April 13, 2003

Job’s Lament: Wishing You Had Never Been Born
Job 3

In a recent song that climbed the music charts, the popular band, Five for Fighting, sing about the renowned hero, Superman. In this song, however, Superman is not capturing bank robbers, freeing hostages, or lifting trucks off of wounded victims. In fact, he is not flying around at all. Instead, he is depressed, apparently tired of the visibility and the overwhelming responsibilities that come with being a super hero. Speaking to himself in the middle of his pain and frustration, Superman cries out:
I can’t stand to fly
I’m not that naïve
I’m just out to find
The better part of me

I’m more that a bird…I’m more than a plane
More than some pretty face beside a train
It’s not easy to be me

Wish that I could cry
Fall upon my knees
Find a way to lie
About a home I’ll never see

It may sound absurd…but don’t be naïve
Even Heroes have the right to bleed
I may be disturbed…but won’t you concede
Even Heroes have the right to dream
It’s not easy to be me
Something must have happened to ground our super hero. Something tragic apparently brought him back to earth.

So it is with Job here in chapter 3. As the curtain rises and Act Two begins, Job finally speaks after a long period of silence. In hearing these words that are addressed only to Job himself—Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and even God are merely bystanders at this point—we quickly realize that the cumulative effects of Job’s tragic experiences are beginning to overwhelm him. Whereas he had earlier said such things as “Naked I came from my mother’s whom, and naked shall I return there; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD;” and “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” now his feelings begin to take on a new color.
It is like that sometimes, isn’t it? The pain of a loss or tragedy rarely settles in for several days. There is an initial shock period—a time of surface adjustments—that typically follows difficult experiences. I remember vividly the death of my grandmother when I was eleven years old. The night before her funeral, many of us in the extended family stayed with my grandfather in his house. I’ll never forget how much everyone laughed that night after going to bed! My aunts were telling jokes, and everyone throughout the house was giggling as though it was Christmas Eve and we were eagerly awaiting the opening of presents the next morning. This felt odd to me as an eleven year old who had just lost his first close relative.

I saw something quite different at the funeral and the days immediately following, however. I watched carefully as my mother and her sisters reacted altogether differently when the reality of my grandmother’s death began to sink in. Grandma wouldn’t be around anymore. We had eaten the last of her homemade short cakes, covered with honey and dipped in a cup of mint tea. We had seen her draw her last pig with a squiggly tail, drawings that made her a sort of Norman Rockwell in our eyes. Grandma was gone, and the laughter had given way to tears.

Be careful to remember that when you either experience tragedy or loss, or when you reach out to someone else who has. It takes a little while for the pain to settle in. Grieving people need our love and care, not only the day of suffering, but perhaps even more so the following week or even month. Job initially responded to his losses with heartfelt piety, and he sat quietly with his three friends for seven days. But afterward—please forgive me, but I don’t know how else to say it—all hell broke loose.

Notice what he finally says when his situation gets the best of him. With no genie present, Job offers three wishes, arranged chronologically. First, he wishes that he had never been conceived and born. In vv. 1-10, he curses the night of his conception and the day of his birth. In so doing, Job graphically reverses the imagery of creation that we find in Genesis 1. Whereas God had said, “Let there be light,” Job responds, “Let that day (his birthday) be darkness.” Further, although God created the stars in the heavens to bring forth their light, Job longed for them to burn out. “Let’s just strike my birthday from the calendar,” Job tearfully suggests.

It may seem odd to us for Job to curse the day he was born, a day that occurred decades before and was no doubt followed by years and years of joy and contentment. But in Job’s mind, it was “that day”—that cursed day—that made his current suffering possible. After all, Job’s recent losses seemed to happen out of the blue. He simply cannot attribute them to or blame them on any other day or event. Were it not for his birthday, Job therefore concludes, none of this would ever have happened.

Some of us here this morning have perhaps sincerely wished at one time or another that we had never been born. Others among us might not need to go back quite that far. There is another day somewhere in our past, another event or experience that has deeply affected us and brought pain and suffering into our lives. The day one of our parents abused us. The day someone said something so cruel to us that we never quite recovered. The day we made a tragic mistake—we took drugs or looked at pornography for the first time. The day we wasted a priceless opportunity. The day someone we deeply loved rejected us and walked away. The day the church—perhaps even a pastor—let us down. The day…. Like Job’s birthday, that day has become our defining moment. It has left its scars all over us, and we wish that such a day had never taken place. “Cursed be that day,” we have cried more than once. Job places his intense frustration about the past on the table as he takes his first steps toward moving on. Have we? If you are still haunted by the past, your healing probably begins back there as well.

Job may have wished that he had never been conceived and born, but he was. So, he next wishes in vv. 11-19 that he had either been stillborn or died at birth. Listen to the stirring questions he asks:
Why did I not die at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
Why were there knees to receive me,
or breasts for me to suck?
Had he died at birth, Job concludes, he would now be at rest with everyone else—rich and poor, slave and free—who has left this earthly life.

