3 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.
4 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you shall answer me.’
5 My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
6 Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:2-6)
These are the final words of Job, from the book of Job. I hadn’t planned to preach on the book of Job this week, but when I read those words – “who is this who obscures my plans without knowledge?” – after emerging from another week of Synod, I knew I couldn’t preach on anything else!
Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.
This is the very end of the book of Job. It’s where Job finally realises that he doesn’t know as much as he thought he knew, and that seemed particularly relevant to me, not only because of the carryings-on in Synod, but to so much of what goes on in our churches and in Councils and in Parliaments and in families, where we always seem to think we know what we are talking about but where, time and time again, it turns out that we are ‘speaking of things we do not understand’ (or barely understand).
I don’t exclude myself from that critique. Yes, I sit there in the synod, listening to the learned pontificate on issues of human sexuality (amongst other things) and so often I’m sitting there (along with any number of others like me) thinking ‘you guys don’t have a clue’, and yet I know in myself that I really don’t have all the answers either.
I don’t mean to exaggerate the case with false humility. My dad used to warn me, as a Christian, not to fall for the idea that humility requires you to say that we’re not sure about things we can be sure about. He used to quote Deuteronomy 29:29 to me:
“The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but the things revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
Yes, there are secret things that belong to God alone, but there are also things revealed – things that we do know – and we do nobody any favours by pretending that we don’t know them.
Faith, hope and love – these three abide – and the greatest of these is love. Let’s never pretend that we can’t be sure about that. Let’s never compromise the truth of the Gospel – the love of God and the gift of life. These are the things revealed and we can proclaim them with confidence.
At the same time though, when it comes to understanding so many of the big and really vital existential issues – why we are the way we are, and why the world works the way it does (and so often fails to work the way we think it should work) and why good people suffer – these are hard things to understand.
Some would say that these aren’t really secret things so much as things revealed over time. Certainly, that’s the way wisdom works, in contrast to most learning. With most things, the more you learn the more you know. Wisdom often seems to work the other way around – that the more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know, and the more your realise that the things you thought you knew – that you don’t really know them as well as you thought you did.
That certainly seems to be the way it works when it comes to understanding the mystery of suffering, which is the focus of the book of Job, and is played out in the book through the drama of the life of Job.
Job is a good man and yet he suffers. He suffers terribly, losing his children in a terrible tragedy and then losing his livelihood and even his good health. When Job finishes his spectacular fall from grace he ends up in an ash-heap, scraping his sores with a piece of broken pottery and wishing he were dead (Job 2:8-10). He is in a miserable situation, and nothing makes sense to him anymore. Many of us have been there. Many of us will go there yet – that place where nothing makes sense.
When I was a young man – particularly when I was a young believer – I knew everything. and, certainly, the problem of human suffering was not a problem.
People have free will. That’s why we have sin in the world. In order for there to be real love you have to have free will, and if you have free will then people are free to do evil. That all makes perfect sense until you encounter real tragedy in your life or in the lives of those you love. When your marriage breaks down or your daughter dies or you’re struck down by some debilitating illness, all the good arguments about free will suddenly seem over-rated.
I still remember my first moments in the lobby of the Dama Rose Hotel in Damascus in 2013 – my first visit to Syria – with an elderly woman tugging at my cassock and showing me a crumpled photo of her dead son. “Why did they kill my Muhamad? They put a bomb in his pocket and killed him. Why did they kill my little boy?” Suffice it to say that I didn’t discuss free will with her.
What do you say to a woman like that who is looking for answers? This is not a rhetorical question, for isn’t this exactly the sort of situation where, as Christian people, we do need to make some sort of response? What would you have done? Would you have walked away? Would you have thrown your hands in the air and said “I don’t know”? Would you have talked about free will?
It’s informative, I think, that when Job’s three friends initially come along and find him in the ash-heap, the first thing they do is just sit silently with him in the ash-heap. Indeed, it says of Job’s three friends that they sat with him there for a week – seven days – saying nothing! But then, inevitably, they begin to talk and to try to make sense of everything that was happening.
It’s human nature. We need to make sense of things. Mystery is unnerving and difficult to live with, and so we rely on our intellects to help us find light in the darkness. We debate things through with our friends, just as we debate things through in synod, just as members of Parliament debate things, just as Job and his three friends debated, and the outcome is almost always the same. Nothing!
I think it’s worth reflecting seriously on this. We intelligent, middle-class, educated people always seem to believe that a good debate will help bring things to light and will persuade people of the truth. In all seriousness though, when was the last time you saw anything really change as the result of a good debate?
If you’ve been listening to what’s going on in Parliament lately, some powerful things have been said about the need to bring the suffering children of Nauru to Australia for medical treatment. For most of us, the case for these people is black and white. When we hear their being case made we find the argument completely convincing.
