Prayer from Job 23
“Today also our complaint is bitter;
your hand is heavy despite our groaning.
Oh, that we knew where we might find you,
that we might come even to your dwelling!
we would lay our case before you,
and fill our mouth with arguments.
we would learn what you would answer us,
and understand what you would say to us.
Would you contend with us in the greatness of your power?
No; but you would give heed to us.
There an upright person could reason with you,
and we should be acquitted forever by our judge.
If we go forward, you are not there;
or backward, we cannot perceive you;
on the left you hide, and we cannot behold you;
we turn to the right, but we cannot see you.
God you have made our hearts faint;
the Almighty has terrified us;
If only we could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover our face!”
Words have an incredible power. Words can affect change in ourselves, the people around us, and the world around us. I performed a wedding a few weeks ago, and there was something that happened when I said, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” Those words changed something about the people being married simply by me speaking them. In the same way, the words that we speak can have a negative effect on the people around us because they are inappropriate for the context. I was at a funeral recently and experienced this. The pastor was speaking and said, “In ten to fifteen years I’m going to be in a box too.” It was mortifying. I get the point that he was trying to make, and perhaps with a different choice of words he could have more sympathetically conveyed it, but it doesn’t seem likely. The words that he chose to use had an effect on me where I thought that was an inappropriate sentiment given the context.
So the question is, are the words of Job appropriate speech to use toward God?
Words of encouragement to a hurt friend, words of praise and adoration, screaming “Fake News” as loud as possible. Some words are appropriate while others are damaging, and ought not be said. So the question is, are the words of Job appropriate speech to use toward God? I think this is the primary question of the book of Job, what speech is appropriate to God? We won’t be limited to ch. 23, we are going to look back to the beginning of the book as well.
The beginning of the book of Job, chapters 1–3, are among the most interesting chapters in the Bible. There are so many questions that are raised in just a few short chapters. What are we supposed to make of the fact that Job is likely the oldest book in the Bible when it is a book of suffering? Who is “the adversary”? It’s clearly not Satan as we often think of it, because that would be theologically problematic. What are we supposed to do with God saying, “you incited me against him”? Is God easily manipulated? But in the midst of those questions, there are three moments in these chapters that I want to focus on. The first is the end of chapter 1. Job has just been informed that all of his kids are dead. His response is to tear his robe, shave his head, and fall on the ground worshipping. The first two make sense because they are typical signs of mourning, but the third seems like an odd response. Job chooses to worship in spite of the horrible situation he is in. The chapter ends, “In all this Job did not sin, or charge God with wrongdoing.”
In the second chapter, Job’s health is taken from him and he is afflicted with horrible sores. At the end of this section, we see another response to God based on Job’s condition. Job’s wife tells him to curse God and die. To which Job responds by referring to her as a “foolish woman.” His rebuke of his wife is strongly worded but I think the wording is carefully chosen. The book of Job is in the wisdom literature section of the Bible, along with Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. These books show, in their various ways, what is right and what is wrong. What is the right way to live and what is the wrong way to live. What way is ordained by God and what way goes against God. What is wisdom and what is folly. The book of Proverbs personifies wisdom and folly as two women. And so I think it is no coincidence that Job chooses the word “foolish.” What he is essentially saying is, what you have suggested is not what leads to wisdom — to God. It is what ought not be done. And what she suggested was cursing God.
For responses to God we have worship on the one hand as appropriate language and we have cursing God as inappropriate.
If our question is, what kind of speech is appropriate to God? Then what do we do with ch. 3, the third type of response to God? Chapter 3 showcases the same type of speech that we find in chapter 23 and throughout Job’s numerous speeches throughout the book. Job curses the day that he was born, he wishes that he was among the dead so that his suffering would be at an end, and in ch. 23 he says that it is God who needs to answer for his suffering. The problem is that God has abandoned Job so he cannot find God to question him. Is Job speaking faithfully when he says, “God has made my heart faint / the Almighty has terrified me”? Job’s speech can be categorized as a lament and put simply, it has a long tradition in the biblical story as speech that is used by the community of faith. The book of psalms, the prayers and songs for the Israelites, is filled with laments.
Is Job speaking faithfully when he says, “God has made my heart faint / the Almighty has terrified me”?
What is a lament? A lament is a prayer that arises out of a situation of suffering and distress that faithfully and realistically represents the situation of the person or community offering the prayer. A lament is speech directed towards God that does not gloss over suffering but places it at the center of the petition. Walter Brueggemann writes:
“The lament psalm is a painful, anguished articulation of a move into disarray and dislocation. The lament is a candid, even if unwilling, embrace of a new situation of chaos, now devoid of the coherence that marks God’s good creation.”
Something has gone wrong and a lament brings that disarray to God in prayer.
A Prayer for Victims of Abuse and Racism
There are many who, on the outside are smiling and happy, but inside bear the scars of abuses. They live with these wounds, hidden and unknown to others. They live in fear of being attacked, doubted, or silenced if they speak about these abuses. With pain unimaginable, they live each day, isolated and alone. At times, the darkness of death seems preferable to the darkness of life.
