A Sermon by Mark D. Roberts

"The Exemplary Hard Life"

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts          January 15, 2006

Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church

Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts

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About fifteen years ago I first learned about Club 33, the private, exclusive club at Disneyland. For years I had walked by the doorway at 33 Rue Royale in New Orleans Square without realizing that, behind this door, there was a paradise of quiet, luxury, and succulent food. When I first learned about Club 33, I determined that sometime in life I would eat there.

Of course this isn't the sort of thing that ordinary people like me can just do. Private membership at Club 33 is both expensive and very hard to come by. So the only way I'd ever make it into the holy of holies at Disneyland would be through the hospitality of a someone else.

Then, about six years ago, it happened. A family in our church, through a corporate membership in the club, invited Linda and me to join them for lunch at Club 33. This lunch, as it turned out, was during Christmas vacation, one of the busiest times at Disneyland. It was so crowded that day at the park that you could hardly walk around.

But inside Club 33 it was a different world: peaceful, calm, comfortable, and uncrowded. And the food? Truly scrumptious and plentiful. There was a generous buffet, complete with the usual salads and breads. But before I jumped in to that ordinary stuff, I carefully surveyed the options. Soon my eye focused on a real treasure: mass quantities of fresh shrimp and crab, which I proceeded to eat . . . in mass quantities. In fact, my lunch that day was a precursor to the Atkins diet, mostly seafood and prime rib, with some cheesecake for dessert. That was a meal I'll never forget.

When I begin a new preaching series, I feel rather like I did that day when I first surveyed the buffet at Club 33. Here, before me, are almost limitless treasures of God's Word just waiting to be tasted. One of the biggest challenges I face at the beginning of a series is where to start the feast. There are just too many great choices.

As I once did at Club 33 by diving into the best stuff right at the start, today I want to begin in what you might call the shrimp and crab of Scripture, or, of you prefer, the prime rib, or, if you're a vegetarian, the spinach quiche. My whole series, which I've called Finding God When Life is Hard, will draw from a wide variety of biblical texts. Today I want to focus on one of those texts that will figure most prominently in our conversation. The main course of this series, if you will, is the Book of Job.

Job tells the story of a man who suffered greatly, and who sought to find God in the midst of his agony. It's a long and complex book of 42 chapters. Today I propose to read one short excerpt, and then spend most of our time summarizing the story of Job, making observations along the way.

So, listen now to God's Word as it comes to us from Job, chapter 9, verses 13-24. Job is speaking, and he says:

Scripture Reading: Job 9:13-21

"God will not turn back his anger;
  the helpers of Rahab bowed beneath him.
How then can I answer him,
  choosing my words with him?
Though I am innocent, I cannot answer him;
  I must appeal for mercy to my accuser.
If I summoned him and he answered me,
  I do not believe that he would listen to my voice.
For he crushes me with a tempest,
  and multiplies my wounds without cause;
he will not let me get my breath,
  but fills me with bitterness.
If it is a contest of strength, he is the strong one!
  If it is a matter of justice, who can summon him?
Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me;
  though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse.
I am blameless; I do not know myself;
  I loathe my life."

The Beginning of Job's Crisis

The first chapter of Job introduces us to the man, telling us that he was "blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil" (1:1). Job had been greatly blessed in life, with ten children and fabulous material wealth.

Yet, one day the host of heaven got together for a conference. In this meeting, the subject of Job came up. God boasted of Job's faithfulness. Satan, the accuser in God's court, suggested that Job only feared the Lord because God had blessed him so richly. Take away this blessing, Satan suggested, and Job would curse God. So, to prove the accuser wrong, God did a most curious thing, and allowed Satan to take away Job's familial and material blessings.

Satan did just that. Before he knew it, Job had lost his riches and even his ten children. But did he curse God? No. Rather, he "tore his robe" and "shaved his head" as signs of mourning, but nevertheless worshiped the Lord, saying, "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" (1:21).

Some time later, the heavenly court gathered once again. And, once again, the Lord boasted of Job's exemplary faithfulness. And, once more, Satan challenged God's confidence in Job. Hurt his body, the accuser said, and he "will curse you to your face" (2:5). As happened before, God allowed Satan to hurt Job, this time by injuring His flesh.

Like the first time, Satan did as the Lord allowed him, and covered Job's body with painful sores. So miserable was he that Job ended up sitting on an ash-heap. His wife told him to give up. "Curse God, and die," she said (2:9). But Job refused. "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?" he asked (2:10).

Hearing of Job's sufferings, three of his friends came to comfort him. They had such compassion for Job that when they saw him in his misery, they wept aloud, tore their robes, and joined Job on his ash heap for seven days and seven nights, all without saying a word.

