Hedge Religion

Hedge Religion

I’m not sure I’ve ever lived in a time like this. A tornado ripped through our state leaving death, injury, and destruction. A COVID-19 virus has found its way to our neighborhood. A stock market plunge is rearranging our economy. Human contact is on hold. Health care systems are overwhelmed. The elderly are afraid. College students are at home, taking classes online. Small businesses are counting the cash on hand which will determine employment for real people.

Across the years, I’ve been in the trenches where humans deal with darkness. And the haunting thing about these trenches is the questioning that comes.

  • Why does a virus create such fear?
  • Why can’t someone find a cure?
  • How do we cope with human isolation?
  • Why do the elderly have to die alone, separated from those who have loved them their whole lives?
  • Why did the tornado take the path it did?
  • Why was a whole family swept away?
  • Why did my friend, my loved one, die?

We all have our questions. You have yours, I have mine. We are wired to want answers. God made us this way. It’s why books about suffering become best sellers:                 

  • When Bad Things Happen to Good People
  • Where is God When It Hurts
  • When God Doesn’t Make Sense
  • The Problem with Pain.

Many of us who are followers of God wish there were simple answers because we’ve been cornered by doubters who nail us with their questions:

  • Why does God?
  • How can God?
  • Where was God?

And we cannot explain why. We float our guesses, but it doesn’t stop the questions. Nor does God pipe in with much help. There is an awkward silence.

Suffering strips away the veneer of life. We learn that we are not as secure as we thought. Suffering changes the way we see the world, and it shatters certain kinds of faith. We talk about God, or don’t talk about God, in ways different from before.

Job understands. If you come to his story wanting simple answers, prepare to be disappointed. God is silent for most of the book. God will speak in the end … though not convincingly enough to settle the matter. We mutter our questions in the dark … because we face a terrifying power, a wind we could not direct or control, a disease we can’t take a pill to cure. These forces blew through our protective hedges and are obliterating everything in their path.  

That’s what happened to Job. A whirlwind came crashing down on him. According to the story, it was God who moved the protective hedge and let it happen.

The story begins with God bragging about Job—upright, blameless, devout, the greatest man among the people of the East, a righteous man. This is Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and Saint Francis of Assisi all rolled into one. This is not just a nice guy; this is the most righteous man on all the earth. And God is the one saying all these good things about him.

God said to Satan, “Have you noticed my friend Job? There’s no one quite like him—honest and true to his word, totally devoted to God and hating evil.”

Satan retorted, “So do you think Job does all that out of the sheer goodness of his heart? Why, no one ever had it so good! You pamper him like a pet, make sure nothing bad ever happens to him or his family or his possessions, bless everything he does—he can’t lose! But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away everything that is his? He’d curse you right to your face, that’s what.”

God replied, “We’ll see. Go ahead—do what you want with all that is his. Just don’t hurt him.”


Then Satan left the presence of God.

(Job 1:8-12, The Message)

God accepts Satan’s challenge. I’m not sure I’d want God betting on me. But God believes Job’s righteousness is deeper than trinkets and treasures. God decides to give Job the terrible dignity of proving that his integrity runs deeper than what he gets from God. Right off the bat we are given to understand that God is not about utilitarian religion—religion for reward. To serve God for reward, insurance, or a protective hedge is to fall short of knowing God as God wishes to be known. This makes God into a power that we appease to get the goodies.  God refuses to let such a claim stand. Satan says Job is righteous because God has built a hedge around him. God says no. Let’s see.

We read the account from an earthly perspective of our suffering. We ask the usual questions. Why do bad things happen to good people? What are the causes behind human suffering? But these are not the main question of the book. The story of Job is told in answer to a simple question. Why is Job righteous? Is Job’s trust in God linked to a divine hedge of protection? And what will Job do if the hedge is removed? How will he speak of God, to God, about God? What will become of his integrity?

So God removes the hedge. I wish I didn’t have to say this … but it is true. In our biblical story, God is sovereign. Satan cannot operate without permission. God is free to do as God pleases without needing permission from anyone. God removes the hedge. God allows Job’s suffering. The Old Testament man was correct in understanding that, ultimately, both good and evil and come from the hand of God—by cause or permission.

We’ve done our human best to protect ourselves from catastrophe—security alarms, insurance policies, neighborhood watch, health checkups, nest eggs, air bags, steel bars, passwords, identity protection, armed forces hand washing, social distancing, and sheltering at home. And most of the time, our hedges hold. We are mindful to have good, thick hedges. As Christians, we half-believe that by serving God, our families will be protected. We’d like to believe that being in church every week gives us a better chance at escaping calamity. But I can assure you that better people than us lost their homes in the tornado or have tested positive for COVID-19.  

