Today I find myself standing between the second and third weeks of a five-part sermon series on the book of Job. Last week we focused on the conversations that Job had with Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. They wrongfully accused him of sin, because that was their only explanation for his suffering. I tried to focus the sermon on the practical issue of how to talk to people in times of suffering. The contributions from the social media experiment let the sermon basically write itself.
This week, things are different.
The key verse for this week is Job 19:25. Job says the he knows his redeemer lives. At first glance, looking through a 21st century, Christian lens, it seems like we can breathe a sigh of relief and console ourselves, thinking, “at least Job has some hope in his darkness. In our darkness, we can rest in the fact the Jesus is our redeemer.” In fact, that’s the premise I was going with up until yesterday, when I started digging into the text.
Here’s where being honest with the text gets dicey for the preacher.
If you read the context of this passage, Job is not actually full of hope here. He is full of despair. Remember, he’s in the midst of this cycle of conversations with the three guys in which they tell him he’s a sinner, and he says he’s not.
Here’s what I think Job is actually saying in 19:25 and the verses surrounding it:
Look everybody. I KNOW that I’m innocent. There is no logical explanation for my suffering. You have abandoned me and God is either (a) ignoring me, or (b) sadistically torturing me. I wish I could stand before God, face to face, and plead my case, but he won’t listen. At the very least I want someone to write this down on stone tablets, in lead ink, until the day that someone comes along and Vindicates me (that’s another word for redeemer). I know that, someday, probably long after I’m dead, a defense attorney (another term for redeemer) will clear my good name. Until then, I am lost.
Whew! That’s dark.
How do I preach that?
An idea sparked on my walk yesterday. I think it might be helpful to tie the suffering of Job, and the larger topic of pain, into the Phases of the Journey (traditionally known as the Ways of the Mystic). Work with me on this.
First, there are four basic moments in the path of spiritual formation: Awakening, Purging, Illumination, and Union.
The Awakening moment is when you realize that you actually need God. This is a conversion experience. Many, many—perhaps even most—of the time, the wake up call happens as a result of hitting rock bottom. Most of us struggle with some sort of addiction: drugs, sex, food, greed, power, fame, self-loathing, anxiety, etc. Each addiction is radically different, but they all have one thing in common. They own us and eventually destroy us.
They lead us to a place of pain.
Here is our first category for pain and suffering. C.S. Lewis said that pain is God’s megaphone. It gets our attention. It alerts us that something is wrong. When you get stung, and the poison enters your system, it hurts. When your bone is broken and needs to be mended, it hurts. When you’ve burned all your relational bridges in order to get your next fix, it hurts.
This type of pain cries out, “Warning, warning.”
It is a gift from God. If we listen to it and wake up, then we can enter into the first phase of spiritual growth:
Purgation. This is a season in life when we wrestle with our demons. We recognize that we have a long list of destructive practices. Paul calls them the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.
We, through the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit, must purge these things from our life. We enter into a spiritual warfare mentality and must become like a disciplined soldier to overcome them.
This is another form of pain and suffering.
Eventually, however, by the grace of God, we overcome and gain victory. We begin to understand what it means to be set free from Sin.
This leads to the next season, or Way, of spiritual formation.
Illumination. Now we can “walk in the light, as he is in the light (1 John 1:7).” This is a season when we begin to bear the fruit that Jesus promised in John 15:5. If we remain/dwell/abide in Jesus, then we will bear fruit. Paul named this the fruit of the Spirit in contrast to the works of the flesh mentioned above. Galatians 5:22-25 says,
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Do you see what is happening here, if you’ve been paying attention to the sermons from Job? These first three moments are the Wisdom of Proverbs. Sin leads to pain and suffering and submitting to the wisdom of the Spirit leads to goodness.
I need to make something clear. The Wisdom of Proverbs is TRUE! God did create the universe and weave it together with wisdom and justice. The works of the flesh are foolish and do lead to destruction. We do need a wake up call. We do need to battle against the powers of darkness.
And all this is pain for the purpose of correction and instruction.
However, it doesn’t stop here.
I spent the first 30 years of my life and ministry in the Conservative Evangelical world. I am grateful for it and learned a lot. However, there was one thing that I think got us into trouble. We didn’t understand that there is another phase to spiritual growth. We always taught people that the big payoff for following Jesus and becoming a “fully devoted follower of Christ” was to walk in the light and bear lots of fruit.
We didn’t warn people about THE WALL.
That’s what I call it, anyway. The mystics called it “the Dark Night of the Soul.”
This is the moment when the happy, fruitful, productive Christian wakes up one day and life seems empty, or a child dies, or they are wrongfully accused and lose everything.
This is the suffering of Job.
It is not fair. It doesn’t follow the rules of Proverbs. It leaves us feeling like God has abandoned us, or that God doesn’t even exist.
I mentioned earlier that the way of purgation lets us experience the fact that Jesus has conquered the power of Sin. The dark night of the soul lets us experience the fact that Jesus has conquered the power of Death.
Jesus said some disturbing words to his disciples.
Matthew 10:38-39 If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.
John 12:25 Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.
The Apostle Paul said in Galatians 2:20,
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
The suffering of Job does serve a purpose. It reminds us that the universe is bigger than us. It reminds us that God cannot be reduced to simple moral formula. It brings us to a place where all we can do is throw up our arms…and die.
I don’t think Job has learned this lesson yet in Job 19:25. He hopes that, one day, his name will be vindicated, but he doubts it.
He won’t learn these lessons until the fourth sermon when he encounters God.
For now, though, we can learn that the dark night of the soul leads to the final phase of the journey:
Union with God. This is place of release and true, inner peace. Here the struggle to be successful and significant is gone. To use modern psychological terms, it is the death of the Ego. It is the acknowledgement that all things in the universe are interconnected and interdependent and that God loves it all.
It is not a dark, nihilistic death in which we give up in despair and quote Ecclesiastes, “It’s all meaningless.”
It is the peace of knowing that God’s love is deeper and wider than we could ever imagine. That the things in life which seek to consume our attention, like money, fame, power, control, are all empty idols that lead us to destruction.
So, the question for this preacher is this. How do I communicate this in a sermon? Should I try to communicate this?