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Nearer the truth - Job 32

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 11th February 2018.

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Nearer the Truth  SJN.11.2.18

Job 32-39

 

In his book, ‘A Grief Observed’, C S Lewis describes in agonising detail his wife’s struggle with cancer. At one point he writes, ‘Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is in coming to believe such dreadful things about him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘so there is no God after all’ but ‘so this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’

 

We saw at the beginning of our series that one of the issues which the Book of Job seeks to face is ‘How am I to think of God when I suffer?’ That was precisely the question with which Job wrestled intensely. He couldn’t deny God’s existence any more than he could deny the existence of the sun, but he did begin to question God’s character. Remember how he and his friends had bought into the retribution theory of justice- good is rewarded, evil is punished? And so not surprisingly Job follows the reasoning through which can be put in this way: Suffering is punishment for wickedness (major premise); Job is innocent (minor premise); therefore God must be unjust (conclusion). This comes out for example in 27:2–5, ‘As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice, the Almighty, who has made me taste bitterness of soul..’ Elsewhere he cries, ‘I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God: Do not condemn me, but tell me what charges you have against me. Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands . . . ?’ (10:1–3). Here Job is questioning God’s righteousness, if good is rewarded and sin punished, as set out by the retribution theory, then why is he suffering when he is innocent? And that is when he comes perilously close to not denying God’s existence but his goodness

 

We have seen that the Book of Job is set out like a court room drama with accusation and defence going back and forth and appearing to end in stale mate. Job’s friends won’t withdraw their witness for the prosecution that it must be because Job is sinful that he suffers and Job refuses to agree with their assessment and points his finger towards God who appears to be acting unjustly.

But there has been someone else present who has not yet been mentioned, Elihu who speaks in chapters 32-37.

 

Elihu, unlike those of the other friends, is a Hebrew name meaning ‘he is my God.’ He has not spoken because he feels that as a younger person it is both wise and respectful to allow his elders to have their say first. We see that in 32:6: `I am young in years and you are old, that is why I was fearful, not daring to tell you what I know.'  But eventually he comes to the point where he can’t hold in his anger any longer. He has listened to the three counsellors and finds them all to be unconvincing, v 12 ‘I gave you my full attention. But not one of you has answered his arguments.’ Job has run rings around them until eventually they give up trying to argue. Instead they are reduced to adopting the attitude: ‘we are right and you are wrong and that's all there is to it.'

 

But it is Job that he has in his sights and spends the better part of six chapters rebuking Job and defending God.

 

Although Elihu is younger than the others, his poetry is much more powerful and sophisticated than theirs, so this is no mere upstart; he has some measure of spiritual insight and maturity.

 

It is obvious that Job has incensed Elihu, not because of his protested innocence- Elihu believes him on that score- but because he is eager to clear his own reputation at the expense of God's character: 33:8-12. "But you have said in my hearing-- I heard the very words-- `I am pure and without sin; Yet God has found fault with me; he considers me his enemy. He fastens my feet in shackles; he keeps close watch on all my paths.'   "But I tell you, in this you are not right, for God is greater than man.’

 

Then again in 34:12: `It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the Almighty would pervert justice.' `Look,' he in effect is saying to Job, `you may well be as innocent as you say, and it will not do for your three friends to bring that into question; but by the same token it will not do for you to question God's character. You may not have sinned so grossly when you started but you are coming pretty close to it now. You are wrong.'

 

There are basically two reasons Elihu gives as to why Job is going down the wrong path in his thinking and accusations against God that he is acting unrighteously.

 

The first reason why Elihu believes Job to be misguided is because `God is greater than man' (33:12). Not simply that he is more powerful, but that his plans and purposes are on such a grand scale, far more complex and involved than our tiny minds can ever fully fathom. In the words of Isaiah 55:9, his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts. `You see, Job,' says Elihu, `your problem is that you are viewing God as if he were simply a man writ large, as if he were nothing but a capricious spiteful tyrant acting without reason. Just because we cannot see the reason doesn't mean that there isn't one. God's timescale and concerns are much bigger than ours and we need to remember that.'

