“A Bitter Intimacy”
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Last week we began looking at Job. And because much happens between the first and the twenty-third chapters, let’s review a little.
Job is a man of wealth and renown. He’s also hospitable and generous. His ten children seem a little spoiled by privilege, but all in all, life is exceptionally good for Job.
Then God brags on Job to Satan—twice. And twice, Satan challenges God to make things difficult on Job so God can see what happens when humans face suffering.
You do it, says God. Just don’t kill him.
In less than two chapters, Job has lost everything except one irate wife. “Curse God, and die!” she says. But Job, while wishing himself dead, curses only the night of his conception and the day of his birth.
Then we meet Job’s three “friends,” Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, all of whom say basically the same thing: Job, you have to be guilty of something. Confess it, and move on.
Throughout these conversations, Job maintains his innocence. And in chapter 19, he explodes in defiance saying, “I know that my Redeemer lives.”
Handel uses those words in the Easter portion of The Messiah, but while he uses them to proclaim the risen Christ, Job is declaring that he has a vindicator, someone who will help him get justice against God who has so uselessly and unjustly abused him. “[My Redeemer] will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been…destroyed,” says Job, “then in my flesh I shall see God.”
Hearing that, Eliphaz scolds Job saying, “Is not your wickedness great? There is no end to your iniquities.”
In today’s text, an indignant Job says:
2“Today also my complaint is bitter;
[God’s] hand is heavy despite my groaning.
3Oh, that I knew where I might find [God],
that I might come even to his dwelling!
4I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
5I would learn what [God] would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.
6Would [God] contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
7There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.
8“If I go forward, [God] is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
9on the left he hides,
and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right,
but I cannot see him.
16God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
17If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face!”
(Job 23:1-9, 16-17 NRSV)
Job wishes he could “vanish in darkness.” He also knows that he can’t. One thing that Job is acknowledging is that human suffering happens within the context of intimacy with God. Sometimes it’s a rather bitter intimacy, but intimacy, nonetheless. And if we can’t share our deepest anger, fear, and hurt with those with whom we are most intimate, do we really love them? Do we really trust them? What or whom are we trying to protect if we offer to God nothing but laundered and starched formality?
When people seem to be angry with God, and uncomfortable with feeling that way, I always refer them to three particular psalms of lament. In these psalms, the poets do more than give voice to their pain or their community’s pain. They call God out and demand action. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” cries Psalm 22. In Psalm 44, the psalmist accuses God of abandonment saying, “You have rejected us and abased us…You have sold your people for a trifle…[and] made us…a laughingstock…” Psalm 88 ends in utter despair: “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in complete darkness.”
I think we need to feel free to express to God our hearts’ rawest and most bitter intimacies. Sometimes lament is the most honest prayer we can pray and our most sincere affirmation of faith. Lament takes seriously our faith that God creates the world and declares it good, even when good is not what we’re experiencing. The bitter intimacy of lament calls on God to show up and to redeem our suffering.
Job’s tortured laments do all of these things. They also declare his innocence. Elie Wiesel says that Job’s “innocence troubled him, left him in the dark.” Had Job felt guilty, “his guilt might [have given] the experience…meaning. [Job] demanded…an answer that would show him unequivocally that [humankind] is not a toy…Job turned against God to find and confront [God]. He defied [God] to come closer to Him.”1
“Moreover,” says Wiesel, “Job needed God because he felt abandoned by…his wife [and] his friends,” all of whom projected their own resentment toward and fear of God onto Job, even as he suffered.2
Wiesel is saying that Job’s angry laments declare his faith that his suffering, and that human suffering in general, is not God’s will. And it’s very often through our most passionate, unfiltered protests that we draw closest to God who, as James Finley says, “protects us from nothing [and] sustains us in all things.”3
One challenge for us is that we tend to recognize God’s sustaining faithfulness most fully in retrospect. The writer of Psalm 23, for example, would have nothing hopeful to say without having already traversed the “valley of the shadow of death.” He can “fear no evil” only by having already faced some kind of fearsome malice. And perhaps only someone who survived something like the Nazi Holocaust—someone like Elie Weisel—can write an honest commentary on the Book of Job.
We live in our own worrisome times. And it’s often easier to act like Job’s wife or one of his “friends” and lash out in judgment at each other. As followers of Jesus, though, our calling is to claim the gifts of our suffering and to enter the bitter intimacy of the world’s lament. When we lend our voices, hands, and feet to the Creation’s suffering, we help reveal the reconciling and resurrecting love of God.
And remember: Healthy lament always begins with our own intimate struggles with God. When people of faith do not feel free to be bitterly honest with God, we will almost certainly, like Job’s wife and friends, project onto others our bitterness toward God. And misdirected bitterness can cause any of us to judge and even condemn people who need and deserve compassion.
If the story of Job does nothing else, it invites us into the deepest, darkest, most faith-threatening pain in our lives and in the world. And it dares us, in the midst of that pain, to draw near to God—who, quite frankly, has nothing in common with that irresponsible, anthropomorphic deity who turns Job over to Satan.
It’s interesting. Job wishes he could “vanish in darkness.” His lament has a counterpoint in the poet’s grateful affirmation when he says, in Psalm 139, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you.”
I think Job’s story helps to create space for us to prepare for and to meet the God being revealed in Jesus—the Christ.
The One who comes to us as one of us.
The One who suffers with us.
The God who, ultimately, transforms all suffering, all “darkness,” into redeeming and life-sustaining light.
1Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, Random House, NY, 1976, p. 198.
2Ibid., p. 199.