Suffering and (God's) Silence - More reflections inspired by one of Job's friend...

In the book, Disappointment with God, Philip Yancey tells the story of a man named Richard. He’d met him years ago and they had developed a friendship and working relationship. One day, as Richard’s book on Job was about to be published, he asked to meet with Philip. Richard then told him that he no longer believed in God.

It was a bit of a surprising conversation, but Richard told the story without a lot of the blanks that he’d left incomplete before. He had been drawn to God when searching for ways to keep his parents from divorcing. He’d had a lot of questions but those were set aside by people who told him to simply “trust God”. While that is good advice, the lack of answers only made him struggle more.

Now, for Yancey, these questions weren’t as much of a problem. If you don’t recognize his name, his books have sold over 14 million copies. Titles like What’s So Amazing About Grace and The Jesus I Never Knew have won awards and books like The Problem of Pain and A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith are almost painfully honest in the questions that are presented. 

As Yancey continued to speak with Richard, one of the questions that he shared with him that he had struggled with was simple: “Is God silent?

I will come back to that later, but I want to look at Job first. As we look in the Word and at our theme, we need to make sure that we are addressing the specifics of Who is being called “silent” and why it matters when we are suffering.

At the end of chapter 7, we read Job’s words:

If I have sinned, what have I done to you, you who see everything we do? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins? For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more. Job 7: 20-21

Job doesn’t know why he is suffering. He is crying out to God and asking why. He is asking what he did wrong. He is wondering why God is silent. Why isn’t He answering? Then, as we turn to chapter 8, we hear from Job’s second friend, Bildad. We don’t really know anything about Bildad. As I read through his words – ignoring the text but reading them for their beauty – he sounds like a poet. Picture this:

What he trusts in is fragile; what he relies on is a spider's web. He leans on his web, but it gives way; he clings to it, but it does not hold. Job 8: 14-15

I love that imagery! Even so, Bildad isn’t very nice. His first speech begins:

Then Bildad the Shuhite replied: "How long will you say such things? Your words are a blustering wind.” Job 8: 1-2

Bildad doesn’t know or doesn’t care why Job’s words are not being answered. Imagine if your “friend” told you, after you’d lost 10 children and just about all of your worldly possessions that your words are a “blustering wind”. I’d be very upset! But Bildad tells Job that God’s silence is not something he needs to worry about.

Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right? When your children sinned against him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin. But if you will look to God and plead with the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, even now he will rouse himself on your behalf and restore you to your rightful place. Job 8: 3-6

In Bildad’s opinion, God’s silence shouldn’t be the focus. Job should focus on what he, Job, did wrong. Bildad blames the death of all of Job’s children on something that they had done wrong. Their deaths were the just penalty. Job’s punishment must therefore be happening because he did something wrong too. 

But Bildad begins with one false assumption and then lumps another on top of it.

My reflections in Job were inspired in part by a book called The Fellowship of the Suffering. In it, Dave Ripper and Paul Borthwick phrase Bildad’s thoughts this way:  

Who does Job think he is to expect an explanation from the God of the universe? While Bildad rightly magnifies God in his exhortation, he wrongly minimizes the people of God made in His image, by surmising God doesn’t have time for them. Even though some of what Bildad communicates has theological truth behind it, the cruelly impersonal way he shares this message chokes out any of the life found within it.”   Fellowship of the Suffering p 22

Bildad is right that God does NOT pervert justice. That is not in God’s character and God does not do things that are outside of His character.

But Bildad persists in blaming all of this calamity on Job. Again, with beautiful words that completely lack any heart or compassion, he throws stones at Job.

The lamp of the wicked is snuffed out; the flame of his fire stops burning. The light in his tent becomes dark; the lamp beside him goes out. The vigor of his step is weakened; his own schemes throw him down. His feet thrust him into a net and he wanders into its mesh. A trap seizes him by the heel; a snare holds him fast. A noose is hidden for him on the ground; a trap lies in his path. Job 18: 5-10

If you think that is bad, Bildad’s third speech contains a pretty hefty slam against Job. Thankfully, it is very brief:

Dominion and awe belong to God; he establishes order in the heights of heaven. Can his forces be numbered? Upon whom does his light not rise? How then can a man be righteous before God? How can one born of woman be pure? If even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in his eyes, how much less man, who is but a maggot — a son of man, who is only a worm!"  Job 25: 2-6

Has anyone ever heard the expression, “With friends like these…”?

