Quote: “God can be found only in suffering and the cross.”  (Martin Luther, the Heidelberg Disputation)

 

If we are going to consider how we might stand in the midst of suffering, and consider the great mystery of suffering, then we need to revisit the story of Job.

It is a story that begins: There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, ‘It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.’ This is what Job always did.”

Wow.  Job was a good guy; even described as blameless and upright.  And we are told he was very wealthy.  So there must be a tie to those two things: Job is good, so Job is blessed. 

But Job’s life was about to be hit by a tremendous storm!  We are told there was a meeting of some kind in heaven, and that God pointed out to a being known as “The Satan” what a good man Job was.  The Satan claimed that Job was faithful because God had blessed him, but that if he lost everything, he would also lose his faith. Then God gave Satan the right to take away everything from around Job, but said that Satan could not touch him.  And Satan did just that... in one day Job lost his oxen and donkeys and servants and sheep and camels and finally, even his children.  The first chapter ends with these words: “Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped.  He said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’  In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.”

Now that seems to be as far into the story as some people get.  But the story goes on to say that at a subsequent meeting of the heavenly beings, God pointed out Job was still blameless and upright, leading the Satan to respond that this was because God had not allowed him to touch Job.  So God gave the Satan permission to take away Job’s health, but told him that he could not kill him.  And we are told that “Satan went out from the presence of the LORD, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes...”

While Job’s initial responses demonstrate faithfulness, we are told that things changed as he had conversations with three friends, and eventually a fourth.  To make a long story a little shorter, these conversations can basically be summed up this way: One after the other, friends challenge Job to see that all of this tragedy must be the result of some evil that he had done.  After all, people ultimately get what they deserve.  For example, one friend, whose name was Eliphaz, said this to Job: “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?  Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.”

Job’s response was to become defensive.  After cursing the day he was born, he goes on to defend his integrity, and begins to challenge God.  Job says that he’d done nothing to deserve all of this; quite the contrary.  Job gets increasingly frustrated and angry and even gets to a point where he says that if he could simply have an opportunity to meet with God, Job could show him where this was all wrong.

Job says the following: “Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?  Their children are established in their presence, and their offspring before their eyes.  Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them.  Their bull breeds without fail; their cow calves and never miscarries.  They send out their little ones like a flock, and their children dance around.  They sing to the tambourine and the lyre, and rejoice to the sound of the pipe. They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol.”  Job is crying out “this isn’t how it’s supposed to be!” And back-and-forth the conversations go. 

Finally, Job hears from God, who speaks to Job out of a great storm. Yet God does not address Job’s misery!  He doesn’t say anything about suffering.  He simply tells Job to shut his mouth and open his eyes.  “Look at what I’ve made,” he says.  “Consider the earth and the heavens, the creatures, the seas and the clouds.”  God goes on to point to one example after another of the wonder of what he has created.  And that’s basically all God has to say.  Job and his friends, are humbled.  They come to see that they simply cannot understand the ways of God. 

So, what’s the moral of the story?  It’s far too simplistic to believe that the suffering we endure in life is about God punishing us for our sins, and to believe that the great blessings we receive are rewards for how good we’ve been.  Ultimately, to believe this is to disregard grace and empty the cross of its meaning.  Trying to understand the problem of pain and suffering, and answering the questions as to why bad things happen, is very difficult and complicated.  We simply can’t answer all the “WHY?” questions, but we can see that God can make good things come from bad.

Here’s what it boils down to: sin devastates everything and everyone.  All of the storms that complicate and darken this world and our lives ultimately result from the brokenness of sin. Yet it’s not a simple matter of cause-and-effect.  The widely held belief that people ultimately get what they deserve is simply not sufficient, and we have to be careful with thinking that what we do causes God to behave a certain way. 

Our focus should be on what God has done in his loving grace, and how that motivates us to respond and to try to behave a certain way.  How often throughout history have God’s people gotten this backwards, and how dreadful have been the results.

The truth is this: the God who created the universe has redeemed it.  Our infinite God has demonstrated his infinite patience and grace by loving the world so much that He sent his only Son to change places with us.  The punishment and death that result from sin has been placed on Jesus, so that he got what we deserve.  And we get what Jesus deserves... we are children of God.  We have been blessed with a victory over the terrible trio of sin, death, and the devil, and graced with the terrific trio of forgiveness of sin, life and salvation!

We also come to understand God can use the pain and suffering in our lives to turn our attention to where it ought to always be: on God.  As Luther discovered, “God can only be found in the suffering and the cross.”  When we pray to God, we know that He has experienced the greatest pain and suffering: the pain of a Father at the death of His Son, the pain of Jesus, experienced on our behalf… rejection, scorn, beatings, crucifixion.  God knows what pain is, and He listens when we cry out to Him, and He promises to never leave or forsake us, and even to use our suffering ultimately as a blessing.

Therefore, when the storms of life assail us and we find ourselves standing in suffering, from the small disturbances to the devastating blows, and we find that life is complicated and often confusing, there is only one place to go for answers... and that is to the Word.  Especially we go to the Word-made-Flesh, who through the written word and through the sacraments, says to us over and over again amidst the storminess of our lives: “Peace, be still! Yes, the world’s broken.  Yes, you are broken.  Yes, bad things happen.  But know that ultimately I am in charge.  And know that I love you, and that your final deliverance has already been taken care of.  You are my child, and you always will be.”  In the end, that’s all we really need to know! Amen.

   November 2018   
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