We know the righteous are not shielded from suffering. Too many among us have gotten the test results back, buried children, lost jobs, and had our hearts broken. We know that ‘hedge religion’ is not foolproof. But we wish it were. And if it were, Satan would be right. We do it for what we get back in return.

God removed the hedge around Job.

And the Sabeans raided Job’s oxen.

Lightning struck Job’s sheep and shepherds.

The Chaldeans stole Job’s camels.

A tornado killed Job’s children. 

In rapid-fire order, he was reduced to nothing.

His business – gone.

His possessions – gone.

His children – gone.

Job’s response was orderly … appropriate.

“Job got to his feet, ripped his robe, shaved his head, then fell to the ground and worshiped:

‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I’ll return to the womb of the earth. God gives, God takes. God’s name be ever blessed.’

Not once through all this did Job sin; not once did he blame God.” 

(Job 1:20-22, The Message)

God is winning the wager. The hedge is gone, and Job has not cursed God. He is grieving, yet he clings to his integrity.

In chapter 2, God is bragging again. This cannot be good for Job.

One day when the angels came to report to God, Satan also showed up. God singled out Satan, saying, “And what have you been up to?”

Satan answered God, “Oh, going here and there, checking things out.”

Then God said to Satan, “Have you noticed my friend Job?

There’s no one quite like him, is there—honest and true to his word, totally devoted to God and hating evil? He still has a firm grip on his integrity! You tried to trick me into destroying him, but it didn’t work.”

Satan answered, “A human would do anything to save his life. But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away his health? He’d curse you to your face, that’s what.”

God said, “All right. Go ahead—you can do what you like with him. But mind you, don’t kill him.”

(Job 2:1-8, The Message)

Does Job’s integrity end at his own skin? Is he the kind of God-follower who can handle anything exterior but collapses when it gets under his own hide? Satan strikes again. The hedge does not hold. Job’s body becomes vulnerable to disease. The only thing left guarded is his life.

Satan left God and struck Job with terrible sores. Job was ulcers and scabs from head to foot. They itched and oozed so badly that he took a piece of broken pottery to scrape himself, then went and sat on a trash heap, among the ashes.

(Job 2:7-8, The Message)

We want to ask, “How can God let this happen to a good man like Job?” But heaven is asking, “How will Job speak of God now?” The issue is his righteousness, his wholeness, his internal coherence. This is what holds Job together when his world is coming apart.

His wife said, “Still holding on to your precious integrity, are you? Curse God and be done with it!”

He told her, “You’re talking like an empty-headed fool. We take the good days from God—why not also the bad days?”

Not once through all this did Job sin. He said nothing against God.

(Job 2:9-10, The Message)

Many have followed the advice of Job’s wife. They demanded an answer and didn’t get one. They felt cheated, abandoned by God. And they turned and walked away. Job gives the pious answer. “I didn’t complain when goodness came from God’s hand, so why should I complain when trouble comes from the same hand?” Be careful not to paint Job too stoically. Within a few chapters, he will be questioning God, yelling at God, trying to sue God, and accusing God. But for now, he sits on the ash heap of suffering with the other cursed folk.  Another biblical character whose name also begins with J will suffer in a similar place.

Job’s friends come. Like good friends, they sit with him for seven days in silence. Quite remarkable, if you ask me. Most friends of religious persuasion burst through the door blabbing some pious explanation. Job’s friends sit and say nothing. And then Job speaks.

“Obliterate the day I was born. Blank out the night I was conceived!
Let it be a black hole in space.
May God above forget it ever happened.
Erase it from the books!
May the day of my birth be buried in deep darkness,
shrouded by the fog, swallowed by the night.
And the night of my conception—the devil take it!
Rip the date off the calendar, delete it from the almanac.
Oh, turn that night into pure nothingness—
no sounds of pleasure from that night, ever!…
And why? Because it released me from my mother’s womb
into a life with so much trouble.”

(Job 3:1-10, The Message)

Finally, it’s getting to him. After cursing the night of his conception and theday of his birth, he asks questions – all beginning with the word whyWhy didn’t I die at birth? Why did loving arms even rock me? Why did I ever see the light of day? Why does God bother to keep such miserable people alive? But then he asks the most piercing question of them all.

What’s the point of life when it doesn’t make sense, when God blocks all the roads to meaning? Instead of bread I get groans for my supper, then leave the table and vomit my anguish. The worst of my fears has come true, what I’ve dreaded most has happened. My repose is shattered, my peace destroyed.
No rest for me, ever—death has invaded life.