But Job was not stillborn. He did not die at birth. There were knees upon which he lay, and there were breasts for him to suck. As a result, he lastly wishes that he could die right now. “Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul?” he asks. Rather than clinging tenaciously to life, as many people I’ve seen, Job longs for death more than he would for hidden treasure. Yet it escapes him. And his frustrations only increase as he comes to believe that God is pointlessly keeping him alive in spite of everything that has happened. Whereas the adversary considered God’s “hedge” around Job to unfairly insulate Job from all hardship, Job considers God’s “hedge” around him to unfairly prolong his pain and hardship. Aren’t his closing words pathetic in v. 26? “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes.” What a striking contrast to the closing words of the creation account in Genesis: “…and he (God) rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done (2:2).”

Job’s three wishes are alarming, to say the least. He has come to the point where he very much wants his life to end. But what really lies behind the wishes? What is going on in Job’s heart and mind? What is causing all of this pain and frustration? At one level, the loss of his family and possessions, of course. What Job went through would be enough to throw any of us off our feet. I think that there is more to it than that, however. Job’s entire view of the world and how it works has been shattered. His intellectual and theological framework has been totally dismantled, and he must scramble to pick up the pieces. Job, in other words, has passed from what Walter Wink, borrowing from Paul Ricoeur, calls “fusion” to “distance.”

In a state of fusion, everything fits neatly together. Everything works just the way it is supposed to. No ambiguities. In Job’s case, he had everything going for him—the perfect life. Then, suddenly, the world changes and a sense of distance emerges. For a child, it is discovering for the first time that your father isn’t the strongest person in the world or your mother isn’t the best cook. How is a child to respond to such earth-shattering news?!? For Job, it is encountering the shocking realization that nothing in this earthly life is guaranteed. It is recognizing that pain and suffering are real, even for the most godly people. It is discovering that his theological box—his understanding of God and how he works in his life—is almost certainly deficient.

Each semester, I hand out a syllabus on the first day of class. In that syllabus, I spell out class expectations and assignments, and I provide a grading scale for all of the students to see. Imagine a particular student checking her grades at the end of the semester. To her surprise, she discovers that she received an “F” in my class when she had anticipated an “A.” After all, she did earn 499 points out of a possible 500. She calls me on the phone, fully expecting me to recognize an error in my calculations and change her grade from an F to an A. To her horror, I respond that I knowingly gave her an “F.” “I never intended to follow the scale in the syllabus,” I continue. “I was just kidding back then.” Imagine how that student would feel.

That must be how Job feels, although on a far grander scale. He had lived a righteous life. He had played the game according to God’s rules. And now, everything falls apart. Was God kidding, too? Can a person even know what God expects? Job’s neatly ordered world isn’t very neat anymore, and the confusion—the distance—is almost more than he can bear.
It was for Superman, too. “It may sound absurd,” he cried, “but don’t be naïve. Even Heroes have the right to bleed.” Job is hurting. Job is bleeding. His blissful world has taken a tragic turn for the worst. In a way, it reminds me of the last days of Jesus’ life. Shouts of joy and palm branches, soon giving way to rejection, abandonment, and even death on a cross. Job’s lament, however, is not the closing act of the drama, anymore than the crucifixion is the final scene in the life of our Lord. It may seem that there are a lot of pieces to put back together again. In Job’s life. In my life. Perhaps in your life, too. But let me remind you of one thing. Easter is just around the corner. That same Jesus who will soon die on our behalf will also live again, and he assures us that one thing in life is guaranteed after all—his loving and transforming presence. Our Lord longs to lead each and every one of us from fusion, when everything in our lives is neat and tidy; through distance, when everything in our lives seems to fall apart; to communion, when we are in fellowship with him, no matter what.

Joseph Bayly, who suffered through the loss of three sons, captured this sense of God’s presence in his “Psalm at Children’s Hospital.” It reads like this:
I find it hard Lord
agonizing hard
to stand her
looking through the glass
at this my infant son.
What suffering
is in this world
to go through pain of birth
and then through
pain of knife
within the day.
What suffering
is in the world
this never ending
pain parade
from birth
to death.
He moves
a bit
not much
how could an infant
stuffed with tubes
cut sewed and bandaged
move more than that?
Some day he’ll shout
and run a race
roll down a grassy hill
He’ll sing
and laugh
I know he will Lord.
But if not
if You should take him home
to Your home
help me then remember
how Your Son suffered
and You stood by
agonizing watching
to bring all suffering to an end
on a day
yet to be.
Look Lord
he sleeps.
I must go now.
Thank You for staying
nearer than oxygen
than dripping plasma
to my son.
Please be that near
to mother
sister brothers
and to me.