Waiting with Job in the Darkness

illustration-to-book-of-job-william-blake
Job’s Evil Dreams, By William Blake. Licensed by Wikimedia.

“God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; yet I am not silent because of the darkness, nor because thick darkness covers my face” (Job  23:16, 17, ESV).

What if God doesn’t seem to care? What if the heavens appear brass? Or worse, what if God seems to reward our faithfulness with darkness and perplexity, even disaster? The book of Job raises questions like these but doesn’t provide the sort of answers we may expect. Job’s God is not the domesticated God broadly assumed today, the one oriented toward our purposes, obliged to answer all our questions. Instead, thundering from the whirlwind, Job’s God calls us to answer him and submit to his purposes. Admittedly, being confronted by a God who dispenses with us as he pleases may land like a bomb on our heads, leading us from perplexity to despair. Yet, it need not. If properly understood, Job’s lofty theology instills profound hope, and can foster a relentless pursuit of the hidden God despite deep perplexity. When darkness covers our face, the following four truths can elevate our perspective, kindle hope, and inspire perseverance.

Job’s God Rules the Darkness.

If Job’s God is God, then all evil rests under his supreme control. Darkness must kneel at his throne, since all things bend to his will and serve his purpose. That means spiritual evil (1 Kings 22:19-23; 2 Thess 2:9-12; Rev 16:13, 14), moral evil (Gen 50:19-21; Prov 16:4), and natural evil (Am 3:6; Isa 45:7; Ex 4:10-11) all pay homage at the footstool of the Almighty. If God exercises complete dominion there’s no escaping the conclusion that he stands behind all evil in some way, and so Job’s rhetorical question clearly follows, “If it is not him, who then is it?” (Job 9:24). Even so, in light of the alternatives, I find Job’s affirmation deeply encouraging. After all, if there’s no God, or if he’s not all-powerful, then what hope can we have that our darkness bears any ultimate rhyme or reason? The only thing leering back at us through such darkness is the grim face of endless despair. But if Job’s God reigns then he has the power to work every evil thing to the good of his people, winding every dark path to a glorious destination (Rom 8:28).

Understandably, we may recoil at the idea that God uses evil to accomplish his purposes. After all, doesn’t that somehow entangle God in evil, calling his goodness into question? Well, no, not according to the theology of Job or the broader biblical narrative. The strong assertion that evil follows God’s command is counterbalanced in the Bible with the equally strong claim that God is never justly charged with evil, nor does he tempt anyone to practice wickedness (Hab 1:13; James 1:13, 14). Thus, theologians sometimes speak of God’s asymmetrical relationship to good and evil. That is, the Almighty stands behind good and evil in different ways. He is the direct author of all good, but controls evil in such a way that he is not its perpetrator, remaining free from all entanglement. Yet, just how he does this remains beyond our ability to fathom. Even so, for those who struggle in the darkness, Job’s broad canvas theology assures us that evil is not ultimately meaningless, nor does it command our destiny, for the throne of the universe is occupied.

Job’s God Keeps Secret Council.

When evil descends on our lives resulting in perplexity and acute pain, questions naturally arise from our darkness: “Why God?” or “How long Lord?” The Book of Job teaches us to expect mystery as a normal part of our suffering in this world. Job never knows the counsels of the heavenly court (1:6-12; 2:1-6), nor does God answer his questions from the whirlwind (38:1-3), rather Job learns to lay aside his demanding questions and let God be God (42:5, 6). It makes sense then to affirm with Pastor Alistair Begg that the life of faith is often lived within the realm of unanswered questions (How long Till the End? Sermon on Daniel 12:5:-13).

In his book Knowing God, J. I. Packer conveys Elisabeth Eliot’s response to the perplexing loss of months of arduous translation work stolen in one night. She confesses:

“I simply had to bough in the knowledge that God is his own interpreter. . . And if you are thinking that you know the will of God for your life and are anxious to do that, you are probably in for a very rude awaking because nobody knows the will of God for his entire life.”

