Text: Job 23: 1-9, 16-17 & Mark 10: 17-31
Title: Dare You Cry Out Loud
In a moment of crisis, expected or unexpected, tell me if you’ve heard these phrases being used:
“God has something better planned.”
“God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
“I will pray for you.”
Believe it or not, these are just a few of the things that faithful people freely share with others (with love I’m sure). Now, some are truly unhelpful and I’m certainly guilty of using them when I’m at a loss for words, but some actually sound better, like this last one: “I know you feel alone, but remember, you are never alone because God is always with you.”
There is a reason why Emily McDowell’s messages are a huge hit with so many people. She’s a graphic designer who writes nonsense for all the well-intentioned people saying all the wrong things with Empathy Cards that don’t work. Struggling with illness for 15 years herself, she says that saying “Get Well Soon,” to someone isn’t going to cut it, especially if that person isn’t likely to get well soon.
So instead here’s a sample of what she offers in her cards:
“I promise never to refer to your illness as a “Journey.” Unless someone takes you on a cruise.
“If this is God’s plan, God is a terrible planner.” And the most popular card of all: “Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason.”
I wonder if this is what Job must’ve been feeling. Unbeknownst to him and his friends, what’s at stake was between God and Satan. Job encounters an incredible and outrageous turn of events. He loses his health, his wealth, and his family. When one tragedy hits after another, the friends’ understanding of why these horrible things were happening to Job starts to evolve and quickly becomes a list of “What not to say to a hurting person.” They say along the lines of, “Everything happens for a reason,” to “You’ve must’ve done something wrong, a crime, a sin for this to happen or why else would God be punishing you like this?”
Where we begin today, we find Job emotionally charged, coming before God with his complaint, “Where the heck are you?! I don’t deserve this.” You see, Job was considered a righteous man who lived fearing God, showing utmost reverence and respect – He led a life that acknowledged that God is holy and that God is God and he is not. And his life was a good representation of the blessings bestowed upon him. He had wealth beyond anything one could calculate: a large family to grant him generations of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and blessings of every kind you can imagine. He was so upright that God even singles him out to Satan saying there’s no one like him.
But after this turn events, Job’s friends figured out that wealth, health, and family are blessings from God that, when replaced with poverty, illness, and loneliness, becomes a sign of a cursed life. Underneath their reasoning, we find expectations that a blessed life is attainable life, maybe even deserved. If you live according to God’s commands, then surely God will protect you from harm and bless you with wealth, health, and family.
Just like the wealthy man who came to Jesus inquiring about how he could inherit eternal life, who knew he had earned the gift of eternal life. As far as he knew, he had lived all of his life abiding by the law and commandments he had learned from Jewish traditions. Certainly, his wealth and affluence that oozed out of his demeanor were an affirmation that God had blessed him for those exact reasons (Mk 10: 17-27). A life of suffering and misfortunes awaits you when you stray from this lifestyle. You would be wise to take hints from God seriously. Maybe we, too, pass judgment on those who suffer or experience tragedy, believing they have lived in unrighteous ways.
I wonder are we so different. Don’t we do the same thing but maybe with more sophistication? When tragedy hits, we respond by saying, “How awful. I’m so sorry.” But at the gut level we often reason what she or he must’ve done or haven’t done that brought such pain on them. “They shouldn’t have sent her to study abroad in Paris,” or “They were at a sinful concert listening to devil’s music. I’m not surprised.”
Jesus, filled with love for this wealthy man answers that he is to sell all of his possessions – the one thing that maybe would have helped him wrestle with the question of why good people suffer, to understand the real truth.
For Job? He makes his case before God. He’s done nothing wrong. He cries out to the abyss that God will hear him out. If he needs to go to the court before God, then so be it. He’s convinced that once God gets an earful, he would be vindicated. He wasn’t going to sit still and let his tragedy be the end of it. He demands that God answer him.
What about us? How do we respond to tragedy in our lives? When innocent people are slaughtered at the hands of wicked people, in times of unfathomable grief and sadness, when incomprehensible events take place in our lifetimes, would we, like Job, go searching for God to answer our prayers, our cries, and our outrage? Maybe you shy away from questioning the authority of God, fearing that somehow your doubts are equated with a sign of weak faith. Or maybe you fall into the trap of thinking, “Maybe I did do something wrong to deserve this.”
To my surprise and horror, when Elijah Shine was born with a congenital anomaly on his right thumb, I wanted be cool, saying to myself, it is what it is. Who knows why this happened? This could have happened to anyone. Instead, I held a silent grudge against my husband for concealing from me that there might have been someone from his line of family that had the same anomaly. And internally, I feared and theologized in my head that I must’ve done something wrong and that God had done this on purpose to test me.
The hard lesson is that neither is true. There isn’t a name to blame. And God had not done anything on purpose. Likewise, it isn’t the case that Job’s friends were right and that Job had deserved any of his tragedies. They’re not right and God Himself even says so in the end. What we do learn is that at every turn when life seems to be falling apart, it isn’t time for us to blame ourselves or blame God. Bad things don’t happen because we deserve them. As Jesus says, “The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike” (Mt. 5:45). When horrible things happen to us, it’s not because we’ve been wronged by God. Some are suffering due to sickness and many are due to human decisions.
I wonder how Job’s experience in the midst of his suffering would have had a different narrative; a different outcome had his friends cried out with him. Instead, these friends only gave him words of advice on how he should respond to suffering. Not once did they intercede on his behalf. What a refreshing experience it could have been for Job, had his companions stood with him, cried out together – what hope! What a refreshing experience this would be for those who are suffering alone? What refreshing news this is – to hear that they don’t have to cry on their own.
As we greet Advent which means “to come toward” to God drawing near to us in Jesus Christ, could we like Job, cry out to God individually and communally of our anger, pain, and our despair and know that God is big enough to handle it? Wendell Berry writes, “The distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence. There is a world of difference between the person who, believing that there is no use, says so to himself or to no one, and the person who says it aloud to someone else. A person who marks his trail into despair remembers hope – and thus has hope, even if only a little.”1
In the midst of uncertainty, even when it feels like God is so far removed and distant, Job’s outright cry shows us that we can call for God. No, in the midst of terror and darkness, I believe that God cries out with us in our suffering and in our pain … and in crying out to God, we find that our hope still lives, hope that gives us the faith to trust that God is holy, and that God is God, trusting that God does hear, and answer – and perhaps that is the most faithful response we can give. Cry out loud and if you’re in that place where you don’t have the energy or can’t find the words to cry out, could we cry out with you? Would you as the body of Christ, cry out loud on behalf of your sister, your brother?
The next time you find someone who is in crisis and suffering, instead of reminding them God is with them – speaking on behalf of God, intercede on behalf of them. Instead of saying “Everything happens for a reason,” or even better yet, “I’ll pray for you,” pray, right then and there. Join in their lament and I dare you to cry out loud with them.
Anna Cho, PhD Candiate, Claremont School of Theology
Senior pastor of Epworth United Methodist Church, one of the ethnic churches in the Oregon-Idaho conference in Portland, Oregon.
- Wendell Berry, “A Poem of Difficult Hope,” in What Are People For? (New York: North Point, 1990), 59. ↩