Cold Comfort

Introduction Over these Sunday mornings we're looking together at selected chapters of the book of Job. Today chapters 22 and 23 are in our sights. These chapters are representative of the long discussion that takes place between Job and his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. The subject of their heated exchanges is Job's terrible plight. Job is a good and Godly man. Just a short while ago he had been prosperous in all areas of his life. Now he has lost everything: his wealth, his children, his health. All except his wife and she has turned against him. His friends are asking themselves: what might be the cause of it all? Job is asking the same question of God. And he is not getting an answer. As far as he is concerned, there is no satisfactory explanation of the catastrophe that's befallen him. It is without rhyme or reason. Job is not alone in having to deal with unexplained suffering, is he? Jonathan was speaking last week about the bewildering 'Why Me?' events that come upon us so apparently randomly. A christian leader is driving to a meeting one summer's evening, on a long straight road. The sun is low in the sky ahead of him. For a moment, it dazzles him. That, at least, was the conclusion that the coroner came to later. He fails to see that there is a crossroads just ahead of him, that there is a lorry about to cross his path, and that the lorry has right of way. To the horror of helpless onlookers, he doesn't even brake. Like a missile he speeds straight into the side of the lorry. His car is crushed. He is killed instantly. That same evening, no doubt, many people too far gone even to walk straight after a hard session at the pub, drive home without incident. The dead man's wife awaits him at home. Many long years lie ahead of her. That is one true incident. In all kinds of different guises the same sort of thing is happening all the time. The child of a faithful Christian couple throws aside with disdain all that they have longed for her to believe and live by, while the child of adamant atheists falls in with some Christian teenagers, comes along to church with them, and is soon following Christ wholeheartedly. I could multiply the examples.. I remember some years ago now my father said to me that he considered he had lead a charmed life, with no suffering of any consequence. Even the terrible years of the Second War for him hold memories of idyllic evacuee escapades hunting birds' eggs in Cornwall, and the boyish, uncomprehending excitement of seeing a distant dogfight in the summer sky. But soon after my father said that to me, things changed, and he doesn't talk like that any more. Maybe you could add to the examples of apparently inexplicable suffering from your own life and experience. If not, it probably won't be all that long before you can. We can't think about even these two representative chapters in any kind of comprehensive way. All I can really do is remind you that this resource is here, and draw your attention to what a life-saver it is. So just two things to note from these chapters, as you can see from my outline on the service sheet. First, THE DESOLATION OF UNEXPLAINED SUFFERING. Job puts into words in a powerful and graphic way the experience of desolation that can be triggered by innocent suffering. This desolation is not diminished because the sufferer is a Christian. In a way its intensity is increased, not least because of the sense of alienation from God that accompanies it. At the beginning of chapter 23, in response to what Eliphaz has had to say in chapter 22, Job speaks in these terms:

Even today my complaint is bitter; [God's] hand is heavy in spite of my groaning.

Job has a terrible sense that God himself, who should be his comforter, is instead oppressing him. And as a result his heart is full of bitterness. Then look at what he says at the end of the chapter, verse 17:

Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.

He is not going to shut up and suffer in silence - and that itself is one of the most important lessons of Job: if you have a complaint against God, take it to him. Cry out to God even if prayer seems like hammering at the door of a dear friend's house when you're convinced that he's in there - but the lights are out, the door is locked, and there is every indication that he doesn't want to be bothered with you, and would rather you went away. Job keeps shouting. But he is crying in the darkness. It is like a heavy black blanket over his face, smothering the life out of him. The intensity of this desolation that good and godly Christians can undergo is movingly pictured throughout the book. Job curses his birth. He longs for death. His worst fears are realised. His pain is more than can be weighed. He feels under attack by God, as if God is using him for archery practice, targetting him above all people. There is no respite for him even in sleep. As far as he can see, God couldn't care less about him. He hates his life. Desolation comes at him like a heavy sea, wave after wave after wave; under its impact he is like a crumbling shoreline or a stone being worn away. He is a broken, weeping, pain-racked man. His plans are shattered. His family has rejected him. The pain of loss creates a ceaseless churning within him. That phrase in 23:17 sums it up: thick darkness. Job is in thick darkness. And the darkness is deepened by a number of different things. This was Job's experience. It may be ours as well. For one thing, this desolation is compounded by so-called 'friends' who misread the situation. They think that your suffering must be the result of sin on your part, and they accuse you. Look at the sarcastic remark of Eliphaz. Sarcasm is so comforting to those who suffer, don't you think?! This is 22:4-5 -

Is it for your piety that [God] rebukes you and brings charges against you? Is not your wickedness great? Are not your sins endless?

Have you had something like that? It is a barb that may not be so up-front and out in the open as with Eliphaz. You many sense it even in a look, or in a tone of voice. That can be enough to let you know that they think it's really your fault. And the fact that this comes from a friend makes it doubly difficult to take. In 6:14-15 Job says:

A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends ... but my brothers are as undependable as intermittent streams ... that cease to flow in the dry season.

Friends should be like an oasis in the desert. It is terrible when they turn out to be just parched sand. Another thing that compounds the desolation is the use of glib antidotes spoken in ignorance - easy answers that miss the point. So Eliphaz soothes Job with these words in 22:23 -

If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored ...

