Out of the Whirlwind
Job 38: 1-7; 34-41
Today’s reading from Job is a good fit for family weekend, don’t you think? After 37 chapters of Job suffering and wondering why he has to go on like this, cursing the day he was born, God decides to give him a little perspective check. Kind of a divine, “Because I said so.”
Even if you haven’t read it much before, you probably remember the high points of the story of Job. He’s an upright and righteous man who loves God. One of God’s heavenly court has a verbal sparring match with God, positing that Job is only so pious and faithful because God has been protecting him. God agrees with the adversary to let Job be tested to prove that he is indeed faithful to God.
Initially Job accepts his reversal of fortune without much comment. First his possessions and his children are taken from him. Next he gets a horrible skin disease that is not only a painful blow to his health but also to his social status. By this point, a dejected Job has only enough energy to sit pitifully scraping himself with an old broken shard of a pot, trying to rid himself of the skin sores.
Job’s wife speaks up before he does, encouraging him to curse God, die, and be done with it already. Three of Job’s friends show up next and they are so taken aback that they just sit with him silently. For seven days and nights.
Of course, they eventually can’t take it anymore and decide that maybe Job has actually sinned because why else would God allow all this to happen to him? The traditional wisdom that health and prosperity came from God as rewards for good behavior – and so did sickness and misfortune as punishment for bad behavior – this so-called wisdom won out with the friends. This thinking often wins out with us, too. If it didn’t books like When Bad Things Happen to Good People wouldn’t be so popular.
So the friends who so wisely and generously sat in silence with Job for seven days and nights are now unable to shut up. What about the time you missed Sunday school? Do you always pray before supper? There’s no way all this could be happening if you didn’t do something to bring it on. What was it? Come on, you can tell us.
Job can’t take it anymore either. He curses the day he was born and wonders why he was even born. Since he knows he has not sinned against God, he puts the blame full onto God. In chapter 30 he wails (Job 30: 16-22):
And now my soul is poured out within me; days of affliction have taken hold of me. The night racks my bones, and the pain that gnaws me takes no rest. With violence he seizes my garment; he grasps me by the collar of my tunic. He has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes. I cry to you and you do not answer me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me. You lift me up on the wind, you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm.
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind” (38: 1). Do you think it addled Job, who’s been describing his life as storm-tossed, to hear that whirlwind coming?
The winds blow angry as God says, in effect, “Because I’m the parent!” God poses one rhetorical question after another as Job sits there listening to the whirlwind speak. Who’s speaking without wisdom? Where were you when I was forming the earth? Who was measuring it and stretching out the plumb line? Who laid the cornerstone of creation and, gave boundaries to the sea? Do you have the authority to make it rain or send out the lightening? Do you provide for lions and their cubs? Where are you when the baby ravens cry out for food? Just who do you think you are?
After God gives Job a good talking to Job repents for mistrusting and misunderstanding God. By the end of the book his fortunes are restored and he has all new children. And the traditional reading – which correlates well with the way Job’s friends think – is that Job’s family and fortune are restored because he passed the test.
But I don’t want to talk about the end of the story. I want to talk about the middle. The part we read today. Job at wit’s end, calling out in a wail while a very annoyed and powerful and intimately involved God answers by asking more questions.
The middle is where we most often find ourselves, isn’t it? Most of our lives are lived in the middle, struggling and praying and hoping. Full of questions and anxiety, wondering why things are turning out as they are. Maybe we don’t state it this way and maybe we have worked out some more of the theology, but everyone wonders why bad things happen and how God is or is not involved.
I am happy to report that I have not yet had to scrape my skin with a broken pot. But I have been angry with God. I’ve been confused by God. I’ve questioned God’s motives, action, and inaction. I have most certainly argued with God.
A few years ago my friend Anna and I were on a cross-country trip, taking in several national parks, camping and hiking, listening to music on those long stretches of straight road in Nebraska, getting a speeding ticket in North Dakota, and talking about life, love, and God. She was in the midst of a break up and I was tentatively coming out of my shell after a hard break up a couple of years before that.
I remember the day we were driving west through Missouri. I was telling her about how hard it had been for me to let go of and make sense of the relationship I had been in. When it came along I knew with my whole being that it was a gift from God and I was so thankful for it. I’m not sure I’d ever consciously acknowledged a relationship as a gift from God before and when it ended I was confused. If he had been a gift and then the relationship ended, did that mean I’d been wrong about it all being a gift? If I wasn’t wrong, did that mean God gave gifts and then took them back? If God didn’t take it back then what happened?
I’d been talking to God for a long time about it. I still didn’t have answers to any of those questions I had asked. I still completely believed God had given me that time and that relationship as a gift and I was still completely baffled about why it had gone away. Driving with Anna that day, the best place I had come to – what I was sharing with her to help with her own pain – was that God was sad with me and that God ached with me and maybe God didn’t know why either but God was still with me.
Why did this happen to me? Why isn’t what I want happening to me? Job’s questions are pretty up-to-date.
So are God’s questions.
The problem with my theology about God and gifts and break ups is that it was all about me. Not bad, as far as it goes. But what does God say to Job?
In example after example God reminds Job of the fathomless scope of God. The One to whom Job wails is the same one who placed the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the beaches and told the seas to stay put and feeds wild animals and humans alike. We get into trouble when we forget that we aren’t the central character in all of creation.
God tells Job that he is not the only show in town and that it is not his place to question God. God said to me, “Yes, it was a gift. But there is a whole lot more to all this that you don’t yet understand.”
It is a freeing moment to realize your true size. I think this is part of why I love being in the backcountry so much. It’s one of the only sustained times when I have no choice but to remember that God made every single thing I see and that I am only one part of a much bigger whole. In the middle of a work week in the middle of a work day in the middle of a phone call or a Word document, it’s easy to forget that I don’t create the world I’m in. In the middle of the backcountry, it’s easy to remember that I am not in charge. Hanging my food in a bear bag is a good reminder that I am not the starring role in creation. Looking up at night, being dwarfed by so many many stars, it is humbling and inspiring to know that I am part of all that, but just one part.
God speaks out of the whirlwind. Not the eye in the storm, the quiet at the center. Not the calm after the storm. The whirlwind. God speaks when it’s loud and confusing and we might miss some of the words. When we are afraid, confused, sad, grieving, angry, lost – God speaks right in the middle of our messy lives. God speaks in ways that can scare us or at times when we would rather be closing the shutters than listening.
My husband, Woody, knows something about finding God in the whirlwind. He has a wonderful habit of talking to thunderstorms. Some of his most ardent prayers happen under cover of the front porch in the midst of a storm. He knows where to look for God and how to listen even when it’s tumultuous.
Don’t worry if you haven’t known where to look for God. You are right in the middle of your life and that means God knows where to find you. Be ready for some fierce winds and don’t think you’ll have all the answers when God’s done talking. Job begged God to show up and account for what was happening to him but when God does, it doesn’t solve anything. All Job’s questions are answered with more questions. God’s there but Job is still suffering and he still doesn’t know why all this happened. But he knows there is more to the story. May you know it, too.
Thanks be to God!
© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis