“Never think you need to protect God. Anytime you think you need to protect God, you can be sure you are worshiping an idol.” – Stanley Hauerwas
(I have to be honest here. I am 32 years old, and my life has been remarkably comfortable and free from suffering. I have only experienced suffering through being present with real sufferers. But those experiences are deep and important. I have learned a lot about God through the suffering of those close to me. But truthfully, whatever I say about suffering is from the comfort of an easy life. Disaster has not visited me, at least not in ways that qualify me as an expert on suffering.)
Last Sunday we launched a summer series on the book of Job. We are having some really awesome guest speakers this month to help us touch places of pain, suffering, despair, struggle, etc., in the souls of our people. I applaud our church for this. Most churches avoid touching the sore spots on the human soul. It is supposed that the goal of the worship experience is to ignore all that junk and take people to the mountain top. But that is not the God we learn about in the Jesus story – the story of God becoming a human-being, and touching our pain. And it is not the story of Job either. Pain is real. Death is serious. Loss is not part of God’s created order. And ignoring this dimension of human existence and life is unimaginable.
The 1979 revised version of the Book of Common Prayer has in its liturgy (The Burial Rite) Job’s affirmation of God “I know that my Redeemer lives.” But embarrassingly the 1979 revised addition leaves out the additional proclamation of Job’s grief, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away…” And its not just the Book of Common Prayer. The low-church experience can be far more abrasive in avoiding pain and lament. Glenn Pemberton, author of the wonderful new book “Hurting with God” confesses that when he was in the midst of suffering, one of the most difficult things in life to do was to muster up the strength to go to church. And the reason it was so difficult to go to church was because he was expected to be joyful and sing vibrant joyful songs to God when, deep within his soul, he wanted to cry out in lament and pain.
When you look at the book of Psalms you find about 40% of them are lament. They express grief, pain, complaint to God. Some of them even blame God for the pain. A lot of these Psalms hold God accountable by His own proclamation that he is a “good” God. But when you compare Israel’s hymnal & prayer book (the Psalms) to our own hymnals, you will only find about %4 of them are songs of lament or grief. And even with that, it doesn’t consider that song leaders and worship leaders rarely select them. (Our worship leader is an exception – he is remarkably considerate in this regard – though we could help him by writing some more songs in this genre).
Ellen Davis has a fantastic book called “Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament” I highly recommend it to all people. It is a truly pragmatic yet theologically rich exploration of how to read the Old Testament in ways that deepen your faith and enrich your experience of God. In that book she has a chapter on Job that is helpful to me here. She argues that Job convinces himself to complain to God.
I will be sharing some more of her thoughts in subsequent posts, but I just want acknowledge this one helpful observation. Job’s speech about God after the disaster has four movements.
1) Job is silent.
2) Job begins to speak about God, born out of some listening – something like “Who am to question the living God?” or “Can a human be right in the eyes of God?”
3) Job reasons about the nature of God. He is good. He loves. Job has intercession on his behalf in heaven.
4) Based on his reflective silence, reasoning, and truthful speech about God, he gains the confidence to complain.
Christians in America are too quick to run to the defense of God, when hurting people level accusations and file complaints about or to Him (or so it seems to me). It is like we have this impulse that instinctively wants to absolve God of responsibility of anything bad that has happened. Its like we can’t stand to allow people to complain about or to God. But what is that about?
So when I was a senior in college my Grandmother passed away. Long-story short, she was a total saint. She lived what I would call “a blameless life” before God. Yet her entire life was marked with misery. From slave-like labor, to a cheating and alcoholic husband, to losing her first-born son in a tragic accident. And to make matters worse, she didn’t just die, she suffered in the most horrifying manner imaginable. (I have seen a lot of people suffer and die, and this was by far the worst I have ever witnessed). The week she died I held her in the hospital as she screamed in pain. No one would enter the hallway her room was on, much less her hospital room. So I just held her and wept as she cried out in pain.
And afterwards my mother entered a season of doubt and anger. To be perfectly blunt, if God claimed to be “Good” then my mom was pretty pissed off at him. And this is my point. As I tell you that story, are you offended by that? Do you have an urge to tell her some bull-crap about “God is just.” or “It rains on the just and unjust alike.” or “shhh… don’t question God.”
Why not question God? Job did. And so did the Israelites everyday in prayer. My instinct with mom was to defend God and hush her pain and lament. I was wrong. She was right.
And this is FANTASTICALLY freeing news for ministry and Christian experience. It is okay to complain to God. It is okay to be mad at God. It is okay to lament. Not only is it okay, God has invited it, craves it, desires it. He can’t touch our pain if we cover it up and conceal it from him.
Perhaps the best thing we can do for those who suffer is allow complaint and lament, learn how NOT to defend God.
Christianity needs to stop running to God’s defense and let God defend himself. He’s a big boy, after-all.