Sermons

May 31, 2020

What to Say When Suffering Is Great

Jason Meyer | Job 2:11-13

Now when Job's three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.Job 2:11–13

The title of this message is “What to Say When Suffering Is Great.” I will cut to the chase and not leave you in suspense. The answer is, “Nothing.” Don’t take my word for it. Look at verse 13, which is where the title of the sermon originates. “And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” No one spoke a word. But that does not mean they did nothing; they just said nothing. So we will see that their silence was a certain kind of silence, which spoke volumes.

Now let’s get real right from the start. Doesn’t that feel counterintuitive? Say nothing?? We have this internal impulse almost screaming at us to say something. But it only feels counterintuitive (counter to our intuition) because our impulses run counter to Scripture. Our impulses here are fallen. There is too much of us—too much of a need to share what we think. In that moment, we can in a subtle way take the attention away from the sufferer and we can put it on our words and thus on ourselves. The Bible calls us to be slow to speak, quick to listen, and slow to become angry (James 1:19). We have wrong impulses because we are fallen people and so we turn this verse on its head. Instead of being slow to speak and quick to listen, we become quick to speak and slow to listen. 

My prayer with this passage is that Scripture would so saturate us that our blood would flow bib-line so that the overflow of our response to suffering would look different. Let our response not be an expression of our brokenness but an overflow of biblical faithfulness. So let the Bible show us a more excellent way: three steps. Three steps that are silent, but speak volumes. 

  1. See the Evil (v. 11)
  2. Show Sympathy (vv. 11–12)
  3. Sit in Solidarity (v. 13) 

Let us see the progression of the text together:

1. See the Evil (v. 11)

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite.

Notice first the moral dimension of this suffering. What necessitated the response? Evil reared its ugly head. The text does not merely say that suffering or calamity fell upon Job. It was evil. “Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place.” What evil? 

The evil one was behind this evil. Job chapter one shows that this is part of a cosmic spiritual battle (Job 1:6–12). 

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

Then the bullets of suffering came in quick succession (vv.13–19):

Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and there came a messenger to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The Chaldeans formed three groups and made a raid on the camels and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 

Job’s Response: Worship (did not charge God with wrong, vv. 20–22)

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.

Then there was a second act in this cosmic drama. The Lord brings up Job again to Satan (Job 2:1–8). 

And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.”

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.

Job’s response: Refusal to Curse God (Job 2:9–10)

Job worships with his lips and does not curse God.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

The first step is to see the evil. All of the evil. And sometimes there is a lot to see. Don’t take shortcuts. See it all. And know that there is probably more to see in the heavenly realm. There is usually a spiritual battle behind whatever you see on Twitter or on the news. There are schemes of Satan at work. Consider Ephesians 6:10–12. 

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

2) Show Sympathy (v. 11)

They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him.

The second step is to show sympathy. This was not passive, but active. They made an appointment to come and show Job sympathy and bring him comfort. But this show of sympathy was not a show, not a sham. This was a deep emotional engagement. This was a “weep with those who weep” moment. Look at verse 12.

And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven.

Showing sympathy first means joining the tears, not judging the tears. O there will be a time for interpretation. That will come. But not now. We will find out later that they viewed him as a sinner, but they approached the sufferer first as a sufferer. Participation in tears comes before parsing out the tears. It means weeping with those who weep rather than first wondering whether they should really be weeping.

What should come next? There is still silence, but it is another action step: sit in solidarity.

3) Sit in Solidarity (v. 13)

And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

Sympathy here is more than words. It is fundamentally an action—an acted out parable that makes the point with one’s whole body and one’s whole posture: sit with the sufferer.

Have you ever experienced this kind of solidarity? I can remember a time when I was being berated by someone with an open mic at a Bethlehem meeting. One of our pastors told me later that it was a moment of profound irony because I listened for several minutes to a man who accused the elders and me of not really listening. But in the midst of that experience, something happened. Keith Anderson, our minister for our senior adults, grabbed a chair and sat with me. He said, “I’m not going to say anything, I’m just going to sit here with you because I don’t want you to be all alone.” It is one of the most deeply moving experiences for me of my time at Bethlehem.

Keith Anderson sat with me for about an hour. It was moving and meaningful—but I do not want to pretend that my suffering was great in any way. Job’s friends sat with him not for a matter of hours, but days. Seven days. That should give us some indication of how great the suffering was.

Consider that perhaps the greater the suffering the longer you sit with someone in solidarity.

Right now you should all be asking me, “So what?” How do you take all of those biblical steps and apply it to today when Minneapolis is burning. 

Application

There is so much suffering right now. And one of the hardest things is that we have a pandemic! People are losing their lives (100,000 people in our nation) and losing their jobs and struggling with all kinds of worries and fears, and we cannot sit with each other in solidarity. That makes everything harder.

These tense days of wide-scale destruction have created even more suffering to an already-demoralizing crisis. Many people have seen the work of generations go up in flames in a matter of minutes. Communities already ravaged by poverty now have some of their most basic necessities gone: Where they go to get groceries? medicine? etc.?

