Job 12 – A Warning to Those at Ease

“Those who are at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.”

Then Job replied:

“Doubtless you are the only people who matter,
    and wisdom will die with you!
But I have a mind as well as you;
    I am not inferior to you.
    Who does not know all these things?

“I have become a laughingstock to my friends,
    though I called on God and he answered—
    a mere laughingstock, though righteous and blameless!
Those who are at ease have contempt for misfortune
    as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.
The tents of marauders are undisturbed,
    and those who provoke God are secure—
    those God has in his hand.

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
    or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
    or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
    that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10 In his hand is the life of every creature
    and the breath of all mankind.
11 Does not the ear test words
    as the tongue tastes food?
12 Is not wisdom found among the aged?
    Does not long life bring understanding?

13 “To God belong wisdom and power;
    counsel and understanding are his.
14 What he tears down cannot be rebuilt;
    those he imprisons cannot be released.
15 If he holds back the waters, there is drought;
    if he lets them loose, they devastate the land.
16 To him belong strength and insight;
    both deceived and deceiver are his.
17 He leads rulers away stripped
    and makes fools of judges.
18 He takes off the shackles put on by kings
    and ties a loincloth around their waist.
19 He leads priests away stripped
    and overthrows officials long established.
20 He silences the lips of trusted advisers
    and takes away the discernment of elders.
21 He pours contempt on nobles
    and disarms the mighty.
22 He reveals the deep things of darkness
    and brings utter darkness into the light.
23 He makes nations great, and destroys them;
    he enlarges nations, and disperses them.
24 He deprives the leaders of the earth of their reason;
    he makes them wander in a trackless waste.
25 They grope in darkness with no light;
    he makes them stagger like drunkards.

The Bible is full of warnings for the “big guy” to get their act right.  One of my favorites is in Isaiah chapter 32, his warning to “complacent women.” Basically all of the prophets warn for those in power to stop being so corrupt and turn back to God.  And it’s a warning that still needs to be heard today.

In this warning, Job once again gives voice to the downtrodden the world over.  “I am not inferior to you,” Job tells his friends in v. 3 (and again at the beginning of the next chapter).  And I think v. 5 might be my favorite line of this whole book so far, where Job calls them out on their sanctimonious bullshit: “Those at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.”  Basically, “you don’t know what it’s like, I’m over here drowning and you’re trying to offer me swim lessons. Throw me a freaking life saver!”

The whole second half of this chapter can be read as a warning to Job’s friends, who are a stand-in for people in power just as Job is a stand-in for the downtrodden.  “To God belongs wisdom and power,” (v. 13) Job declares – something his friends have been quoting at him the whole time.  But the difference is they were using it to try and suppress Job while upholding their own righteousness, while Job is reminding them – and us – that even our own righteousness is not enough to stand up to God.  “He leads priests away stripped and overthrows men long established, He silences the lips of trusted advisers and takes away discernment of elders [v. 19-20]….He makes nations great, and destroys them [v. 23].”  This is one big reminder that even those who have the appearance of power and security, like Job’s friends, are not immune to correction from God.

I feel I am blessed, because I stand between two worlds: a world of privilege and a world of need.  I am white, cis-gender, able-bodied, and middle class.  I am also female, the mother of a special-needs child with crap insurance (goodbye, $700 every time we go to the developmental pediatrician), and a farmer whose livelihood is directly tied to the vagaries of climate change, predators, and agricultural policy.  So while I have certain comforts–certain privileges, if you will, I never feel fully secure.  Why is this a blessing? Because it helps me to remember others in need, just as Paul’s affliction kept him grounded in reality. (You can read about Paul’s thorn in his side, as he calls it, in 2 Corinthians chapter 12.)  It is easy for me to identify with people who are suffering.  Are you struggling to pay your medical bills? I feel you – reference my developmental pediatrician statement above.  Are you struggling with a condition some people don’t even recognize – such as an “invisible” disease like MS or fibromyalgia or a little-heard of (and therefore dismissed) disorder like Executive Dysfunction?  Again, I feel you – even nowadays not everyone recognizes that Autism is a real thing.  I found a hateful blog post recently where someone claimed individuals with ASD are “retards” who are “possessed by the devil” because their parents are sinners. I just pray that man never has any grandchildren who get diagnosed and have to suffer though his vitriol.  Even being in a interracial marriage has helped me be more empathetic.  It is one of the main reasons I’m such an avid supporter of gay marriage.  Not that long ago – I’m talking 1967, when my dad was a teenager and Chris’ dad was already in his mid-twenties, interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia.  (They even made a movie about it.)  If two people care for each other, want to build a life and a family together, want to spread love in this world that so desperately needs it, why would we stop it? To borrow Job’s words, they are not inferior to me, and I will not have contempt for their misfortune.

