Railing against God

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Recently, retired-Pastor Loren Seibold wrote a magazine column about his palpable anger at God in light of the horrific earthquake in Turkey. The article is part lament, part critique of bad pastoral and theological responses, at times it sounds like a rant. Bear with that last comment. It’s not an attack. After all, in the face of inexplicable pain and suffering a rant is excusable. How can any of our responses (short of compassionate Christ-like action) sound reasonable or sensible? If much suffering and evil is irrational then making sense of it is almost impossible. If we speak at all with any emotion corresponding to the tragedy then we will all likely rant!   

Seibold makes many startling statements. He talks about having a “hard time forgiving God” and that “God appears not to give a damn.” The suffering happens “while God does nothing.” He bemoans how “we make excuses for God.” Most distressingly he states “It is time to be angry with God.” And follows it up with “We are justified in that.”

I don’t necessarily agree with the language or all of the sentiment. It’s easy to feel offended for God and to rush to His defence. We may react and see this as simple blasphemy. And yet the strangest thing about all this is that there is biblical precedent for something like this. While not trying to equate Seibold’s words with those of the Bible writers, nor seeking to implicate or exonerate him, he provokes us to face suffering in the light of a fuller range of scriptural testimony. Astonishingly, people in scripture routinely complain to God and even lay blame on Him. Brace yourself and listen to the inspired word of God!   

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3 Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” (Habakkuk 1:1-3).  

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1).1

I do not think such verses are given to lead us to a casual indulgence in diatribes against the Almighty. I will admit I have that concern. The more careless and performative among us may do just that. And there are plenty of examples in Scripture of people who unjustifiably and sinfully complain against God amid hardship (see Numbers 11:1; 21:5; Deuteronomy 1:27). We don’t want to do that. And yet Scripture also seems to invite us to genuinely feel and speak honestly to God about great tragedy in confronting and raw ways rather than numbly ignoring it or offering insincere religious clichés we don’t believe in response.   

The chief of those who complained against God is His dearly beloved friend Job. On first reading what a strange book it is! Why did God put a book in the Bible that contains such harsh criticism of God? (Don’t believe me—read the book!). I’m sure it is not only me who has winced and worried about Job’s complaints about God. I still don’t fully understand but the more I encounter the difficulty that is life, the more convinced I am of the Holy Spirit’s wisdom in including Job in the Bible. Since then every sufferer has found in the Bible someone who genuinely understands catastrophic pain and doesn’t mince words about it. Clearly, God is bold. Mercifully God is sensitive and honest. God uses the words of a most beloved friend to say what we think but don’t dare to express. And we even get to see God respond to Job’s explosive words.  

Job’s dynamic experience, forged in heartbreak, pain, and unfairness, offers us real help. There is more than one Job in the book. There is the pre-tested Job, faithful, poised, pious, and a very, very, good man (Job 1:1-5, 8). His faith and theology are strong but harbouring a defective plank that will exasperate his soon-to-materialise tragedy. There is also devastated Job, overwhelmed at the sudden cascade of horror. Stunned in shock he movingly manages to maintain his faith (Job 1:20-22; 2:9-10). But realistically he is unable to process the unthinkable avalanche of loss. Then there is brooding, crushed, anguished, infuriated Job (Job 3-31). Oscillating between heartbreaking recollections of God’s friendship and angry denunciations about God’s callous indifference and unfairness.

I’m nervous about and yet totally drawn to this Job. He makes me cry in pity, cringe with discomfort, and gasp with unease. Next, there is tiny exhausted Job before the majestic whirling God-in-a-storm (Job 38-42). An intimidating yet attentive God who respects Job so much that He appears before him and speaks directly to him. This Job, still feeling all his pain, begins to think and feel in new ways, as he looks, eyes wide open, he dimly perceives levels of complexity in creation vastly beyond his ability to fathom. He starts to perceive colossal clashing forces of order, chance, interdependence, wildness, chaos, and most concerningly, a titanic supernatural malevolence roaming through this very creation that God must manage.3 Squinting into the storm he looks as God reveals that our reality is an almost infinitely tangled knot. God alone has what it takes to untangle the knot but it is not yet, and meanwhile, God must govern the whole mess and every random event and independent being within it. It dawns on Job and us that all this is beyond our ability to even comprehend half of the how, why, what, and when.  

The whirling words and vision sink in. Job feels the depths of his ignorance, presumption, and rashness flood over him. But he no longer feels alone or unheard. And surprisingly he finds that though cantankerous and at times totally wrong, he is nevertheless warmly affirmed and vindicated by the God he railed against. Finally, there is tested-and-tried-Job (Job 42). Wounded but restored. Hurt and healed. Generous to his friends. Now an even closer friend of God. Deeper in righteousness, goodness, and wisdom, not because he thinks his suffering was good and he understands it all, but because he doesn’t know the explanation but he knows that God does—and that God is for him and is and will deal with it somehow.  

I always end the book of Job comforted but exhausted. And, unsurprisingly, I end it shocked and surprised again. Did I read it right? Are my eyes deceiving me? After Job has blamed and complained against God so much, did God really turn around and say that Job had spoken what was right about him (Job 42:7)? This has perplexed every reader of God. What is going on? Is God distant, uncaring, and unfair after all? It can’t be. After all, God also rebukes Job’s speech for blaming Him for wrong and discrediting His justice (Job 40:8). What is going on?

I think both God’s rebuke and his affirmation of Job are correct.

You see, Job and his friends both believed that God worked rigorously on the basis of a simple doctrine of retribution. You do bad, then God ensures bad happens to you. Divine justice is always retributive and God meticulously controls life so every bad act is punished. If you suffer—you deserved it. If this is God (it’s not) then everything Job said against that God is true. 

Job’s undeserved and unfair suffering made him confused but eventually, he was brave enough to conclude that such a God is amoral and unjust. Job spoke right about (that deflective) God. But when Job realised his poor theology of God and his inadequate view of the world he immediately repented and confessed his ignorance (unlike his friends who held onto their theology of God even when Job had effectively shown it up as wrong). By repentance, Job spoke right about (this true) God. Even amid his unbearable pain Job was honest and open—he maintained his integrity as God said he would (Job 1:8; 2:3)! (And thus, Satan was exposed and thoroughly defeated as a vengeful malicious lair). Job spoke the truth about bad theology of God and later acknowledged his own wrongful conflation of God with that theology when he received a fuller explanation. Job’s friends should have listened to him when he told them to explain less and care more (Job 6:14-21; 16:1-5; 19:1-6,21-22). 

Each of the versions of Job we see in the book is loved by God. Is Loren Seibold a horrible blasphemer? Or is he also some version of one of these Jobs? Beware the trap I laid! Don’t answer! Don’t be one of Job’s “friends”.

Instead, which Job are you? In this world there is a scepticism and anger which is aimed precisely at undermining God. There is also an anger that is sprayed at evil, injustice, and suffering, and ends up hitting God. Job had the latter. God is not thin-skinned. He is big enough to handle it. Truth be told I’m not worthy to be considered any of the “Jobs” in the book but I know I need to sit with him on his mound of ash, and with all the other sufferers—in Turkey and elsewhere—and care for him. Will you join me?  

Dr Anthony MacPherson is a Lecturer at the Avondale University seminary

[1] Italics are mine. See also Numbers 11:11-15; Psalm 142:2 and especially Psalm 88 where it is unrelentingly negative in its description of God’s activity (and lack of it) without barely one positive word of hope.  

[2] This is leviathan—an arrogant serpentine dragon (sound familiar?).  

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