Last week we arrived at the half way point of our four week exploration of that strange and enigmatic text known as The Book of Job. Over the course of the previous two weeks, I have tried to illustrate four key features of the text:
- Job is a dissenting text which challenges the conventional wisdom of the received tradition and its depiction of the relationship between God and humanity;
- God is not a cosmic bully or experimenter with the lives of others, but instead makes God’s-self vulnerable to human nature by investing faith in humanity;
- The consolation which Job’s friends attempt to offer him only re-victimises him because the good intentions by which it is undergirded makes assumptions about the link between Job’s suffering and his “guilt” or “innocence”;
- The notion of the “innocent sufferer” is a disguised form of retribution theology.
If these four messages make you uncomfortable, it’s precisely because they should: these messages challenge and overthrow many of our basic assumptions about God, about God’s relationship with humanity, and about our understanding of that relationship via theology and the dictates of conventional wisdom. These four messages are a call to humility and to a more faithful engagement with the God who is utterly other – a God who is not a projection of our hopes and fears – but who nonetheless seeks relationship with humankind.
And nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than in today’s reading from Job. We have reached a point in the narrative in which Job and his friends have ceased their pointless contention with one another, and Job himself has poured out his bitter and angry lament. Job has demanded that God appear and explain why he, a good and righteous person, should have to experience profound suffering. And that demand is couched in the judicial terms utilised by the retribution theology Job shares with his friends – and which characterise the confrontation between Job and the Satan at the beginning of the text. Job imagines a kind of courtroom scenario, in which God acts as a judge weighing up the evidence. And Job clearly asserts that God will have no other choice except to vindicate him and to declare both his innocence and his righteousness.
According to Chinese folklore, the worst curse you can lay upon another person is to say: May you be granted your heart’s every desire. In other words: Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it!
Well, Job gets what he wished for: God does turn up. But instead of answering Job’s question or responding to Job’s complaint, in one of the most astonishing images in all of Scripture, God shows Job the whole of creation; and Job is both outside that creation observing it as well as inside the creation he observes. And in a long poetic narrative, God takes Job on a tour of the cosmos; and, in effect, says to Job: Okay, smart guy – you think you’re entitled to answers, here’s the universe. Explain it to me and I’ll justify myself to you!
And, of course, Job can’t explain the universe. And so he claps his hand over his mouth and, in a passage we don’t hear today, declares: I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
Now, a lot of people have a problem with this outcome. They see it as God bullying Job into silence; it becomes for them an image of the tyrannical God crushing dissent. But they also wonder: Why doesn’t God answer Job’s questions? Why is God so enigmatic? Is the message really that it’s all just an incomprehensible mystery to whose unknowability we have to meekly submit?
I sympathize with these frustrated perspectives; but those frustrations also echo Job’s demand that God be answerable to humankind. But if we remember that Job is a dissenting text, and that Job himself is an articulator of the conventional wisdom from which this text dissents, we see that God’s reply to Job, and Job’s response to God’s appearance, far from being an example of a doubter being cowed into silence, demonstrates that the nature of revelation is not the same as having all our demands met and all our questions answered. Rather, revelation, properly understood, changes the very basis of our being, whereas meeting our demands simply gives us what we want, is simply the curse of our heart’s every desire being fulfilled. Put another way, revelation and having our demands met are altogether different.
Who is this who hides counsel by words without knowledge?’ These are the first words which God says when God appears; and later on, Job repeats them in response to God, applying them to himself. Not, as is often imagined, in penitent grovelling before God for having dared to question the Almighty; but because Job suddenly realises that his demand for answers, and his consequent desire for vindication, are based on an ignorant theology that tries to reduce God to human terms, that attempts to make self-serving definitions of justice and faith the foundation of the universe itself.
Put another way, Job has come to realise, not just the poverty of his theology, but that this theology also amounts to a denial of life. And that life is bound up within relationship – and through relationship, we are exposed to vulnerability and risk. Relationships, by their nature, are tricky and messy and fraught with danger, without guarantee or assured outcome. And yet through relationship comes fullness of life, for all that they expose us to heartache and pain. Because if we want the kind of relationship we can control, if we want the kind of arrangement that reduces our interactions to known quantities of give-and-take, then what we are hoping for is not life itself but some skewed version of our desire for comfort and safety. What we are looking for is a way out of the risk of life and relationship.
But why should we risk the uncertainty and exposure of relationship? Precisely because relationship offers hope – and hope is more majestic, more powerful, more life sustaining than any set of rules and regulations. Rules and regulations might meet our desire for answers and certainty, but are ultimately barren and life-denying. It is only in relationship that we discover hope; and it is only in relationship with God that we encounter ultimate hope. In today’s reading, and in the response Job makes to God’s appearance, Job recognises the majesty of the vision and of the possibility for relationship which God offers; and he has had revealed also the paucity of his own understanding – and that of his friends – by contrast.
But why is any of this relevant to Christians in the 21st century? Simply this: the hope that comes to us through relationship is the cornerstone of mature, adult, and resilient Christian faith. Such a faith cannot be predicated upon the assumption that human beings can know the mind of God, or arrogantly assert the righteousness and godliness of their own actions. Such a faith cannot reduce the relationship between God and humanity to a set of rules and regulations, to which are attached corresponding rewards and sanctions. Such a faith cannot seek to reduce God to manageable human proportions, whether as an old man in the sky hurling thunderbolts at us, or as an impersonal cosmic force. Such a faith cannot reduce the life of faith to a bland code of ethics, to which God is attached as a kind of optional extra.
On the contrary, such a faith must be prepared to accept, engage, and explore the mystery of relationship. And by mystery I don’t mean that which I cannot explain; I mean that which is eternally nourishing, that to which we come back time and again to explore, encounter, and understand in new and different ways. Faith is ultimately the response we make, in humility and joy, to the offer of relationship which God extends to us. Faith evolves and grows and changes over time, just as relationships do; and beneath that development abides the eternal reality, changing and yet unchanged, of God. Faith is the preparedness to explore, over the whole course of our lifetimes, the ultimate paradox, the ultimate contradiction: the God who is hidden and yet revealed; the God who is utterly other and yet who desires relationship with us; the God whose presence in human life is not an unalloyed good, but without whose presence life is ultimately meaningless and without hope. This is a measureless depth that cannot be explored by a static and sterile faith, a simplistic faith of rules and regulations, of punishments and rewards.
In other words, what today’s reading from Job has revealed to us is the seriousness and the urgency of vulnerable, risk-filled faith, one that is prepared to embrace the uncertainty and potential for hurt that is bound up in engagement with otherness. God awaits for our response to God’s invitation into relationship; but we cannot make that response thinking that faith – that life, and our relationships – are a matter of having our demands met and our questions answered. This is simply the same narcissistic obsession with our “rights” that plagues so much of civil society today. But as Job discovered as he gazed awe-struck at the creation God revealed to him, faith is actually about ambiguity and mystery and uncertainty; but it is also about hope: the hope that comes from mature, resilient, and abiding relationship with God. And it is on that hope alone that all our other hopes in life can rest and endure.
© Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2021. All rights reserved.