I’ve talked about examining your privilege before, but I’m going to mention it again, because Lent is a great time to do it, and it’s actually a great practice in gratitude, too.  Think about all the things you’re grateful for.  Some examples could be good health, your family, or a new job. And then, just think about those who lack that particular blessing.  Counterpoint examples could be those suffering poor health or mental illness, children of all ages in the foster care system, and those struggling with unemployment.  None of these seem particularly controversial on the surface, but dig a little deeper and our society often has contempt for these groups:  I can’t afford insurance that would cover mental health services for my (otherwise healthy!!!) daughter with ASD.  Funding is being cut for Health and Human Services, the government agency responsible for the Administration of Children and Families, Head Start programs, and TANF (all which benefit foster children and children in at-risk situations).  The stigma against unemployed people has been documented in a controlled study by UCLA.  None of these are actions of love, but actions of contempt.

I get it, not everyone is going to be a social justice warrior.  Some just don’t have the time or inclination, but that doesn’t make them bad people.  There are lots of legitimate reasons a person may not be active in implementing change: raising a family, starting a business, caring for a sick loved one, struggling to make ends meet themselves.  But even little actions make a difference.  What if everyone made just one (more) phone call to their representatives about an issue that they heard on the news?  What if everyone donated just $10 (more) to a charity of their choice? What if everyone bought one less thing made of plastic, or one more thing from a female entrepreneur?  I don’t know what would happen, but I bet it would be good.  So today I’m challenging you to do a little more to make a difference. I know it’s hard, with everyone and everything asking “more” of us, but like I said, the steps can be little to start.  I’d love to hear what little steps you’re taking to make the world a better place, perhaps you might inspire someone else to do the same thing.  Above all else today, let us not have contempt for other’s misfortune, for they are not inferior to us.  Let us not be too at ease, for then we ourselves are at risk of the greater misfortune of God’s displeasure.  We have the chance to be agents of God’s love for all mankind – let’s take it.

Job 11 – The Endurance of Job

Job really isn’t very patient, but he does endure.

Then Zophar the Naamathite replied:

“Are all these words to go unanswered?
    Is this talker to be vindicated?
Will your idle talk reduce others to silence?
    Will no one rebuke you when you mock?
You say to God, ‘My beliefs are flawless
    and I am pure in your sight.’
Oh, how I wish that God would speak,
    that he would open his lips against you
and disclose to you the secrets of wisdom,
    for true wisdom has two sides.
    Know this: God has even forgotten some of your sin.

“Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
    Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do?
    They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know?
Their measure is longer than the earth
    and wider than the sea.

10 “If he comes along and confines you in prison
    and convenes a court, who can oppose him?
11 Surely he recognizes deceivers;
    and when he sees evil, does he not take note?
12 But the witless can no more become wise
    than a wild donkey’s colt can be born human.

13 “Yet if you devote your heart to him
    and stretch out your hands to him,
14 if you put away the sin that is in your hand
    and allow no evil to dwell in your tent,
15 then, free of fault, you will lift up your face;
    you will stand firm and without fear.
16 You will surely forget your trouble,
    recalling it only as waters gone by.
17 Life will be brighter than noonday,
    and darkness will become like morning.
18 You will be secure, because there is hope;
    you will look about you and take your rest in safety.
19 You will lie down, with no one to make you afraid,
    and many will court your favor.
20 But the eyes of the wicked will fail,
    and escape will elude them;
    their hope will become a dying gasp.”

The more I read Job (and read about Job), the less I think it is about theodicy – the justice of God existing alongside the existence of evil – and more about endurance of faith.  I think this seed was planted long ago.  The same pastor I mentioned two posts back also told me she thought that “the patience of Job” should really be “the endurance of Job,” because he really isn’t very patient with his loud complaints and bitter responses to his friends, but he does endure through his whole ordeal.