And we obviously have a moral crisis on our hands. There is evil at work causing this suffering. We could certainly start with the riots and the looting and the destruction of property. When you think of the riots, do you think primarily of angry black men? We have all received a startling education about a destructive young, largely white group of men who are commonly called the accelerationists. This is an extreme subset of white nationalism that tries to stoke the fires of tension and act as a catalyst for destruction in order to accelerate the end of society so they can bring about a new one.

I confess my ignorance to that whole startling reality—it sounds like a subplot of the League of Shadows, like something straight out of the movie Batman Begins.

There are many complex dynamics going on in these tense times. It is obvious that anarchy is not the answer. Scripture says that the “anger of man cannot produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). One can protest injustice without multiplying injustice. Evil cannot be overcome with evil (Romans 12:21).

If watching people steal and destroy what does not belong to them seems okay to you, then your moral compass is broken. When a parent has a son for a police officer or a woman has a husband for a police officer, and they fear that they may not come back alive because of these riots—and you don’t ache with the—then your moral compass is broken. We value life. It is hard to be a cop right now. We do pray for the men and women in blue. We know that there are good cops. Yes, their lives matter. Hear it clearly. 

But I think we all agree on some of those basic points. As I look at our church, I am praying for the discernment it takes to have a moral compass that can oppose rioting (not protesting) without forgetting and ignoring the evil that sparked the rioting. One of my major concerns in this moment is that we will find it relatively easy to speak up about the evils of rioting—but not the evil of racism. 

If that is you, then we will not make it very far as a church when it comes to showing love and sympathy and solidarity with the massive suffering and pain right now in the African American community. I have people all the time wonder why African Americans right now feel so angry and hurt and tired and hopeless and devalued. 

Have you listened to them? Not just some in our church but in the broader church who would identify with you as your brother or sister in Christ. Here is what they are saying—I am going to try to help you sit in solidarity with them. They are suffering and saying …

“We are all out of words. We are so tired. We have tried and tried to explain our experience, to share our pain so you can feel our pain. But you say that you do not get it or are not convinced—so we have to keep somehow justifying what we think and feel, indeed, to get you to somehow believe us so that you can begin to feel it with us. We don’t want it to be us vs. you. We want it to be ‘us’—the body of Christ us. When one member of the body weeps, the whole body weeps. We want that. We have tried to get you to get it. And now this video.”

They are saying, “We don’t need the video. We have lived this. We have tried to tell you that this happens to us. The videos are for you. It is not as if we just started being treated with brutality—it is that there are videos now. If you don’t get it after this video, which is so obvious, like the ‘Big E’ on the moral eye exam chart, then we do not know what it will take.”

So what shall we say? It is true that many people have expressed how sad they are about this incident. And rightly so. But is that all there is to see here? Lest we mourn for a moment and then move on to the next thing, let us not miss something that is staring us in the face if we have the courage to look back at it and stare it back down. In the African-American community this is not an isolated incident it is ANOTHER incident. And with it they are asking, “Will we be believed this time?” Will people see and lament a broken system, or will they be sad about an isolated incident?

So in this crushing grief, there is a crucial question. Do we believe them? Is the system broken? Is there racism and injustice at work here? Is the deck stacked against them?

I am afraid we can be like Job’s friends here in the wrong way. Job’s friends blew it when they began to offer their interpretations of Job’s suffering. Their bottom line answer was that Job had done something to deserve the suffering he endured. They even tried to use their theology to put Job in his place: “You deserve what is happening to you. But they were wrong. God arranged it where they needed to make a sacrifice because the Lord’s anger burned against them. Seven bulls and seven rams were offered, and Job had to pray for them, and God accepted his prayer. That was God’s way of fixing the relationship (Job 42:7–8).

And this is where it usually breaks down in the church throughout the United States today. Majority culture churches are largely silent on the issue of systemic injustice, because they see isolated incidents.

Some may have a moral compass that can look at the video of the horrible killing of George Floyd, and they can say it is wrong and they can feel sad and they can lament. But it is easy to see it as an isolated incident, when the African American community sees it as another incident. Do you see the difference? Some can look at the images of the video and see a white cop with his knee on the neck of a black man and say, “That is wrong.” But African-Americans look at that video and say: “That is our story.” That triggers so much in us because that has been our story for the last four hundred years in this country (slavery, segregation, and all kinds of oppression).

The African-American community has said this to us until they are blue in the face and numb in their hearts: “We live this. We don’t need the video to prove our experience. We know our experience. We have lived it. The videos are for those who don’t live it and therefore doubt it.”

And that brings the most heart-breaking question of all: “Are the horrifying events depicted in this video part of the lack of solidarity and cost of silence—and thus the cost of complicity?” I was not put on this planet to punk out now and duck this question. I own it. The answer is “yes.” I am complicit in not speaking out. 

I do not doubt it. But do I speak it?

In other situations in which an African-American man has been killed (like Philando Castille), there were split second decisions that needed to be made. Is this person a threat? Is my life in danger? Do I need to respond with deadly force? That is a major question mark—when we see an African-American man (as opposed to another ethnicity, like a white man) do we feel more threatened? 

