Seventh Sunday after Trinity - Choral Evensong

  • Preacher

    Canon Treasurer - The Revd Leanne Roberts

It can be hard to know what to say to someone who is in great pain. Those who have just lost a loved one often say that people they had previously considered friends become suddenly awkward, or don’t get in touch.

This is often because, in the face of grief, we are frightened of accidentally saying the wrong thing, and making things worse. So sometimes we just don’t pick up the phone, or send that card, and hope that someone more confident in such matters will be there to help instead. But there is no magic phrase or action to take away grief, and sometimes all that is needed is company, quiet companionship, the knowledge that someone is prepared to come into that difficult and painful space and sit alongside in silent compassion.

The three friends who came to comfort Job in his grief – he had not only lost all his possessions, but also his children and his health – managed to be genuine comforters for seven whole days. For a week, they sat with him in silence, contemplating his terrible, inexplicable situation, and I like to think that helped Job in his bewildered anguish. But when Job failed to get better, and his hardship didn’t abate, they emerged from their silent compassion and couldn’t resist trying to explain away his suffering, and giving him advice.

In this afternoon’s passage, we hear Job’s friend Eliphaz the Temanite expounding his theory of things, how God does good to those who are righteous, and punishes the wicked. The implication is obvious: if Job is suffering this much, he must have done something to deserve it. We, the readers of this book, know categorically that this is not so; later in the book God is angry with Eliphaz and the other friends, and says ‘You have not spoken the truth about me.’ Yet I wonder if we really take this rebuttal of this view of God on board?

It’s all very well to treat this as a story in the Bible, or a vehicle for our consideration of the problem of suffering, or however we consider the book of Job. But this idea of ‘just desserts’ seems to be part of our human  makeup, and our tendency to blame God for our ills, and those of others, still runs deep. The problem with this is that it perverts our faith, and gives us a false idea of God as some punitive deity who punishes at whim. How can we possibly reconcile this with the God of love we are shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

I don’t believe we can. My faith is based on what I see in Scripture, what the person of Jesus teaches me about God: one who heals, forgives, liberates; whose love and faithfulness are abundant and never-ending; who enters willingly into human suffering through love for each of us, calls us to follow him and love like he loves, and longs to be in ever closer relationship with his people.  

The view of God held by Job’s friend Eliphaz, and by many still today, is a projection of our own human struggle with compassion, and mercy; our tendency towards partiality, and our desire for revenge.  But God is beyond all that. He is beyond our projections, our limitations, and in Jesus Christ we see a glimpse of a love and goodness so immense and uncontainable as to be almost beyond our imagining.

In our world, terrible things happen. Tragedy and hardship and suffering that feels random, and unjust, and incomprehensible. But we lose our greatest resource, the only one we really need, when we fall into the trap of wondering if God somehow wills or causes our pain. In our worst times, he is not on high, wounding and punishing; rather, he is right next to us, closer to us than our own breath, offering to share our pain, carry our burden, love us back to wholeness.

This is the God of whom Job speaks when he says ‘I know that my redeemer lives’. May it be so for each of us, too.