May 25, 2003

Job’s Concluding Response: Defending Your Integrity
Job 29-31

On September 12, 1970, 13 year-old John Eddie Mitchell was bludgeoned to death in Harrisburg. Almost immediately, 14 year-old Steven Crawford became the target of the police investigation. Crawford, as one might expect, vigorously denied any involvement in Mitchell’s murder. Nevertheless, he was convicted of the crime in 1974 and sent away to prison.

Over the years since Crawford’s conviction, repeated attempts were made to secure his release. Stories of deception and concealed evidence on the part of the police and prosecutors gained considerable notoriety, and Crawford was soon retried because of trial errors. When his initial conviction was upheld at his second trial, the legal struggles only gained momentum. In 1978, just four years after his original conviction, Crawford was granted a third trial. At that time, prosecutors offered him a deal that would have set him free on time served. He could have walked away, a free man at the age of 22. Perhaps surprisingly, Crawford turned down the deal. Apparently, something was more important to Steven Crawford than gaining his release from prison. For Steven Crawford, personal integrity mattered.

Here in Job 29-31, the dialogues between Job and his friends come to a rather climactic conclusion. You will recall that these dialogues began with Job’s moving lament in chapter 3, a lament in which he cursed the day of his birth and longed to die. Distraught over Job’s apparent inability to cope with his suffering, the friends try in earnest to bring him to his theological senses. For the next 25 chapters, they and Job argue about the causes of suffering and the role that God plays in it. All the while, the friends persistently hope to convince Job that he must have committed some evil deed—some crime—in order to deserve such a fate. When their reasoning fails and the arguments falter, Job speaks to them now for a final time.

Like Steven Crawford, Job continues to deny his involvement in any criminal activity. In chapter 29, he reminisces about the good old days when God was with him and people of all sorts looked up to him. In chapter 30, he mourns again over his current state of affairs. And in chapter 31, Job vigorously defends his innocence. Notice the litany of possible sins that Job rehearses: “If I have walked with falsehood…. If my heart has been enticed by a woman…. If I have rejected the cause of my male or female slaves…. If I have withheld anything that the poor desired…. If I have made gold my trust…. If I have rejoiced at the ruin of those who hated me….” Unashamedly, Job announces once again that his hands are clean.

At first glance, Job’s rigorous defense of his innocence might strike us as being overdone, if not arrogant. Remember, however, that Job never claims to be perfect. He is not living in a state of denial, not refusing to take responsibility for things he has done. Rather, he argues that he has committed no crimes to merit his current crisis. Why, however, does Job so stubbornly refuse to concede his friends’ point? Why doesn’t he repent, throw himself on God’s mercy, and just see what happens? It seems to me that, as was the case with Steven Crawford, something is more important to Job than his “simply release.”

Job’s defense of his integrity, for one thing, provides a context for him to process his intense anger with God. His obvious frustration with Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar pales in comparison with what he is feeling toward God. He blames God for the calamity that has come upon him, just like Crawford and his defenders blamed the authorities in Harrisburg. “For the arrows of the Almighty are in me,” he cries in 6:4. He feels like God is tormenting him, even though he knows that he is innocent (7:14; 10:5-7), and he accuses God of micromanaging his affairs: “If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity (7:20)?” Job even goes so far as to essentially call God a murderer. Borrowing language found already in the story of Cain and Abel, Job envisions himself lying dead on the ground, his blood crying out for revenge: “O earth, do not cover my blood; let my outcry find no resting place(16:18).” Make no mistake about it. Job is furious with God, and he believes that God bears the blame for everything that has happened to him.

Job also accuses God of being silent while all of this is going on. While one might think that a god worthy of adoration would be close during times of such distress, Job experiences just the opposite:
If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
On the left he hides, and I cannot
behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot
see him.
God no longer answers Job’s prayers (24:9-12), and he doesn’t watch over him anymore (29:2). In one particularly pitiable comment, Job longs for the days “when the Almighty was still with him (29:2).”

As Job continues to wrestle with his anger, he imagines only three possible outcomes. Initially, he longs for God to finish the job and completely crush him. (6:8-9) To leave Job in his current estate would be, in his mind, equivalent to allowing a wounded animal to writhe in pain. “Put me out of my misery,” Job begs of his assassin.

