School Stabbings, Malaysian Planes, Washington Mudslides, and God

School Stabbings, Malaysian Planes, Washington Mudslides, and God

A community is trying to make sense today of a student’s vicious stabbing rampage in a Pennsylvania high school’s hallways yesterday morning.

The people of Malaysia are hoping that a faint ping from the Indian Ocean will locate their missing loved ones who boarded a plane on March 8.

A mudslide recently in Washington mudslide brought swift death and destruction on a calm day.

The people of New Orleans can tell you stories about the destructive power of water. A raging hurricane named Katrina collapsed dams, washed away levies, and overran sandbags. Every hedge of protection set up against the tide was futile. It took everything in its path and sent wise people in search of higher ground.

What do we do when the hedge of protection that separates us from disaster is removed? And is there even a hedge? We are confronted with a 24-hour news cycle that keeps announcing bad things happening to seemingly good people. How do Christians speak of God in these moments?

Job’s Story

A good starting place might be the story of Job. You might say that his plane went down, a mudslide hit him, and a hurricane came crashing in. According to the story, it was God who moved the hedge and let it happen. But that is not the end of the story.

The story begins with God bragging about Job—upright, blameless, devout, greatest man among the people of the East, a righteous man with a fully devoted heart, and a man of integrity. This is Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and Saint Francis of Assisi all rolled into one holy man. 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 in this story we are given to understand that God is not about utilitarian religion – religion for reward. There is actually something satanic about serving God for what we can get. To serve God for reward, insurance, blessing, or a protective hedge is to fall short of knowing God as God wishes to be known. This makes God into an idol to be appeased for 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.

The story plays out in a 3-tiered universe:

  • In heaven above, God and Satan converse.
  • On earth, Job lives with his wife, children and friends.
  • In Sheol below, the dead are unconscious in the grave.

We tend to read the account from an earthly perspective where Job and his friends are talking about his suffering. We ask earthly 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 is told in answer to a simple question: Why is Job righteous?

The readers of the book want to know if Job’s trust in God is linked to a divine hedge of protection. They want to know what Job will do if the hedge is removed. How will he speak of God, to God, about God? What will become of his integrity? We may wish to change the focus to other issues, but this is the heart of the narrative.

So God removes the hedge. I wish I didn’t have to say this—but it is true. In our 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. We install security alarms, take out insurance policies, participate in the neighborhood watch, get health checkups, build nest eggs, buy cars with air bags, install steel bars, and depend upon armed forces. 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 and our homes secured from danger. We’d like to believe that being in church every week gives us a better chance at missing calamity.

But there are too many among us who have gotten the test back, buried children, lost jobs, had our hearts broken. And we know that hedge religion is not fool proof. 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.

The Sabeans raided Job’s oxen.
Lightening 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? The hedge shrinks. 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 God can let this happen to a good man like Job. But heaven is asking, “How will Job speak of God now? Will Job bless God after this?” The issue is his righteousness, in the Hebrew tam, meaning uprightness, innocence, wholeness, internal coherence. It is what holds Job together.

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 stoic. Within a few chapters he will be questioning God, yelling at God, trying to sue God, and accusing God. But he never curses God. For now, he sits on the ash heap of social rejection with all the other failures and losers, the cursed folk.  Another “J” character in scripture will suffer in a similar place.

Job’s friends come. Like good friends, they sit with him for 7 days in silence. Quite remarkable, if you ask me. Most friends of religious persuasion burst through the door muttering something of 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!
May those who are good at cursing curse that day.
Unleash the sea beast, Leviathan, on it.
May its morning stars turn to black cinders,
waiting for a daylight that never comes,
never once seeing the first light of dawn.
And why? Because it released me from my mother’s womb
into a life with so much trouble.’
(Job 3:1-10, The Message)

After cursing the night of his conception and the day of his birth, he asks questions – all beginning with the word, “why.”  Why didn’t I die at birth? Why did arms rock me? Why did I ever see the light of day? Why does God bother to keep such miserable people alive? And Job mentions the sea beast, Leviathan, the monster of chaos. We will hear about this beast again. 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 unconscious Sheol 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 7 days on the ash heap have finally led to questions. Something has been shattered inside Job. His trust in God is now brought into the conversation. He has progressed from

“God gives, God takes. God’s name be ever blessed” (1:21)
“He said nothing against God” (2:10)
‘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.

Today’s post is adapted from The Dark Side of God: When God is Hard to Explain.

Photo Credit: Joseph Moreland via Compfight cc

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