by Pastor Doug Kings
Last Sunday I focused my sermon on one of the most fascinating books of the Bible, Job. The sufferings of the modern world, especially in the wake of two world wars, have given this ancient book renewed interest. It is one of the most “modern” books of all those in the Bible (Ecclesiastes would be another candidate for that title).
Job is modern not only for asking about the meaning of suffering but also because, in the end, it doesn’t give an answer! Job’s three “friends” insist that he must have sinned, and his sufferings are God’s punishment. Confess your sins, God will forgive you, and your sufferings will end, Job’s friends counsel him.
There’s just one problem with your thinking, Job replies. I haven’t sinned; I’m a good man. And the story makes clear that is true. He can’t confess something he hasn’t done. Job wants a meeting with God to get this straightened out. But when God appears (in a whirlwind) near the book’s end, what he gets instead is a 4-chapter lecture on the mysteries of God’s universe.
Job gets the point: all of this is above his pay grade. His sufferings, and the workings of the universe in general, are beyond his or anyone’s understanding. At the end, God restores to Job what he’s lost—including ten new children! But his experience of suffering, of course, cannot be erased. God also chastises Job’s friends for their ignorance and arrogance. Thus God, too, rejects the simplistic notion that God blesses the good people and brings suffering upon the bad—a reality most people know from their own experience.
Job is remarkable. It’s prose and poetry are not just some of the best in the Bible, but among the best in all the ancient Near East. Its author (anonymous, of course) wrestles with the depths of human experience in a way that causes his readers to do the same. Job is no “easy read.” It rejects much of the simplistic piety of the Bible itself—piety that remains popular to this day.
In the end, the reader is left with the most fundamental question: Is life worth living—life as it really is, not as we might fantasize it could be? The answer of Job’s author, I believe, is yes. But his answer isn’t obvious or easily arrived at.
The problem many religious people today have with Job, and the Bible generally, is that they don’t know how to read it. Since the Enlightenment, our culture has elevated writing that provides clear and certain information. We want “just the facts,” as Joe Friday would say. While other types of writing, such as fiction and poetry, are still valued, we often not sure what their value is.
Job clearly falls into this latter category. As a result, many Christians, and especially fundamentalists, mostly pass it by. This is unfortunate because Job is full of riches, but not the kind that provide easy answers to create doctrines, creeds, or quick solutions to our problems. Instead, its value comes in the act of reading and listening to its words and entering into its story.
This kind of reading has a long history within Christianity and even has a name, Lectio Divina, from the Latin for “sacred reading.” The website anglicancommunion.org has this explanation:
Lectio Divina is a contemplative way of reading the Bible…. It is a way of praying the scriptures that leads us deeper into God’s word.… Scripture begins to speak to us in a new way. It speaks to us personally, and aids that union we have with God through Christ who is himself the Living Word….
So, Lectio is not Bible study or even an alternative to Bible study but something radically different. The practice understands Scripture as a meeting place for a personal encounter with the Living God. It is a practice we come to with the desire to be changed…. Through it we allow ourselves to be formed in the likeness of Christ; it is about formation rather than instruction.
Reading the Bible in this way, we are listening for what Luther called the viva vox, the “living voice” of God. This is a word that speaks as much or more to our heart than to our head. In the case of Job, it enables us to identify with the character’s struggle, share in his experience, and connect with our own.
After his experience with God in the whirlwind, Job acknowledges his ignorance and lack of understanding. More importantly, however, he says he has a new relationship with God:
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.
In other words, Job has gone from an understanding of God based on what he had learned to a knowledge of God based on his own experience. For that reason, he says that he now “repents,” which does not mean to feel guilty but to change one’s thinking and life direction.
This is the objective of Lectio Divina, or spiritual reading. We don’t read to become “knowledgeable” so we can answer Bible trivia questions or engage in scripture quoting contests with our Baptist cousin. Rather, we read to be spoken to and to appreciate our own experience and life in a new and renewing way. We read to allow God’s viva vox to reassure us of our infinite value, to know we are never alone, to be shaped by Christ’s love that is the foundation of all creation, and to experience our union with God and all things through the Spirit.
Blessings in your life and ministry.