The Book of Job: A Three Thousand-Year-Old Story of Grief
By Rev John T. Schwiebert, MDiv
Part Four: "Personal Doubts and Questions"
Last month in part 3 of this series,* we looked at how Job resists the unhelpful suggestion of his friends that he must bear the blame for his loss—that his bereavement must be a punishment for, or at least a consequence of, some un-confessed sin. But Job insists, quite rightly, that in fact he himself has done nothing to deserve the loss of his children, his reputation in the community and his physical health. He is, in the words of the story teller, “blameless and upright” (Job 1:8).
And many of you, reading about Job today, can rightly declare, as did Job, that the loss that you are grieving is not your fault. You may even feel confident in declaring, with Job,
. . . [God] knows the way that I take;
when [God] has tested me I shall come out like gold
--Job 23:8 (NRSV)
Nevertheless, most of us who suffer loss find ourselves asking the question, “why did this happen to me,” and sometimes more specifically, “why did God allow this to happen?”
At first, in the immediate aftermath of the loss of his children and his property, Job does not suppose that God should therefore be censured because of what has happened. Instead, Job turns to God in worship, uttering these famous words that indicate an amazing trust in God in the face of extreme loss: “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.” And the story teller confirms that “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.” (Job 1:20-22)
Even after the subsequent loss of his health, when Job’s wife invites him to “curse God, and die,” Job does not “sin with his lips.” (Job 2:10)
But later on, even as Job wrestles with the accusations of his friends and makes the case for his own innocence, he lapses into some serious and persistent doubts and questions about God’s innocence. He may not curse God, but he certainly seems to blame God for his loss:
Surely now God has worn me out;
[God] has made desolate all my company . . .
God has torn me in his wrath, and hated me;
[God] has gnashed his teeth at me . . .
I was at ease, and [God] broke me in two;
[God] seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces;
[God] set me up as his target;
[God’s] archers surround me.
[God] slashes open my kidneys, and shows no mercy;
[God] pours out my gall on the ground. . .
My face is red with weeping,
And deep darkness is on my eyelids,
though there is no violence in my hands,
and my prayer is pure.
--Job 16:7, 9, 12-13, 16-17
I call your attention to this great contrast in Job’s feelings about God, because I suspect that many of you who read these words have experienced the same ambivalence about God in your own grieving process.
Perhaps you grew up in a home where life was good and the goodness of God was never questioned. But now in the face of an overwhelming loss you are feeling frustrated and angry towards God. You may feel that God has abandoned you, and that you can ever trust God again.
At the same time you may feel guilty about having such feelings.
I am here to suggest to you that there is nothing wrong with having and expressing such feelings of frustration and anger toward God. Those who saw fit to include the Book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures must have known that anger at God, such as that expressed by Job, is a normal, authentic, and even healthy reaction in the face of loss.
But the story of Job is also an invitation to see that expressing anger at God does not need to be the end to the matter. Shaking one’s fist at God can be an opening to dialogue with God, and ultimately to a new and stronger relationship with God. Job invites just such a dialogue when, near the end of his complaint against God, he says:
Oh, that I had one to hear me!
(Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)
Oh, that I had the indictment written by my adversary!
In other words, says Job, “I wish God would speak to me and tell me plainly what I did do deserve this!”
God does answer Job at length in chapters 38-41. God’s answer may not be the answer Job thinks he wants. It does not relieve the grief that Job feels or bring clarity to Job’s confusion about why he has suffered such a loss. But God’s answer does invite a mutual trust between God and Job that does not depend on Job knowing everything he would like to know.
Job’s final response to God bespeaks humility and trust:
“I know that you can do all things
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted . . .
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know . . .
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you . . .”
--Job 42: 2-5
Now, at least, Job can move forward in his grief—in partnership with God. And so can we all if we approach God with honesty and openness, even if the honesty means sometimes—or often!--crying out in anger and frustration.
*This article is the fourth in series about Job’s struggle with grief (See the Book of Job in the Hebrew scripture, also known as the Old Testament).
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(More reflections on Job to come, in future issues of this newsletter)