Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Weapon of Words about God

O that ye would altogether hold your peace! and it should be your wisdom.

During the last week, we have been making our way through the Book of Job chapter by chapter (with some edits, sadly, in order that we might expedite matters). After the rather surprising opening where God and The Accuser (Satan) converse and a challenge is laid down over the righteous man Job, we enter into the heart of the book: the complex debate over why evil happens and what the human is to do in the face of suffering.

We have heard Job’s opening lament. We have listened to his friends begin their first round of questioning of Job; their at first rather round-about accusations of Job. Surely, he must have sinned against God and is now paying the penalty. Job refuses to acquiesce. He knows, as does the reader, that his sufferings are not a quid-pro-quo; he did not commit a wrong that must be requited. He is righteous, and yet he suffers. One by one, the theological rationales of Job’s day – and, to a great degree, ours – are trotted out. They all seem to boil down to much the same thing: someone sinned and punishment is being meted out. But, we know this is not the case here. We reach, with Job, a great theological dead end.

But the way forward is clear: Job refuses to deny God. He continues to supplicate the God whose protection and blessing has seemed to fail. He comes before God with a complaint, seeking for God to justify His actions. He is preparing to offer one of the great high-points in the book and in the Old Testament generally: the lament in chapter 14, which contains elements looking forward to the Gospel itself. This, in turn, will result in the heat being turned up on Job by his “comforters,” whose only response to the failure of their arguments and theology is to abuse Job and to press their positions even harder. “The experiment must continue,” they almost say.

And this brings me to the verse from chapter 13 I opened with. In it, Job rails against his comforters-now-tormenters for their waterfall of words that leads only to more misery. Their silence would be a far better argument! But, having begun to speak and claim a knowledge of God that is inferred rather than revealed, they can only pick up speed and infer more and more… eventually needing to crush the suffering victim in order to bring to perfection the beautiful architecture of their theories.

One of the great insights of this book of Scripture is that theology is a realm which requires great humility if it is to be life-giving. Without this humility, words and thoughts about God easily become weapons. In our arrogance and smugness we can use them simply as ways of comforting ourselves by hurting, controlling, crushing, or imprisoning others in our own ignorance and fear. We can even call this spiritual violence “good” because we do it for God. But it remains violence, and it remains little more convincing as an argument than whistling in the graveyard.

The Christian must renounce all forms of arrogance and adopt the way of the Cross as the only way to the Kingdom. This includes the use of theology divorced from the humility of Christ. The theology of Job’s “friends” is deeply flawed precisely because it is no longer really about God at all, but about human fears, power, and rationalization. While Job’s insistence on his own righteousness will ultimately be shown to be an error, his refusal to accept any substitute – no matter how lofty – for the Living God will ultimately be rewarded. And it must be so with us; we, too, must accept nothing less if we are not to become the enemies of the very God we claim to serve.

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