Why did this happen?
Why didn’t God prevent this?
“Pastor, why did this happen?
“Pastor, where is God?”
A child dies, a good person is killed, a freak accident takes the life of someone who was unspeakably precious to us, and we are left to wonder why.
And if we’re honest as pastors, we just don’t have an answer.
If ever you needed to find something that symbolizes the cruciform nature of ministry, this is it: We pastors cannot give definitive answers to the hardest questions our people ask of us.
Oh, we can give general answers, philosophical answers. We can give overall reassurances about God’s abiding care for us despite the tragedies that come as well as about the overarching goodness of God. We can talk about how in a world that is both fallen but also endowed with free will, God cannot and will not pre-program every event. Even as God did not pre-program Adam and Eve to make them incapable of a bad choice, so God does not pre-program the postlapsarian world today to head off every bad thing that could happen.
But even if that makes sense in general to the hurting soul on the other side of the pastor’s desk, it does not touch the raw wound that festers on the level of specificity. “I know God doesn’t head off every bad thing but he surely heads off some bad things, pastor, and so I want to know why my Jimmy’s getting run over by a drunk driver was not one such thing.”
Oh dear. Lord, have mercy.
Thankfully, there’s nothing wrong with asking why. Nothing wrong with screaming a bit at God. He’s heard it before and he can take it. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!?” That may be history’s most shattering plea for a divine explanation in the face of suffering. But even if so, the person who remains history’s most famous poser of the question must be the man called Job.
Having quite literally lost everything in a series of calamities that befell Job from out of the blue, Job famously sits on his ash heap and scrapes the pus out of the boils that afflict his body and he bawls out his why to God. None of the answers stemming from conventional wisdom satisfies Job. His friends assure Job that there is a reason for everything and that, in Job’s case, the reason for all this suffering is obvious: Job had sinned. Job had, wittingly or unwittingly, done something really lousy, and this was the result.
But Job wasn’t buying the pop theology these various friends were peddling. He was convinced that there was nothing in his past that could even begin to warrant the misery of his present moment. In fact, at times he says that he was “blameless.” On the other hand, he admits at one point that compared to the upright splendor and superior holiness of God, no person would come off looking very good. Compared to God we may all look at least a little shabby. But relatively speaking, Job was quite sure he was more than just a pretty good person–he was just about perfect, at least in human terms.
What was it finally that settled the matter for Job? Was it that he had been vindicated as a perfect and righteous man after all? Was it that God had stepped in, refuted the arguments of Job’s would-be comforters, and so demonstrated once and for all that Job had been right all along? Was it that God fully and completely and clearly answered the many questions that get posed in this book?
In other words:
Does the Book of Job, perhaps history’s single most famous example of the so-called “problem of evil,” provide us with a theodicy, a way to explain the relationship between a good God and the bad things that nevertheless happen in this world?
Oh, there is a sense in which Job’s relative innocence is proven. There is a sense in which the miserable comforters are shown to have been themselves too arrogant and also finally incorrect. But after nearly thirty long, almost interminable, chapters of doubts and questions and complaints lodged before God’s throne, when Yahweh finally speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, what Job got could hardly be called a philosophical argument, a theological reply, or in any way the kind of answer you’d expect.
What we get from God is a celebration of creation cleverness. We get frolicking whales, powerful hippos, storks who treat their young in odd ways. Job asks why is there evil and in response, God takes Job on a safari.
Most folks would find this kind of reply to be merely puzzling at best and downright frustrating at worst. This line of reply begins in chapter 38 and continues right on through chapter 41. God does almost all of the talking here with Job now and again managing to do no more than sputter out a few pathetic lines to the effect that he doesn’t know what to say now and he also realizes that what he had said earlier had quite probably been all wrong, too.