But in this instance, we are not talking about seconds. We are talking about minutes, which felt like an eternity. He was handcuffed. He was immobilized. In any of those 400 seconds the officer could have removed his knee from George Floyd’s neck. George Floyd pleaded with the officer for his life. He even called out for his mom. Even people in the crowd pleaded with the officer. When we watch the video, we find ourselves joining the crowd and joining their plea: “Please, get your knee off him; he can’t breathe; he is dying. For the love of God, please value this man made in the image of God and get your knee off of him.” 

How is it that a police officer could feel okay doing that? How is it that three other police officers could feel okay and watch him do that without intervening? I have heard from other police officers around the country (one of whom is at our church) who have said the same thing: You use force to immobilize force, and then you reassess if force is still needed. In the video, it is clear. Force is no longer needed. The officer is using force not to immobilize but for the purpose of inflicting harm in the face of all the pleading to stop. We saw heartless brutality with the knee of a white police officer on the neck of an African-American man.

Have you ever attended a protest rally for an African-American like George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery? Here is what I have witnessed now a few different heartbreaking times. I have tried to just sit in solidarity and listen and weep. You know what the main message is? “We matter. We have value. It is not right to be treated this way.” Isn’t that heartbreaking? Do you know what they are doing? They are trying to tell themselves—within their community to each other—that they have worth.

But here is the question? Why doesn’t the whole church rise up and say that? Why don’t white and Hispanic and Asian and other ethnicities say it to them, “You are made in the image of God. Your worth and value is given by him.” We should be saying it to them so they don’t just have to say it to themselves, because it feels so called into question.

And it makes sense, doesn’t it? If you are struggling with four days of rioting, imagine how little you would like 400 years of systemic oppression and being treated like you are lesser and don’t have equal worth and value as other human beings made in the image of God. Job’s friends sat with him for seven days because his suffering was great. How long should we sit with someone who has a story of oppression that goes back 400 years? It has been a mighty long lament.

And so we cannot really and truly join the lament if we do not also repent. We have been hesitant, passive, complacent, and therefore complicit in our silence— and not the good kind of silence that sits with people in solidarity. We have to undo what is a largely cultural difference in our discipleship. We often think far too individualistically, and we do not recognize the collective and community aspect of this discussion. How can we share in solidarity if we make them deny their story—and make them justify their pain?

But Bethlehem should be and can be that place where that solidarity can take place because we so clearly teach the sacred value of human life. We should be quick to stand up and say, “Your life matters. You have value. You are made in God’s image”. Racism is an offense to God—like a slap in the face to his worth. Racism is an assault on the image of God.

And it has to be part of our discipleship. Centuries of racism will not just go away. It has to be part of our discipleship. We must teach everyone, especially the next generation not only that racism is wrong, but that we should stand up and speak up against it in solidarity. When African Americans are brutally treated by others, we should stand up and speak up in solidarity with them. When people make racist taunts at Asian Americans right now and tell them to go home or that they are not wanted, we should stand up and speak up in solidarity with them. When our Hispanic brothers and sisters are ridiculed and mocked and told that they are not wanted here or welcome here, people who cherish the image of God should stand up and speak up in solidarity with them. 

And yes, sometimes it can even happen the other way. When radical rhetoric speaks of European Americans (especially middle-aged white males) as Satan’s spawn, those who cherish the image of God will also stand up and speak up in solidarity with them. We must be this kind of people always, especially after the hashtags and the protests fade away. 

But the ultimate reason we can be that place of solidarity is not only because we cherish the sacred value of human life, but because we cherish the infinite value of Christ’s life. We were not only created equal by God, washed clean by the blood of the Lamb, and made new by the Holy Spirit. We do not need seven rams and seven bulls. We have the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

That is why we can repent as part of our lament. It is easy to have a fear of the other and let differences divide us. Let us repent of our slowness to see the evils, show sympathy, and sit in solidarity. Let us repent for our slowness to stand up for one another and speak up for one another in gospel solidarity. Let us make much of sacred value of human life, infinite value of Christ’s life, and the unifying value of our eternal life—we share the same eternal future.

Closing Prayer

O LORD, move among us and move in us. We need a mighty rushing wind to blow away the poisoned air of fear, shame, cynicism, and prejudice. By the power of the Holy Spirit, turn our confusion into clarity, turn our fear into faith, turn our apathy into empathy. Turn our complacency into courage. Turn our inaction to action. Break our hearts for what is happening in our country and in our cities. Give us grace to come to grips with our nation’s history of hate and how we have been silent too long. What hate tears down, let love rebuild.

O God of sovereign grace, change our hearts so that the next chapter of the church’s story will read like reconciliation—we long for the day when 11am Sunday morning is not the most segregated hour in America, because your children will stand together and sit together and sing together in greater solidarity. And may we say it clearly, “This is my Father’s world, the battle is not done, Jesus who died shall be satisfied and earth and heaven be one.”

In the mighty Name of Jesus we pray,

Amen.

________

(There are no sermon discussion questions this week.)

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