Then, a week or so ago, I was perusing through online writings on Job. I’m sorry I can’t remember if it was on Instagram with the hashtag #bookofJob, or a blog article, or what because I’d really love to link to it and give the author credit (to that person: if you find me, holler!), but the thrust of their message was, Job’s suffering was all worth it because it meant (spoiler alert) he got to meet God.  Yes, he gets his stuff and family and everything back, too, but even more than the worldly goods his faith is rewarded by the presence of God.  So, is Job’s test more of a quest, almost like a knight? Job didn’t get to pick his quest quite like a knight does, but just like a King Arthur style tale, he is tried and tested and faces hardship but wins a glorious prize for his endurance in the end.

Finally, earlier this week, I came across an article in my favorite academic journal, Vetus Testamentum. In it, author Andrew E. Steinmann argues that the central theme of Job is not theodicy, but rather Job’s “struggle to maintain his integrity and his battle to hang onto his trust in God, rather than the problem of his suffering.”  Steinmann goes on to argue that the theme of theodicy is secondary and the only safe conclusion we can draw, again to quote the author, is that “theodicy is an irrelevant exercise for human beings.  They cannot explain God’s actions because they do not have access to God’s wisdom in the heavenly court. They can only dangerously attempt deductions that are as unreliable as the deductions made by Job’s friends.” (All this from “The Structure and Message of the Book of Job, Andrew E. Steinmann, Vol. 46 Fasc. 1 of Vetus Testamentum, Jan. 1996)

Following this theme of the endurance of Job, or the endurance of the faith of Job, we can see his friends test him with their false piety, impatience and indignation.  This speech of Zophar’s is the most impatient and indignant yet.  Add his wife to the mix when she says “curse God and die,” (2:9) and we have temptation (it’s a morbid desire, but still, Job desires the grave above all else at this point – and his wife is saying he will die if he just curses God).  So Job’s faith is tried in every manner: loss, suffering, trying attitudes, and temptation.  But he endures, his faith endures.

I find this a much more satisfying explanation of the book of Job than one based solely on theodicy, exactly because there is suffering in the world.  The truth is, we don’t know why God allows suffering.  But that doesn’t mean Xe doesn’t love us, it just means we lack a full comprehension of God. I think I’ve used this analogy before: but it helps me to think of it like kids on the playground.  When I take my girls to the playground, I am watching over them, helping them.  But even under careful guidance, they occasionally hurt themselves.  It’s not that I don’t care about them, it’s just part of growing up, learning their abilities, and striving for the next monkey bar.  I patch up their boo-boos, give them hugs and kisses, and send them back out there.  If Earth is our proverbial playground, could God be doing the same for us?  Watching over us, maybe even letting us make some mistakes, in the hopes that we are growing, not just individually, but collectively? I like to think so.  I know I’ve mentioned this before (maybe multiple times), but my all-time favorite church sign is “God didn’t promise a smooth ride, but rather a soft landing.”  This encapsulates what I think is the most important takeaway from Job:  That all of life is a quest, just like Job’s suffering was.  It is a quest of faith, a battle of endurance in which we must hold fast to God.  We may get scraped up from time to time, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon our faith.  Stay faithful, and the reward is everlasting peace in the life to come.

Job 09 – Including Nature in Christianity

To admire nature is to admire and acknowledge God.

Then Job replied:

“Indeed, I know that this is true.
    But how can mere mortals prove their innocence before God?
Though they wished to dispute with him,
    they could not answer him one time out of a thousand.
His wisdom is profound, his power is vast.
    Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?
He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
10 He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.
11 When he passes me, I cannot see him;
    when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.
12 If he snatches away, who can stop him?
    Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
13 God does not restrain his anger;
    even the cohorts of Rahab cowered at his feet.

14 “How then can I dispute with him?
    How can I find words to argue with him?
15 Though I were innocent, I could not answer him;
    I could only plead with my Judge for mercy.
16 Even if I summoned him and he responded,
    I do not believe he would give me a hearing.
17 He would crush me with a storm
    and multiply my wounds for no reason.
18 He would not let me catch my breath
    but would overwhelm me with misery.
19 If it is a matter of strength, he is mighty!
    And if it is a matter of justice, who can challenge him?
20 Even if I were innocent, my mouth would condemn me;
    if I were blameless, it would pronounce me guilty.

