Psalm 22; Job 38
What do we do when our theological beliefs are at odds with our experience? We understand rain falls on the just and the unjust…… until it rains, and then we question why we’re getting wet. We turn to the Bible, only to discover that not every scripture is helpful. Often our inquiry and the darkness can merge into chaos. We desperately cry out and often receive no answer. We question the suffering of the innocent. Sometimes this journey leads us to the book of Job, a story everyone seems to know but few have actually read. It depicts a man with little patience who is mistaken as the most patient man of all time. It depicts a God rarely experienced throughout the Hebrew tradition. It offers a question which is never resolved and a solution which is hardly acceptable. Yet we love the story. WHY?
Let’s start from the beginning. Job 1:1, “There once was a man named Job. He was blameless and upright, always turning from evil.” Job had a family, a farm and a wonderful life. Everything seemed perfect until a dangerous conversation took place in heaven. An angel asked God, “Have you noticed how creation has once again turned against you?” God responded, “Certainly you would not include Job. He is faithful and upright.” But the angel retorts, “Why wouldn’t life be good for Job? Has he ever suffered? Has he had anything but your support? Would Job love you if his life were turned upside down?” God, stealing a line from Captain Picard said, “Make it so.”
This conflicts with the ancient Hebrew tradition that God never punished the righteous. I remind you of the Deuteronomic Code which declares, “If you do what is virtuous, you will live. But if you do that which is evil you will perish.” Over time the Hebrew people questioned the hyperbole of Deuteronomy 30 because they suffered at the hands of the Syrians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and even their next door neighbor. They came to understand that folks with bad intentions are capable of doing harm. But was God the author of their pain? That is a dangerous question.
Job’s crops failed and a neighbor asked, “What did you do to make God so mad?” Job’s house catches on fire and another neighbor hinted that Job might not be good enough to live in his neighborhood. All of Job’s children died and his wife suggested Job might as well kill himself. They were all convinced Job had done the unspeakable. He had transgressed against the Almighty and refused to admit it.
We, the readers feel for Job. We know he is innocent. We the readers begin a dialogue that doesn’t really matter to the storyteller. We claim an injustice has been done. We are outraged. But at what point do we ask who is responsible? Crops failed, a house is destroyed, lives are lost, and for what? Unlike the Storyteller, we can’t claim God is guilty. After all, why would we be here if we believed God capable of such atrocities?
But the writer of Job dared to ask the impossible. Through conversations with neighbors and an argument with his wife, Job proclaimed his innocence. But no one believed him. His punishment seemed proof enough that Job had transgressed. Finally, the friends and wife leave Job to his own demise. For thirty seven chapters God listened to the arguments made by Job. Never once does Job deny his faith in the Almighty. But that doesn’t mean that Job, didn’t desire an answer. Finally God spoke. Only there were no answers, only questions.
Who are you?
Where were you when I created the earth?
What do you know about anything?
Many years ago, when the word omnipotence was part of my regular vocabulary and Calvin’s Institutes resided on my night stand, those questions were enough. They reminded me of my place in creation. They confirmed God as the creator of the universe whose wisdom and power far exceeded anything my mind might grasp. I fully embraced the notion of, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, thanks be to God.” After all, considering the vastness of the universe, who was I that God should even take notice. And then I began to read the Psalms.
It is not that I never read the Psalms, it was just my selection was limited. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” “Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord.”
“I was glad when they said unto me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” “Make a joyful noise to the Lord. Worship the Lord with gladness.” “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” “God is our refuge and strength.” Those were the Psalms I memorized. These are the Psalms that still roll off my tongue. These are the Psalms we sing on Sunday Morning. But the Book of Psalms contains 144 other poems and many of them stand in strong opposition to the book of Job. One example is Psalm 22.
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from hearing me?
Why do you not acknowledge my groaning?
I cry by day and you do not answer.
I cry by night, but find no rest.
YET YOU ARE HOLY. Our ancestors trusted you.
They cried out and were delivered.
You did not put them to shame.
There are religious and philosophical traditions that teach pain can be overcome with an adjustment in attitude. Some folks believe one expresses faith by accepting trauma without getting depressed. After all, who are we to question why our lives become complicated? Doesn’t God have a plan? Don’t we trust the Great Architect?
Try running that by the writer of Psalm 22. The writer of this poem is not weak. The writer of this poem does not lack faith. In fact it is quite the opposite. The poet has a long memory of the relationship between God and God’s people. Something has happened to this poet. It may be an illness or death in his family. It may be the poet has been falsely accused of a crime. In his despair, in his pain, he screams not to but at God. “Why have you forsaken me?” The poet is not blaming God. The poet is informing God that he is in pain and feels deserted.
What gives the poet the right to make such a demand on the creator of the universe? It is very simple. He believes he is in a covenant relationship with God. And why would he believe this? The cornerstone of the Hebrew faith states, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”
In the story of Job, a complaint is raised and God responds, “Why should I care about you?” If the book of Job had been written by the Psalmist, Job would have responded, “Because you are Holy. Because you promised to never be far from me.” In the book of Deuteronomy Moses is asked how Yahweh is different from other gods and Moses responds, “What other nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God who answers whenever we call.”
The difference between the Book of Job and Psalms is the poet believes he has both the right and responsibility to complain. This complaint is seen as an outrageous act of faith. To paraphrase Walter Brueggemann, “Yahweh acts in freedom, but Yahweh’s fidelity to the covenant binds Yahweh to hear and answer.” This continues in the gospels when Jesus promises, “I will be with you always.”
When we are in pain, our greatest mistake is remaining silent. Our cry is more than a complaint. It is a declaration of faith. If we didn’t believe, why would we call out? Like our Hebrew mothers and fathers our relationship with God is based on the belief that God wants to be part of our joy and pain because God’s Holy Presence offers hope even when everyone else has turned aside.
So what is it that I am trying to say today? Do I want you to discard the Book of Job? Certainly not, it is a wonderful piece of literature. All I am suggesting when you call on God and the response is, “Who are you?” perhaps you are praying to the wrong god. To God be the glory.