Just a short time later, Job longs merely for God to leave him alone. If God refuses to end his nightmarish life, then the least he can do is go away and leave Job to suffer in solitude. In a fascinating contrast in experiences, Job virtually quotes a phrase from Psalm 8: “What are human beings, that you make so much of them?” he asks. The Psalmist, of course was overwhelmed by the goodness and mercy of God when he asked the same question, unable to comprehend how such a great God could care so deeply about him. When Job asks the question, however, he wonders sarcastically why a God who apparently has so many other things to do would find time to aggravate ordinary human beings.

But as Job struggles on, he increasingly longs for a third possibility, a possibility that apparently did not occur to him at the start. Job, in a nutshell, want to take God to court! Job is overwhelmed by God, and he has come to believe that God holds every advantage. Job’s only possible hope, therefore, rests in securing the services of a mediator or umpire who can arbitrate the dispute. Initially, Job seems doubtful that such an arbitrator can be found. “There is no umpire between us, who might lay his hand on us both,” he remarks in 9:33. Yet in chapter 13, he appears ready to go. “I have indeed prepared my case,” he declares; “I know that I shall be vindicated (v. 18).” He remains afraid of God, of course, asking him not to intimidate him if he is ever given the opportunity to speak. Then, in 19:25, Job seems finally to believe that such a mediator or arbitrator actually exists. “I know that my redeemer or vindicator lives,” he announces, now more confident that his case will be heard.

Job’s final declaration of his innocence here in chapter 31, then, actually constitutes a direct challenge to this God with whom he is so angry and frustrated. According to biblical criminal law, a person accused of wrongdoing without proof can take an oath and swear to his innocence. In such a situation, the accuser must then either produce the necessary evidence or drop the charges. In this closing response to Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, Job essentially asks that God either produce the evidence or drop the charges.

Have you ever been angry at God? Perhaps you are at this very moment. Have you ever wanted to take God to court? Quite frankly, I’ve been angry at God a great deal. In fact, in my own spiritual journey, I have probably reflected more on why I blame God and why I am angry at him at times than most other topics. I’ve processed my feelings with my spiritual director and other people, but I still find it easy at times to blame God and to be mad at him for things that I don’t like or can’t explain. It is easy to be angry with God, and such anger can have significant ongoing implications for virtually every area of our lives.

In his book entitled The Promise, Chaim Potok speaks of a boy named Michael Gordon. Michael becomes mentally ill because he doesn’t know how to deal with his anger at his father. Michael actually loves and deeply admires his father, and that only makes him feel guilty and ashamed that he resents him and feels so angry at him. Michael’s psychiatrist, Danny Saunders, helps him deal with these distressing and mixed-up feelings, and in part Danny’s success grows out of his own ability to relate to Michael’s struggles. As it turns out, Danny felt the same kind of anger and resentment toward his own father earlier in his life.

One secondary character in Potok’s book is particularly fascinating at this point, however. Rabbi Kalman, a Holocaust survivor, teaches at the rabbinical seminary where Danny’s best friend—the narrator in the story—attends. Kalman’s wife and children all died in the Holocaust, and the experience deeply affected his views on virtually everything, including God. According to Rabbi Kalman, a staunch Orthodox Jew, it is a sin to ever raise questions about God. Never ask why he does what he does or why he doesn’t do what you think he should do. Just trust him wholeheartedly.

Potok never comes right out and says it, but I think that Harold Kushner is right when, in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, he reflects on Potok’s story and concludes that Rabbi Kalman is in fact a parallel to Michael Gordon and Danny Saunders. Whereas Michael and Danny become sick because they don’t know how to deal with their anger towards their biological fathers, Rabbi Kalman, to quote Kushner, “has become a tyrannical, unsympathetic person because he can’t face up to his anger at His Father in Heaven (108).” Kalman merely conceals his anger at God behind a mask of fierce religious devotion.

