Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Terrible pain - and a happy ending

After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. He said, “May the day of my birth perish, and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’ That day - may it turn to darkness; may God above not care about it, may no light shine on it... May those who curse days curse that day...” Job 3:1-4, 8

You know those times when you are having a completely unimportant chat with someone, and somehow it takes on quite a serious, even solemn, note?

It happened to me once with a friend I’ll call Ellen. A lovely Christian, Ellen has had a hard, painful life. Our chat began to touch on this, and I think I must have said something like, “Well, we have to thank God for the good things - when all is said and done there’s a lot in life to be thankful for.” Her reply left me rather lost for words: “Yes, I suppose so. But I must admit that I would have preferred never to have been born.”

I didn’t know what to say. At one level her remark seemed almost blasphemous: if life is a gift of God, how could it possibly be right to say that you’d prefer never to have had it? (It occurred to me later, of course, that if you had never had it, then there wouldn’t be a “you” to know that you hadn’t had it. But I decided not to follow that line of thought...) Her words were spoken without any bitterness or anger; they were just a plain statement of fact. I couldn’t possibly have judged or criticised her.
And then I thought of Job - like Ellen a godly and greatly respected person.

Job 3 must surely rank as one of the oddest passages in the Bible. 

In his terrible suffering, Job calls down bitter curses on “the day of his birth”. Which seems, surely, slightly crazy - how can you curse a day that is long gone? How can such a day perish? How can you wish a day ill in the way Job does in verses 2-9? Indeed, there is a moment here which seems, to me at least, almost comical: “May those who curse days curse that day” (verse 8) - as if there are people around, along with bus-drivers, teachers and office-workers, whose role in life is “cursing days”!

Well, of course, it’s all very emotional, poetic language: we may find fault with Job’s logic, but I think we know very well what he means! And it certainly puts Ellen’s mild, matter-of-fact remark into perspective.

If ever there was a Bible book that demands to be read right to the end, surely it must be Job. And though it can be quite a difficult read at times, I think we must thank God that this strange book has found its way into scripture.

Two key questions arise in my mind regarding Job.

First, how does he confront his miserable, wretched suffering?

The answer that must spring to the mind of anyone who knows their Bible at all is: with massive patience. James the brother of Jesus (in James 5:11) speaks of Job’s “endurance” (NIV) or his “staying power” (The Message). And that must surely be right. Sheer stickability is a precious thing. Do you have it? - do I?

But there is another vital thing about Job that he deserves recognition for: his extraordinary honesty. Job can’t understand why what is happening to him is happening - and he decides to say so, loud and clear. He refuses to swallow the shallow, trite explanations of his so-called comforters. And he is even prepared to stand up to God himself, so to speak - take a look, for example, at 13:20-27.

It is, certainly, right for human beings to be respectful and humble in the presence of God. Of course. But Job teaches us that God respects us when we are totally honest with him; he has no time for platitudes, clichés and truisms. Is this a lesson some of us need to learn?

The second question is: How does Job’s story end?

And the answer, of course, is: in triumph and joy. This is why I said we absolutely must read the book right through.

I don’t imagine for one minute that all the catastrophes of Job’s earlier life were simply blotted out of his memory by the time we get to chapter 42; where there have been wounds there must, after all, be scars. But the fact is that “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part” (42:12). He ends up with massive prestige and stupendous wealth (not to mention three fabulously beautiful daughters).

I would sum up the great truth of this book like this: there is no such thing as a child of God whose story doesn’t have a happy ending.

Yes, God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 21:4) - yours, mine - and Ellen’s too, of course.

Father God, I think of all those who feel today as Job felt so long ago. Give me, please, eyes to see, a heart to feel, and hands to help them in their troubles. Amen.

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