Arguing with God

A friend recently quoted the first sentence of James McClendon’s three volume work of systematic theology: “Theology means struggle.”  It’s a fitting phrase for this month of exploring difficult passages in the Bible.  It’s a good reminder that our faith is not just about comfort and refuge, but about venturing out from our comfortable places and walking into an expansiveness that we can never fully comprehend or tame.

Along with Genesis 32:22-32 (Jacob wrestling with God) and Genesis 18:22-33 (Abraham haggling with God), another valuable text of struggle is the book of Job.  The outline of the story is fairly simple: Job is a wealthy and righteous man who is tested by The Accuser (which translates as The Satan), first by losing all his possessions and children, then by losing his own health.  He is visited by three friends who stay by him on his sickbed.

There is a powerful strand of thinking throughout the Hebrew Scriptures that teaches that God blesses those who do right, and curses those who do wrong.  Deuteronomy 28 is a case in point.  One conclusion from this could be that wealth and righteousness/virtue go hand in hand and that the poor or sick must have done something wrong to reach this state.  This thinking lives on in our society when the poor are subtly or not-so-subtly blamed for their condition.

The majority of the book of Job involves Job’s three friends speaking this theology to him, ultimately asking him to search his heart for what he has done wrong to lose his blessings.  But Job won’t have it.  He demands justice from God and calls his friends, “worthless physicians….Your maxims are proverbs of ashes” (13:4,12).  Job finds no emotional comfort in the orthodox arguments of his friends, and gets no physical relief from his suffering.  Of God, Job declares, “Oh that I knew where I might find him…I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments” (23:3,4).

God ultimately does respond to Job, and the words are not particularly comforting.  God challenges Job to ponder how small he is in the cosmic scale of things.  But God also invites Job to pray for his friends since they “have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done” (42:8).  Job’s health is ultimately restored, but this isn’t the main point of the story.  The entire book challenges easy answers about God and human life and presents theology as struggle.  I take Job as an invitation to enter into that struggle together, and to be the kinds of friends who listen and honor one another’s struggle rather than simply defend our own small notions of the Divine.

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