But in the course of these four chapters in which God does all the talking, God directs our attention to the dimensions of outer space, the depths of the oceans, the shape of the earth, the power of thunderstorms, the beauty of the stars in the Pleiades and in the constellation Orion, the cunning of lions and the loveliness of mountain goats and deer, the giddy power of wild donkeys and the strength of the ox, the unlikely speed of the ostrich, the power of a horse’s neck, the soaring wonder of eagles and hawks, the muscle structure of the hippo, the spouting and sporting of whales. It all seems so unexpected and strange.
Yet the funny thing is that it works. It works because God is clearly re-framing the issue. God is not sweeping it under the rug. He is not denying that there are questions to be asked and maybe by and by answers to be given. But he casts all of this out into the larger arena of the entire creation and somehow this re-framing of it all has a profound effect on Job.
And make no mistake: God is putting Job (and all of us mortals) into his/our proper place. It’s not that there is no explanation, it’s just that we maybe cannot bear it. It’s not that there is no rhyme or reason to life, it’s just that we need to trust the God who is ultimately in charge of all life to do the right thing and to bring matters to their proper conclusion in God’s good time.
Of course, we cannot now help but read Job in the light of the gospel. Now we know God’s ultimate surprise when dealing with sin, evil, and death. If we thought it was a bit bracing to be shown a hippo when we thought we were going to hear a theology lecture, the Bible’s vastly more surprising move is to show us a baby in a manger and then a lowly carpenter’s son when we thought we were going to see the armies of God marching from the horizon to slay the beasts of evil. If in Job we thought it was a touch unusual to be brought to the zoo when we thought we’d be stopping by a seminary to learn deep matters of the faith, it is vastly more earthshakingly shocking in the Gospels to see God deal with death by dying himself.
None of this quite makes sense, and yet all of it seems to be God’s way of operating. But there is something else I want to highlight from Job; namely, the creation matters. This physical world is important to God. The creatures, stars, oceans, birds, and fish of this universe loom large in the divine mind–so large, in fact, that God himself did not deem it at all strange to approach Job’s moral and ethical probes via a tour of the natural world.
As Frederick Buechner once noted, a perennial fault of religious people is the attempt to be more spiritual than God himself is. God’s thoughts may be higher than our thoughts and his ways higher than our ways, as Isaiah observed, but the Bible also bears witness to the fact that God’s thoughts are often more earthy than our thoughts. God often takes care to ponder this earth even at the same time we are focusing an undue amount of attention on the dimensions of “heaven.”
We don’t know all the answers, but we know the Creator God, who has now become the Redeemer God through the surprise that is Christ Jesus the Lord. Considering the wonders this God has already wrought in Creation and Redemption, surely he can and will work one more wonder some day, and that is the satisfying of our every question, the drying of every tear from every eye.
It is not surprising that ecologically and environmentally sensitive believers have often turned to Job 38-41 as validation for making environmental stewardship an important part of Christian discipleship. As such, one of the most striking features that leaps out at one when reading these four chapters is how often God delights in, celebrates, and highlights creatures and creation events that are ordinarily far from the average human being’s awareness.
Yes, God celebrates the things we can see if we look around us in nature but God takes equal delight in birds and other critters that live at high altitudes where people usually cannot see or observe those things since we lack a God’s eye vantage point. God thrills at the birthing of baby animals that likewise happen well out of the average person’s line of sight.
Recently the New York Times spotlighted a remote, uninhabited island near India that is the only known home on the planet for the Narcondam Hornbill. This magnificent bird has rarely been seen by any humans and only a handful of scientists have ever seen this bird on the densely forested island the bird calls home.
Sometimes some people respond to news of endangered species with a bit of a shrug. Why should we care about some remote species that we never see and that contributes nothing we can discern to human life? Well, for Christians the answer is “Because God cares, that’s why.”
Because you just know that if God could revise his own Word in Job 38-41, he’d add the Narcondam Hornbill to his list of splendors in which he takes regular delight.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 17, 2021
Job 38:1-7, 34-41 Commentary