The Cry of the Helpless
The Cry of the Helpless
How does a person appropriately respond to significant loss? And how can we best respond to people who are experiencing significant loss? Our readings from the book of Job help us to answer these questions and to equip us to live faithfully in the midst of grief.
Chapters Three, Four, and Seven are part of a much larger section of the book of Job. Chapters Three through Twenty-seven record Job’s lamentation over his loss and his friends' attempts to help him. In all there are seventeen speeches given by Job and his friends.
You will recall from last week that Job was a blameless and upright man who feared God and turned away from evil. Unbeknownst to Job, God removed the protective hedge that surrounded him, his family, and his possessions. Satan, the Accuser, was permitted to take everything Job had; only Job’s life was spared. The Accuser thought Job would curse God to his face, but Job proved Satan wrong. Instead, Job bowed himself to the ground and worshiped. He said, “Blessed be the name of the Lord!”
As Chapter One concludes, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.”
But in Chapter Three, Job curses the day of his birth. He did not curse God or himself or his friends. Job cursed his birthday! Job’s grief was so intense that he wished he had never been born. “Let the day perish in which I was born,” he lamented.
Strangely, Job never bewails the loss of his children, possessions, or health specifically. I never noticed this before. As Francis Anderson astutely observes, “His concern from beginning to end is God, not his wealth or health or family, but his life with God. It is because he seems to have lost God that he is in such torment.”
Over the last almost thirty years, I have witnessed terrible losses as a pastor and seen profound grief. I have tasted the bitterness of grief myself. The two main events that stick out in my life are the death of my brother and being abandoned by my first wife when I was in seminary.
My brother, Jimmy, was thirty-three. He was married with a four-year-old son. He and his wife had just built a home. He was an Elder in my home church. He was a beloved middle school English teacher in our community. Jimmy died suddenly of an allergic reaction. His daughter was born three days after his death. When I received the news, I literally cried aloud to God in anguish, “Why? Why has this happened?”
I remember it was wintertime. My ex-wife came home from work one day and told me she had fallen in love with another man. She did not want to be married to me or be a mother to our six-month-old son. And she just left, never to return.
These were terrible wounds. Although they happened over thirty years ago, I carry their scars to this day, but even at my lowest, I never wished I had not been born. I never felt like I had lost my relationship with God.
Job’s loss and grief were of a whole other order of magnitude. His grief was paired with the “dark night of the soul,” a sense of the absence of God.
How can we best respond to a person who has experienced a terrible loss?
Certainly not the way Job’s wife responded. She said, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die" (Job 2:9).
Job’s friends, on the other hand, initially had the right approach. “Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. 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).
When a person you know and love is in deep grief, the best thing to do is say nothing at all. As the Apostle Paul says, “Weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15). Simply being present is enough. They will probably not remember what you said anyway unless you say something really unhelpful.
Eliphaz fell into this trap. He said, “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same" (4:7-8). Essentially, he tells Job, “You reap what you sow; that is what I have always observed.” As one commentator quipped, “Eliphaz deserves the retort, ‘You haven’t seen much!’” It would have been better if Job’s friends had remained silent with him, weeping on the ground next to him. Job’s three friends richly deserve their legacy as the “Comforters of Job,” which has become synonymous with people who make insensitive and unhelpful comments to people who are grieving. It is saying things like, “It was God’s will.” “God won’t give you more than you can bear.” While both statements are at least partially true, there is a time and a place for everything, and it is much better for persons aggrieved to come to these conclusions for themselves than for another person to suggest them. No. The best response is to say, “I’m so sorry. I am here with you. I love you. I grieve with you,” and stop there.
But when sorrow overtakes us, how should we respond personally? We might begin with Job by cursing the day of our birth, but the best thing is to talk to God. This is exactly what Job does in our verses from Chapter Seven. Job says to God, “Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul" (7:11). Job pours out his bitterness to the Almighty. Job wonders aloud why God allowed such terrible things to happen to him. He says to God, “Am I like your primordial enemies the Sea and the Sea Monster?"(vs. 12). Job complains that he cannot even escape into the oblivion of sleep (vs. 13-14). He is so desperate that he would rather die (vs. 16b). He wonders why God is so interested in human beings to begin with (vs. 17-18). Job wonders why God will not forgive him if he has sinned (vs. 20-21a). In these last verses, Job repeats the central question repeatedly. Why? Why? Why?
Job is certainly not a stoic, suffering alone in silence. He says to God in essence, “I won’t shut up.” This is permissive and cathartic for us. God knows everything there is to know about us. We cannot shock God. Job’s friends were shocked by his protestations. Job was feisty, defiant, and demanding, but God was not appalled by his word. In the end, God approves of Job and disapproves of Job’s friends!
When we experience real woes, the best course of action is to pour out our hearts to God in starkly honest prayer. We need to vent. We need to lament. We need to weep. And God will hear us and answer us in his time. We can be relentless in storming heaven with our prayers. We can appeal to God to make our agony endurable. We can ask for meaning in the midst of anguish and angst.
It struck me that this is a good approach, not only to personal loss, but also to the troubles we are living through as a nation. We can cry out, “O Lord, why has this pandemic spread all around the world claiming countless lives and inflicting grievous suffering? O Lord, why have so many lost their livelihoods? Why have so many businesses closed? O Lord, why is there so much racial animus in our society? Where is there so much senseless violence? Why is there so much evil in this world? Why, Lord? How long? Lord, how long will you look on?(Psalm 35:17) Send your Son and his holy angels. Let your kingdom come. Let your will be done here on earth. Come, Lord Jesus! Come, quickly, please.”
It is all right to cry out to God. It is all right to lament. It is all right to weep. It is all right to demand justice and implore God to act. As Presbyterians, we are not used to such emotion and fervency in prayer. Such prayer may seem defiant to us, but as one commentator characterizes Job’s prayers, “It is the daring of faith.”
So, how should we be with people who are in deep grief? We should simply be with them, present and largely silent. It helps to know we are not alone.
How are we to respond when terrible events overtake us? We should grieve vociferously, and we should storm the gates of heaven with honest, fervent, and even defiant prayer. We should not be stoics. We need not suffer alone in silence. God is not threatened or angered when we pour out what is truly in our hearts.
Job gives us permission to offer such prayers. We should also remember that our blessed Lord and Savior practiced the same kind of prayer himself. After being crowned with thorns, beaten and flogged, and impaled to the cross, he cries out, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”
Initially, there was no answer from the Almighty to Job or to Jesus. But after three days in the tomb, God answered by raising Jesus from the dead. After a seemingly interminable anguish, God answered Job from the whirlwind and raised him up too.
The three days in the tomb seemed an eternity. Job’s sleepless nights and anguished days seemed relentless and unbearable. Our personal sorrows can also seem endless. Our national instability and turmoil may seem insoluble. But God is watching. He was watching Job. He was watching Jesus. He watches us. He watches our nation. He will hear the cry of the helpless. In God’s time, he will answer.
In the meantime, let us sit with each other in the dust of this fallen world. And let us be relentless in prayer, petitioning God with renewed fervor and urgency using Jesus’ prayer as our model. O God, prove that you are real in this godless world. O God, bring your kingdom and will to earth. O God, supply what we really need to stay alive. O God, forgive us and help us to forgive others. O God, do not bring terrible troubles into our lives. O God, deliver us, rescue us from the evil that is all around us. In Jesus’ name. Amen and amen!