By Pastor John Eger, Intro by Arlene Coccia
Newsflash! (Just in case you thought otherwise): Christians are not immune to suffering! We may pray for God to keep us from the trials and tribulations of this world, but there is no guarantee that He will. Job was considered a righteous man by God, but that didn’t prevent him from all that he suffered including sudden death of loved ones, loss of fortune and livelihood and debilitating health issues. Not too many of us can empathize, but certainly we can sympathize.
Even if we haven’t experienced all that Job did, there’s a chance that all of us will, at some time in our lives, experience what we might consider a time of suffering. And for each of us, it will look different. It could be terminal illness, long term unemployment, the slow decline of health and independence, physical pain, addiction, a difficult work environment, the consequences of war, seeing our situation as hopeless with no way out, or something entirely different that I haven’t thought of. Whatever it is that causes you to suffer, the suffering will come with a crisis of faith. There will be a decision to make. Do you open up a dialog with God or do you shut the door on Him. I’ve seen those who are suffering go both ways.
There was a time in my life when I was feeling bombarded with many tough situations, things that added up to what I would call my time of suffering, my crisis of faith. A story too long to tell here. When questioned by a friend as to how I could possibly be bearing up under the load, I responded with what I had recently told God, “You can keep it coming, but I will not let go of you!” In my crisis I had chosen that open dialog that concluded with me being able to express my faith in God despite the load I carried.
In this blog, Pastor John is going to show us how Job set an example for us during his own crisis of faith.
Here’s Pastor John:
How do we talk about God when everything that we have used to talk about God is gone? In our lives of following Christ, we gather a language about God, about the church, about the world that expresses Who God is in our lives, Where God is in our lives, and what He is doing in our lives.
In suffering, all that language disappears. It’s not that it’s erased, it just doesn’t work in the same context. Language and life changes in the theater of suffering. This concept was a literary experiment by Albert Camus when he wrote the novel The Plague in 1947. The Plague comes to a small French Algerian city called Oran and takes the citizens by surprise. When something enters into their lives that they cannot control, that is too large to even compete against, it entirely changes their thinking, their behavior, and their relationships. Suffering shuffles everything. In suffering things that would not have bothered us becomes primary nuclear issues. What could have been overlooked normally gets fixated upon in a season of suffering. Camus describes the emotional state of the citizens of Oran:
“with their fixed idea of talking the least possible about plague and nevertheless talking of it all the time; with their abject terror at the slightest headache, now they know headache to be an early symptom of the disease; and, lastly, with their frayed, irritable sensibility that takes offense at trifling oversights and brings tears to their eyes over the loss of a trouser-button.” The Plague by Albert Camus
Everything changes in suffering and instead of using found language about God when we don’t know how to talk about Him, we need a new vocabulary. The entirety of the book of Job is teaching how to speak outside of our understanding of God. The most jarring situation is the misfortune of suffering because it shows us our limitations and helps us to redefine God for who He is not for God in our image.
Gustavo Guitirrez writes in his book, On Job, “At the same time, it forgets the gratuitous love and unbounded compassion of God. The friends’ speeches are familiar and always the same; they contribute nothing. They have no bearing on Job’s experience and suffering; therefore, the men who teach in this manner cannot but be “sorry comforters” (in 13: 4 he had called them “worthless doctors”).
In reading Job, we realize that how we talk about God is extremely important.
Conclusive vs Continuing language
Job’s view of continuing language
Job does not pretend to know God fully or to have understood His ways. As Job’s movement toward God in suffering progresses, Job does not attempt to turn to the left or to the right of knowing God, he boldly and brazenly looks to God for answers even through God is transcendent and beyond.
As Job looks deeply at the mystery of God He does not conclude, He can only continue to stare.
2 “Truly I know that it is so:
But how can a man be in the right before God?
3 If one wished to contend with him,
one could not answer him once in a thousand times.
4 He is wise in heart and mighty in strength
—who has hardened himself against him, and succeeded?—
5 he who removes mountains, and they know it not,
when he overturns them in his anger,
6 who shakes the earth out of its place,
and its pillars tremble;
7 who commands the sun, and it does not rise;
who seals up the stars;
8 who alone stretched out the heavens
and trampled the waves of the sea;
9 who made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the chambers of the south;
10 who does great things beyond searching out,
and marvelous things beyond number.
