Out of Job’s Ashes

March 8, 2018

job-suffering

The Old Testament book of Job is somewhat of a mystery. It includes quite the unique story told in an unusual way compared to the rest Scripture. In it Job is both the protagonist and antagonist as the center of the story and of the storm surrounding him. It is rich in dialogue—between God and Satan; between Job and his friends; and between God and Job. The focus is about human suffering and why God allows it, yet a definitive answer to this dilemma is never offered. In the end it is about trust—as in—will God be trusted above and beyond the suffering with all of the accompanying questions. There is much to unpack in Job’s story and indeed out of his ashes there are numerous life lessons to learn.

The Prologue (1-2)

The book begins by firmly establishing Job as a righteous man—a guy who did everything right by his family, his friends, his community, strangers, and by God. Even though Job was not a Hebrew, he worshipped their God. He was from the “land of Uz,” which remains a rather mysterious place—no one is exactly sure of its location. The historical context of the book also remains unknown, with best guesses placing it at some point before Moses. Who recorded this story also is a mystery. What we do know is that Job was a good man—about the best around in his day.

Satan took notice of that. In a fascinating snapshot of the supernatural, we eavesdrop in a conversation between God and Satan. God asks Satan, who was apparently roaming the earth in search of people to take down into his sinful web, what he thinks of Job and his righteous conduct. Satan doesn’t think much of it and does what he does best–accuse. Job is too protected by God, so a bargain of sorts is agreed upon. God takes down some protective hedges and Satan gets a shot at Job, but at first not personally. He can only attack him around the edges—and he does it very well. Yet Job stays strong and true to God. Then a second bargain is struck. Satan can harm Job physically, but only to a point. Job’s life is to be spared. This almost surreal situation (to us anyway) sets up the rest of the book. Satan hit Job hard. First his property, security, and serenity—then his body and his health.  It rocks Job to his core. Job cannot understand why he is suffering so. For him it made no sense. He was a godly man yet all hell (almost literally) had broken loose upon him. Why? This “why” discussion takes up most the book. It remains ever present as we face suffering of our own. This is also why this book remains so compelling—and so challenging.

The Dialogues (3-41)

Job’s despair was shocking to his friends. When they came to his aid, they barely recognized him—sitting in ashes, rejected by his wife and with only a broken piece of pottery to ease his suffering. How was this the same man whom they had known—a man renown for his righteousness, justice and goodness? Obviously something had gone terribly wrong, so Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite, and Elihu the Buzite determined to figure it all out. Just why was Job suffering so? This is at the heart of their prolonged conversations.

To understand these exchanges it is important to understand the assumption they were all (including Job) working from—a common assumption that continues to this day. That is—how everything in the universe operates according to a strict principle of justice. From their perspective, if you were about righteousness, you would be rewarded. If evil—then the proper punishment would follow (see 4:8-9; 34:11; 36:11-12). Under this assumption, Job was apparently not the man everyone thought him to be.

So, his friends set about to probe into his life, to expose his sin, and thus to help him accept it, repent of it, and escape his ashes. But Job insisted he had not sinned—that he was innocent (9:21). No way, according to Job, had he done anything anywhere to deserve the horror he was living. He could not process this being about the justice of God because he had done nothing to warrant it. In addition to his physical distress, this was ripping at his very soul. Eventually in these discussions and in his frustration he turns on God—accusing him of inflicting this pain for no cause (16:9; 27:2,8). He is confused and just trying to make sense of it all.

At this point in the story the last friend, Elihu, speaks up. He thinks Job is mistaken in accusing God and interprets suffering somewhat differently. He suggests it may a punishment not for sins committed but rather as a warning against committing future sins.

The point of all of this dialogue? Each segment represents an element of man’s wisdom in trying to come to grips with human suffering. Who among us has not asked why innocent people suffer? Who among us has not wrestled with the apparent injustice of it? The dialogues were their way of wrestling.

Then God enters the dialogue. In what may be the most amazing part of Job’s amazing story—God speaks up and answers Job, but not exactly how Job expected. Job’s perspective of how God operates in the world centered upon himself. From that limited viewpoint Job accused God of not holding up his end of the bargain. In answering, God opened up Job’s eyes to a universe much, much larger than his own circumstance. As God spoke about creation, about taking care of the natural order, about how things operated from his perspective, Job quickly realized he was out way of his league and repents. His accusations against God were unwarranted. He simply could not know enough to make such claims against God.

So why all the suffering? Even in all of the discussion, no clear answer is provided. God does seem to use two of his more impressive creations, though, to provide some direction. He speaks of the behemoth and the leviathan—two large creatures known to Job and his contemporaries. Using them to illustrate, he pictures creation as both ordered but also dangerous; the world as having justice, but not having perfection. Thus, the suffering—it is a part of this imperfect world.

For us, who still operate at times under the same assumption as Job and his friends that answer may seem to fall short, but Job was satisfied. The epilogue of the story (chapter 42) reveals that not only did Job recover, but ended up far more blessed than before.

