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Today’s lesson is from the Old Testament book of Job. It is about the times that suffering and tragedy come into our lives and what we should say and think about God during those times. It is also about how best to be a friend to those who are going through such times.
The following prayer is from the Presbyterian Church (USA) website:
Holy One, you are our comfort and strength in times of sudden disaster, crisis, or chaos. Surround us now with your grace and peace through storm or earthquake, fire or flood.
By your Spirit, lift up those who have fallen, sustain those who work to rescue or rebuild, and fill us with the hope of your new creation; through Jesus Christ, our rock and redeemer. Amen.
This week's lesson is on Job 8:1-10, 20-22.
In his bestselling book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “We could bear nearly any pain or disappointment if we thought there was a reason behind it, a purpose, to it.”
The book of Job is the attempt of Hebrew writers living four to seven centuries before Christ to answer the question, “Why is there human suffering?” It is one of three books of the Old Testament — along with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes — that have been categorized as wisdom literature. These are books that attempt to reveal wisdom about life based on the central conviction that God alone possesses all wisdom but that a measure of wisdom is available to those who will observe life, think and meditate upon it and seek it as a gift from God.
The book imagines a man named Job who was “blameless and upright,” who “feared God and shunned evil.” And yet, this man experienced tragedy and suffering that took away his wealth, his health and his family.
Soon his friends — Bildad, Eliphaz and Zophar — come to his house to sympathize with him and comfort him. For seven days they mourn with Job in silence, which was right and good of them. But when Job speaks up and laments in loss and his condition, the friends attempt to explain why he has suffered so. That is when they show a lack of wisdom and compassion. Afterward Job counters each argument.
Eliphaz and Bildad speak three times each, and Zophar speaks twice. Eliphaz is the first to speak. Our session for today is part of Bildad’s first statement. It is in response to Job’s statements about the brevity, futility and suffering of life. Job feels hopeless and abandoned by God.
I. Condemnation (verses 1-4)
Bildad does not waste time expressing his disappointment of Job’s lament. He describes Job’s words as “a blustering wind,” empty and meaningless. But Job’s words come from the depth of his pain and loss, especially the loss of his children.
Bildad asks rhetorically if God perverts justice. If God is just, and if God rewards the righteous with wealth, health and freedom from suffering, then Job must have sinned. And it must be because of that sin that God is punishing him.
To illustrate his premise, Bildad uses the example of Job’s children. He says, in effect, that the children must have sinned and that God has merely meted out the punishment for their sin.
What Bildad proposes is known as retributive justice, which argues that God blesses the righteous and curses the wicked. One can find similar statements in the law of Moses.
However, God sometimes works differently. Physical and material blessings do not correlate to a person’s spiritual strength. Righteous people experience hardship, but that does not imply that they are wicked or that God has rejected them.
Ultimately, it was not Bildad’s place to explain why Job suffered. It would have been better for him to pray along with Job and to maintain his silence.
Questions: What danger exists in assuming God’s motives behind earthly events? How can you guard against thinking or speaking in ways that assume you know why God has permitted something to happen?
II. Exhortation (verses 5-7)
Bildad turns from accusing Job of sin to exhorting him to to seek God and to become pure and righteous. Because God is just, Bildad concludes, God will be obliged to restore Job’s peace and prosperity. In fact, he argues, Job’s former wealth will seem humble compared to his future.
Again, Bildad’s words assume that he knows God’s mind and that God is obligated to reward people physically when they seek God spiritually.
Questions: In what ways do you link material wealth with God’s blessing? What Scriptures contradict the suggestion that God always gives wealth to those God favors?
III. Reflection (verse 8)
Bildad counsels Job to look to history and to those who had gone before them. Perhaps he is confident that an examination of previous generations will show that God always rewarded the righteous with wealth and other good things but that God always punished the unrighteous with poverty and sickness. That is a sweeping generalization that almost certainly had exceptions, but even if that were true, that does not necessarily mean that will always be the case.
Again, Bildad is trying to speak about things that are beyond his understanding. Although looking to the past can be instructive, we must not assume that general truths will work in every situation.
IV. Projection (verses 20-22)
Bildad’s syllogism goes as follows: “God does not cast away those who are perfect.” “God has cast Job away as evidenced by Job’s troubles.” “Therefore, Job is not perfect and needs to repent.”
The flaw in Bildad’s reasoning is in assuming that God always rewards the righteous. However, Job knows he is righteous and, therefore, questions whether God is, indeed, just.
Various Old Testament passages reflect Job’s sentiment, lamenting how the wicked seem to flourish even as the speak against God. (See Jeremiah 12:1 and Malachi 3:15.)
A fuller understanding of scripture creates a problem for people who, like Bildad, are determined to hold a rigid understanding of how God works.
Being present to someone in the midst of a tragedy present unique challenges. In an effort to explain the suffering, we may put too much pressure on ourselves to comfort in a wrong way. Platitudes will likely overstep the bounds of what is helpful. At best, our words might be little more than hollow cliches; at worst, they might cause further harm.
Bildad’s counterproductive interaction with Job reminds us of the best ministry we might offer: the ministry of presence in the midst of difficult times. At first, Job’s friends approached him in this manner. But their silent presence changed to unhelpful arguments. They were quick to suppose that wickedness was the primary reason for Job’s suffering. However, Bildad’s logic did not account for the entire story of how God works. In reality, wicked individuals might experience blessing, while righteous people might experience suffering. Unbeknownst to everyone present, Job’s suffering was an example of the latter.
When others experience suffering, our natural response is to be with them. To draw near, cry and share in grief is an appropriate course of action to comfort the sufferer. Conjecture on God’s behalf is unwise and unnecessary. Sitting silently with a grieving person often provides the best support.
God of all comfort, grant us the patience to be silent for as long as it is needed in difficult moments. Help us to say only what will be received as grace and comfort. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
This week's benediction is from the New International Version.
Next week's lesson will be on Job 42:1-6, 10-17.
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