(Job 3:23-26, The Message)

Job prefers never to have been born at all, or to have died a stillborn death. He prefers an unconscious grave to this earthly existence. There are things that can hurt so badly that we wish we’d never been born. Job is there. It is the honest eruption of a suffering soul whose seven days on the ash heap have finally led to questions. Something has shattered inside Job. His trust in God is now brought into the conversation. He has progressed from chapter 1: “God gives, God takes. God’s name be ever blessed” (1:21) to chapter 2: “He said nothing against God” (2:10) to chapter 3: “My repose is shattered, my peace destroyed. No rest for me, ever—death has invaded life” (3:25-26).

The world can never be the same again. He can never speak of God the same way again. What form of righteousness will rise from this ash heap? What does shattered faith look like? How do hedge-less people talk about God? Is there a future in God for those who suffer innocently?

Satan watches. God still trusts Job. Job wants to die…or at least to get some answers. This is what makes the story of Job so hard for us to grasp. It is different from other parts of the Bible. We are more at home in the Proverbs where you build a religious hedge of wisdom around yourself and it protects you. You have a deal with God. You do certain actions and it will result in certain consequences.

The fool and his money are soon parted.

The one who sows wicked deeds reaps wicked consequences.

The one who cares for a tree will eat its fruit.

Cause and effect.

You reap what you sow.

You get what you deserve.

We believe this. We want our children to believe this. We want to build a hedge around them. We want them to wise up and listen to us because we know the consequences of their bad choices. We know where the moral boundary lines are drawn. We know what people ought and ought not to do.

And besides, it’s scriptural. The Proverbs are a fine collection of cause and effect hedge religion.  Deuteronomy is also a narrative masterpiece of this theology. Obey God and you will inherit the land, produce bountiful crops, drink from choice wells, and have lots of kids. But disobey God and you’ll get drought, blight, enemies pestering you, childlessness, and poverty aplenty. Cause and effect religion – good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. God as much as guarantees it in Proverbs and Deuteronomy. And then something happens that makes no sense. We did good and got bad. Or even worse, the guy that did bad got good.

Job wrestles with the fact that God may not be as cut-and-dried as he thought. Job has lost his business, his possessions, his kids, his social standing, his reputation, and his health…all in short order. God removed the hedge. He’s sitting atop an ash heap scraping sores and wrestling with cause and effect religion.  Maybe God has a dark side, mysterious, wildly free. Maybe suffering is loosed in this world indiscriminately.

Job’s friends come to help. They had lived where Job had lived, like Job had always lived…until now. They haven’t suffered. But they’ve come to fix their pal Job. After listening to Job lament, they begin. They offer scripture, the tried and true texts of cause and effect religion. It’s all they know.  In their view, the only explanation for Job’s plight is that Job has sinned – big time. He is reaping what he has sown. “Repent Job, change your wicked ways! God will be good to you if you do!”

But Job, being the man of integrity that he is, knows he has done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve this type of treatment from God. He says so. His friends don’t believe him. Their theology has only one explanation for this calamity. Sin.

Job’s friends scare me. I’m afraid I might look in the mirror and see one of them. I can be so sure about God’s ways and God’s doings. I have my theology down pat, tightly woven, no loopholes, airtight. I can explain to you why things happen to certain people. “I saw it coming three years ago.” “I knew she was a flirt and this would come back to haunt their marriage.” “I can tell you his problem – he’s too liberal.”

We’re so sure. We know about people, don’t we, friends of Job? And if they’ll give us half a chance, we can fix them. We know how. Our formula works. Pray this prayer. Read this book. Go to this seminar. See this counselor. Memorize these verses. Listen to this preacher.

Job refuses to be fixed by the religion of his friends. He refuses because his authentic experience does not fit their hedge religion. They think he sinned. He knows that personal sin has nothing to do with this. He calls them names – windbags, sorry comforters. He says to them,


I didn’t ask you for one red cent –
nor did I beg you to go out on a limb for me.
So why all this dodging and shuffling?
Confront me with the truth and I’ll shut up,
show me where I’ve gone off the track.
Honest words never hurt anyone,
but what’s the point of all this pious bluster?
You pretend to tell me what’s wrong with my life,
but treat my words of anguish as so much hot air.
Are people mere things to you?
Are friends just items of profit and loss?
Look me in the eyes!
Do you think I’d lie to your face?
Think it over – no double-talk!
Think carefully – my integrity is on the line!
Can you detect anything false in what I say?
Don’t you trust me to discern good from evil?”

(Job 6:14-30, The Message)

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin wrote a God-anointed book in the last days of his battle with the cancer that claimed his life. He wrote, “Whenever we are with people who suffer, it frequently becomes evident that there is very little we can do to help them…. The reason this is so frustrating is that we like to be ‘fixers’. We want not only to control our own destiny, but also that of others.” I think Cardinal Bernardin was right. If we can’t fix our friends with our answers, will our answers fix us when the time comes? Dare we admit that we have no control over our own future? The security of our hedge is in question.

