What do you do when you feel pain that is too deep to bear, or see that pain in others?
What do you do when your prayers go unanswered?
I have an abundance of trite answers, of answers that are just a little too neat, a little too tidy, a little too cliché. I am sure most, if not all of them are already familiar to you.
Most have something to do with not knowing God’s plan and then moving into a space of passive acceptance, one that waits in hope for a better time to come.
The apostle Paul wrote about “seeing through a mirror darkly” to point to the imperfection of human knowledge and the faith that once we have all been joined together again in the resurrection, we will see more fully and begin to comprehend the beauty of the divine plan—we just need to wait, in faith, in hope, and in love, for that moment.
Aquinas wrote that we see the back of the tapestry, a jumble of tangled lines and knots, disordered chaos that hides the beauty of the finished image on the other side that we will see once we have been joined in Christ through the resurrection.
I have pointed people to the story of Monica, the mother of Augustine. Monica was a devout Christian and tried to raise Augustine in the church but was mostly unsuccessful. One day, when Augustine was what we might now call a young adult, some of his friends booked passage to Rome, which, at the time, had something like the combined draw and influence of DC, New York, and LA. Augustine told his mother he was just going to the docks to say goodbye to his friends, but Monica suspected otherwise. She went to her chapel and prayed that he would not go off to Rome, afraid of what might happen to her son under the bad influence of the big city. And, of course, Monica’s suspicions were correct. She knew her son, and, as she feared, he got on the ship and left for Rome where he became, let’s say thoroughly debauched. It was, however, in Italy where he received the education that led to Augustine eventually committing to the church, becoming a bishop and one of the most significant theologians in church history.
In this way, Monica’s prayer, which was ultimately more concerned with her son’s spiritual well-being than geographic location, was eventually answered, and answered in a way that not only permitted, but required her prayer at least appear to have been denied.
This is certainly a tidy answer for us, centuries later, just as it was a tidy answer for Augustine, who wrote about this incident decades later. But where does it leave Monica when she returns home from the chapel to find her son has left?
What would you tell her when she came to tell you the story, that her son had left her, that she feared what would happen to him?
Would you tell her that God will make all things well in good time and she must wait and pray more? Would you tell her present suffering must serve a greater purpose? Would you tell her to seek forgiveness, that if she had just been a better mother, Augustine might not have left?
I hope not. Monica is not one for trite answers or passivity. Monica is not to be trifled with. She booked passage on a ship herself. She chased her son across the Mediterranean, from Carthage to Rome, and then across Italy until she finally tracked him down in Milan. Where Monica met, and then introduced Augustine to Ambrose another of the great early theologians, whose tutelage was critical to Augustine’s development into a church leader still read today.
Monica did not meekly accept her fate. Monica did not wait for God’s plan to be revealed, to become clear. Monica did not accept a passive role.
Monica clearly was not someone to be trifled with, and likely had better friends than Job. Today’s passage from Job comes from the middle of a conversation between Job and his so-called friends. Their visit starts friendly enough. At first, Job’s friends are so shocked by his losses that they just sit with him for seven days. Those seven days may well represent the apex of their friendship with Job, because after those seven days pass, they start talking at Job. They begin abstractly, talking about the justice of God, the rewards God gives to the worthy and the punishment God sends the wicked. In other words, they start fishing. They want Job to confess, to say this is all his own fault so they can assert their righteous superiority, so they can return to their own comfortable bubbles. Job does not play along. Job has done nothing wrong, nothing worthy of the havoc that has been wrought across his life, and so Job has nothing to confess to them, no way to give them the feelings of security and superiority they are hoping to extract. So, they accuse Job more directly: they do tell Job that he needs to go to God and seek forgiveness, and that is where our text picks up today.
This is what Job is answering when he says “Oh, that I knew where I might find [God]” Except that Job is not preparing to go before God in contrition to ask for forgiveness because Job has done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve this. Job wants to confront God, wants to seek answers, wants to understand why God has abandoned him. Job says “I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me and understand what he would say to me.”
Job does not waver. Job does not allow his friends to browbeat him into a false confession that would serve only their comfort, however hard they want him to. No matter how hard we might try still to blame others for the injustices inflicted on them by our own culture, no matter how hard we demand others take the blame for their own pain so that we can continue to live unaware of our own complicity, neither Job’s friends then nor us today can get that easy absolution, that cheap grace.
Job does not want cheap or easy grace, but Job is ever confident that that his redeemer lives, that if he can but find God, that Job “should be acquitted forever by [his] judge.”
This is not to say that Job thinks this will be easy. Job’s confidence is not foolishness. Job says: “God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.” Job might want to hide, might want to give himself and his friends the comfortable answer they seek, that somehow this is all Job’s fault, but Job knows that is a lie. Job is prepared to do as Monica did, not to meekly await a better future, but to seek it out. Job does not want to return to a happy, comfortable, ignorant bubble. Job has been awakened. Elsewhere in the text, Job speaks not only of the injustice of his own situation, of his own suffering, but of the injustice and suffering he now sees all around him. Job’s suffering has awakened Job to the reality that there are countless people whose suffering we ignore because we are able to rationalize it as a just punishment for something they have done whether or not the punishment is proportional to their alleged offense or even whether or not they are actually guilty of anything at all.
Job shows us we can be better. Job shows us that we do not have to meekly accept it when someone uses religion, government, or culture against us, and Job shows us too that we do not have to permit that treatment of others. Thanks be to God.