A Year on the Ash Heap: Travels with Job
The book of Job is considered the oldest book of the Bible. With this in mind, the story becomes even more challenging. After all, if this account is the oldest book, then it follows that all of the other stories, directions, prophetic utterances and guidance was not around when Job saw his life come apart at the seams. He did not have the chance of reflecting on the Psalms of David, the wisdom of Solomon, the accounts of God’s faithfulness is Genesis and Exodus, the history of God’s care in the prophets or the rules for living in the other books. Job had to go it alone.
The record of God’s interaction with Man reduces the devastation of our catastrophes. Perhaps God knew that those of us who were not “blameless and upright” needed to have a source of comfort and direction. God is merciful. We could have been born in Job’s world.
There is another tiny factor that we often overlook when we find ourselves in a Job environment. Job’s catastrophe continued much longer than it takes us to read the forty-two chapters. Disasters are quite different when they stretch along for month after month. Human beings show great courage and resilience when faced with sudden traumas, but it’s the daily grind of unresolved terror that eats up the soul. Just ask anyone who is dealing with a slow losing battle with cancer. Time squeezes the hope from us. We have no idea how long Job endured his suffering. Long enough for him to consider death a pleasant alternative. And Job dealt with the continuation of suffering without the comfort of words like, “I have overcome the world” or “I saw a new heaven and a new earth”. God is merciful in ways we sometimes do not recognize.
Job may not have had the reservoir of Biblical teaching and promises, but Job has some advantages. His interaction with God is not as cluttered as ours. He doesn’t have to sort through 5000 years of theological bickering to decide if some text really applies to him. His faith is first-hand personal communication (much like ours is supposed to be, I would guess). Job doesn’t need to go to the local bookstore and buy the latest thinking on God’s view of crisis, relationship management or career restructuring. Job deals direct. And, of course, Job knows that he is righteous. That is a big leg up. I personally know that I am a long way from righteous. My guess is that most of us will hesitate to raise a hand when God asks, “Who among you is blameless and upright?” God has redeemed me from myself, but He probably wouldn’t say, “There is no one on earth like Skip”. I am a terrible sinner rescued by grace, not deserving of any compliment by God. Job and I might be the same in some ways, but on this one, I don’t seem to be even close.
Uncluttered, blameless and personally connected. Job’s advantages. Of course, my life in Christ puts me in the same camp by adoption. So Job’s advantages become mine by inheritance. I don’t have to sort out the theology in order to know God. God counts me blameless because of His Son and I have a direct channel of communication with the Spirit Who lives within me.
Job’s disadvantages are a little different too. We share the same “friends”. We both have that group of “helpers” whose role in life is to remind us that terrible circumstances are curses directly related to our past performance. We both have the company of spiritual advisors who are anxious to propose solutions but who quickly dismiss our explanations or questions. We are blessed with the group consciousness of moral blame; the ones who are more than ready to point out why we deserved this calamity. And, of course, we are visited often by those who offer God’s advice but withhold substantive compassion. Do you recall any of Job’s companions bringing medication or money or means of support? They had lots to say, but the only thing they provided Job in his trouble was the tonnage of words. I wonder if he might not have appreciated a drink or a meal a bit more.
Job and I have been traveling together for a year now. During that time, we have seen the companions come and go. The first group rushed in to remind us of our failures to prepare. Life is full of potential disasters. You should have known this. Why were to so trusting, so open, or gullible? After they leveled the playing field to the common denominator of fate, they left. What more could they add? They were really Greeks, afraid of undeserved catastrophe. After all, if it can happen to you, it can happen to me. So, better to stay away from any chance that your bad luck will rub off on me. Give advice and get away. If I pretend it isn’t my problem, I won’t have to deal with the fragile nature of my life.
The second group is the “spiritual” advisors. These people mean well. They have good hearts. They truly sympathize. But they just can’t listen. They want to convey God’s direction to those who are suffering but they take the shotgun approach – “Let me tell you all that God can do”. Job and I don’t say much. We try to be polite. But inside we are sort of saying, “You really don’t understand what’s happening here.” They haven’t been on the ash heap themselves. They’ve read about it or heard about it or can imagine it. But that’s the end of the story. They forgot to listen. Kind of like a couple who haven’t had children talking about their plans for parenting. They all sound good. They just haven’t encountered the two-year old yet.
The next companions are those who really want to help but they don’t think that they have the means. The have forgotten something Job never knew. The story of the loaves and fishes. “I really wish I could do something to help you,” but what they really mean is “I would do something if it were big enough to matter.” So, they don’t do anything. Job could have used a tube of ointment for his sores, but because they could not heal him, they did not bring anything for the relief of a single infection. I am constantly amazed when I discover that someone I know who is in desperate trouble has not received a card or a plate of cookies or a ticket to a movie or an offer to do the cleaning. When life is a total disaster, every sign of care and relief matters. You don’t have to solve the big problem. You just have to solve a problem.
