“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? *
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?” (Ps 22:1-2)
Job cries out: “Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.” (Job 23:1-2)
The Psalmist and Job bring to mind those hard questions that have plagued the faithful for centuries.
What do we do when God seems absent?
Where is God in the silence?
Why doesn’t God show up when I call?
This might seem too heavy subject for a beautiful fall day, but besides the fact that some of our scriptures this morning point us in this direction, I imagine, that these are questions are ones many of us here have had to struggle with at one point or another… And if you, personally, have never felt God’s silence, then you likely have been with someone who has.
Where is God, when God seems like he’s nowhere to be found?
Why isn’t God showing up, especially when I need God most?
I need to admit my own fear and trembling approaching this topic, because, while I feel called to explore this topic this morning, I don’t expect to offer any neat and easy answers. The mystery of God’s silence cannot be explained in three simple points, or presented boxed up with a bow. Believers over the centuries, even those who have written eloquently about the awesome presence of God, have also struggled with God’s absence, the dark night of the soul.
Let’s explore the story of Job. This is the second of four readings from Job we will hear in our current lectionary cycle, but since we’re not actually doing a sermon series on Job, let me give you a synopsis of Job’s story and where we at this moment.
We don’t know who the author of the book of Job was, and the dating of both the story itself and time in which it was written are unclear. It was part of the Hebrew Scriptures at least from the time of the exile, so it was written no later than 516 BC. And while some scholars want to make Job a historic figure, most contemporary scholars would argue that it is a story containing truth more than facts. In other words, the story of Job gives us inside into the nature of humanity and the nature of God, especially in contrast to the prevailing notions of the day. Overall, it’s a story of problem of suffering, and where God can be found.
Job, a faithful and upright man, who has been blessed beyond measure with family and wealth and health, and God points Job out to Satan as a prime example of a faithful follower. Satan in turn, accuses Job and God, [Accuser is what Satan means] saying that basically, Job only believes out of self-interest.
In other words, Job is only faithful to protect the good things he has, the blessings he’s received at God’s hands. If those were taken away, he would not be faithful. So God allows Job to be tested. God does not directly cause calamity to Job, but God does not stop Satan, and within certain parameters, allows him to have his way with him. Thus, Job’s property is plundered, his children die, and his wealth is destroyed. Still, he is faithful. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Satan then afflicts Job with painful sores and boils all over his body. Seeing no way out but death, his own wife encourages him to “curse God and die,” … to curse God, then suffer the final blow which they believed awaits all who curse God, to be smitten by an angry God. But Job refuses. He stays faithful.
While he’s sitting in misery, Job’s friends show up. They think they are being helpful, but they are not. Basically, they blame the victim.
They are operating under a mechanistic worldview that believes those who act righteously can expect good things to happen and those who fail to act righteously can expect calamity. So they come to Job to help him understand that he, or someone in his family must be guilty of some sin. This is basically the world view that the whole book of Job speaks against.
It’s a world view that persists today in many circles. There’s a sense among us humans that it ought to work out that way. Do good, and get good. Do Bad, and get bad. There’s biblical precedent for such a belief. “You reap what you sow.”
But you and I know the world doesn’t always work that way. Bad things happen to Good people. The evil prosper. It’s not fair. Still, we sometimes want it to be that way. Even though usually, if we got what we deserved, we’d be in a lot worse case than we are now.
We even see this world view echoed in the Gospel lesson for today. “What can I do to inherit eternal life?” What can I DO…. As if we can DO anything to INHERIT anything. An inheritance is a gift, not something we earn. The rich young man thought it all depended on his action, keeping certain laws, behaving a certain way, when in fact, it all has to do with God’s mercy, and God’s one action in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
But let’s get back to Job. Job is also committed to the mechanistic world view, but he knows that he is righteous, therefore he questions God’s justice. He believes that if he can just get a fair hearing in front of God, God will understand that Job has done nothing wrong, and will acquit him. Job envisions putting God on trial in hopes of being vindicated. But the problem is that Job cannot summon up God. God is nowhere to be found. God is absent for Job’s complaint.