21 “Although I am blameless,
    I have no concern for myself;
    I despise my own life.
22 It is all the same; that is why I say,
    ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’
23 When a scourge brings sudden death,
    he mocks the despair of the innocent.
24 When a land falls into the hands of the wicked,
    he blindfolds its judges.
    If it is not he, then who is it?

25 “My days are swifter than a runner;
    they fly away without a glimpse of joy.
26 They skim past like boats of papyrus,
    like eagles swooping down on their prey.
27 If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint,
    I will change my expression, and smile,’
28 I still dread all my sufferings,
    for I know you will not hold me innocent.
29 Since I am already found guilty,
    why should I struggle in vain?
30 Even if I washed myself with soap
    and my hands with cleansing powder,
31 you would plunge me into a slime pit
    so that even my clothes would detest me.

32 “He is not a mere mortal like me that I might answer him,
    that we might confront each other in court.
33 If only there were someone to mediate between us,
    someone to bring us together,
34 someone to remove God’s rod from me,
    so that his terror would frighten me no more.
35 Then I would speak up without fear of him,
    but as it now stands with me, I cannot.

I once had a pastor who said she thought it was a shame that early Christianity was formed at a time and place where popular thought was enamored with the idea of a separation of body and soul.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with Plato arguing that that soul is immortal (he is not the first to do so, but probably is the most influential), it leads to a disconnect from the physical world. To paraphrase: Stoics believed the highest human achievement was rational thought; Epicureans believed one could only achieve the highest mental state through focusing on rational (instead of physical) pleasures; and Skeptics doubted anything that could be perceived through the senses – basically the whole natural world.  All of these early philosophies were focused on taking man beyond body and the experiences of the physical.  Nature became a second-class citizen.

Then, with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, nature became something for man to dominate through conquering and rules.  This was the great age of exploration, where “new” worlds were discovered, colonized, and bent to the will of the ruling people.  As scientific thought became first less dangerous and then more popular, western society approached nature through rules and laws, and it became at best a system from which to take resources, at worst an adversary to be quelled.  Yes, nature was God’s creation, but one over which people (at least, the people in power) have total control to exploit and subvert at our own pleasure.

It makes some people uncomfortable to think about Christianity being prone to “influences,” but the truth is, it did not form in a bubble.  Jesus was a vocal critic of society in a time of great political tension. Yes, he came to save all mankind, but the problems of his day were searingly visceral as well as spiritual.  And the societal influences, as you can see from the previous two paragraphs, just continued from there, usually at the expense of nature’s influence on worship.  I will say that there has been a slow return towards a respect for nature as God’s creation.  Romanticism, in particular, held a mystic view of nature, and conservation efforts today help us recognize the finite beauty of the world, and our responsibility towards it.  But there are still those who are afraid of nature, afraid that by looking to nature we are introducing pagan practices to Christianity and polluting our Christian faith. Well, I have a news flash for anyone who believes that: Pagan practices have been a part of Christianity from the very beginning, so that ship has sailed.  Here’s a whole Wikipedia article, with a whole subset of links, that describe all the pagan practices currently in Christianity, if you don’t believe me.

The early authors of the Bible did not have a conflict of thought between God and Nature.  And it readily apparent in the Book of Job.  Clearly, God is the great creator of nature, and when we are in awe of nature, we are in awe of Xyr power.  To illustrate this point, I think a whole section of this chapter bears repeating:

He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
10 He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.

I don’t think we should go out and pray to the trees, or the moon, or the sun.  They are all creations – glorious ones, but still just creations – of our almighty God.  But, does a mindful walk through the forest count as a prayer?  If done with intention, I think so.  Same goes for marveling at the beauty of a sunset, the vastness of the ocean, the delicateness of a butterfly.  I think it similar to admiring a painting.  When we admire a painting we are admiring the artist’s skill.  What artist wouldn’t want their painting admired?  To admire nature is to admire and acknowledge God.

And then there’s the act of planting.  Planting, in particular, I find synonymous with prayer.  We plant a vegetable garden in the hopes of a bountiful harvest, or plant bulbs in the fall in the hopes for flowers in the spring. Even planting saplings in the hope of a timber harvest decades from now is a hopeful and even prayerful act: planting implies hope for the future, faith that God will carry us through to the next season.

Perhaps, if we all spend a little more time with nature – admiring it, respecting it, and caring for it – then we will be spending more time with God, too.