I don’t remember what it was about exactly. But my mom was on my case about something and before I realized what I was saying, I popped back at her, “Shut up!”
Big mistake. She grabbed my arm and escorted me into the bathroom. Then she picked up a bar of soap. As I recall, it was Dove with one quarter cleansing cream. She jammed it into my mouth and pushed up on my chin so my teeth got good and smooshed down into the soap as she said, “Don’t you ever, ever, ever talk back to me like that again!”
Although I had a temporary impression on the bar of soap that day, believe me, that bar of soap made a lasting impression on me. My mother got what she wanted. For the rest of her life, I never, ever, ever talked back to her again.
You don’t talk back to your elders. (I don’t know, do they still teach that?) So, wouldn’t you think that same truth would apply to God? You don’t talk back to God, do you?
When Jesus and his disciples are out in a boat and a great storm comes upon them, they’re scared out of their wits. And they look over and see Jesus, sound asleep on a cushion. Now, not only are they scared, but they’re ticked off as well. They grab Jesus by the shoulders and shake the living daylights out of him. “Jesus, what’s the matter with you? Can’t you see that we’re about to go under? How can you sleep at a time like this? Don’t you even care?”
It’s a common story for God’s people. The circumstances and the characters may change, but the story-line is the same. When it seems that our lives are falling apart, it’s pretty common to get angry with God, to wonder if maybe he’s asleep or not paying attention, to question his motives. What’s the matter with you? What kind of a God are you that you could let something like this happen? We shake our fist at God. We curse him. We demand that he be held accountable for his despicable actions.
This is not at all respectful behavior. In fact, it’s downright mouthy. And yet, God doesn’t send a giant bar of Dove with one quarter cleansing cream down from the sky to remind us that we’d best watch our mouths. He doesn’t tell us to never, ever, ever, ever talk back to him like that again. You can’t find that message anywhere in the Bible. In fact, the Bible is full of stories about people who back-talked God. And I’m not talking about his enemies here. The ones who back-talked God were the ones who were closest to him.
For the classic talking-back-to-God story, we turn to the book of Job. Job was the best of the best. He was a good, righteous man and things were going great for him. He had a prosperous business, a loving wife, great kids, everything a man could want. But then, he lost it all. It seemed that the only thing he had left were his friends, such that they were. They showed up to help him make sense his tragic life, and actually only ended up making him feel worse.
In the course of the story, a theology unfolds that addresses the age-old question, How can an all-powerful, all-loving God, allow such terrible things to happen to his people? Especially good, faithful people like Job.
The theology of the book of Job can be understood by considering three corners of a theological triangle. In one corner, you have the truth that God is good. Then, in the second corner, you have the truth that Job is a righteous man. And finally, in the third corner you have this belief that God will reward the righteous and punish the wicked. In other words, if good things come your way, it’s because you’re a good person and if bad things come your way, it’s because you’re a bad person. You get what you deserve. Now, the thing about this theological triangle is that only two of these truths can stand; you have to throw one of them out or it makes no sense. You can’t look at what happened to Job and say that God is good and Job is righteous and good things happen to good people. All three of these corners can’t be true.
In the book of Job, there are three main speakers and each of them resolves this dilemma by throwing out a different corner of the triangle. First, there are Job’s friends who say that since God is good and God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, Job must not be so righteous after all. He must have done something to deserve all that’s befallen him. So, they throw out the corner that says Job is righteous and then everything that’s happened to him makes sense. God is good, and God rewards the righteous. You just weren’t good enough, Job. Too bad for you.
Well, Job knows that just isn’t so. He knows he’s a righteous man and has no doubt about it. So, if God rewards good and punishes evil, then it stands to reason that God must be the problem. Maybe God isn’t so good after all. Job would make the theological triangle work by throwing out the corner that says God is good.
And, of course, God’s answer is to nix the simplistic idea that he rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. That’s the corner God throws out. It’s bad theology because it just isn’t true.
Now, that’s the theology of the book of Job, in a nutshell. But what’s most significant for us as God’s people isn’t so much the solution to the theological triangle, but the way we get there.
It’s typical that, in times of tragedy, we struggle to make sense of this triangle. In the process, we can make some pretty outlandish theological statements that we know don’t hold water, but at the time, it sure feels like they do. God must have been asleep in the boat. I must have done something to deserve this. God must be testing me for some reason. Maybe God doesn’t love me after all. Perhaps God just doesn’t care.
