The Faithfulness of Lament
A sermon on Job 23:1-9, 16-17
[For an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Kat J on Unsplash].
As a pastor, I have the incredible privilege of sitting with people in their moments of doubt, confusion, and pain. If you have ever let me sit with you, I thank you for that trust. If we haven’t shared that space yet, know that my door is open.
I can’t say these conversations are exactly fun, but they are something that I deeply value.
It is a gift of incredible trust when someone is willing to share their struggles, to let down their walls and expose the ways that they are hurting.
And I don’t think there is anything more fulfilling than having the chance to be a conduit for God’s grace in those moments, to be able to listen to someone, share with them, pray together, and see God work through that interaction to bring solace, healing, or guidance.
When that happens, I am left in awe.
But it doesn’t always happen.
Sometimes, through no one’s fault, God is silent.
And whether I experience this silence in a pastoral context, or in my own walk of faith (as I have, at times) it is an experience of anguish.
The same anguish that Jesus himself expressed from the cross when he cried out the opening words of Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.
Those words from the cross are why I could never walk away from Jesus.
Because, when God is silent, those words are still there.
They are a testimony that no matter how absent God might seem, Jesus does not distance himself from the depth of human pain. He joins us in our anguish. He does not abandon us to suffer alone.
But, in the Book of Job, we are confronted with the challenge of how to listen to a story of suffering through the silence of God, without reference to the cross as a source of solace.
Because, of course, in the ancient story, Job knows nothing of Jesus. He doesn’t have the solidarity of the cross.
All he has is the predominant wisdom of his time: a transactional theology of just rewards.
This worldview is summarized by one biblical scholar as: “those who act righteously can expect good things to happen and those who fail to act righteously can expect calamity.”
Of course, as readers of the story, we know this is not true. Job is righteous, but he has experienced loss upon loss: loss of posessions, loss of family, loss of health, and – because of the faulty theology of just rewards – the belief that he had also lost God’s approval.
That is what is happening when we hear Job’s lament in today’s reading.
Except, it’s worse than that. Because we skipped over 21 chapters since last Sunday.
And those 21 chapters make the point that silence might actually be the preferred response to calamity.
Maybe not from God, but at least from Job’s friends.
You see, back at the end of chapter 2, Job’s three friends arrive to “console and comfort him.” (Job 2:11).
They start well, by joining him in his mourning, weeping and tearing their clothes, and sitting with him in the silence of his pain.
And this presence opens Job up to share about the depth of his despair, lamenting the day he was born that has led to his distress.
The speech doesn’t sound much like healing, but it is, in fact, a first step, because lament is a refusal to lose all hope.
As Wendell Berry articulates, “The distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence. There is a world of difference between the person who, believing that there is no use, says so to himself or to no one, and the person who says it aloud to someone else. A person who marks his trail into despair remembers hope – and thus has hope, even if only a little.”
By opening his mouth to his friends, Job opens himself to this slim hope.
But then his friends open their mouths, and they bombard him with every possible formulation of the damning transactional theology that blames him for his distress.
For chapter after chapter, Job protests that he is innocent, and his friends tell him he cannot be.
They claim to be trying to help him, by convincing him to confess his sin so that God’s anger at him will abate.
But what they are really doing is protecting their theology, and themselves, at Job’s expense.
They are insisting on a formula where bad things only happen to bad people, because this makes them feel safe.
It separates them from Job’s suffering.
It convinces them that their righteousness (which includes defense of the theology of just rewards) will protect them from suffering what Job is suffering.
In other words, they do the exact opposite of what Jesus does on the cross.
They leave Job alone and attacked. And, if we have been listening to the exchange, they leave us furious and disgusted, nearly as invested in Job’s defense as he is himself.
And I think that’s the point of this long exchange, to hook us into caring deeply about what happens next.
To cure us of the instinct demonstrated by the three friends – the instinct to try to distance ourselves from suffering – and to instead to join Job in his protest.
Because, when we do that, when we thoroughly reject the urge to try to protect ourselves from pain and instead join in Job’s protest, then we can learn from him the way to grapple with our own places of deep pain. (And, after more than a year and a half of pandemic, who among us does not have any such places of deep pain?)
In facing our own pain, Job can teach us two things:
First, we can learn to lament.
Job’s friends spend a lot of time talking about Job’s suffering, and theorizing about what God is doing, but they don’t ever talk to God about what their friend is going through.
In contrast, Job makes a shift in the course of the extended argument to talk to God directly.
Kathryn Schifferdecker explains, “Job speaks to God directly, honestly. He speaks in all his anger, pain, grief, and despair because he knows that God is big enough to handle it. He holds on to God with a fierce faith. He calls on God to answer him, to help him. He laments, in other words, and through that lament, something like hope is born.”
Lament can feel scary. Being brutally honest with God about just how abandoned, or hopeless, or angry we feel can seem like a threat to our faith.
But Job teaches us that lament is what faith looks like in our times of deepest suffering, because lament means that somewhere, deep inside the silence, we still believe that God is listening.
And because God is listening, Job also dares us to call on God for justice.
This call is the substance of today’s reading.: Job’s appeal for the chance to lay out his case.
And in that appeal, Jobs holds together his own justice and God’s – refusing to believe that he can only have one or the other.
He refuses to absorb the shame for his suffering in order to defend the justice of God (as his friends have done),
But he doesn’t give up on God either. He asserts that “(God) would surely listen to me…. those who do the right thing can argue with (God).” (Job 23:6-7).
Despite all that he has been through, all the evidence of his own life, Job does not abandon his faith that God is just. He wants to plead his case because he trusts that God will vindicate him.
That is the challenge, and the hope, that Job offers us when we are struggling. And it’s a hope that even Jesus’s despairing words on the cross echo: the hope that God will hear us even when we are honest enough to cry out our despair, and that the God who hears is a just God who will deliver us.
Kathryn Schifferdecker summarizes what that means for us when we are struggling better than I could, so I will close with her words:
“We are still on the ash heap with Job, but we have learned from him how to lament. We have learned from him how to bring our anger, pain, grief, and despair directly to God, even when we feel only God’s absence. We have learned from him how to have hope, even if only a little, holding on to God with a fierce faith, trusting that God is God, trusting that God will hear, trusting that God will answer. And that answer will come, not one that Job (or we) could ever imagine, but an answer nonetheless.”
Thanks be to God.
 W. Dennis Tucker, Jr. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-job-231-9-16-17-4  Wendell Berry, “A Poem of Difficult Hope,” in What Are People For? (New York: North Point, 1990), quoted in https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-job-231-9-16-17  https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-job-231-9-16-17 Kathryn Schifferdecker. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-job-231-9-16-17