When people are throwing stones at you, the normal responses are defense or to throw stones right back at them. I’m guilty of doing that far too many times. I’m trying to change. I’m trying to absorb what people tell me and prayerfully consider any truth that might be in it. But it’s hard.

It was hard for Job too. You can tell from his words that he’s hurt and upset. That said, I love one of his responses:

If it is true that I have gone astray, my error remains my concern alone. Job 19:4

Think about a simple question: Have you ever offered someone solutions to whatever problem they put before you?

Now, have you ever learned that the person really didn’t want solutions? All they wanted was understanding.

In Fellowship of the Suffering, Dave and Paul state that very simply:

“What Job needs isn’t solution but understanding.” Fellowship of the Suffering p 22

What Job – and probably each one of us – needed was not a bunch of answers. We usually know the answer. When we are suffering, we just need someone to listen. We need someone to tell us that it is going to be ok. We need someone to love us.

And let’s come back to the big question: Is God silent?

In Disappointment with God, Yancey shares his own question and the path that God took him on to find an answer. In Exodus, we read example after example of God speaking. When Moses met with God, the Israelites were afraid. They asked Moses to speak with God for them.

Beyond that direct conversation, the Israelites had a lot of ways that God revealed Himself and the direction to them. If you remember, as God was leading them through the wilderness, He gave them a pillar of fire at night and a column of smoke by day. It’s kind of like checking the weather by stepping outside. Is it hot? Yep. Does God want us to move today? Nope. The cloud isn’t moving.

God also gave them something called the Urim and Thummim that the priests used. They developed 613 laws to guide their behavior. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Don’t boil a young goat in its mother’s milk. God was very, very clear!

And yet, when we read Numbers, we see how people refuse to listen. The 12 explorers went into the Promised Land and came back with incredible reports of a land flowing with milk and honey. However, 10 of them also said the people were too scary. If they went in, they would be defeated. In spite of Joshua and Caleb trying to tell them to trust God, the people rebelled.

Then, when Moses told them the ramifications of their actions would be to spend the next 40 years in the wilderness, they rebelled again. They decided they’d rather go forward than walk in the wilderness and die. In Number 14, Moses tried to tell them to stop, but they would not listen.

Early the next morning they set out for the highest point in the hill country, saying, “Now we are ready to go up to the land the Lord promised. Surely we have sinned!” But Moses said, “Why are you disobeying the Lord’s command? This will not succeed! Do not go up, because the Lord is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies, for the Amalekites and the Canaanites will face you there. Because you have turned away from the Lord, he will not be with you and you will fall by the sword.” Nevertheless, in their presumption they went up toward the highest point in the hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the Lord’s covenant moved from the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked them and beat them… Numbers 14: 40-45

I found Yancey’s conclusion to be true, but also kind of upsetting. Yancey said:

I had second thoughts about crystal-clear guidance. It may serve some purpose… but it does not seem to encourage spiritual development. In fact, for the Israelites, it nearly eliminated the need for faith at all; clear guidance sucked away freedom, making every choice a matter of obedience rather than faith. p 46

Let’s think about what this means. What happens if you know, beyond every shadow of a doubt, what you are supposed to do, BUT you don’t like what you are supposed to do? What do you do?

The Israelites knew what they were supposed to do. God told them through Moses, through the Law, through the signs in the sky, through everything EXACTLY what they were supposed to do.

And they rebelled.

What’s my point?

This is a hard conclusion, but I believe it. God is NEVER silent.

Let me say that again: God is NEVER silent.

God has given us the answer – Trust Him. Trust that we are forgiven through Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death on the cross. Trust the Holy Spirit Who is present in us to give us guidance, encouragement, and peace. Trust God.

God is never silent.

We are the ones who don’t listen. To quote something else Yancey said, “The Israelites give ample proof that signs may only addict us to signs, not to God.” In other words, they had clear direction. They just didn’t listen.

If you are struggling, it’s ok. It really, truly is ok. It’s ok to ask questions and to wonder what is going on. It’s ok to ask for God to show you an answer.

But you can’t just ask. You have to listen. As God tells you – through His Word, through the Holy Spirit, or through whatever means He presents – you have to listen.

If the answer is clear, praise God and walk with Him. If the answer is not clear, do what Job did – trust God. Granted, Job wrestled and struggled and fought, but in the end, he trusted God.

We have to do the same thing.