Let’s be kind to our fixer friends. Their hedge religion has gotten them where they are. They are enjoying their health, homes, jobs, business success, educational attainments, and reputable friends. They accept all this as a gift of God – which it is. They believe it to be the wink of God’s approval on their righteousness.

Do you realize that Job’s friends are betting with Satan? They believe Job was good because God protected and blessed him. If Job will repent to get back in God’s good graces, he’ll be restored and get his stuff back. But God has given Job the terrible dignity of proving them all wrong.

Who are you cheering for? I think we want Job’s friends to be right. Could it be that sometimes, most of the time, cause and effect religion is right? Could it be that Proverbs and Deuteronomy explain life most of the time? Could it be that this is a good way to raise children, work, eat, study, run a business, and live? Job’s friends are partly right. There are consequences for behavior, rewards for discipline, and punishments for sin. This is the way of God.

But it doesn’t always explain every situation. God is more than a vending machine who dispenses what we deserve. Suffering is a reality in our world and there are few answers that satisfy.  

Job actually wishes his friends were right. Because then, the solution would be easy – an apology from God. When it dawned on God that Job had not committed grievous sins, God would come down with a sheepish grin on his face and say, “Job old buddy, old pal, I owe you an apology. I wasn’t paying attention the other day and some nasty stuff got labeled with the wrong address and I’m here to make it up to you because I know you did nothing to deserve this. You’ve been a faithful and loyal servant and I’m going to see to it that nothing like this ever happens to you again. I’ve fired your Guardian Angel.”

But we never hear God say oops.

The language of Job toward God in chapters 3-37 is blunt, brutal, and accusatory. Repeatedly, the friends try to reel him in and change his mind about why this has happened to him. But Job is not buying it. Interestingly, at the end of the story (Job 42:7-8), God says that Job spoke well of God while the friends didn’t. They said all the religious words. Job, on the other hand, accused God of breaking his promise, said God was hounding him like a hunter, accused God of destroying the good right along with the bad, challenged God to a debate, portrayed God as wildly free with diplomatic immunity from any law, and dared God to appear in court and defend himself. Job banged on heaven’s doors until his knuckles were bloody, demanding God to answer for the suffering he had experienced. But no one came to the door.

And in the end, God said, “Job spoke well of me.” Apparently, the essence of faith is wrestling with God. The word Israel means those who wrestle with God. Job is doing quite well for himself given his paltry health and pitiful handicap. He is wrestling with the side of God that he does not understand. Ash heap theology shoots holes in hedge religion. God hides and won’t appear in court to defend himself, so Job calls him out. And according to our story, God is pleased with this. 

I find myself wondering about the conversations in Gethsemane and on the cross. Maybe the essence of faith is wrestling with God. Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor, wrote in his Memoirs, “I have never renounced my faith in God. I have risen against his injustice, protested his silence, and sometimes his absence, but my anger rises up within faith, and not outside it. Prophets and sages rebelled against the lack of divine interference in human affairs during the times of persecution. Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah teach us that it is permissible for a man to accuse God, provided it be done in the name of faith in God. Sometimes we must accept the pain of faith so as not to lose it. And if that makes the tragedy of the believer more devastating than that of the unbeliever, so be it.”

A Prayer
Give us a holy uncertainty about our wrong certainties.
Deliver us from fixing each other with answers that are non-answers.
May we be led by suffering to the heart of God,
revealed most clearly on a cross,
where God came to us on the ash heap
and there died in our place.
Amen.

Comments

  1. Rodney Shanner says

    Two Christian thinkers have helped me the most with the issue of God and the fact of human suffering, Dennis Kinlaw and Reuben Welch. Kinlaw said there are 1189 chapters in the Bible. Four of these chapters tell of perfect worlds, the first two chapters of Genesis and the last two chapters of Revelation. Then he noted that we live in none of these chapters. We live in the 1185 chapters in between. These are not the world God intended. They are fallen, flawed and imperfect which brings me to Reuben. He writes that in our fallen world we are touched by the peril of the fallenness, but he also says we are touched by the power of God Who has come in Jesus to be with us. Furthermore, he writes that many things that happen are not in accordance with God’s will, but nothing happens that is outside the area where God is at work in judgment and creative, healing power. God does a new work of goodness despite the destructive effects of evil. He is with us all the way. Reuben once told me that he accepted the fact of the fallenness of the world.

    Your thoughts here add to the helpfulness of Kinlaw and Reuben, Dr. Boone. Thank you.

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