I have been reading the Book of Job the past few days. This book was next up on my Bible read-through. I must confess that it’s not easy for me to get through Job, especially now in view of my son Christopher’s traumatic brain injury and three-plus month comatose state. Still, I can’t imagine what the Bible would be like without this book. In fact, it is a timely word that brings healing to me at this critical time.
In case you are not familiar with Job, it is the account of a righteous man in the ancient past in the land of Uz who lost nearly everything other than his life. He lost his children and wealth, as well as his health. To add insult to injury, he endured an agonizing trial of debate with his spouse and friends over God and whether very bad things happen to really righteous people. In the short run, everyone was fine. But then, when God did not come through in quick order to save the day, Job’s wife urged Job to curse God and give up. His friends moved from being silent comforters to judges and jury.
Job’s friends determined that Job must have done something wrong to have experienced such tragedy. Their words were not timely. Wrong person, wrong place, wrong time. Job’s only fault in the book was that he condemned God and justified himself. Still, all he really wanted was for God to speak to him and help bring some sense of meaning and purpose to his tragic life. While God eventually rebuked Job, he also severely chastised Job’s friends for their untimely and unwise words regarding Job. In the end, God restored Job and blessed him exceedingly.
Contrary to much of my experience in contemporary Evangelical Christian culture, the Book of Job like other parts of the Bible, such as the Psalms, Lamentations, Habakkuk, the Gospels, and Revelation, make significant space for grappling and wrestling with God over suffering and evil. This is not a new recognition for me. I have long struggled with what I take to be an imbalanced liturgical diet of celebration in my circles that makes little to no room for lament on the worship plate or platform. Grievously, St. John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul has no place here given the contemporary fixation on plastic sunshine.
I cherish the question posed by Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Revelation 27:46; NIV) and the cry of the martyred saints under the altar in heaven, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Revelation 6:10; NIV) It has been said that Job may be the oldest book in the Bible. It is comforting to know that the Bible does not hide from the horrors and tragedies of life, or the agonizing questions Job and the psalmists asked, but provides a variety of nutrients, medicines, and therapy for helping people on spiritual life support of various kinds.
I encourage myself and encourage others not to wrest oneself from God’s hand, but to wrestle with God. Jacob wrestled with God and prevailed. His name was changed to Israel, which means “to struggle with God” (See Genesis 32:22-32). Job also struggled with God. He did not bury his struggle with God under his pillow of tears or a rock. Though he should not have condemned God to justify himself, there was nothing wrong with lamenting his state and crying out to God in search of a response and understanding, while on spiritual life support.
One does not expect to go through such severe trials in life given God and given faith and hope. My colleague Dr. Karl Kutz, a professor of biblical studies who did his PhD work with Prof. Rabbi Michael Fox on the Book of Job said that lament is about faith and hope. What makes the journey so hard is trying to reconcile our circumstances with our faith. It is our faith that makes us struggle the most with calamity. Lament results from biblical hope and faith. It would be so much easier if Job didn’t believe at all. Then he would not have had to wrestle so with God in his adversity.
For most people, hope as it is often understood in American Christian circles gets in the way of meeting God. They take hope to be a certain kind of answer—a Hollywood ending. In stark contrast to our attempts at using God to experience the American Dream, Job finally realized that God alone was his hope.
It is worth noting that God never answered Job’s “why” questions. He answers a question that Job wasn’t asking in his circumstances—“Who?— Who is God?” It is God’s existence looming large in Job’s psyche and imagination that caused Job to keep wrestling with God. In the end, Job found some sense of peace and resolution when God spoke and informed Job of who God is and how little Job was aware of God’s profound and mysterious workings in the world:
Then Job replied to the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6; NIV)
In our present family ordeal, so many people have expressed timely words that bring healing. Statements like “I am so sorry” bring comfort and healing. We may think such sentences lack meaning because they lack power to fix things. But what more can we do when things are beyond our control?
I remember sharing these same words “I am so sorry” with a friend who has been enduring a longstanding and relentless struggle that has no apparent end in sight. When I said to him that I wish there was more to say and that I wish I could take away his agonizing ordeal, he said there wasn’t anything I could do. He was just thankful that I listened to him share, that I was and am there for him, and that I pray with him, when he finds it helpful.
We all want to do so much more for those for whom we care. While we must guard against “Be warm and be filled” and support one another as best we can in holistic ways (which so many wonderful people have done so sacrificially and unbelievably for us), words often fail us. We want to say something that helps.
What does not help is when we play God and tell people what God is doing in our life situations. I love Romans 8:28, which reads: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV). However, I don’t love how this verse is quoted so often right when people are enduring major crises. During these times, it’s often best to sit still with those going through Job-like ordeals.
Job’s friends started well by sitting silently alongside him in his grief but ended poorly with interrogating Job in theological debate. If you ever endure wrongly timed words by well-intentioned people meaning to provide comfort, you may wish to say: “Father, forgive them. For they do not know what they say.”
Back to my son’s situation, there have been well-meaning health care professionals who have shared words that really hurt, like the nurse who told me at Christopher’s bedside, “I’m so glad I’m not in your shoes.” One doctor told us early on “I don’t think he will wake up.” A neurosurgeon apologized to us for his colleague’s calloused statement and said “We just don’t know” at this juncture. Another nurse said how sorry he was that we were going through such an ordeal. Both the neurosurgeon and this nurse’s statements brought healing and comfort.
Just yesterday, the healthcare professional overseeing Christopher’s care agreed with the neurosurgeon whose words I recounted. She repeated them in the affirmative: “We just don’t know,” as the brain is such a mystery. Moreover, each person responds differently. She also said, “We need more time.” A lot more time, she added. Given her experience and expertise, she knows what she’s talking about and when to share it. Along with her listening skills and attentiveness, those eight words brought so much healing: “We just don’t know…We need more time.” Timely words. Words that fit the occasion.
This health care professional was truly professional. She listened well to what I shared and responded in an appropriate manner. No sugar coating and no overkill with vinegar. Besides, as she and others have noted, Christopher is stable, and we have witnessed some basic improvement in his condition. We continue to hope and pray for moderate to dramatic recovery. Our family friend and ever-present medical consultant Dr. Robert Potter (M.D., Ph.D.), whose areas of expertise include internal medicine, palliative care, and medical ethics, was encouraged to hear how the medical professional overseeing Christopher’s care presently responded in such a nuanced manner that accounted for the complexity of his situation. There was such resonance with his own assessment of our son’s case. As Dr. Potter likes to say, it was “the fitting response—the response that fits the situation.”
Timely words bring healing.