Father, we cry out to you on behalf of those who have suffered at the hands of others. We cry out on behalf of those who have been beaten, raped, manipulated, and taken advantage of. We long for you to act in these situations. Where your light and life seem absent, we pray that it would become evident. We hear the abused crying, “Where are you?” and we long for you to be present.
Father, we also echo the cries of those who have faced the abuses of racism. Throughout history horrendous acts of racism have been perpetrated by those who are claiming your name. From those claiming manifest destiny and committing genocide against Native Americans, the slave owners and the supporters of Jim Crow, to those marching in Charlottesville. Our brothers and sisters in Christ have suffered and continue to suffer under the effects of systemic racism. Through all of this pain and hatred the black church has been a symbol of your justice and love in spite of their oppression. We pray that you would continue to be present, that you would continue to give courage to those who speak out against injustice. We pray that you would break the chains of injustice that have bound so many generations of your people.
Claus Westermann wrote:
“In both the Old and New Testament the lament is a very natural part of human life; in the Psalter it is an important and inescapable component of worship and of the language of worship… It would be a worthwhile task to ascertain how it happened in western Christendom the lament has been totally excluded from human relationship with God, with the result that it has completely disappeared above all from prayer and worship.”
Westermann is right when he says that lament has almost entirely disappeared from the worship of the church. The easiest example — and perhaps it is like beating a dead horse — is contemporary worship songs. Contemporary worship songs are almost universally sunny in their disposition. When was the last time you heard one that said, “Life is awful and it’s all because God has abandoned me.” That wouldn’t play too well on the radio. Psalms of lament have become less common in the lectionary and the book of common prayer. Songs of lament are rare in churches. The language of lament has fallen out of usage in western Christianity.
Why should the church lament? Because our words matter. When the church chooses to ignore lament because it is uncomfortable or not applicable to all people, we are not presenting a holistic vision of humanity’s reality. Our lives are marked by moments and periods of suffering and hurting. To ignore that reality and to solely sing songs of praise is to be dishonest in worship.
When the church chooses to ignore lament because it is uncomfortable or not applicable to all people, we are telling those who are in situations of suffering that their pain doesn’t matter and isn’t worth our attention. When the church ignores injustice, we send a very clear message that those who are affected are not important to us. The world is increasingly experienced as disorienting, and when we do not embrace the language of lament we can not speak to people in their suffering. If we are going to be a church that is relevant and active, then we must not look away when there are cries of pain. We must become a place where such pain is given a voice, and that voice is given a place to speak.
A Prayer for Creation and Economic Justice
People are suffering as corporations turn a profit. Instead of doing what is right, they have built higher walls where we cannot shed the light of justice on criminals. Suffering has become a business model. Workers are exploited and enslaved in a system that uses them for the lowest possible cost, and discards them when the time is convenient. Workers seeking fair compensation are ostracized, beaten, and blacklisted. People created in the image of God are treated as a cog in a machine that can be used until it breaks.
This economic model has kept generations locked in a systemic cycle of poverty. We pray that you would break the chains that have bound us.
While people have been seen as a disposable resource, so too has your creation. Forests are decimated, mountains are stripped of their resources, and habitats for wildlife are destroyed without consideration to the long-term ecological damage. Creator God, we mourn with you over the wanton destruction of what you called good. Creator, without your intervention the creation will continue to lay in ruin. We long for the day when the land is restored to the goodness with which your created it.
Westermann suggested that the psalms of lament, which are characteristic of the practice of lament in ancient Israel, followed a particular pattern. Of course, there were variations, but for the most part psalms of lament had specific elements. First, the address; the prayer was addressed to God. Then followed the lament. The person or community praying would bring their lament to speech. Then there is an odd movement in most of the psalms of lament. The person speaking turns toward God, and the remainder of the psalm is their petition and words of praise. Many of the psalms of lament end with praise. Some have suggested that those words of praise come after God has interceded and answered the person’s prayer, but I don’t think that is necessarily always the case. Perhaps the person is simply praising within their lamentable situation. Many laments arise from situations where we feel as though the world is not functioning according to God’s rule — as though God is absent. So perhaps there is merely a disconnect between what we know to be true, and what we currently feel to be true. We know that God is king even if the world around us does not look like he is reigning. We know that God is good even if life isn’t. And so the prayers of lament provide us with a holistic response to God. We do not shy away from putting to speech those things that are causing us to lament. We don’t avoid suffering or hurt in our prayers. But at the same time, we remain balanced with praise because of who we know God to be.
A Prayer from Psalm 13
How long, O Lord? Will you forget us forever? How long will you hide your face from us? How long must we bear pain in our soul, and have sorrow in our heart all day long? How long shall our enemy be exalted over us? Consider and answer us, O Lord our God! Give light to our eyes, or we will sleep the sleep of death, and our enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; our foes will rejoice because we are shaken. But we trusted in your steadfast love; our heart shall rejoice in your salvation. we will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with us.