This seems to be an American problem. My friend wrote to me about his effort to raise money for housing for someone who needs a home. The total project is a lot of money. But he only needed $1.00 from each of the employees in several businesses. $1.00! Nothing. Everyone can give $1.00. But no one will. Why? Because they will think, “What will $1.00 matter?” What will a card matter? What will a tank of gas matter? What will paying for a babysitter matter? None of it will matter at all because people in this group will wait for God to do something big instead of doing something big with the very little God has already given them. It is the American view of individualism turned into spiritual dyslexia. You look at the situation and see only the total picture. So, you throw up your hands and say, “Well, only God can fix that” while the victim has the power shut off because the group would not give $0.25 each. The “church” in America is just a collection of individuals, not a community, until each individual makes a life commitment to the welfare of everyone else in the group.
Finally there’s the family. This is a mixed bag. Sometimes someone in the family actually understands. Patience, weeping, shared sorrow and shared encouragement. These people are priceless. They hold your hand, listen to you talk about the sorrows and the joys, say little, pray a lot. We need these people. Usually family also includes the other ones. These are the family members who tell you that whatever you did to deserve this, you need to confess and make it right. They ignore your protestations. They already know you too well to believe that you can change. They remember when you did this or that. They are your human judges, passing out God’s verdict on your life so that you will be brought to the proper place of repentance. They are focused on blame. But the motivation for assigning blame is not because they are anxious to have God relieve your sorrow. They want God to relieve the fallout that your disaster has had for them. Job’s wife comes to him with a plea. “Don’t be so stubborn. Admit that you sinned. Say you’re sorry so God will give us back everything that I lost because of you. Stop pretending it’s not your fault.”
As Job and I travel along this road, we discover that each step of progress is a step away from the expectation of return to the old life. Perhaps that’s the message in the lost children. I have always wondered how Job could ever return to joy no matter what God restored to him if he lived the rest of his life under the specter of the death of his children. But I am beginning to see that the restoration of his fortune is an after-thought. What Job really needed is exactly what I need. Not a return to a better life after collapse but rather a tighter, closer dependence on God so that no external circumstance alters my confidence in His care.
God had to take away the false security I enjoyed to show me the truth of my existence. I am one of the most fragile of His creations. A few degrees change in the global temperature and I am finished. A shift in biological balance, a tiny change in the food chain, a small disturbance in natural resources and my world reveals itself as a very hostile place – from which there is no real protection. The first lesson of life is dependence. It is not a once-learned lesson. It is a continuous reassessment of my daily direction. It goes hand in hand with finite and fragile. Death is not entirely tragic. The presence of death in my world is a very meaningful reminder that I am a totally dependent creature, deliberately designed that way.
The second lesson I learned with Job is humility. Recognizing my inability to provide even the most basic needs of life has given me a new perspective on humility. My existence depends on grace – the grace of God and the grace of God through the hands of others. Desperation is the acid cleanser of pride. Proud people starve. Desperate people bow in humility in order to be fed. There is a reason why Jesus spent his time with the outcasts. They understood what it meant to be unable to care for themselves. Until we learn the lesson of humility, we will be unlikely to see God’s grace when it does come. We will still be shouting, “It’s my right” or “I am entitled.” I must have had a lot of pride because I had to take a great fall. Don’t ask me to be my own god anymore. I don’t have the stomach for it.
Number three at mile marker 365 is trust. The lesson here is simple: trust takes time. Abraham got up and followed God as a young man. Things looked promising. But over the decades that followed, Abraham learned dependence and humility (in some very stressful ways) until one day, a century after he left home, God said, “Now I know you really love me.” Trust takes time. My battle today is not about dependence. I learned that lesson in relatively short order. When you hit zero, you know it is no longer up to you. Humility took a lot longer. I always thought that if I just worked harder, was smarter, looked for all the angles and did all I could, I would find a way out. I had my pride. I would not take food stamps. But God can’t use a man with pride. Even in bankruptcy, that man is still claiming his own right to the world. Humility is giving up my way.
Trust is a lot more difficult. It is the positive side of the equation. What I have discovered is that trust requires failure. I have to learn through failure that I can’t trust anyone or anything except God and that the only reason I can trust God is because He says I can. Trust is not about being restored. It is about immersion in the character of the restorer, even if nothing ever gets restored. Trust is my learned confidence in who God is, not in what He does. Today, at mile marker 365, my expectations about life are being scraped away. I no longer know where I am going. My personal goal setting has lots of blank spaces. But I am learning to trust the one I follow, even if I don’t know where he is taking me. Some days it seems as though we are heading in the wrong direction. I complain, “But Lord, things looked like they were going to turn around. Why are we walking away now?” He rarely answers me. He just motions – come along. Those are difficult days. For a self-reliant, arrogant, planner like me, becoming a child who just follows along is a big assignment. I’ll need a lot of grace to complete it.