AM I LIKE JOB’S COMFORTERS?
Reading Job for my devotions these days has been very challenging to me. Sadly, God cannot say of me as he said of Job: “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8). Yet this faithful man Job was very unhappy during his sufferings. Though much less faithful than Job, I have known joy in the midst of (relatively minor) pain so that I could be so bold as to write a book entitled The Call to Joy and Pain. Of course, our joy is because of grace—I prefer to describe God’s grace to me as mercy. We are so undeserving, but God has had mercy on us and even given us the wonderful privilege of serving him. This is a great source of joy. We understand this better after the fuller revelation of grace in Jesus–a revelation that Job did not have.
When I read the advice given by Job’s friends, I thought that I also sometimes advise people like they advised Job. I tell them what is true, but the way I say it and the timing may be unwise and even unkind.
Christians have a strong sense of justice, which is a quality given by God. Righteous Christians sometimes keep experiencing defeat after defeat, and that is extremely humiliating because it suggests that God has forsaken them. Their pain is often expressed in terms of the apparent injustice of their suffering. They ask, “How could God have allowed such injustice to be done to me?” The sense of God-forsakenness in the midst of deep trials is one of the most perplexing experiences a Christian can go through. True, the judgement will reveal that God’s justice is indeed upheld in the end, as the book of Ecclesiastes teaches. The doctrine of judgement is one of the greatest antidotes to bitterness. But to many sufferers judgement seems to be a distant dream. I realised that I needed to be gentler with such people who go through extended periods of gloom. The Christians of an earlier era called such times “the Dark Night of the Soul.”
In the Bible, some of God’s servants, like Jeremiah, Elijah, Jonah and Job, went through such experiences. God dealt with them with a gentle firmness which did not condone their attitude but was compassionately understanding of it. Jeremiah was asked to “return”, that is, to repent (Jer. 15:19); but God did not thunder angrily about his God-dishonouring attitude. God miraculously provided the moping and suicidal Elijah with food and let him sleep for hours without giving him much advice (1 Kings 19).
This activity of God is akin to what Paul says about the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:26: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Rather than scolding us for our weaknesses, the Holy Spirit is bearing these weaknesses with us (that is what the word translated “helps” means), and groaning with us. Two verses later Paul affirms that “for those who love God all things work together for good.” We need to balance the teaching of verse 28 with the teaching of verse 26.
As I have been writing this, I have been thinking also about those who experience the gloom of depression, which is often caused by physiological rather than spiritual reasons. It would be insensitive to ask them to be happy in the midst of such pain.
Actually the joy of the Lord is something deeper than our bad feelings. Therefore, I believe joy could exist in the midst of deep gloom. It is essentially the conviction deep within of knowing that God is with us and for us. Such joy can co-exist with weeping, sorrow and disappointment. I often tell people, “Don’t feel bad about feeling bad.”
But some righteous sufferers do not have even the kind of joy I just described. That absence of joy is an anomalous situation. The dictionary defines anomalous as “inconsistent with or deviating from what is usual, normal, or expected.” During such times some suffering faithful people in the Old Testament expressed their pain using lament. The anger and bitterness in some of the words of those laments still shock me. This common practice in OT times, is a means of healing for hurting people that we need to introduce into the Christian lifestyle. We must not rebuke those who lament, which is what Job’s friends did to him.
As we minister to people doing through these anomalous situations, may we patiently listen to and practically serve them. May our attitudes and actions mirror the gentle firmness of God as we patiently wait for the right time to explain God’s ways, as God did in the book of Job.