Trust is the Takeaway

This is the point of Job’s story. It is not to answer the problem of human suffering; it is to trust explicitly in God throughout human suffering. Even though rebuked by his friends, Job did the right thing—he took his doubts, hurts, and questions directly to God. Suffering is a byproduct of our broken world. Satan orchestrates it—just as with Job. God’s answer to this dilemma is not to eradicate it, but to send this only son to enter it—to suffer just like us so that we can eventually escape it. In the meantime—trust! Trust in the infinite wisdom and justice of God. One day it will overcome and all suffering will cease. This may not fit into all of our assumptions, but like Job we are so limited in our ability to understand. So, we cling hard to him who does understand and trust him regardless of what other voices may be saying.

That at times will not be easy, but in the end well worth it (see 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Out of Job’s ashes comes a perspective that can see beyond the moment trusting God through it.

 

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When Bad Things Happen to Good Churches

January 23, 2015

Being in the preacher world I am well acquainted with bad things happening to good churches.

Division; immorality; financial difficulties; unhealthy leadership; strife and friction; ungodly agendas; even false teaching are among the bad things that often happen.

All are devastating. All are hurtful. All threaten to undermine the work of God’s kingdom. All happened to churches we read about in the Bible.

Just pick one: Corinth? Rome? Ephesus? Galatia? Colossae? They were all familiar with bad things.

Allow me to pick one–Ephesus–and roll with that (mainly because I am leading a study on Timothy at my church right now). We know quite a bit about this church. The first-century historian, Luke, details its riotous beginning in Act 19. The apostle Paul shares a rather emotional moment with its leadership in Acts 20. Later he pens letters both to the church and his protégé, Timothy, who was serving there (listed in the New Testament as Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy). And then this congregation is the recipient of one of the seven letters written to churches by Christ as recorded in Revelation 2:1-7. In terms of information about them—we have a broad context.

A broad context of bad things happening.

Bad things not only happened to the Ephesian church, but were first predicted to happen to them (see Paul’s statement in Acts 20:25-31). Ouch!

Turns out Paul was right—what he foresaw happened and it was bad. Unhealthy leadership with ungodly agendas did a number on this fledgling body of believers. Read 1 Timothy in particular, and you will start getting the picture. It is a picture of bad things.

To counter these bad things Paul sent Timothy. After Timothy got there and saw just how bad things were, Paul had to write a stay-there-and-do-the-job-I-sent-you-to-do type of letter. Hey, I have been a preacher at a good church when bad things were happening. Believe me when I say Timothy needed this kind of encouragement!

Of course, Paul gave him specific advice on how to handle the various bad things occurring, reminded him that he definitely was the man for the job, and encouraged him to keep his own nose clean as he sorted through the mess.

It is worth noting that in the midst of all of this instruction and confidence building, Paul uses the exact same phrase twice to preface a major point. It is:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. (1 Timothy 1:15 and 4:9)

Interesting. Various ideas have been floated out as to exactly why he turned this phrase, but I like to think it is one of those okay-now-listen-up-because-what-I-am-about-to-tell-you-matters-a-little-bit-more type statements. It is similar to when a parent calls the kid by his full name. Now it is time to pay closer attention!

So what was this crucial information Paul wanted to share and how does it help good churches currently dealing with bad things?

It all has to do with Jesus.

In both contexts Paul follows his preface with strong affirmations about Christ, forgiveness, and hope.

Could there be any more important information or any better way to counter the bad things while leading the church to a healthier place?

It all has to do with Jesus.

When bad things happen to good churches just double-down on the Christ! It may sound over simplistic in the always complex consequences of the bad things, but no surer foundation exists upon which to rebuild.

Bad things have a way of distracting; of bouncing off in all directions; of creating confusion in such a manner that we lose sight of the blessings of Jesus. He gets lost in his own church! The bad things discourage us; disappoint us; and divert us away from him and the hope he promises. They create a debilitating fog that clouds the joy of Christ, which prevents him from being exalted in his church.

Little wonder then in his letter directly to the church in Ephesus, Paul’s prayer was for them was “that you may know him better” in order to more fully realize the hope Christ offers by having the “eyes of your heart…enlightened” (see the entire context of Ephesians 1:15-23).

Discouraged because bad things are happening at your church?

Fix your eyes on Jesus more than ever! Get to know him even more. Teach, preach the forgiveness and the hope found only in him. Exalt Christ!

Not only will he provide you the strength (right, Timothy?) to navigate the bad things; he will create the healthy focus enabling your church to rediscover the good things.

He was the answer to the Ephesian church crisis.

It reminds me of what Paul “resolved” only to know while dealing with the bad things in the Corinthian church.

It was all about “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

When it truly is all about Him, bad things will not defeat good churches. They will hurt. They will disappoint. They may even discourage for a season. But better days are ahead. That is the essence of the hope Jesus offers.

Remember that letter Jesus wrote to the Ephesian church recorded by John in Revelation 2:1-7? Hear what he says to them then:

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance… You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 

Wow! Seems like the bad things were in their rear view mirror. They did not allow themselves to be defeated. This good church overcame the bad things in his name!

If (and God forbid) bad things ever happen to your good church cling to Jesus!

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. (Ephesians 6:10)