I have long been fascinated by the book of Job. If the book of Esther, which I preached on a couple of weeks ago could be summed up as where is God when he seems so silent, then I guess Job would be known as “why does God allow suffering?” or possibly “Does God cause suffering?”
Why does God allow suffering I guess is one of those big questions that gets bandied around fairly regularly, particularly after tragic events. And I think that often the answers that get bandied about by well meaning Christians often come across as being slightly trite.
And yet one of my favourite answers to this question actually was given after the mass shooting of children in a school in Dunblane, back in 1996, when I was in university. Steve Chalke, who was a Baptist minister who also worked for the television news was asked to fly to Dunblane to report on the events with Lorraine Kelly. When he arrived the cameras were set up, it had started to get dark, the temperature had dropped below freezing. They would make their short reports, fingers frozen through so they could hardly hold their microphones and then dive into a car which was left with its engine running to try and warm up slightly before the next report.
Steve and Lorraine would sit in the front and the cameramen in the back. They had the radio on and at one point a member of the clergy was asked to comment on why God allowed such suffering. According to Steve the clergyman gave a good robust textbook answer, but he showed no compassion or anguish or pain. When he finished there was silence in the car. Finally, one of the cameramen, with tears in his eyes leaned forward and turned off the radio.
As they went back outside, to make their next report, the red light flickered on to show that people all over the country were watching them. Lorraine turned to Steve and said “Steve, people are blaming God for what has happened, what do you say to that?” After a brief pause he replied “That’s all right, his shoulders are big enough”.
He didn’t defend God, he didn’t even give an answer. Yet his answer honoured those who were suffering and also God. God was sharing in their suffering, he was part of it.
And to some degree this is mirrored in the book of Job. Job lived after the time of Noah, but before the time of Moses and probably before the time of Abraham. So this is a very, very ancient story. Yet from references to him within other biblical books he is likely to have been a real person. A person who suffered a great deal. Job was a good and honourable person. He was rich and he was religious. You may remember from our gospel reading last week about the rich young ruler that this is not always an easy place to be, yet Job managed it and God describes him as righteous. But Job loses everything, his wealth, his family, his friends, his health, his animals and his livelihood and he is left scratching his sores in a rubbish heap. Eventually a few of his friends return to try and comfort him. But their comfort consists of pointing out to Job that he must have done something very wrong for God to punish him in this way. They expect him to die, foul sinner that he is, and they sit there waiting. But that doesn’t happen.
Job starts to question the justice of his situation. He starts to question the understanding of God that he rewards you with riches for doing good and rewards you with illness and poverty for doing wrong. By chapter 9 Job shouts “God mocks at the calamity of the innocent” and announces “The earth has been handed over to the wicked, God covers the faces of the judges: if it is not God, then who is it?” He basically declares the God that they thought they knew, to actually be a tyrant, a sadist, and to be mismanaging a chaotic universe. Job’s friends, and probably we too, are shocked by his blasphemy and they double their efforts to accuse and obliterate Job so their understanding of God and the world doesn’t collapse.
And so they debate and debate for chapter after chapter. When suddenly Elihu spots a storm off in the distance growing closer and closer. God was known to travel in a storm. And here finally he shows up and speaks to Job. Will he put an end to the question of whether he is a tyrannical God, or one who is rightly punishing a sinner?
But what he actually says are the words that we heard this morning
2 “Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
3 Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
On this face of it this might sound a bit like “who do you think you are to question me?” but I think it is actually more of a “you are asking the wrong questions, I am so much bigger than all of this”. In fact with the sort of answer that Jesus regularly gives to his followers thousands of years later “Do you still not understand”. But more importantly, firstly God answers Job. He doesn’t answer Job and all his friends. He answers Job. Throughout the previous chapters whilst his friends have been deriding him and speaking only to Job, Job has been questioning God. Where is he in all of this? And now God answers him and him alone. But more than that he shows himself. He is there in the whirlwind, the powerful, uncontainable, unmanageable God. So much bigger than we can ever understand. The God who seems to have abandoned Job in his sorrow and distress has been there all along. He has been there since he laid the earth’s foundation. He was there every morning putting the dawn into place. He was there every time it rained, or snowed, or hailed or the sun shone. He was there as the animals and birds of the air were fed. He is there for Job, comforting and surrounding him. Whilst Job may now feel very small in comparison to the mighty God speaking to him from the wind that can’t take away the comfort he now feels from being back consciously in God’s presence. And it slowly dawns on Job that whatever his suffering is, he can face it as long as he knew that God was there with him. Yet through this questioning Job is also humbled and brought to repentance as he spends time with God.
There have been many times where I have sat and cried with other people in their pain, there have been many times where I have wept for my own pain. And duing these times I cannot comprehend the why’s? And even if I could I probably wouldn’t be ready to hear them. But actually in those times of greatest need, reasons are not my greatest need, I simply need someone to cry with me as I pour my heart out to them and to God and eventually I will be comforted, because his shoulders are big enough.