There are any number of reasons why people get angry at God. Catastrophes such as those endured by both Job and Rabbi Kalman are obvious examples. But there are other reasons as well. Things in life never seem to turn out quite the way we would like. We work and work, but other people always get the breaks. We’ve been hurt and disappointed time and time again. We don’t like something about ourselves, and the fact that God apparently created us makes him the obvious scapegoat. We suffered at the hands of authoritarian parents or carry a lot of religious baggage from the past. We were led to believe that God is the same type of domineering micromanager that Job describes in his gut-wrenching plea. And we are angry at God. We can sense it festering deep inside even as we gather here this morning. And that anger, whether we know it or not, is making us spiritually ill in the same way that Michael’s anger made him mentally ill.

So what are we to do when we experience such anger and disappointment with God. As a modest start, we need to call Rabbi Kalman’s theology what it is—nonsense. If nothing else, Job models for us a willingness to be honest with God, an honesty that the book will eventually celebrate. Job doesn’t conceal his disappointment or his anger. Job doesn’t quickly surrender his integrity or run and hide behind a façade of religious legalism. Job calls a spade a spade: “Lord,” he cries, “I am as hot as a hornet at you. You’ve mistreated me, and I feel as though you have abandoned me during my time of deepest need. I am broken, yet you appear to be unapproachable. I am stumbling, yet you make no attempt to pick me up. I cry out to you, yet you offer no response. Lord, I am so angry and disappointed with you and life that I can scarcely stand it.”

The first step in dealing with our anger at God is to recognize that it is alright to be angry at God. Kushner expresses it this way:
Rabbi Kalman permits no doubting, no questioning of God,
because somewhere in the recesses of his mind he knows how furiously angry he is at God for the death of his family, and he knows that any questions will end in an angry outburst against God, maybe even the rejection of God and religion entirely. And he can’t risk that happening. Is Rabbi Kalman afraid that his anger,
should he ever unleash it, is so powerful it would destroy God? Or is he afraid that, should he ever reveal how angry he is, God will punish him even further?
Being freed to release his anger at his earthly father helped restore Michael Gordon to mental health. Now, someone needs to tell Rabbi Kalman, and perhaps many of us today, that it is alright to be angry at God. Being angry at God won’t hurt him, nor will it cause him to unleash his judgment. He is big enough to handle it.

Walter Brueggemann, in discussing this same biblical theme of bringing our anger directly to God, points out that it is in fact God’s desire that we do so. God not only allows us to tell him that we are upset with him, but he wants us to do that. If we don’t recognize this freeing biblical invitation, we tend instead to suppress our anger and frustration, only to either grow bitter or to eventually take it out on other people around us. That buried anger and disappointment shows its ugly head in our inability to receive God’s love and grace. That buried anger and disappointment at times emerges in the way we treat others—lashing out at our spouses or children. That buried anger and disappointment consumes us, when all the while we are asked to dump it out. Job does just that, and believe it or not, it helps him a great deal. Only after acknowledging and facing his intense anger with God is Job in a position to hear God again.

In addition to processing his anger with God, defending his integrity provides Job with a renewed sense of confidence and strength. It is a wonderful thing, for example, to lay down at night with a clear conscience, free of guilt and a sense of personal failure and disappointment. How different that is from that weighty and lingering burden that accompanies sin and wrongdoing. In The Gulag Archipelago, Russian dissident Alexander Solzhinitzen speaks to himself as he is taken into the Soviet detention camp. “They can take my freedom, my health, and my life, but they can never touch my soul nor take my integrity from me.” “This one thing,” he continues, “sustained me through that brutal ordeal.” So, too, for Job. His continuing sense of his own innocence is largely all that he has left, but it is enough to carry him a long way.

29 years ago, Steven Crawford was accused of killing John Eddie Mitchell. From the beginning, he agreed with the authorities and defended his innocence, even to the extent of turning down a deal that would have set him free. Just this past March, 29 years after his initial conviction, Steven Crawford was exonerated and released. Now, he has both his freedom and his integrity. Though grossly mistreated, he can hold his head high.

As for Job? Time will tell. He has released his anger at God, defended his integrity, and issued a challenge. “Bring the evidence, Lord, or drop the charges.” As you and I sit on the edge of our seats, I am as anxious as Job must be to see if and when God might respond.