Whenever I get a big influx of new readers, I like to repeat this piece. It is actually based on a tour of creation I was given in the fall of 1997. At the time I wrote it, I was not publicly speaking of these things, so I couched it in a contemplative consideration of Job’s time in the whirlwind. It was one of the most consoling experiences I have ever had – though there was more to it than I describe here, where I stick to the consolation. It is also one of the most important pieces I have ever written for understanding the times we have entered – and to what we are called. Many have told me it has been a great consolation to them. I hope you will contemplate it, both for the consolation at the heart of it and the description of God’s majesty and tender, yearning love for us.
Since God’s interaction with each person is so intimately personal, how do we encounter Him properly and help others to do so? However interesting it might be for a finger to explain its function to a foot, it won’t be terribly helpful in teaching the foot to walk. One of the best answers to this question is to be found in the most misunderstood and misinterpreted book of the Bible; the Old Testament Book of Job.
There is good reason why many skim over – or skip entirely – the Book of Job. It turns the nostrums of traditional piety upside down. As it opens we are introduced to Job, a just and pious man who is blessed in all his affairs. He is prosperous, healthy and has a big, joyful family. In fact, Job is so notable for his good-natured righteousness that God boasts of him before the heavenly host. Hearing this, the satan appears before the throne and tells God that the only reason Job is so faithful is because God has given him such abundant blessings. Satan proposes a wager: if God will let him afflict Job, the man will curse God to His face. Though the Anti-Gambling Coalition would surely disapprove, God takes the bet anyway.
Disaster after disaster befalls Job. His crops are ruined, his livestock perish, his children are killed, his health is afflicted and his life becomes an almost unbearable misery. It is idiomatic to speak of the patience of Job; even Jesus comments on it. But if patience is understood to mean meek acceptance of whatever comes, that most assuredly does not describe our Job. There are 42 chapters in the book. By Chapter Three Job is in full dudgeon. He complains of God, complains to God, insists he has done nothing to deserve this, and demands that God appear before him to explain.
In the course of his bitter complaints Job is visited by three traditionally pious friends (a fourth pops up briefly near the end) who come to defend God, urge Job to repent of his complaints and to confess to the sins that have caused these disasters to befall him. But Job is adamant. He insists that if God would agree to stand with him before an independent tribunal where both presented their case without intimidation, his own righteousness would be confirmed.
The two most commonly quoted verses of Job are at 13:15 and 19:25. The former is quoted as, “Slay me though he might, I will wait for him; I will defend my conduct before him,” (NAM) and, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him,” (KJV). The latter reads, “…I know that my Vindicator lives…” (NAM) or, “…I know that my redeemer liveth…” (KJV). Though both are beautiful expressions of faith, what is notable about them is the contrast they present to Job’s usual litany of complaints and demands. For those who would make Job into a meekly pious, long-suffering man, they are about the only useful quotes in the whole book.
Rarely is any of Chapter III quoted. In his opening complaint, Job goes into a lengthy curse of the day he was born. He comes perilously close to cursing creation, itself, in the process – which would be blasphemy. Even so, the two quotes cited earlier are consistent with Job’s main argument, even if not in the way that many would like them to be. Job does not argue that God is unjust, though he skirts close to that argument frequently; his argument is that his own treatment is unjust. Job demands, often quite stridently, that God appear to him and explain; yet he remains faithful that if he could obtain this he would ultimately receive justice from the Almighty.
His friends, on the other hand, insist that God’s justice is always immediate. So if Job suffers, he must have sinned grievously.
Astonishingly, God does exactly what Job demands. At the beginning of Chapter 38 God comes roaring out of the whirlwind to answer Job. For the next four chapters God takes Job through all of creation; the heavens, the earth, the seas, the sky, the animals, the darkness and the light. At each step, God asks Job what he knows of such things, what he can command. The Almighty is not gentle about his questioning of Job. Dripping with sarcasm, He taunts and mocks the man, showing him how small he is and how little he knows.
After four chapters of God roaring at and apparently browbeating him, Job submits. “I put my hand over my mouth…I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know,” (Job 40:4, 42:3 NAM). It is at this point that many commentators who are candid about Job’s impassioned dissent lose their way. Though God appears, He does not seem to answer Job’s questions, only to roar at and intimidate him. Observers who admire Job’s courage and passion in challenging God lament that, in the end, he buckles before God’s power rather than persisting in his demand for answers. Though trying to approach the book honestly these commentators are as limited as Job’s ‘pious’ friends.
God certainly roars at Job, but He does much more than that. He spends fully four chapters showing Job every aspect of creation. Think about that. God did not just come out of the whirlwind to Job; He took Job back into the whirlwind with Him.
I love contemplating what it was Job saw that caused him to put his hand over his mouth and dispute with God no more. Imagine that God showed Job our world, sparkling blue and green like some impossibly rare and precious gem, glittering with life and light. Then God shows Job the entire universe. Think of Job’s wonder at the billions of stars, comets, quarks and planets all pulsing and whirring, a symphony of light and rhythm. Then the stunning realization that our world amounts to less than a grain of sand in the ocean of this staggering abundance. Most stunning of all, God shows Job that this vast universe is merely the support system for our little speck. Every passing comet, every collapsing black hole, every bursting supernova, every moon, every planet in the most distant galaxy is designed to maintain the dynamic tension which keeps our world ticking. Utterly amazing that in the grand physical scheme of things we are less than a speck – and yet are the very reason for that grand scheme. We are God’s beloved.