In other words, "You have turned your back on God. Go to him. Tell him you're sorry. And he will forgive and accept you, and put everything right." In general that is true - wonderfully true. But said to Job, it is the wrong word spoken to the wrong person at the wrong time. The diagnosis was slipshod and plain wrong. So the prescribed medicine acts more like poison. Sometimes even something that is true for the sufferer can come across more like a hammer blow than a helping hand, if it is said lazily and carelessly, as a way of trying to bypass the hard work of real listening and engaging with the problem. But in 13:4 Job turns the accusation back on his friends:

You ... smear me with lies; you are worthless physicians, all of you.

A third factor that compounds the desolation is the sense that God is beyond reach and beyond questioning. Look at 23:3-4 -

If only I knew where to find [God]; if only I could go to his dwelling! I would state my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.

This is why some of the easy answers that are being thrown at Job are so hard for him to bear. He feels like a child who has been dumped in the street so his father can go away without him. He was utterly dependent on him and now he is gone. He has been abandoned for ever, as far as he can see. And as if that were not enough, there is yet another thing to compound the desolation. It is fear of more suffering in the future. The future looks to Job like a long dark tunnel of unending pain, inflicted on him by God himself. 23:14-15 - [God] carries out his decree against me, and many such plans he still has in store. That is why I am terrified before him; when I think of all this, I fear him. Is that how you see the future, if and when you can bring yourself to think about it? Do you find it hard to understand how some people could look ahead to the next few years with a sense of anticipation and excitement about all that is in store for them? Does it seem inconceivable to you that you could ever feel like that yourself? Job puts the same thing slightly differently in 6:11 -

What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What prospects, that I should be patient?

Nothing good up ahead. No hope. No strength to go on. In 7:7 Job turns that same thought into prayer: Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath; my eyes will never see happiness again. Job leaves us in no doubt. The desolation of unexplained suffering is intense. And its intensity is compounded by uncomprehending friends, by slick and useless solutions, by the fact that God seems to have gone awol, and by the desperate prospect of more of the same for a long time to come. At this stage of his life, as maybe of yours, the tunnel is pitch black and stretches a long way ahead. But even for Job, in the very depths of despair, there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. And that brings us to the second and final thing I would like us to observe in these chapters. So, secondly, THE VINDICATION OF ENDURING FAITH. There can be no question that the kind of experience that Job is undergoing is the ultimate test of faith. I remember a man of deep faith telling me years ago about the death of his wife from cancer. She was in her late thirties when she died. He had been a Christian for many years by then, and had been used by God to lead a considerable number of people to Christ. The aftermath of his young wife's death was a bleak and scary time. He came close, he said, to losing his faith altogether. He came close. But it didn't happen. He didn't know how at the time - it seemed impossible - but he hung on. Job is the same. He is certainly close to the edge. But he hasn't dropped off it. Even when he says, as in 23:2 ...

My complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning ...

he is demonstrating that, despite everything, his faith, though wounded, is living. The very bitterness of his complaint against God is an indication that deep down he has not abandoned his conviction that God is there somewhere, and that he is a just and loving and merciful God. The heart of the problem is that God seems to be acting out of character. Job's faith is going through its biggest test. But it still breathes. It is still alive. And in his heart of hearts Job knows, almost despite himself, that through it all, eventually, faith will be vindicated. "If only I knew where to find [God]" he says, and in 23:6-7 he continues in these terms: Would he oppose me with great power? No, he would not press charges against me. There an upright man could present his case before him, and I would be delivered for ever from my judge. "If and when I get into God's presence", he is saying, "I will be vindicated". Then in verse 10 he lets slip something that is even more revealing of the still beating heart of his faith: But [God] knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come forth as gold. There is the little light at the end of the tunnel. There is the glimmer of hope in the thick darkeness. This suffering will bear fruit in Job's life. It is not, ultimately, in vain. It is like the furnace of a refiner. And Job's faith will come out of it like gleaming, priceless, indestructible gold. Conclusion Well, in conclusion, let me say this. The book of Job has been given to us by God to help us to deal with what for us is inexplicable suffering. Its purpose is to propagate perseverance - to sustain what can be the very tender and vulnerable shoots of faith growing in the cracks and crevices of the hard rock of suffering. It is not for those who sail blithely through a sunlit life. Nor is it for those who can shrug off hardship as if it were water off a duck's back. If there are any such people. Job is for those who get to end of their tether. It is for those who sometimes get to the point where they feel that their faith in Christ is hanging by the finest thread. It is a lifebelt for those who feel themselves to be drowning spiritually. If for now you feel bouyant and strong and don't need help, still read and reread the book for yourself. Keep the lifebelt near you for future use. But that may not be your situation. Are you in fact well aware of the pitch of intensity that unexplained suffering can reach? And are you all too familiar with the words and feelings that serve only to compound the problem and drag you down? Are you floundering even now? God can use this book to take your weight and hold you up even when your strength is gone. How foolish it would be not to reach out and take hold of it. Indeed God can do more than simply rescue you through your trial. He can and will use that trial like a refiner's furnace. At the end, your once fragile faith will come out pure, solid gold that will last for ever. So don't let up crying out to God. Hang on. Jesus will not let go of you.

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