When Bad Things Happen and God Feels Distant

When Bad Things Happen and God Feels Distant

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Previously, in Job:  bad things happened to a good guy.

Job was a really good guy with a really good life.  He was rich; he had a big, loving family; and he was exceptionally devoted to God.

But then!

God had a chat with Satan (aka, “The Adversary,” aka, “The Accuser”).  Satan pointed out that Job’s good behavior might be inextricably linked to his good life situation.  To prove that wasn’t the case, God gave Satan the go-ahead to take away Job’s good life.  Then Job lost everything, rapid-fire:  livestock, servants, children, and finally, his health.

Our story resumes with Job sitting on the ground and covered in sores.  Job is accompanied by a few friends; they’re debating the causes of and solutions to his problems.

Job’s friend, Eliphaz, has just told him to repent – a frequent solution presented by the friends.  “You did something wrong, so stop whatever bad thing you’re doing and apologize to God!”  But Job knows better, and so do we.  Job hasn’t done anything wrong.  In fact, Job was doing everything right; his suffering came out of nowhere.  Job would like the chance to take his case before God and defend himself.  There’s just one problem:

“If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him” (Job 23:8-9).

In other words:  Job can’t find God.

Logically, this makes sense.  The test of Job’s goodness wouldn’t work if God showed back up too quickly.  God needs to step off-stage between chapters 2 and 38 so that Job has a chance to sit in his suffering and God and Satan can see how he responds.  Yes, logically God’s absence makes sense – but theologically, it leaves me confused.

The God I know doesn’t leave us.  God came to us as Jesus Christ, God-With-Us.  When that same Jesus got ready to die and leave this world, he made a promise to his disciples:  “I will not leave you orphaned” (John 14:18).  Jesus told them that he would he eventually come back, and in the meantime would send the Holy Spirit.  The end result is that we’re never left alone – never.

So if our God is a God-with-us, then why couldn’t Job find God?

Here’s something interesting:  Job wants to bring his case to court with God, right?  And while Job feels confident that he’s right, he also recognizes that God is God.  Who can argue with God Almighty and win?  At one point, Job dreams of someone who would stand with him, kind of like a good attorney:

“For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my sin has been thus destroyed,
then from my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27).

What Job needs is the opposite of Satan – not an Adversary, but a Redeemer; not an Accuser, but an Advocate.  Someone who will stand up with him and for him.

Someone like… Jesus, our Redeemer.  Or the Holy Spirit, our Advocate.

Job’s story takes place before Jesus arrived in visible, human form.  Job lived before the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  So while Jesus and the Holy Spirit have been around forever and always (which certainly includes the Old Testament time of Job), Job didn’t have a conscious awareness of them.  Job recognized a need for someone like them… but didn’t have them to call on.

job-praying-1960.jpg!Large

Job Praying, Marc Chagall (1960)

I wonder, if Job could have called on Jesus and the Holy Spirit… could he have found God?

Our human emotions can build barriers between us and God, barriers that a Redeemer or an Advocate can help with.  If we feel guilty, we might feel too unworthy to approach God our Judge.  If we are afraid, we might be too terrified to approach God Almighty.  Those barriers can become so big that they even blind us to God’s presence.  Sometimes we need a Redeemer to tell us, “Don’t worry, you’re forgiven,” or an Advocate to say, “Don’t worry, I’ve got your back.”  Jesus and the Holy Spirit can take us by the hand and lead us to the throne of God.

Now, let’s deal with one of our most powerful human emotions:  anger.

Think about what anger can do to our human relationships.  There’s anger where we can fight it out, have it out, and be done with it.  And then there’s anger where we don’t know what to say to each other anymore – where we’re too mad to say anything anymore – so we stop talking altogether.  Our hearts clam up and shut each other out.  That’s dangerous relationship territory.  As long as we’re talking, we can work it out; but if we stop talking, there’s not much hope that we can reconcile.

What happens with other humans can very easily happen with God.  Maybe even more so; we may feel uncomfortable to get angry at God at all.  Even when life’s circumstances make us flat-out furious… who are we to yell at the All-Knowing, All-Powerful God?  So we clam up, shut up, and stop talking.

But we don’t have to do that.

We have an Advocate, an Advocate who will help us with our prayers.  When the only words we can find are angry words – and we’re afraid they might be offensive to God – then we can take comfort in Romans 8:28:

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

We don’t know how to pray… but the Holy Spirit does.  We can say those honest-but-angry prayers and trust that the Advocate will translate for us:  “God, this is what Mary is really trying to say.”

We also have a Redeemer, a Redeemer whose example we’re supposed to follow.  So we remember Jesus’ prayer on the cross:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).  Jesus is quoting Psalm 22, a “lament psalm.”  If Jesus can cry out to God like that… then maybe we can, too.  In fact, when we cry out at God, we can imagine Jesus right there with us, feeling our pain, remembering what it was like to suffer.

Our God is a God-With-Us.  Even so, sometimes our God can feel far away.  Sometimes, like Job, we can look front and back and left and right… and not find God.  When that happens, it may be that our emotions are blinding us.  It may be that we feel too unworthy, too afraid, or even too angry to be close to God.

In those moments, don’t forget who stands by you.

It’s not an Accuser or an Adversary.

God has provided us with a Redeemer and an Advocate.

If you’re looking to the right and can’t find God… imagine looking to the right and seeing Jesus your Redeemer.  Imagine taking his hand and feeling a wave of grace and peace.

If you’re looking to the left and can’t find God… imagine looking to the left and seeing the Holy Spirit.  Imagine taking a deep breath and feeling a wave of clarity and confidence.

Let them lead you to God.

Now:  say what it is you need to say.

Amen.

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