Job was a good guy. He was honest, kept his promises, totally devoted to God and hated evil with a passion. Job was also prosperous. He had
500 teams of oxen
huge staff of servants
His family loved to get together – the sons took turns hosting parties and daughters were invited.
One day God was in the courts of heaven bragging about Job. Satan heard God and said, “Oh yeah? He’s only being faithful to get his rewards. If you took away all he had he would curse you to your face.
God replied, “We’ll see. Go ahead—do what you want with all that is his. Just don’t hurt him.”
Next thing you know, while his children were having one of their parties a messenger came to job from the fields where Job’s oxen were ploughing and his donkeys were grazing. Bad news, enemies came to attack, they stole all the animals and killed all the servants except the messenger.
Before he finished his story another messenger came to Job. More bad news. A thunder storm broke out over the sheep field. Bolts of lightning struck the sheep and the shepherds and fried them – burned them all to a crisp; all except the messenger.
Before this messenger finished speaking a third messenger came to report that more enemies came to steal the camels and killed all of the camel drivers.
And while this messenger was still talking a fourth messenger came with the worst news of all. “A tornado swept in off the desert and struck the house where your children were having their party, Job. It collapsed and all of the young people and their servants died.”
Job was so very sad. He ripped his robe, shaved his head and fell to the ground. But still Job worshipped God – he did not once blame God for his misfortune.
When God saw Satan next he said, “See what I mean? Job’s my man!”
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.”
So 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.
His wife said, “Still holding on to your precious integrity, are you? Curse God and be done with it!”
But Job wouldn’t do it. Not once through all this did Job say anything against God. (The Message)
Job had three friends. And like good friends they came to comfort him. The first thing they did was the best thing of all for someone who has lost so much. They sat with him in silence. And they waited patiently for seven days until Job was ready to speak.
After seven days Job spoke. What would you say if you were Job?
Job lifted up us voice and cried out to God. He lamented. Listen to what Job said.
Read Job chapter 3
Let us Pray. Lord Jesus in the times when things go so wrong in our lives that all we can do is cry out in pain, send us the Comforter, your Holy Spirit, to listen, to hold us, and keep us in your great love.
When small children are brought to Sunday school we teach them about God, who is big enough to have the whole world in his hands, powerful enough to create a flood to destroy what is bad and who protects us like a shepherd protects the sheep. We also learn that God wants us to be good and stay away from evil.
In response to this teaching most Christian children come to believe that good people get rewarded and bad people get punished. Children who have learned these things about God in Sunday school believe that God is rewarding them for being good whenever good things happen to them. They deserve the good grades, the nice friends, the trophies and the college acceptance letter. When something goes wrong they worry that God is punishing them.
When children join adults in worship they sing songs of praise and thanksgiving, they may join in prayers of confession, and say the prayer for illumination and maybe a prayer of dedication in response to the sermon. But rarely in middle-class white American churches do we see people getting very emotional. Children are urged to sit still and be quiet. They see neither great joy, nor great sorrow expressed in the sanctuary. Most people politely put on their Sunday clothes and their public happy face most of the time when they go to church.
Raised in this way children in our churches get the impression that God punishes bad people while all faithful Christians have trouble free lives.
But what about when something really bad happens? Perhaps both parents die in an accident leaving small children. Is God punishing the parents, or the children? Or is God simply unjust, failing to protect this family from such pain? How children who have just been orphaned sing “He’s got the whole world in his hands?”
A student works hard in college choosing a challenging course of study that leaves him feeling very capable. He remains active in a Christian community and feels God’s hand lead him from blessing to blessing. But then he graduates into a recession and flounders around for a few years, unable to find any job, even at McDonalds. Is God testing him? Does God want him to experience poverty? Was God only teasing him with the dream of success during those years in college? Or were his fellow students right; God is a figment of our imagination, the opiate of the peoples?
A wildfire overtakes a community in the drought-ridden west coast. All the homes on one side of the street are destroyed while those on the other remain untouched. On the safe side of the street a family puts a sign in their front yard “Thank the Lord!” What does that say about God? Does God bless people on one side of the street and curses those on the other?
When such terrible things happen, what are people of faith to do on Sunday mornings? When your sense of God’s providence is shattered how can you sing “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”? When God seems terribly unjust, how can we offer our “hymns of grateful praise” to him? When we’ve begged God to heal a relationship but we end up in divorce court it can seem like torture to be around people who say, “God answers prayers, especially if they are heartfelt.”
Have you had times when you wondered, “O God, Why?”
