Thursday, 4 December 2014

When bad things happen to good people


The book of Proverbs teaches us: live well and life will go well.
But while we know that may happen say 80% of the time, we also know that life doesn’t always work like that.
Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people.

That is probably one of the biggest reasons why many people fall away from faith. They say, ‘God I've served you faithfully – and look what has happened to me. How can I trust you when so much muck happens to me?’



So let’s look at a brief outline of the story of Job: because in Job, bad things happen to a good person.

In ch 1 we are introduced to Job. He is upright, wealthy and he took God very seriously. And God is proud of Job (1.8): ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.’

But we are also introduced to Satan. Satan is like a teenager. God says to Satan, ‘Where have you been?’ Satan says, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it’. Or, in other words, ‘Hanging around. Doing stuff!’
God says, ‘Look at Job’.
But Satan challenges God: ‘Of course Job fears you – look at the stuff you have given him. It is in his interests to follow you. He is a ‘rice’ Christian: in it for what he can get out of it’
And God says, ‘No. That is not the case. You take that stuff away from Job, and he’ll still fear me’.
So Satan does. And Job’s response is: 1.21 ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ (it is a verse often used in the funeral service)
So Satan again challenges God. ‘Yes, but while he feels OK he will trust you. Take away his health. Skin for skin! ‘All that people have they will give to save their lives’. So God gives Satan permission to afflict Job – and Job is covered with sores.
And Job’s response is 2.10, when his wife urges him to curse God and to die, is ‘Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?
‘In all this’, we are told, ‘Job did not sin with his lips’.

Three friends then make their appearance: Eliphaz the Terminite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite. At first they sit with Job in silence for 7 days. They saw his suffering.

And then, in ch 3, Job speaks: Basically he is saying, ‘I want to be dead’. V20: ‘Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures’.

The friends answer him. Their basic argument is the message of Proverbs. Job you must have sinned, because otherwise none of this would have happened to you. Examine yourself for conscious or unconscious sins. Don’t claim that you are innocent before God. Repent and he will restore you.
Job defends himself. He says, ‘No. I am innocent. I do not deserve these things’. And these arguments climax in ch 31 – which some have said is the highest point of Old Testament ethics – where Job goes through all the things that he might have done wrong, and he says, ‘No. I am righteous’.

After that the three friends are silent, but a younger man steps in and takes up their case – his name is Elihu, and his speech is in chapters 32-37. He repeats what they have said earlier, with greater earnestness.

What is interesting in Job is that he has lost his stuff – and he can handle it.
He has lost his health – and yes, he wishes he were dead rather than suffering, but there is nothing wrong in that, so long as he still entrusts himself into the hands of God – but he still trusts God.
But it seems that it is the loss of his reputation and his sense of integrity which drives him. And it is this last which he was not going to lose. And so he demands justice. He wants a meeting with God. He doesn’t want his stuff back. He doesn't even necessarily want his health back. But he does want his integrity back. He wants to be vindicated.

So for instance Job 23.1-7

‘Today also my complaint is bitter;
    his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
O that I knew where I might find him,
    that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
    and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
    and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
    No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
    and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge.

Or Job 31.35-37

O that I had one to hear me!
    (Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)
    O that I had the indictment written by my adversary!
Surely I would carry it on my shoulder;
    I would bind it on me like a crown;
I would give him an account of all my steps;
    like a prince I would approach him.

And within this crying out for a meeting with God, for justice, there is a glimpse of hope.  

Job 19.23-27 (in words which come in Handel’s Messiah)

‘O that my words were written down!
    O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
    they were engraved on a rock for ever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
    and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
    then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
    and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
    My heart faints within me!

The window depicting Job on the south side is tiered: at the bottom we are shown Job hearing of the death of his sons. But in the upper window, we are shown Job holding a banner with those words on it: ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’. It is his hope – that he will meet with God and be vindicated.

That cry for vindication is strong. We hear it today from the black community on the streets of America. We hear it from the victims of sexual abuse. This week there has been a docu-drama about Christopher Jefferies, the man falsely accused of the murder of Jo Yeates and publicly tried and found guilty by the media. He wanted his name cleared. He wanted to be vindicated. And heaven hears the cries of men and women, boys and girls who suffer in other parts of the world because of our wealth.

Well Job does get his meeting with God.

But in getting his meeting, he gets far more than he bargains.  

God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind. ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?’ (38.1)

As one commentator puts it: Job is demanding vindication, and God says, ‘Let me tell you about making the hippopotamus’.

It is not an answer to Job’s suffering. For that, we will have to wait another 600 or so years. But what Job does have is a vision of God, of the glory of God. It is a partial vision, for he only sees the power of God. He does not see the love of God.
But that is enough.

And it changes him.
In 40.1-2 The Lord says to Job, ‘Shall a fault finder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.’ Then Job answered the Lord: ‘See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.’

And he continues in 42.2-6

‘I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
“Hear, and I will speak;
    I will question you, and you declare to me.”
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes.’

The story of Job is not the answer to the question of unfair suffering.
Yes, in the final chapter, Job does get his stuff back, his health back and his reputation back. But that is a footnote.

But the story of Job is the story of how someone, even in the pit of hell, cries out for a meeting with God, has a vision of God, and discovers a new way of looking at things. And amazingly – because it is a vision of God – that is enough.

The artist who designed the window about Job gets it.  

As I mentioned, at the bottom, we see Job on his knees, learning of the death of his children. Surrounding him are the three friends and his wife. That is the human situation. It is the muck of the world in which we live – in which there is dreadful, and unfair, suffering. It is the also the world where we stand accused.
But it is not the final word.

In the higher tier, Job stands with his declaration of hope: ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’. It is one of the very few explicit references in the Old Testament to a conscious life after death. And it is the hope that sustains so many people when they go through times of trial. Hold on, because there is justice and the best really is yet to come.

But above that – almost unnoticeable – even though it is the crown of this window, are two angels holding a banner: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty’. They are the words spoken by the angels when Isaiah has a vision of the glory of God.
And it is ultimately the vision of the glory of God which both silences Job but which enables him to see the whole thing in a completely different light.

There was, of course, another who came after Job who suffered dreadfully even though he had done no wrong. He cries out, as he hangs on the cross – with Job and with countless men and women who have been to hell: ‘My God, My God why have you forsaken me’. In Job’s case God hadn’t abandoned him – even though it seemed like it. In his case, God really did abandon him. But Jesus entered the God forsaken pit, so that when we go there, we know we are not God-forsaken and we are not alone.

Bad things happen to Job even though he is a good man. But in his suffering, Job holds on to his faith and sees the vision of the power of the God who is up there. And it transforms him.

When bad things happen to us, we hold on to our faith, and we see in the face of Jesus the vision of the love of God who is here right beside us. And as he comes down and identifies himself with us and becomes like us, so we can hold on to him, and identify ourselves with him, and become like him – both in his suffering and in his glory.  

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