Here we are in Chapter 23, and God will not speak for until Chapter 38. Thirty-eight long chapters of suffering and pain, and God’s silence. And when God does speak, he doesn’t explain Job’s suffering away. He doesn’t explain what caused the suffering. God powerfully asserts his presence and majesty beyond comprehension, and his justice beyond humankind’s control. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” In the end, Job is awed by God’s presence. He replies to God, “I put my hand over my mouth… surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”
In the end, Job is restored. He comes out the other side, experiencing blessings once again, although the grief of his previous suffering no doubt shaped his soul forever.
So what about you and me?
What do we do when God is silent?
How do we walk in faith when we, too, want to cry out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
First, we can realize that we are not alone. Job, King David and other psalm writers, as well as the faithful throughout the generations have questioned where God is in the silence. Writer and theologian Marty Martin, a distinguished seminary professor wrote a book after his first wife died entitled, “A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart.” He explains this time as, “A wintry spirituality, a time when our spirituality is marked by questions of suffering and evil, when we are trying to talk to God but no matter what we do we can’t seem to get a clear connection.” If we think of the silence as a season, like winter, it helps. We can trust that the season can morph into spring if we just hold on through the winter.
Author and theologian Jon Bloom explores the question of God’s silence as he asks these questions:
Why is it that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” but “familiarity breeds contempt”?
Why is water so much more refreshing when we’re really thirsty?
Why am I almost never satisfied with what I have, but always longing for more?
Why is the pursuit of earthly achievement often more enjoyable than the achievement itself?
Why do deprivation, adversity, scarcity, and suffering often produce the best character qualities in us while prosperity, ease, and abundance often produce the worst?
“Do you see it?” he says, “There is a pattern in the design of deprivation: Deprivation draws out desire. Absence heightens desire. And the more heightened the desire, the greater its satisfaction will be. It is the mourning that will know the joy of comfort (Matthew 5:4). It is the hungry and thirsty that will be satisfied (Matthew 5:6). Longing makes us ask, emptiness makes us seek, silence makes us knock (Luke 11:9).”
I think that’s a major key. God is not a divine vending machine, dispensing answers or miracles when we put in the coin of prayer. God is not a genie in a bottle, showing up to do our bidding at at our beck and call.
At the same time, asking, knocking, seeking, longing – all of these help us understand our dependence on God alone. Job is commended by God for his honest wrestling… for his willingness to keep crying out to God seeking God’s presence.
Of course, we have a choice. We can walk away from God. That’s the atheists’ answer. God doesn’t answer because God isn’t there. Duh.
But it’s not our answer. In the Psalm, David, lamenting God’s silence, still remembers when God did show up. “Our forefathers put their trust in you; they trusted, and you delivered them.” And later, “Yet you are he who took me out of the womb, and kept me safe upon my mother’s breast. I have been entrusted to you ever since I was born; you were my God when I was still in my mother’s womb.”
It’s interesting how this psalm, Psalm 22, agonizing over God’s seeming absence, echoes some of the same language in a psalm that extols God’s abiding presence, psalm 139.
“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:7-13)
God’s silence does not mean that God is truly absent. It just sometimes feels that way. God’s silence is a time for us to dig deep into trust. To wait in patience.
As Christian community, our job is to be with each other in times of silence and suffering. To remind each other of how God is present, and where God has been present in the past. Our job is to sit with each other in the silence… preferably with a yummy casserole or homemade cookies in tow. Not with any unhelpful advice, like Job’s friends, but simply to be there for one another through the wintery silent seasons of the soul.
And you and I when we are experiencing God’s silence, need to continue to engage with Christians in worship and community… This is NOT the time to stop coming to church, it’s a time to lean in, knowing that when we don’t have the words for prayer and song ourselves, the community prays and sings for us.
Jesus himself, as he was dying on the cross, felt the absence and silence of God. On his lips were the words of our psalm, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” If Jesus can feel that way, then you and I will feel that way from time to time too.
As the passage we heard from the Letter of the Hebrew’s says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” So we can take the encouragement of this passage to heart: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
God is there. God is here. Even in the silence. Amen.