Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Friends of Job

In the story of Job, we meet three of Job's friends: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. These friends, much like Job's wife, are often spoken of disparagingly by those who are trying to give a brief summary of the tale. But a closer look will reveal his friends to be friends indeed and, more importantly, very much like we are ourselves. One of the reasons the story of Job has such universal appeal and lasting quality is because it reveals so much about true human nature, if we will but look close enough to see it.

In the story, Job's friends hear about the disasters that have befallen Job. They meet together and purpose to visit him to console him in his troubles. When they see him from a distance, they are so overcome by his condition that they weep openly. Then they sit with him in his ash heap and do not speak a word for seven days and nights.

This is the first point to consider. How many friends can you name that would be willing to sit with you in your troubles and not speak for a week? How many friends do you have that YOU would be willing to visit in THEIR troubles and YOU not speak for a week?

There is a cultural consideration in this part of the ancient world that is not present in our modern world, of course. It was customary during mourning that visitors would not speak until the host spoke first. So by not speaking, Job's friends were honoring Job's and their cultural heritage. The fact is that his three friends put their normal life on hold so they could honor and comfort a friend. They sat silently for a week, waiting for him to speak.

When Job finally did speak, in summary his words were, "I would be better off dead; I wish I had never been born." This is not exactly what the friends were expecting to hear. Eliphaz responded first by politely asking "Would you mind if I were to speak a few words to you?" Eliphaz then began trying to comfort Job with his words, by reminding him of God's goodness. Job responds to Eliphaz; Zophar and Bildad give their takes on the situation and Job responds to them, and their back and forth discourse goes on for the major part of the story.

What unfolds during this time is what probably happens in almost every human interaction of its kind. What began as an effort to comfort and console turns into an attempt at "fixing" the situation. Instead of consolation, they offer what they see as the solution. What began as conversation soon turns into debate and then argument. Being right becomes more important than being friends; information becomes more important than relationship.

So how can we rise to the positive aspects of Job's Friends without declining into the negative? I believe there are several things we should consider:

1. Realize that you do not have the whole story; you do not know all the facts. In any person's life, there are myriad factors which you are simply unable to ascertain. Discernment here means not thinking you know what's going on.

2. The simple presence of a friend is a comfort in troubling times. Your gift to them is your time and "just being there". Words are almost never what they need, especially if those words are designed to provide a solution to their problems. If you begin to feel the need to speak words of wisdom, find an errand you can run for them instead. That is something that will help.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Seven Lessons for Believers from Job

  1. Don't ask God to do you a favor... God does not owe you anything. We should not worship God for the blessings we hope to get. The Satan's primary accusation was "does Job worship God for nothing?"
  2. God is not a just God, nor is he an unjust God... He is Just God. To those who wonder why the innocent suffer, Job's answer is "they just do." To those who look for equity and fairness in life... who wonder why life is not fair — Job's answer is "it just isn't". Good deeds being rewarded and wrongs being punished is not always the way it happens, even though the Old Testament many times says it does. So we are brought to the point of doing good because it is good to do good and believing that virtue is its own reward.
  3. God's ways are not our ways. God is inscrutable. Not only is there much we do not know, but there is much we would not understand if we knew it. [quick aside: I am reminded of a time several years ago when I attended a revival with a pastor friend of mine. Being of the Southern Baptist persuasion, he held a dim view of emotional excesses. At the meeting, he was prayed over and was "slain in the spirit" as they say (i.e., he passed out on the floor). Later he confided that the experience "did not agree with his theology". ] And yet there is hope for understanding more and learning more. After all, what did the ancients know of electricity or nuclear fission or space or DNA? Are we not the ancients of future generations? W.S. "The God-given nature of man is to ask, to learn, to explore."
    We may not currently see order in the chaos, but that is not proof that there is no order. It only proves that we cannot see it. Our demand for justice on our terms lowers God to the point of a push-button dispenser... we put in certain behaviors, we get just rewards, whether good or bad. But God says, "Nothing doing! I am not here to serve you or to deliver your justice according to your understanding; you are here to serve me, even without perfect knowledge or reason or understanding." 
  4. Suffering is not evidence of sin. Job was as perfectly righteous as any mortal could hope to be. God himself said so and Job knew it was true.
    Job's friends, all of whom turned into accusers, held to the longstanding belief that you only get what you deserved... they even said as much. Even today, we want desperately to be able to blame the victim for their suffering. After all, if they deserve what they got... if God is punishing them justly... then it lessens our moral obligation to help them lest we interfere with God's plan to make them shape up. [Another aside... a friend told me about her mother's church. Her Pastor, Stan, told his congregation that they should not send any relief aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina because God was punishing them for their sin. Pastor Stan — and countless like him — failed to learn a lesson from Job: that suffering is not evidence of sin. To those friends of Job who still insist it's true God says, "You have not spoken right about me."
  5. We are not alone in our misery. Those who turn to the Bible for comfort can find it in Job. Not only does it teach us that suffering is not evidence of sin, but also that punishment — if indeed we ARE being punished — is not evidence of isolation from God. Nobody walks alone; God is always with us. Job's expressed loneliness and feelings of isolation echo our own feelings when trouble has come upon us. But because we know that Job was wrong about being cut off from God, we can believe that we have not been cut off, either!
  6. God is in control. When God appeared out of the whirlwind, he took Job on an exhaustive journey of discovery, revealing the entire universe — from the stars in the heavens to the fish in the depths of the seas — and showing the intimate care he gives to all of it. And yet, as William Safire points out, he gives man dominion over the earth and human affairs on it. If all of creation continues by his unseen guidance, we can be assured that our lives are within his unseen guidance as well, even those times when it appears that chaos reigns supreme. Rather than boasting of his power, God is revealing the immensity of his responsibility and, by analogy, calling on mankind to fulfill our responsibility on the earth to "Act Justly; to Love Mercy; and to Walk Humbly with our God." (Micah 6:8)
  7. Suffering MAY be a blessing in disguise, or Suffering is not without purpose. One purpose for the prologue to Job is to set up the possibility that God is hiding the reason for our suffering from us. The encouraging word from Eliphaz the Temanite was "Happy is the man whom God rebukes... the hands that smite will heal". Elihu offered the same consolation later when he said "those who suffer he rescues through suffering and teaches them by the discipline of affliction."
    If God dispenses only good to us, then it stands to reason that our suffering will turn out for our good.

The First Dissident

"The First Dissident; The Book of Job in Today's Politics" is a breakaway book by William Safire. In it, Mr. Safire says, "I see Job's ancient challenge to the highest authority as a metaphor for the modern dissident's principled resistance to authoritarian rule... not a weary resignation to life's unfairness. Rather it is a sustained note of defiance."

Regarding the book of Job, Thomas Carlyle said, "There is nothing written, I think, in the Bible or out of it, of equal literary merit." and Alfred Lord Tennyson called it "the greatest poem of ancient and modern times".

The unknown author of Job broke with the pious illusion of perfect divine retribution (i.e., you get what you deserve) and "came to grips with the mysterious disorder of real life."

About "The First Dissident", Safire says "I am abondoning the pretense of objective analysis of what the author meant and am joining in the editing and updating of the ancient book to fit my circumstances. That's what most students of Job do..." "...written on stretch papyrus, the book of Job can be fitted to the times..."

"Today's experts (Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar) are tomorrow's ignoramuses. Being in the minority does not mean being in the wrong. "Illigetim Non Carborundum" (don't let the bastards grind you down)