Now I want to pause for a moment and reflect upon Job's friends. What they have done so far is exemplary of genuine friendship, and it's a great model for us.

Notice that the friends went to be with Job in his suffering. When people we care about are going through hard times, we need to be with them. In person is best, but sometimes being there requires using an electronic medium. You might think that being with somebody is so obvious that it needn't be mentioned. But the fact is that we need to hear this. Often we avoid our friends who are suffering, rather than going to be with them. Perhaps we don't want to bother them. Or perhaps we don't know what to say. So we keep our distance. Sisters and brothers, let the example of Job's friends remind you not to keep your distance when people you care about are in pain. Reach out to them and be present with them.

Job's Argument with His Friends

As it turns out, if Job's friends had remained with him and kept silent, it would have been better. But after a week of quiet, they get into a conversation with Job. More than a conversation, however, it was really an argument. Their presence had been a comfort to Job; their words, unfortunately, added to his pain.

What was the nature of the disagreement between Job and his friends? Though it has many facets and nuances, the basic disagreement was simple. Job claimed that he had done nothing to deserve his suffering, and that God was, for unknown reasons, giving him what he did not deserve. Job's friends, believing that God is just, didn't buy it. They argued that a just God would only give Job what he deserved, and therefore Job must have done something to merit his suffering.

Please understand that the friends weren't trying to hurt Job. They really meant to help. They were convinced that, since Job must have done something wrong, if he would only repent, then God would forgive Job and remove his suffering. The friends wanted Job's life to be better, and they were pushing him to do that which they believed would bring relief.

Again, let me stop at this point for a word of application. Sometimes, in our effort to help people who are hurting, we say things that only make matters worse. Perhaps a friend of yours has just miscarried in the third month of her pregnancy, and she's terribly sad. Rather than saying, "Oh, I'm so sorry. That's awful," and being with her in her sorrow, you try to make her feel better by saying, "Oh, well, you can try again soon." Or maybe, "If you can't get pregnant, you can always adopt." Though these might be true, they don't relieve your friend's suffering. They just make it worse.

When you're with people who are going through hard times, I'd urge you to beware of the tendency to try and make it better, to try and talk them out of their sadness. This rarely works, and you often end up saying things that aren't even true. Which is exactly what happened with Job's friends. Their efforts to help made matters worse, and they ended up speaking falsely of God, even though their theology seemed to be so commonsensical.

The Greatness and Unsearchability of God

Job and his three friends go on with their argument for 29 chapters. After they finish, another speaker appears on the scene, a young man named Elihu. But his speech adds little to what has already been said. Elihu's insistence on the majesty of God does, however, set up the final speaker in the Book of Job. And who is this? None other than the Lord Himself, who speaks out the whirlwind. He begins:

"Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? . . .
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
  Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements - surely you know!
  Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
  or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
  and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?" (38:2, 4-7)

God continues on in this vein for three chapters, pointing again and again to the majesty and mystery of the world He created, and therefore putting Job in his place.

Curiously, and I would say, somewhat frustratingly, God does not answer Job's questions. He doesn't explain why Job had to suffer. He doesn't account for the apparent contradictions between His justice and the injustices of this world. Rather, God says, in a word, "Consider the wonder of the natural world that I have made. Were you there when I made it? Can you control it now, as I can?" By implication, God says, "Job, who I am and how I work far exceed your understanding. You think you can box with me? Your arm isn't long enough to duke it out with my baby finger."

The Conclusion of Job

Job gets the point, because at the beginning of Chapter 42 he says,

"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;
therefore I despise myself,
  and repent in dust and ashes" (42:1-3, 5-6)

Job doesn't ever admit that he deserved the suffering he received. He never gives in to the superficially wise arguments of his friends. But he realizes that his attitude before the Lord was too haughty, and that, in a phrase, he was way out of his league. So he humbles himself before the Lord.

At this point in the story, a most amazing thing happens. The Lord speaks to Job's friend Eliphaz, saying, "My wrath is kindled against you and your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has" (42:7) So the friends must go to Job and have him intercede for them, which he does, and they are forgiven. The Book of Job ends with the restoration of Job's fortune and the birth of new children.

How Was Job Right?

I want to go back for a moment to God's statement to Eliphaz, ". . . you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has" (42:7). Surely this does not mean that everything Eliphaz and his companions said to Job was wrong. For example, when Eliphaz said of the Lord, "He does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number," (5:9), this was surely right. Moreover, Job's speaking rightly does not mean that everything Job said was theologically correct. Remember that God referred to him as one who "darkens counsel by words without knowledge" (38:1). Job was right, however, in his fundamental contention that his suffering was not punishment for his sin. And in this, his friends were wrong.