Well, Job goes through all those feelings and then some. He goes on whining and complaining to God for chapter upon chapter. He really gives God a piece of his mind. And finally, it’s God’s turn.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind. "Who is it that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" In other words, "Job, you don’t know what the heck you’re talking about."
"Gird up your loins like a man." Back when men wore long robes, if they were going to get down to business, they’d tuck the hem of their robe up into their belt so they could move freely. One seminary professor says this reminds him of his days as a camp counselor, when the campers would whine and complain, and one of the other counselors would say to them, “hike up your diaper.” Isn’t that a great way to tell someone to quit whining. “Hike up your diaper!” Well, that’s what God’s saying to Job here. “Job, quit your whining and hike up your diaper. Cuz you and I are gonna rumble. Now I’m going to be the one asking the questions.”
"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when all the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb? – when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped?'"
He’s saying, “Job, you don’t get it. You’ll never get it. Because you try to put me in some little box. But the truth is, I’m bigger than anything you can ever imagine. You will never be able to see things the way I see them. You will never be able to understand why I do the things I do. It’s beyond your ability to comprehend.”
God is calling Job out. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Once God gets started, he really lets Job have it. And when it’s all over, Job seems to be satisfied. Not because he understands any more than he did before, but because God didn’t dismiss him or walk away from him. God engaged him.
So, here’s the deal. In Job we have a model for a faith under fire. When it seems that life is falling apart and you’re not at all happy with God, what God wants is for you to be in relationship with him. He doesn’t mind if you yell at him, if you get angry with him, if you curse him and back-talk him. What’s important is that you stay engaged with him, that you’re in a relationship with him.
Sam and Gwen’s marriage was all but over and they had asked to meet with me. I had spoken with each of them and I knew that they had different reasons for wanting to see me. Sam was hoping that he could still convince Gwen to give their marriage another chance. Gwen just wanted closure so that they could both move on. In the course of our conversation, Sam kept pushing hard, making accusations and calling Gwen out. He was clearly trying to provoke her. But she wasn’t even remotely interested in arguing with him; she had already psychologically checked out. Finally, an exasperated Sam asked, “What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you fight with me any more?”
I’ve spent a lot of time through the years with couples who are on the verge of splitting up and when they won’t even fight with each other, that’s a sure sign that the relationship is over. There’s nothing left.
When you’re in the middle of a raging storm and it looks like your boat’s about to sink, it’s only natural to have words with God. It might not make a whole lot of rational sense, and it might not be good theology, but when you’re in a relationship with God, it’s what you do. Can you imagine what it would have been like if the disciples would have pretended like Jesus wasn’t even in the boat with them and dealt with the storm without even bothering to wake him up? That would have meant that they had no real relationship with him at all.
At the very end of the book of Job, after God has words with Job, then he lambasts his three friends. The bottom line is that they didn’t engage God in the conversation. They had all kinds of things to say about Job and to Job, but nothing to God. God tells them that they should have been more like Job in that regard. He didn’t walk away from God when he could have. But he stayed in relationship with God, and he hung in there. He yelled at God. He whined and complained. He talked back to God. But he remained in relationship with God. And that relationship was honest. He didn’t just brush it off as if it were nothing. He didn’t deny his anger. He let it fly. And God praised him for it.
The way to honor God in such a situation is not to walk away, but to stay in relationship with him. It’s not to pretend like everything is all right when it isn’t, but to tell God how you feel.
Of course, that’s where our human relationships can’t compare to our relationship with God. Because when you’re really honest like that with another human being, you end up saying things that are hurtful, or things that are misunderstood, things that can irreparably damage the relationship. You might even get your mouth washed out with soap! But you never have to worry about that with God. God loves you unconditionally. There’s nothing you can ever do that will make God love you any more than he already does. And there’s nothing you can ever do that will make God love you less. He can take whatever you dish out, and then some. You don’t have to worry about bruising his ego.
God doesn’t want your sugar-coated flattery doled out in an attempt to gain his favor. He doesn’t want you to pretend like everything is cool between you when it isn’t. He certainly doesn’t want you to leave him out of the conversation when you’re struggling. He wants a relationship with you. An honest relationship. You can trust God enough to let him have it.