Among the great questions of human existence is the conundrum of why good things happen to bad people and why bad things happen to good people.
The Old Testament book of Job is the place where Scripture wrestles mightily with that eternal question.
The book’s namesake, Job, is a wealthy man living in a land called Uz with his large family and vast flocks. The opening verse of his story describes Job as “blameless,” “upright,” and always careful to avoid doing evil.
Then, one day, Satan appears before God in heaven, and God boasts to Satan of Job’s goodness. But Satan argues that Job is only good because God has blessed him abundantly.
And Satan issues God a challenge: If God gives Satan permission to punish Job, then Job will turn and curse God.
The Lord accepts the challenge and allows Satan to torment Job to test the devil’s bold claim. But God forbids Satan to take Job’s life in the process.
The torment that Satan metes out is heartbreaking. Everything that Job holds dear – his property, his family, his wealth, his physical health – are snatched away in the blink of an eye.
Reduced from living a happy life of peace and prosperity to enduring a miserable existence of suffering and despair, Job laments his tragic circumstances and tries to make sense of what has happened to him.
Job’s struggle for understanding is precisely the mystery that people yearn to unravel: How do we find meaning in our pain and suffering? That question burns even hotter in these our own anxious, infectious days where every seam of life seems to be unraveling.
Three friends come alongside Job to help him make sense in his misery. But Job rejects their anemic wisdom and bumper-sticker theology, which in essence claims that Job’s problems are his own darn fault. Job must have done something really, really bad, and God is now punishing Job for his sins and trespasses.
So, if he simply would be more faithful, then the blessings Job once enjoyed surely will return.
We hear that same advice a lot these days, too: Just have more faith, and your problems will end, and you won’t get sick with COVID, and life will be hunky-dory.
Ultimately, though, as we’ll hear in our lesson this morning, Job comes to a more profound conclusion: God is the source of all wisdom and to turn away from evil is to turn toward the heart of God.
Listen for the Word of the Lord.
“Where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Mortals do not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living.
“The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’ and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’ It cannot be gotten for gold, and silver cannot be weighed out as its price. It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir, in precious onyx or sapphire. Gold and glass cannot equal it, nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold. No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal; the price of wisdom is above pearls. The chrysolite of Ethiopia cannot compare with it, nor can it be valued in pure gold.
“Where then does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding? It is hidden from the eyes of all living, and concealed from the birds of the air. Abaddon and Death say, ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’
“God understands the way to it, and he knows its place. For he looks to the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens. When he gave to the wind its weight, and apportioned out the waters by measure; when he made a decree for the rain, and a way for the thunderbolt; then he saw it and declared it; he established it, and searched it out.
“And he said to humankind, ‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’” (Job 28:12-29)
Professional ministry is very public work, and like it or not, a pastor’s private life also can be very public – particularly if you live in a small town like ours.
And sometimes, pastors take heat from townsfolk for the words they preach, the work they do, and the decisions they make. It comes with the territory, so it surely helps if a pastor has thick skin.
Recent weeks have tested my ability to let harsh words roll off my back.
I’ve taken some heat from a few people outside this congregation, because I’m erring on the side of caution when it comes to wearing facemasks, limiting my movements, and keeping physical distance.
Apparently, in the eyes of my critics, those measures to keep myself and others safe from COVID reflect the ugly reality that I don’t have enough faith.
And if I just had more faith, if I just trusted God more, if I just loved Jesus more, then I wouldn’t have to worry about contracting COVID or suffering any other hardship or calamity. Because God will reward my deeper faith with health and happiness, peace and prosperity.
Well, maybe so. But I don’t buy into that understanding of faith and belief. It’s one of the lies we love to love.
That’s because much of our man Job’s journey requires him to untangle the punitive, quid-pro-quo, tit-for-tat theology that he has absorbed: If I do good things, then God will reward me. If I do bad things, God will punish me.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of that theology in moments of pain, especially in times of suffering that are so awful and unfair.
Listen now as author Kate Bowler describes her own efforts to free herself from that trap.
“In the darkness, even there, there will be beauty, and there will be love. And every now and then, it will feel like more than enough.”
That’s true wisdom to my heart and mind.
God’s love, even when it feels distant, is more than enough to handle every curveball that evil throws your way.
In the end, about all you can do is kneel in breathless reverence before God’s great mystery and expansiveness – before a divine presence of Father, Son and Spirit that’s beyond what we can control, beyond what we can reason, and beyond what we try to make far too small.
Why do bad things happen to good people?
Why do good things happen to bad people?
Why do bad things happen to anyone? Because everyone is vulnerable to the vicious attacks of the devil.
Being a Christian doesn’t cover you in bubble wrap that cushions every blow of evil. Followers of Jesus enjoy no herd immunity from suffering.
But, thanks be to God, the Lord does offer this assurance:
Don’t worry about having “enough faith.” For even faith that’s as small as a tiny mustard seed is enough to move mountains.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message during morning worship on Sunday, October 25, 2020. It is the 11th sermon of his series, “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart.” Commentary, reflection and scholarship by Kate Bowler and Lisle Gwinn Garrity inform the message. (Artwork: Lisle Gwinn Garrity, The Way to Wonder, SanctifiedArt.org)