Yet, when we consider Job's rightness in light of the entire Book of Job, we see two other crucial aspects. On the one hand, Job was right to keep challenging God without cursing Him. Job could well have given up entirely and died in a depressed heap. Or he could have done what his wife had suggested, and reject God altogether. Instead, Job pressed on to know the truth and to know God. He hung onto God and wouldn't let go until he got an answer. In this sense, I think, Job spoke rightly. He kept on speaking. He kept on telling the truth of his soul. He didn't stop until he had a transformational encounter with the living God.

Secondly, Job spoke rightly, when, at the end, he admitted that he had uttered what he did not understand, things too wonderful for him. When talking about the mysteries of God, we are all out of our league. This doesn't mean we should stop talking, mind you, but it does suggest that we do so with humility.

Job, therefore, models a precarious balance between boldness and humility, between saying whatever is in our heart and bowing before the majesty of God. This balance, I would suggest, is never neat and tidy. It never comes easily. Yet both aspects, both the boldness and the humbleness, are necessary if we are to find God when life is hard.

The Audacity of Job

I'd like to conclude today by focusing a bit more on the audacity of Job, because it's something we often lack when we're going through tough times. As you read the Book of Job, one of the things that stands out is his brash boldness. He was bold in his challenge to God, no question about it. At times he said things that seem to go over the line of propriety, if not truth. For example, here's some of what Job says,

It is all one; therefore I say,
  [God] destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When disaster brings sudden death,
  he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.
The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;
  he covers the eyes of its judges-
  if it is not he, who then is it? (9:22-24)

I will say to God, Do not condemn me;
  let me know why you contend against me.
Does it seem good to you to oppress,
  to despise the work of your hands
  and favor the schemes of the wicked? (10:2-3)

"There are those who snatch the orphan child from the breast,
  and take as a pledge the infant of the poor.
They go about naked, without clothing;
  though hungry, they carry the sheaves; . . .
From the city the dying groan,
  and the throat of the wounded cries for help;
  yet God pays no attention to their prayer. (24:9-10, 12)

As you can see, Job is questioning the very goodness of God. Not only does Job feel the freedom to pour out his personal agony, he also wonders aloud about the very nature of God. Given the ending of Job's story, and God's vindication of Job, I'd suggest that this sort of audacity is held up as a model for imitation. Job gives us the permission to lay it on the line before God, to tell Him exactly what's in our hearts and minds, even if it seems too brash or inappropriate

Job is not alone in Scripture as one who challenges God in unsettlingly honest ways. If you read the Psalms you find scores of examples of biblical writers speaking about or to God in ways that are shocking. As most of you know, I wrote a whole book about this, called No Holds Barred: Wrestling with God in Prayer. I could very easily write a companion volume, based, not on the Psalms, but on Job.

Again, let me pause for a word of application. Most of us have learned somehow that we're not supposed to be honest with God when it comes to our doubts, our fears, our anger, our disappointments. So we end up saying things that we think we should say in prayer, like, "Thank you, Lord, for this suffering," when our hearts are crying, "Why have you let this happen to me?" And when this sort of prayer game seems too inauthentic to bother, we stop praying altogether. The example of Job gives us permission to be honest with God, even when that honesty is very untidy.

Recently a woman shared with me a sad story. After praying for her non-Christian mother for decades, her aged mother, who was struggling with a potentially terminal disease, finally gave her life to Christ. And you know what happened? This poor mother's physical symptoms got worse, and then she got mad at God, understandably so. The woman who shared this with me said, "I don't even know how to pray to God about this. What should I say?" My first response was, "Well, you might begin by telling Him that you think this really stinks." The woman was shocked: "I'd never thought of saying that. But that is what I think. That's how I feel." You see, by failing to tell God what she really thought and felt, this woman was unintentionally creating distance between herself and the Lord. Rather than finding God in the midst of her hard life, she was losing touch with Him. Her starting point with the Lord was simply to be honest.

My friends, God wants to hear what you really think, what you really feel. Trying to fake him out doesn't work. Moreover, it keeps you far from the Lord, rather than leading you to Him. So, if you want to find God when life is hard, you can begin by stopping the game playing, and by telling Him exactly what's going on inside of you. God can handle it all: your fear, your doubt, your discouragement, your anger. He yearns for the real you, not some religious icon you've created to fake Him out.

When in doubt, when you're not sure what to say or not to say, be like Job. Tell God the truth. Your honesty will open your heart to a genuine encounter with the living, loving God.


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