If you read the John Grisham novel The Firm, you may recall the horrifying moment when a young lawyer and his wife discover that the house so “generously” provided to them by the young man’s law firm is bugged to the hilt. Every conversation they had had, every lovemaking sigh, every TV show they had watched had been recorded and listened in on by The Firm. In the film version, the young lawyer’s wife—played by Jeanne Tripplehorne—reacts to the revelation by literally running and screaming into the night after her husband whispers into her ears the awful truth.
As Neal Plantinga once noted, if we discovered that anyone had intimate knowledge of the details of our lives, the presence of that person would unnerve us. Yet Scripture—in places like Psalm 139 and Job 23 – tells us that God DOES have just that knowledge about every one of us. Thankfully, Scripture also reveals that this all-knowing God can be trusted with our darkest secrets – and even with our brightest successes and strong points – because the Bible tells us that this God loves us (yes, even while we were yet sinners he loved us). In Christ the inescapable nature of God becomes, blessedly enough, a positive thing and not a source of creepiness.
And make no mistake: Psalm 139 and Job 23 are on the same page thematically albeit in mirror images of each other. Consider:
Psalm 139: If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths, you are there. / Job 23: If I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him.
Psalm 139: If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day for darkness is as light to you.” / Job 23: Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.
Psalm 139 says God is inescapable even to – or perhaps especially to – those who are actually trying to escape this God. You cannot not find God even if you try. Conversely, if you do want to find God, it’s a cinch. Gandhi once said that God is closer to us than flesh is to fingernails. Psalm 139 agrees.
Yet Job 23 says that even though Job had been trying fiercely hard for a good long while to locate God, God was hidden. God had gone off duty. The old Medieval category of Deus Absconditus, of “the hidden God,” made perfect sense to Job. God was apparently engaging in a cosmic game of Hide-n-Seek, and he was powerfully good at it, too. And that was too bad because Job had a list of things to say to God, a list as long as your arm and then some. “Come out, come out wherever you are” Job was crying east, west, north, and south. But he was confronted with the great silence of the spheres.
Job is like a lawyer who is well briefed and well prepared. He may or may not have an open-and-shut case but he’s got a strong case and is eager to step up to the bar and begin the argument. Of course, Job is still wise enough and humble enough to know that if God were suddenly to arise before him out of some crevice in the earth, Job would probably be scared witless, at least initially. But he was determined to keep his feet under him and say what needed to be said in defending himself against the charges his miserable friends had been jabbering on about for twenty or so chapters in the Book of Job and the case that Job suspected God himself might try to bring against Job as an explanation for the multiple calamities that had befallen him.
Actually, Job thinks that God would hear his case and would not even necessarily mount a defense. God as judge would dismiss the charges. Or at least Job is pretty sure he would . . . but you never know when you’re dealing with Almighty God!
For preachers, Job 23 presents an opportunity to address the very real fact that at any given moment, there are people in the congregation who are having a hard time locating God. And it’s not for lack of trying, either. Psalm 139 reminds us that if we try to escape God for whatever the reason, we will not be successful. But Job 23 is the foil to that passage and as such reminds us of a singular irony: so often in life when you are not looking for God—or even when you’d just as soon not run into God—you run into the presence of God anyway. Yet at other times those who are desperate to locate God cannot do so.
What accounts for this? Does God really withdraw from certain people, throwing a veil over their spiritual eyes? Is it the case that God is actively gone or is it that he only seems gone to people who are blinded by suffering? One thing is certain: many perfectly pious people will testify to the silence of God during certain periods of life. Answers don’t come. Or the answers that do come – usually from well-meaning friends, a la Job’s friends – are so obviously false that you just know they cannot be the true Word of the Lord on this matter. So they keep screaming – or whimpering – their questions into the darkness, but the darkness neither blinks nor answers back.
Of course, were we as preachers to give some tidy account as to the exact whys and wherefores of this scenario, we would be guilty in a backdoor way of the same sin of Job’s friends. So what we can offer is the sideways comfort of telling people that the experience of divine silence, the feeling that God is not as close as perhaps had once been the case in life, the sense that maybe God has moved to a different corner of the cosmos altogether: all these experiences and sensations are common to the lives of the devout. This is not a sign of weak faith. This is not an indication that you need to pray harder. And, pace Job’s friends, it is not a sign of divine disapproval, that you did something bad and that if only you would clean up your act, repent of your sin, then God would reappear and all would be well.
“It’s your sin that is blocking the divine signal! Your own tawdriness is jamming God’s transmission. Stop it! Repent of it! Then watch the blessings return to your life like a holy floodtide!”
No, no. The Psalms of Lament and passages like Job 23 don’t give much, if any, quarter to such neat and tidy scenarios. The fact is that perfectly good people sometimes endure the dark night of the soul and whether or not in the long run those same people will ever testify that they got some real positive benefit from that experience, the fact is it happens and our neat attempts to line everything up in a 1:1 correspondence usually fail as ways to explain it all.
The comfort we can offer people in a sermon on Job 23 may not be the last comfort but neither need it be viewed as “cold comfort,” which is finally no comfort at all in that it actually increases misery. The Book of Job through its first 20+ chapters bears witness to the fact that the only thing that can make divine absence and silence worse are attempts to make quick sense of it or to proffer a simple solution to it. Instead, when you are faced with a suffering sister or brother, the best thing you may be able to do is acknowledge the pain, admit that you don’t have an answer either, and then sit quietly on the ash heap to wait with your suffering friend for God to put in an appearance. That is sometimes the kindest and most compassionate thing anyone can offer.
From First Things magazine, “The Dark Night of Mother Teresa” by Carol Zaleski, May 2003 Issue.
Throughout 1946 and 1947, Mother Teresa experienced a profound union with Christ. But soon after she left the convent and began her work among the destitute and dying on the street, the visions and locutions ceased, and she experienced a spiritual darkness that would remain with her until her death . . . . The dark night of Mother Teresa presents us with an even greater interpretive challenge than her visions and locutions. It means that the missionary foundress who called herself “God’s pencil” was not the God-intoxicated saint many of us had assumed her to be . . . . Mother Teresa learned to deal with her trial of faith by converting her feeling of abandonment by God into an act of abandonment to God. It would be her Gethsemane, she came to believe, and her participation in the thirst Jesus suffered on the Cross. And it gave her access to the deepest poverty of the modern world: the poverty of meaninglessness and loneliness. To endure this trial of faith would be to bear witness to the fidelity for which the world is starving. “Keep smiling,” Mother Teresa used to tell her community and guests, and somehow, coming from her, it doesn’t seem trite. For when she kept smiling during her night of faith, it was not a cover-up but a manifestation of her loving resolve to be “an apostle of joy.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 10, 2021
Job 23:1-9, 16-17 Commentary