 

Secondly, following through this line of thought, Elihu suggests an altogether different perspective for understanding suffering. Instead of looking back for some sort of cause for suffering and asking, ‘Is this suffering due to Job’s sin or God’s injustice (when in fact it is neither)?’ Elihu suggests that it might be more helpful to look forward to try and identify a purpose in suffering. In other words, if God is good and wise (and the supremacy of wisdom is celebrated in chapter 28 with a song), what we need to ask is, what possible good could there be in God allowing suffering like this? The answer Elihu gives is that it is part of God’s way of correcting us and preventing us from going off the rails entirely, as he puts it: ‘to turn man from wrongdoing and keep him from pride, to preserve his soul from the pit’ (33:17–18). In 33:19 he speaks of a man being ‘chastened on a bed of pain’. Later he claims that God makes people ‘listen to correction’ (36:10) and ‘speaks to them in their affliction’ (36:15). Job has already complained that God has not spoken, but Elihu suggests he is speaking ‘now one way, now another’ (33:14), that is, he is speaking to Job through suffering. Job’s other friends insisted that God should primarily be thought of as a judge, whereas Elihu suggests that he should be thought of as a teacher (‘Who is a teacher like him?’ 36:22). In other words, it is too narrow a view to think of all suffering as God’s retribution; may it not be that some suffering is God’s instruction? The Puritan Richard Baxter writes: ‘Though the word and Spirit do the main work, yet suffering so unbolts the door of the heart, that the word hath easier entrance.’ Likewise, his fellow Puritan Thomas Watson says: ‘A sick-bed teaches more than a sermon.’

 

Now we are getting very close to having some insight as to a purpose in this pain, for Elihu is not rebuked by God as are the other counsellors. Why? Because Elihu was pretty well near the mark in what he said. As D.A. Carson puts it, ‘Here is a chastening use of suffering that may be independent of some particular sin. Its purpose may be preventative; it can stop a person from slithering down the slope to destruction.’[1]

 

A number of years ago I watched a television documentary series called `Commando', about the training which goes into the making a Royal Marine. It was terrifying! You could imagine that a casual observer who knew nothing about what the instructors were trying to achieve would have drawn the conclusion that they simply hated the recruits. They would have seen the instructors physically hitting and yelling at these young men as they did a twenty-mile cross-country run with seventy pounds on their backs. Even if one of the recruits sprains an ankle or breaks a bone, it is nothing which a few painkillers can’t put right and on they went! It all looked very sadistic. But then the instructors explained what they were hoping to achieve, they said that they put these men through such a grilling regime in order produce the best soldiers possible, knowing that their lives and the lives of others would depend upon the training they have received. It was not retribution they were involved in, you see, but instruction.

 

This is how C. S Lewis describes God’s design into making us more the people he wants us to be so we see there is a purpose in pain: ‘When a man turns to Christ and seems to be getting on pretty well (in the sense that some of his bad habits are now corrected) he often feels that it would now be natural if things went fairly smoothly. When troubles come along- illness, money troubles, new kinds of temptation he is disappointed. These things, he feels, might have been necessary to rouse him and make him repent in his bad old days; but why now? Because God is forcing him on, or up, to a higher level: putting him into situations where he will have to be very much braver, or more patient, or more loving, than he ever dreamed of being before. It seems to us all unnecessary: but that is because we have not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make of us.’[2]

 

Now I think we have to admit that this is an idea which is uncomfortable to many modern ears, including some Christian ones. We live in a culture where pleasure is prized above all else and pain is to be avoided at all costs. We expect that everything should come to us with the greatest of ease and the minimum of discomfort. The result is that we expect the Christian life to be easy. The idea that something, such as having a personal relationship with God, might be so valuable that it is worth undergoing some trouble to get it, grates with many. Why bother coming to church every Sunday, why bother with the hard graft of Bible study or listening to a sermon, why put up with the discipline of prayer or finding ways of serving God in his church which cost in terms of time and effort? We may not always voice it that way but, as we look around many of our churches today, that is the message coming across loud and clear. In this sort of cultural climate we can expect God all the more to shake us out of our complacency by putting us through the mill. We may put it like this: God doesn't want spoilt little brats who think that he owes them a favour, rather he wants loving obedient children who will trust him come what may. Now the question is: which are we going to be?

 

Of course we can be like sulky children, locking ourselves away in our room, building up resentment towards God for the way he is treating us, refusing to open the door in response to his knocking. God gives us that choice. Elihu warns Job that he is in danger of allowing this to this happen to him: `Beware of turning to evil, which you seem to prefer to affliction' (36:21). Or we can be like obedient children who, while expressing the hurt and the pain, even raising their voice in perplexity, ‘Why me Lord?’, nevertheless in the midst of difficulty will ask, `Lord, what are you teaching me through this?'

