause. I wanted to give an example of the Amish Community who, years ago, showed in choosing to forgive the man who shot their children and inflicted their pain. But I can’t really do that today. I am, as well as countless other people, still in shock. And I am still angry. Angry that I woke up to hear the boys’ sitter describe to me in detail what had happened to yet another faith community. Angry at the state of America’s soul. Angry that people don’t want to see the effect of vitriol and scapegoating and vilifying the stranger on our democracy. While it takes courage to say, I will still trust that God is at work in this situation, even though I can’t even begin to comprehend it, even though it pains me to think about it, that is like putting your foot into one of those little ledges and scaling a mountain whose height is beyond your ken. Still, it is a choice to believe that God will bring some good out of a particular, personal or communal tragedy. It is a choice to decide, “I shall not blame God or meet suffering with more suffering.” At the funeral for the man who committed the murders of the Amish girls, many of the mourners were Amish who joined in solidarity with murderer’s family and children. On that day, they were climbing a mountain of suffering together, supported by cords of forgiveness, tears, and collective hope that their actions and their choices would echo down a mountainside of grief, from the heavens, or so it seemed to me when I learned of it.
The biblical scholar and pastor, Eugene Peterson, recently died. He is the author of a widely read paraphrase of our biblical story called The Message. He once wrote: “Perhaps the greatest mystery in suffering is how it can bring a person into the presence of God in a state of worship, full of wonder, love, and praise. Suffering does not inevitably do that, but it does it far more often than we would expect.” In choosing to believe God’s presence in suffering, even when we have questions, we place our feet on one of those ledges of faith…and we begin to climb away from despair.
There is much more to say about Job—but today perhaps we are called to move slowly over this mountain, paying attention to our own personal handholds and ledges as we move along in faith. Maybe it’s enough to simply listen to how Job’s questions can become our questions, to pay attention to the suffering as we would a guest in our home.
Perhaps for now it will be enough to ask ourselves if we happened to notice God’s servant, Job, or God’s servant, Jesus, along the way, when we cry out to the heavens in anger, in sadness, or in the grip of tragedy. Perhaps it is enough to remember Job when we want to put God on trial. Amen.
 Eugene H. Peterson, The Message, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002) 840.