Packer immediately adds, “Sooner or later, [the God who] brings us out of darkness into light, will bring us out of light into the darkness. It is part of the way of the cross”(241). In other words, we believers should expect to face dark times of perplexity if Christ himself had to drink deeply of mystifying God-forsakenness. After all, the God with whom we have to do often covers himself in thick clouds and speaks from the whirlwind (Deut 5:22; Ps 18:9-13). If Job’s God is our God, it’s his prerogative to hold the answers to our most perplexing questions in the chambers of his secret council. Although Jesus himself promises answers to those of us who ask (Matt 7: 7-11), we never dictate when or how he answers our questions. It may be that questions raised in our darkness only find answers in the full light of his face.

Job’s God is the Eternal Sage.

Our acquiescence in divine mystery should not lead us, like Job, to assume God does not have very good reasons for our suffering (33:12). Scripture and Christian tradition brim with the conviction that God indeed has his glorious reasons. In fact the God who speaks out of the whirlwind is God the Sage. That means he possesses all wisdom and thus knows how to work our life’s every searing pain, tragic lose, and bitter tear into a beautiful tapestry that ultimately glorifies Christ.

The church owns a rich repository of reflection on how God’s wisdom works behind a frowning providence. The classic musings of Augustine and Calvin, for example, brim with the conviction that no evil is ultimately gratuitous (i.e. meaningless). In the City of God, Augustine sees Christian suffering in the sack of Rome as fatherly discipline meant to distinguish believers from the city of man. The Bishop explains:

“One and the same force assailing the good, proves, purifies, and cleanses them, but assailing the evil, condemns, ruins, and destroys them. Thus, under the same affliction the evil detest and blaspheme God, but the good praise and pray to him” (1.8).

Similarly, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin explains the advent of afflictions like poverty, bereavement, disease, and depression as God’s wise way of bring us to the end of our strength and teaching us to anchor our hope in God’s power alone. Also, evil crosses can serve as strong medicine for our corruption and the physician knows how to apply his bitter remedies to the benefit of every wondering heart (III.VIII. 2-5). Of course, both Augustine and Calvin know their musings may miss the mark when applied to specific situations, for the providence of the creator is deep and “his ways past finding out” (Rom 11:33). Nevertheless, they helpfully reminds us that God the Sage knows how to employ evil as an instrument of sanctification in our lives, so that we are distinguished from the world, disciplined, and purified thereby (Prov 3:11-12; 1 Cor 11:32; Heb 12:8).

Job’s God Smiles on Relentless Faith.

Authentic faith isn’t pretty at times, but it is relentless. Job’s faith clamors to express itself covered with open sores and suffocating ash, amid the loss of children and all earthly things, in the face of a wife’s icy indifference, and buffeted by friends’ misguided accusations. Yet, Job’s faith battles through the mêlée, soaring and falling, always seeking, though entangled by anger, perplexity, and despair. In the end, God does rebuke Job (cf. 40:8), but never questions the raw and relentless authenticity of his prayers. Rather, God’s ambivalence toward Job’s indecorous approach suggests he’s not interested in granite faced, clinch-fisted Stoics, who stolidly muddle through the pain. He awaits prayer that billows forth the anguish of our darkness (Ps 130; Lk 22:44; Heb 5:7).

In other words, authentic faith by definition perseveres. Job is prepared to accept evil from God’s hand without abandoning ship (2:10). His faith is not the seed sown on rocky ground (Lk.8:13). Rather Job teaches us that darkness is a spur to pursue God more intensely. In this way, he anticipates the archetypal righteous suffer, Jesus Christ, who’s very cry of abandonment could hardly express a more intense pursuit of God (Matt 27:45, 46). Consequently, Christ, as the first fruits of the resurrection, shows us how to traverse the stormy path to the Father’s house. If thick darkness covers your face, it’s good to consider the endurance of Job, and ponder the outcome of the Lord’s dealings with him, for the Lord is merciful and full of compassion (cf. James 5:11; Job 42:10-17).

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