 

One way in which the faith not only of an individual can be refined but whole churches is, of course, through persecution. Of her experience in the dark days of the Soviet Union when many Christians were imprisoned for their faith, one Russian believer wrote: ‘My first fifteen-day sentence taught me a great deal about myself. In such a situation you see your good points and bad points very clearly. You find out where your weaknesses are. Persecution can be compared to a photographic developer. When the film is immersed in the developer, an image appears. When a Christian encounters persecution, his character becomes evident. Our church quickly learned who was ready for persecution and who wasn’t’.

 

The point Elihu is making is that this is what might be happening with Job. Elihu is defending the righteousness of God and that whilst Job had not necessarily displayed sin in anything he had done before this suffering came upon him, there is a danger that he displaying rebellion in suffering by bringing God’s character into question. And so we are back to the question we began with: ‘What kind of God will we believe in in the midst of suffering?’

 

The problem believers face has been put in the form of a trilemma: ‘If God is perfectly loving and good he must wish to abolish evil; if God is all powerful he must be able to abolish evil. But evil exists therefore God cannot be both perfectly good and all powerful.’

 

Well, several attempts have been made to reduce the tension of the trilemma, which in the end amount to exchanging the Bible’s revelation of God for some other idea of god. So, some people would deny that God is all powerful. I remember attending a clergy conference where a deaconess passionately argued for what she called `a weak God'. She was adamant that it gave her comfort to think that God was busy struggling with life and getting it wrong just like the rest of us. On the other hand, some would deny the existence of suffering, like the sect Christian Science which puts it all down to an illusion of the mortal mind. But can we honestly say that suffering is not a reality? But then again, there would be others who would want to question God's goodness, especially his justice. This is the theme running through Archibald MacLeish’s play, ‘J.B.’, an updated re-presentation of the story of Job. At various intervals throughout the play there is the haunting refrain, 'If he is God he is not good, if he is good he is not God'. Well, whilst not going that far, Job certainly found himself struggling with the idea that God was truly good and just in the face of what he was suffering. This is what he came close to denying and which Elihu seeks to correct by saying, ‘those who suffer [God] delivers in [lit. through] their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction. He is wooing you from the jaws of distress to a spacious place free from restriction, to the comfort of your table laden with choice food’ (36:15-16). As someone has said the message of Elihu put simply is this, ‘Be patient; it is better to be a chastened saint than a carefree sinner.’

 

So what might such patience look like which holds fast to the sovereignty and the goodness of God in the face of suffering?  Let me tell you about two people who perhaps show us how.

 

The first is Jerry Sittser. In 1991 a drunk driver veered across the road into his car in which he and his family were travelling. His mother, wife and daughter were all killed — three generations wiped out in one moment. He writes about his experience in the book, A Grief Disguised, which has the rather intriguing subtitle, How the Soul Grows through Loss. At one point he says this, ‘It is possible to live in and be enlarged by loss, even as we continue to experience it….Sometimes I wonder about how my own experience of loss will someday serve a greater purpose that I do not yet see or understand. My story may help to redeem a bad past, or it may bring about a better future. Perhaps my own family heritage has produced generations of absent and selfish fathers, and I have been given a chance to reverse that pattern. Perhaps people suffering catastrophic loss will someday look to our family for hope and inspiration. I do not know. Yet I choose to believe that God is working towards some ultimate purpose, even using my loss to that end.’[3] Well, one thing is for sure, God has used his book to strengthen and encourage many whose hearts have been broken.

 

The second person is Mary Craig who in her book ‘Blessings’ describes how two of her four sons were born with severe abnormalities. And this is what she says, ‘I do not believe that any suffering is ultimately pointless, although it is often difficult to go on convincing oneself. Yet the value of suffering does not lie in the pain of it but in what the sufferer makes of it. It is in sorrow that we discover the things that really matter; in sorrow we discover ourselves.’

 

 

That is the lesson of Elihu and that was to be the experience of Job and in varying degrees and in different ways, if we are believers in Christ, it will be our experience too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] D. A. Carson, How Long O Lord?  (IVP,  1990), p 169

[2]  C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Fount, 1978), p 171

[3] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, p. 199.

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