It is precisely at times like these that many, many Christians give up their faith and leave the church. When bad things happen that don’t fit the immature Sunday school picture of the world. When a person is attacked by enemies, or suffers a major health problem. When the world seems to turn against you and you’re left feeling abandoned by God – or worse, that God inflicted the suffering you are going through as punishment, or that God wants you to learn something from the experience, then it’s common enough to curse God, walk away from the church and never come back. I’m sure each of us can think of people we know whose faith journey has been like this.
The vertical habit of lament is absolutely necessary for any Christian to grow into a mature faith. Lament is the type of prayer that gives people permission to express the terrible pain and suffering that we all undergo at one time or another. Permission to cry out in anguish, “O God, Why?” Or simply “O, God!” Or when things get so bad you no longer have words to say and you are uncertain that God is listening anyway.
When our spiritual growth is stunted, never moving beyond a Sunday school faith and when our worship restricts some expressions as unbecoming or improper it’s like saying that people of faith should not lament.
But when we turn to the scriptures we see this is just not so. Today we heard the beginning of the book of Job where a man who once had it all lost everything; his livestock, servants, ten children all gone taken in one day. And then he lost his health. All Job could do was lament, curse the day his was born and wonder why? Why was I even born? Why does God bother giving light to the miserable? What’s the point of life when it doesn’t make sense?
The rest of the 42 chapters of Job contain Job’s laments in response to the advice of his wife and his friends. Most of what they say is the kind of Sunday school faith that tries to pin the blame on Job, or advice on how he can get better.
Another place where we can find examples of lament is the Psalms. The psalms are the worship and prayer book of the bible. You can find each of the vertical habits in the psalms, but the most common type of prayers in the psalms are laments. Of 150 Psalms 67 are sad, where the speaker is complaining and crying to God. Eighteen times the Psalmist says he feels like he’s in a pit and cries to the Lord to be rescued.
The prayers of lament in the Bible to show us that God knows this life is tough and God won’t mind a bit if we express our lament loud and clear. We may be terribly angry and still honestly lament before God. The psalms of lament have some dreadful images. One of the worst is psalm 139 a lament against the enemy empire Babylon. Verse 9 says “Happy shall they be who take your little ones (children) and dash them against the rock!” Such laments do not reflect God’s will. They express our human pain and suffering due to the evil in this world.
When we lament we become like a little child throwing a temper tantrum. And God, like our wise and strong parent, just holds us and keeps us safe and keeps us for hurting anyone else until we calm down. An emotionally honest prayer of lament is so much better than pushing down our negative feelings by getting busy, staying in our heads, or distracting ourselves. Denial of feelings or neediness is a sure way to get stuck in a pit. The prophet Jeremiah warns us: “God can’t heal what you won’t feel” (Jer. 6:14, paraphrase). We absolutely need to include lament as one of our vertical habits of conversation with God.
God’s response to our times of lament is presence. Just being present to us, listening, holding us, just being with us. That is what the name Emmanuel means, God with us. And as Christians we understand Christ as the ultimate expression of God choosing to be with us. When God became human he joined us in all aspects of our human life, particularly our suffering. This is the power of the cross. When we look at Jesus on the cross we see God suffering with us. On Good Friday Jesus felt just as abandoned and hopeless as any of us feel. We know because he quoted the lament of psalm 22. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!” And by going through this suffering Jesus showed us that there is no godforsaken place or experience on this earth where God is not present. God is with people who grieve the death of a child. God is with the Syrians who are so desperate they will risk their lives to find a safe place to live. God is with those suffering dementia, and those who care for them. God is with communities who suffer from hurricanes and tsunamis, drought and floods. God is with us when our best friend moves away, when we get a bad grade, and when bullies pick on us unceasingly.
When we are in the pit, in the darkest part of the night when things seem most hopeless just knowing God’s presence may be enough for the moment. It can help us to calm down, and find strength to begin to get unstuck. But the gospel also gives us more hope than we can imagine because Christ didn’t stay stuck in suffering, but died, and was resurrected. And his promise is that he will bring us with him into that Easter joy. After suffering and death comes new life! After the dark night of the soul comes the morning.
It can make all the difference in the world to someone who is stuck in the pit to meet someone who was there once, and has gotten free. This is the beauty of AA – that alcoholics who are recovering turn back towards other alcoholics with words of encouragement and hope, acknowledging how painful it is, how difficult it is but also bearing witness to the possibility of a new life of freedom. The first time in my adult life when I felt really lost, and abandoned by God it was my friend Louise who explained where I was in my spiritual journey, told me of her own similar experience and promised that as bad as it feels, we won’t stay there forever, that God will lead us through.
When we find ourselves in the pit, if we can be like Job, refusing to curse God or turn our back on God even when it seems God is far, far away, this time of lament will actually work mysteriously in us to help our faith mature, and deepen, and when the dawn comes we will bear greater fruit than ever before.