Strangely though, not everybody finds the argument as convincing as we do. On the contrary, unbelievably, nobody seems to change their mind. Those who opposed bringing the children of Nauru to Australia remain opposed. How can this be? Are they unintelligent? Did they simply fail to understand what was said?
Wouldn’t it be great if, when someone pointed out in Parliament the terrible suffering of these people, the whole house would suddenly rise and say, “Wow! Thank you. We had no idea! Something obviously needs to change and needs to change now!”
It doesn’t work that way, does it? We know how the system works. We know that these arguments don’t really change anyone’s minds. Despite the esteem we give to the persuasive power of a good speech, we know full well that people make their minds up long before the speeches are made, and if they do change their mind it is almost never the direct result of impression the speech has made on them, but rather the effect the speech seemed to have on their constituents who vote for them.
Am I being cynical? Not really. As I’ve often said, the most important things we hold to in life don’t come to us through logic. We don’t fall in love as a result of logic. Logic doesn’t bring us to God any more than it dictates which political party we support or what football team we barrack for. Logic, so far as I can see, plays very little role in forming our core beliefs, so why would expect logic to change them?
I have a friend who works in the prison system call me recently, saying that he was working with a Christian man who’d been convicted on charges relating to terrorism. He wanted me to give him some Bible verses that might help bring the guy around. My response was that quoting Bible verses probably wouldn’t make much difference.
Of course, this is pretty much what Job’s friends did too, to help solve his problem. They didn’t so much quote chapter and verse as they did draw on fundamental Biblical principles to help Job make sense of what he was going through.
People only suffer if they deserve it, Job’s friends say. God is just, and if people are suffering, then it is because they have done something wrong. ‘But I haven’t done anything wrong’ says Job. ‘Who are you to say that you haven’t done anything wrong’ they say. ‘No one is perfect.’ ‘OK’, says Job, ‘but I haven’t done anything to deserve all this.’ ‘Who are you to say what you deserve’ his friends say. ‘You can be confident that God won’t mete out to you any more than you deserve. If you’re suffering greatly, then it’s an indication that you must have sinned greatly. If you’re in denial, then that’s an even more significant indicator of just how serious your sinful condition is…’ And so Job’s three good friends go on.
We’ve met these friends have we not? Perhaps we’ve met them in church, trying to be helpful. Perhaps they’ve come to visit us in hospital. Perhaps we’ve heard them on TV, explaining that if people are dying of AIDS, that it’s their own fault. We’ve met these friends. Dare we confess that at times we may have been these friends – feeling that, as religious people, we always needed to have a simple answer for every complex problem, even if it was the wrong answer!
“Reflection is endless. Action is lost” said Epictetus some 2,000 years ago, and nothing has changed. Most debates and arguments are like soccer games where one team kicks the ball up one end of the field and the other team kicks it back down, but nobody ever scores, which is why I’ve suggested on numerous occasions that if we really want to move forward in decision-making in the church, we really should consider setting up a boxing ring at the centre of synod.
If you’ve read my first book, I argue there that we really should elect our Archbishop this way too. We set up a cage at the centre of synod. Half a dozen candidates enter the cage. One Archbishop emerges. It would help bring people back to church too!
We could resolve a lot this way. I can see the marriage equality issue being resolved this way. Some bishop would be in the red corner, gloving up, and I’d come prancing into the blue corner and, moments later, we’d have a whole new style of church!
In truth, of course, Job doesn’t resolve his issues through a punch-up any more than he does through logical argument. He has an encounter with the Almighty, and that’s what changes everything for him.
I mentioned earlier my friend who works in the prison system with people charged with terrorism-related offences. I met up another friend last week who has had extensive experience with people involved in terrorism. It was Anne Aly – Australia’s first female Muslim MP and a former professor of counter-terrorism.
We did a great interview together, and I’ll publish it in full some time soon, but the thing she said that stuck with me the most was on exactly this subject. She said that no one she had ever met who had broken with their terrorist ideology had done so because they’d been talked out of it – either persuaded by good logical arguments or compelling Bible verses or anything of the sort. In every case, she told me, change happened because the jihadist met someone from the other side – the enemy – and discovered their humanity! Arguments don’t change people. People change people. Encounters change people.
This is what changes Job too. He could have argued about the Almighty endlessly, but meeting the Almighty was another thing altogether! He couldn’t meet God without trusting God. He didn’t understand God’s ways any better than he did before but now he knew he was dealing with someone he could trust.
This is where real change begins, I think – most obviously for church communities and for the Sydney synod, but, really, for all of us. Change begins with a deep experience of the love and the grace and compassion of the Almighty.
Lord, grant us wisdom, but even more so, grant us a true experience of yourself, andhelp us to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is your love for us, so that wemay be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19-20).
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 28th October, 2018.
Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org