11 Behold, he passes by me, and I see him not;
he moves on, but I do not perceive him.
12 Behold, he snatches away; who can turn him back?
Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
In this passage Job is communicating the reality of God, that He knows who God is (verses 2-10) but cannot see what He is doing (v 11). And as a synthesis of those two realities Job declares that even though he does not know what God is doing, he will still continue on (v 12). Job says that he won’t question God even though he is not clear on what God is doing. Job does want to communicate his case before God, but not to question God’s motives, rather to justify Job’s actions.
The work of Job in the book is to continue without giving up. In that space, that void, he becomes adept to the language of suffering. And even more so, this is where he learns who God is. We see Job over and over assert his faith in God and he does so without expecting a return. He doesn’t want anything back except an answer.
Continual language is the language of relationship. Job practices the continual language of relationship with God. It is the only language Job uses. It is unfinalizable communication, meaning that even if a conversation ends, it doesn’t mean the ongoing dialogue does. Job, before God, is working to make sense of His situation, all while refusing to conclude that he knows what going on or equally to conclude that he will not stop pursuing God until he does.
Continual language is the language of suffering. It does not end; it just repeats long enough to understand the suffering itself. Suffering is too big for language. Again, Diane Langberg in her book, Suffering and the Heart of God asserts that the repetition of language is necessary to understand trauma. Repetition, or continual language, is a means to carry trauma long enough to make any sense of it. She writes:
“When people have been traumatized, they repeat things over and over, trying to grasp what cannot be understood and trying to carry what is unbearable. They carry the smell of trauma with them into their relationships, their work, their thinking, and their choices. They will not be completely better next week or even next year.”
Job practices continual communication and refuses anything less than progression before God. He does not quit. His suffering pushes Him from behind and God leads him from ahead.
The language of relationship does not end. Relationship is too big for language. We see that as Job keeps trying to make sense of what is going on with him, his use of language is always relational with God.
The same cannot be said about Job’s friends. They practice conclusive language.
Conclusive language is the language of transactions. Martin Buber, a 19th century philosopher, wrote of the difference between an I/Thou relationship (between people and between God) and an It/it relationship (between people and things). In the I/it world everything is ends and means. It is always just transactional. Buber says that unbelief is always “positing ends and devising means.” It is a mechanical world set up not for encounter but for exchange. It can be useful to talk about things but I/it language (conclusive language) is never helpful to talk to anyone.
Job’s friends speak in I/it language. Everything is a transaction between God. And if it is a good transaction God is happy and if bad, God is angry. But that is not the case with Job. His friends are unable to see that.
There is a difference between speaking for God and speaking before God. Job’s friends speak for God, assuming they know exactly what God is saying in this exact situation while Job is speaking to God, not trying to help Him, not trying to be Him but trying to confront Him. Andrew Zack Lewis writes in Read Him Again and Again: Repetitions of Job in Kierkegaard, Vischer, and Barth:
“The friends speak as though they are speaking for God and standing alongside God. Job, however, “simply stands before and under God.” Job is not interested in helping God, but in confronting God.”
The problem with conclusive language is that it does just that, it concludes. It assumes it knows the best and in communicating what it feels to be the best while consequently shutting down future dialogue and growth.
Look at Job 18:2-4. Bildad tells Job:
2 “How long will you hunt for words?
Consider, and then we will speak.
3 Why are we counted as cattle?
Why are we stupid in your sight?
4 You who tear yourself in your anger,
shall the earth be forsaken for you,
or the rock be removed out of its place?
Bildad does not want Job to continue. He wants him to stop. Oftentimes our use of language is meant to control the situation we are in. When presented with suffering and trauma, we are equally presented with fear. And that fear leads us to conclusive language. We would rather shut everything down that continue on.
Conclusive language doesn’t do anything but atrophy the situation. You cannot grow or change or heal when conclusive language is used.
It takes the courage of continuing language to heal. It takes the courage of continuing language to pursue God when we can’t see Him but is still there. And as we watch Job through his trial, we see that He will not settle but uses continual language to pursue God in the middle of darkness.