Years ago, my daughter was sick; she had contracted a fever that settled in part in her brain and gave her some horrendous headaches as well as the general malaise that often accompanies an infection of this kind. We took her to doctors and tried various medications, none of which were helping as immediately as we would have preferred. Or as she would have preferred. We were told to keep her still and in a dark room to help mitigate the head pain. Keeping a young elementary school girl still was almost impossible, except that the fever sapped her strength. So, she lay there on her bed in her dark room while we sat with her. We felt helpless as we watched her suffer. We knew, because we were told, that she would get through this and be all right again, but it was sometimes hard to hold on to that confidence.
I told her that I was praying for her and that God was with her. She looked at me and said, “God doesn’t care about me. Cause if he did, he would make me better.” I was struck dumb by her despair. I hardly knew what to say next. All my years of theological training and preaching God’s goodness was dashed on the rocks of my little girl’s pain.
Compounding the experience of suffering is the feeling that one has been abandoned by God. In our text this week, Job gives voice to this pain. “Oh, that I knew where I might find him,” he declared in bitterness. Perhaps you have never had this experience of the absence of God, but there are those in your congregation who have.
They called her Gramma; almost everyone did in the congregation. She was as close to someone “blameless and upright” as I had ever known. By a curious act of providence, this woman who was a member my dad’s congregation when I was a young child, now found her way to the congregation I served some forty years later. And she was a joy to have as a part of the family.
When I was visiting with her over her kitchen table, not long after we had held the funeral for her husband of many years, she confided in me her long years of doubt and depression. She told of how it felt like there was a sheet of glass above her and all her prayers would bounce off and not be heard or received at all. She began to wonder if anyone was listening at all. Certainly not to her, anyway. She had never felt so alone as when she felt abandoned by God.
You heard of the grand revelation of Mother Teresa, that blessed saint of the church, who wrote about not hearing from God for most of her life and ministry. This is real, these words that Job utters, this desire to converse with God, to plead his case and how unjustly he had been treated after a life of faithfulness. It is an all too human experience that we find ourselves flailing in the void, unable to hear or experience God’s presence. Simply allowing these words to be read and contemplated during worship is to stand in solidarity with those who are listening and who are struggling in the silence.
Our tendency is to search for solutions, to proscribe actions that can bring us through this moment to a happier existence. But this text does not provide us any easy or quick solutions. Even if you re-insert the verses skipped, there is no magic formula for countering this thundering absence. All you need to do is to acknowledge this profound reality. For someone in the pew or watching online to hear that someone understands and does not condemn them or point out their own failings that has God to leave them so utterly, can be the greatest blessing. It would be like a cool drink of water to someone dying of thirst in the desert.
And why do we skip over verses 10-15? What was the thinking in that, we might ask? In fact, these words are words of faith. Even in his agony of aloneness, Job declares that God knows him, knows his steps, though he has no visceral proof of that. More than that, in verse 11, Job declares that he has kept the faith, he has followed the path of righteousness. From there, he spirals into fear that God’s justice (or lack thereof) is so beyond his human understanding as to make God unapproachable. Perhaps that is why the lectionary compilers chose to skip over these verses.
That would be understandable, except that this too is a common human experience. When we can’t approach God, when God is unreachable, we often fear the God we profess to love. I suspect, however, that there might be another reason why these verses are omitted. Preachers can very often resort to adding to the burdens rather than standing in solidarity. These verses could tip the balance into “you should” and “you must” and cause the listeners to feel responsible for their own despair. In that case, we would become like Job’s comforters who come to offer support but end up heaping blame on the victim for his own wretchedness.
Avoiding that somewhat heavy-handed approach, these left out verses could be a sign of hope that faith is possible even in the midst of the darkness. They could be a commendation to those who have managed to stagger their way to the pew or to the screen even when the emptiness seems to make such an act pointless.
Again, it seems to me that the best use of this text is one of solidarity. To stand with those who are lost, those who doubt. And to likewise encourage the more secure members of the community to stand with their brothers and sisters who might be struggling. It is not the time to abandon them because of their doubt, but rather to acknowledge that even in the emptiness, they are not alone. Because you, preacher, and you congregation, are with them. Even in the face of their bitter complaints.