Flung On the Rubbish Tip
I’ve read a lot of fluffy things while I read Ash’s book on Job. I’ve read books on makeup and pottery, I’ve read chick lit I’ve found on the street. I feel a great need to balance the heavy subject matter of Job with lighter things.
Edmund de Waal’s “The White Road” catches my eye. Three pages in I’m becoming engrossed in a story about broken tea cups, taken on a tour of hillsides of ancient shards in China … when all of a sudden I see Job. It seems there’s no getting away from him! I can almost feel the broken plate in his hand. There he is perched on top of a giant smoking rubbish tip, scraping his sores with a piece of broken pottery. Scrape. Scrape. Scrape. He must be in agony. But his friends have arrived. Maybe this changes everything?
From A Distance
In this blog post I want to explore what real friendship is. What did it look like in Job’s day and what does it look like now? The friends' speeches are such a big part of the book of Job. And they require careful handling. I love how Ash weighs everything, including the first act of the friends - which is their silence.
What must Job have looked like to his friends as they approach and spot him in the distance? Ash writes “ ‘Is that Job? We may imagine one saying to another, ‘so thin, so pale, so harrowed with pain and grief?’ “(p.60)
Ash’s handling of the arrival of the friends is brilliant. I read only recently in a Christian newspaper of this very section of Job being held up as a wonderful picture of empathy. “A ministry of presence”. But Ash blows this out of the water. The friends may come with kind intentions, they travel far and are determined to bring sympathy and comfort but instead, they sit next to him, rather than with him, in silence for 7 days - the length of an ancient funeral. They mourn for him rather than with him. They are appalled. There are no embraces, no kisses or hugs, there is no cool drink, no wiping of tears. They do not hold his hand. They say not a word to him. In the face of Job’s immense suffering they have no way to reach him.
The Gulf Between Job and His Friends
When the first friend opens his mouth to speak to Job, it is kindly meant, however it turns out to be not very helpful. Why?
The friends bring with them a very fixed world view that good people are blessed by God and bad people are punished. Therefore, their thinking goes, if all these terrible things have happened to Job he must have some unrepentant sin in his life. In other words, he’s brought it all on himself.
As a lady in my Bible Study pointed out, this is not so far from the thinking that permeates today when people argue against the welfare state, “If only they worked harder, then they wouldn’t have all those problems or be in that situation…” With no allowances made for the kind of wealth or support networks people are or aren’t born into, orr the kind of tragedies that strike and the different abilities of people to cope or not to cope.
Ash writes, “The controversy in these heated cycles of speeches is between what I have called The System and Job’s anguished discovery that The System doesn’t work. The System represents the default understanding of all morally serious men and women, which is that the universe is moral and that whoever or whatever power (or powers) there may be in the universe rewards good behaviour and punishes bad behaviour. This seems obvious to us by nature and utterly necessary if we are not to be cast adrift into the theatre of the absurd.” (p.177)
But as Ash argues, this view does not take into consideration the work of the Satan, or the cross. With no room for innocent and undeserved suffering, the friends have no room for undeserved grace. For twenty four chapters (4-27) Job and his friends “have a blazing row”. Ash asks, “Who is right to be angry?”
No Room for Innocent Suffering
I remember well writing into the newspaper after reading a heartbreaking story of a couple with cancer who felt pushed out of their church after they had prayed for a miracle and not received one. Of all the pain to go through: to face up to a life cut short, the horrific nature of the treatment, to have your Christian family turn their back on you because you had not prayed with sufficient faith or had some sin blocking your healing was galling. I felt so angry and hurt for them.
I too was feeling raw and disillusioned. Twelve weeks after burying my brother my letter appeared in the paper, “I cried reading your story… I, too, have found it challenging to live with the reality that 'just because you have faith doesn’t mean everything will work out fine'. How hard we prayed for my brother to be healed. Knowing he is in heaven now is not as comforting as it should be and doesn’t take away the pain of losing him on earth at just 19.”
Not As Comforting As It Should Be
As the friends' speeches prove utterly unhelpful to Job it becomes clear that there are times in life when it is just you and God.
Looking back I think, why didn’t the truths I knew about God comfort me more?
I kept going to my Bible Study group. We were doing Mark. It was so hard! Jesus performing miracle after miracle - it just made my heart break! Why didn’t God answer our prayers with a “yes”?
I curse, I exclaim, I withdraw, I meditate, I argue, I talk to the dead. I skulk into church hoping my heart won’t crack in two while I’m there.
I don’t pray for a long time. I see friends. I go for long drives with Coldplay blaring and cry alone outside the cemetery, or on Bondi Road, as soon as I can smell that salt air, I’m crying. This air, brother. Our air. I breath it in. I write. I have amazingly nutritious conversations with strangers. I keep going to church and Bible Study. I keep reading book after book. Fiction mostly. One day I pray again. I take tiny steps.
Reading Ash’s commentary on Job has been one of the most profoundly personal encounters with the Bible I’ve ever had. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like that. Reading the friends' speeches makes me incredibly grateful for the good friends God provided me with at a time of great sorrow. He blessed me with childhood friends who proved trustworthy and true as well as providing new relationships with people who never knew my brother. Some of those friends came from the park where I live, many from church and Bible Study. I can testify that God is good, and he provides.
So what do we do with the friends' speeches? How do their most unhelpful speeches help us to be a better friend?
Don’t Be Like Job’s Friends
Don’t be like Job’s friends who bring only judgment. Ash writes, “God’s truth fits with God’s world.” (p.93) Always look and speak with honesty. Job’s comforters are slaves to incorrect dogma and they have no honesty.
Presence matters. Showing up when someone is in a dark place is very important. Surprising people showed up at my brother’s funeral, and I was very grateful.
But be prepared to bring more than presence. Be prepared to weep with those who weep, to enter into their experience with them. Have a listening ear and allow people the space to be wrong and right at the same time as they grapple with what’s happening. Job’s friends are so quick to shut Job down that they never really listen to him.
Be practical. Bring food. Offer to look after children. Be generous with your time. Be flexible. It is a time of change, and the strength of your relationship will be tested.
Pray. I remember with great thankfulness the many many people who prayed for my brother and prayed with my family. It is noticeable that Job’s friends never pray with him or for him. Pray for your friend. Pray for yourself, that out of you would flow rivers of living water.
Bring Grace, Bring Hope, Bring Peace, Bring Jesus
If there is one thing I walked away with after reading this book it is: Don’t ever let the gospel of grace leach out of your teaching and your convictions (pp.185-186) - that’s where the joy is! My yoke is easy and my burden is light. That’s where the sensitivity and kind words are. That’s where sacrificial love is found. The thankfulness, the humility, the surprise - what wonderful news! - there is a heaven indeed and King Jesus himself will fit us for it’s royal courts. Even so, Come, Lord Jesus. (Rev 22:20)
About this month's contributor, Katie Stringer
Katie loves writing and has had snippets published in Womankind Magazine and the Guardian Weekly. She is working on a book about her brother. She leads a Bible Study at her local Anglican church, All Souls Leichhardt and loves being part of the Leichhardt community. She is married to Andrew and they have two daughters and a son.