Zooming back to Earth, Job is shown how all the animals and plants, the land and sea, winds and waters, fire and ice in striving with each other maintain the vitality of life. He sees more than this, though.
Standing with God outside of time, that remorseless captor from whom no man has robbed even a minute, every moment of Job’s life is present to him; his birth, his death, his sufferings and his restoration. Watch with Job as he considers this divine terrarium contained in time and space.
Though He constrains Himself against compelling our will, God manages the divine economy so that every event, every chance encounter calls us to Him. Here is a child of great purity born to parents given to licentiousness. There a child of great courage is given to parents who are rootless. An arrogant rake named Augustine is born to Monica, a woman of astonishing purity, persistence and fortitude. Bathed in the grace of decades of her prayers, Augustine ends by becoming one of God’s most fruitful servants. How often are parents sanctified through their children and children through their parents! There are saints with great sins on their consciences. In them, it merely opens up new channels of grace as their remorse gives them a larger spirit and a tender empathy for other sinners. There are great sinners who only have a small virtue, but grab hold of that lifeline and follow it back to God. Many people are inspired to find their path to salvation through an encounter with one who suffers with dignity. Ah, but many others are seduced by the transient glitter of vanity and power, fooled by the false luster of what is only paper and paste compared to what God intends for us.
Job sees great natural catastrophes – and a flood of divine grace pouring forth just before the catastrophe hits. For a time even enemies recollect their common humanity and pull together in solidarity with each other. Many are saved through this. But there are those who loot and exploit their fellows, unaware that they tear a piece of their humanity away from their soul in the process. God weeps over it. There are untimely deaths which seem tragic. But most are souls in their final state of grace. It is God’s mercy which plucks them before they can fall into perdition. In God’s economy every event is a potential new channel of grace opening up.
Job does not see God punishing anyone; He is far too busy trying to save them. A little temporal or physical suffering is often applied to help heal a soul. But souls can only be damaged by their owners’ free choice. Certainly, the satan busies himself trying to undo God’s grace, encouraging souls to maim themselves by chasing after sex, money and power at the expense of those around them. With every step away from God it becomes harder for a soul to hear and respond to His call. God not only calls each of us to salvation; He calls us a thousand times a day in little whispers. The Lord of Hosts suffers intensely over each of His children who so maim their souls that they begin to lose the capacity to respond to Him. Everything leads to eternity. In eternity, outside of God, there is only agony and isolation.
Job sees that, in temporal time and space, the greatest conquests and the greatest accomplishments are less than a puff of smoke on a windy day. The only thing that matters – the only thing – is the witness we live with those we encounter and, especially, with those given into our care. Everything in this bubble is always passing away. Those who anchor themselves in temporal things will perish with those temporal things. All that counts is to help others to choose life, the life that is when all this passes away.
Job sees great souls whose purity and love unite them with God. Even greater souls manifest their love of God through their love of and tender care for their neighbors. But the greatest souls are those who embrace what little sorrows and sufferings come their way in penance for themselves and as an offering for those who do no penance. Everyone wants the consolation of God, but these are the souls who console God. Their willing participation in His sorrows opens up profound channels of grace through which many otherwise unreachable souls are recalled to God, to life.
This is some of what I see when I enter into the whirlwind with Job. He does not put his hand over his mouth in servile fear, but in awe and with gratitude. Though he can’t understand all he sees, he discovers a bit of the magnitude of God’s love for us. And he takes new joy in knowing that his sufferings, too, make him a participant in God’s redeeming grace for us.
As Job’s tale comes to a close God does what may be the most astonishing thing of all. In what should (but somehow does not) send a chill of terror up the spine of every religious scold in history, God turns furiously on Job’s ‘pious’ friends. “You have not spoken rightly of me as has my servant Job,” He tells them. The Almighty is so angry He refuses to hear their prayers for forgiveness. Instead, He directs them to go to Job and ask him to pray for them, for He will hear and accept Job’s prayer on their behalf. These are the very people who have spent the entire book defending God while Job has been busy raging at and challenging Him. What are we to make of this?
Perhaps the friends were not defending God at all. Perhaps all they were defending was their preconceived notion of God or what they thought He should be. Even worse, if what they said had been true, it would have meant that God truly is unjust. They said God only afflicts those who have sinned grievously. But Job spoke truly in defending his righteousness. For all his histrionics, Job never accused God of being unjust. In fact, Job seemed quite confident that if God would only appear to him justice would follow. God did come to him and gave him even more than what he expected. Job had, indeed, been the one who spoke rightly of God. God always responds to the honest heart. Job was certainly noisy in complaining of his pain and discontent. His questions were less requests than demands. But he was candid and entirely sincere. And God came.
Whatever your beliefs, you would certainly like to know if God is. Go ahead. Acknowledge where the shoe of faith pinches – or even if it does not fit at all. Then ask whatever you can with sincerity. You shall receive.