on the adversary behind the curtain

This entry was posted by on Wednesday, 22 February, 2012 at

In our little corner of the world we just spent a few weeks exploring the foothills of the strange and powerful Book of Job. Early on in the drama, after Job has lost his wealth and his children, we hear these familiar words from his mouth: 

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will  depart.

The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.

These are among the best-known and best-loved words in Job, and we often take them to be straight-forwardly admirable – this is how a faithful person should respond when tragedy strikes. Job’s words have even found their way into the bridge-bit of one of our best modern worship songs. And I’ve no doubt there’s a lot of courage and wisdom to be found in those words.

It’s just that the more I look at the story surrounding these words, the more I’m not quite sure how to respond to them. For one thing, Job’s confidence doesn’t last very long – as his suffering intensifies, his next expression of confidence in God sounds a lot more wobbly, and a few verses later he is cursing the day he was born and wishing he was dead. The impression I’m left with is that the words above represent a kind of conventional, expected religious response – the one Job had been trained to give, the right answer. He uses it as an instinctive response and protective wall, but it isn’t able to hold back the rising flood waters of doubt and anger and confusion which soon burst through. To find a place of honest hope, Job will have to give voice to all those dark emotions and wrestle with God. So I find Job’s later expressions of trust (“though he slay me, yet will I hope in him”) more honest, more hard-won, more powerful.

But that’s not all that bothers me about Job’s initial response. What troubles me most is the way Job bluntly attributes the death of his children to the direct action of God – Yahweh gives and Yahweh takes away. It troubles me on a personal, emotional level, but I think it’s also in tension with the opening scenes of the drama of Job, where we saw God in dialogue with the Adversary. There we heard the Adversary provoking God to “stretch out his hand” against Job, but God responded by giving the Adversary permission (within set limits) to attack Job. For those of us who have overheard this dialogue behind the curtain, it seems clear that it wasn’t the hand of God that struck Job, but the hand of the enemy.

Of course that distinction doesn’t take away the dark questions about why God gives such freedom or permission to the enemy to hurt and kill and destroy. But it seems to me like a vital distinction emotionally and pastorally,  for the sake of our hearts and our view of the Father’s character. We need the space, given by the drama of Job, to say in the face of tragedy that  “this is not how it’s supposed to be”, “this is not good”, this is not the good and perfect and pleasing will of God. We do damage to our hearts when we look at something damaged and twisted and evil (demonic) and try and find a way to call it good.

As Mrs Landingham once said, in the greatest episode of the greatest TV show ever made, “God doesn’t make cars crash and you know it.”

A friend of mine, who has walked through his own Job-like story with the death of a brother and a father, recently wrote these words after losing a friend:

Blessed are those who mourn, who do not go gently, nor call that night “good”, who rage when brushed by Lazarus’ stench, who defy every story’s ending, who contradict Job (who hadn’t seen the adversary behind the curtain), and say, “He gives and gives and gives us life, he does not take away”, whose final enemy, like Life’s author, is death, whose love, like His, is stronger than the grave. Who do not confuse the will of God with the will of His enemy, but, like Jesus, weep bitterly at the tomb and mock its clutch by calling it “sleep”. Blessed are those who mourn, for their greatest comfort will be the surprising joy and wholeness of hearts long torn, when the cloud of lost onlookers is to flesh reborn and once again we embrace and our eyes meet, never again to be still.

 Terence Malick’s breathtaking film, The Tree of Life, is deeply influenced and inspired by the book of Job – but Malick chose to put the words “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away” on the lips of the “Job’s comforter” character, mumbling useless platitudes with no power to comfort a mother who has lost her son. That seems kind of right to me. I’ll confess I’ve always struggled to understand why some people seem to consider it a comfort when a child or young person has died to assert that “God took him.” These words from David Bentley Hart seem to me to strike a better, deeper, more hopeful and healing note:

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy…We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

And now, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

2 Responses to “on the adversary behind the curtain”

  1. canal ways

    it’s hard I guess….basically it all boils down to faith, a whole-istic faith that God is good. I guess that whole faith is the thing that is hard for me to line up when I see terrible things happening….

  2. Pauline Wilson

    Thanks for this, JM. I found it thought-provoking when I first read it and I have come back to it today because I’ve been reading Larry Crabb (‘Inside Out’) where he also speaks of Job. He thinks that even when Job comes to the point of saying ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust him’, he still has not come to a place of trusting God because the rest of that verse is ‘I will surely defend my ways to his face’. According to Crabb, the issue is not whether life is unfair (and thank-you for dispelling the myth that we must say it is in order to be good Christians), but rather what we do with the unfairness, the injustice, the pain and suffering. It is proper and right to pray for relief – but, according to Crabb, we cross a line when we demand relief. ‘In the midst of terrible calamities, events that God specifically allowed to take place, Job had developed a demanding spirit…..the necessary foundation for any relationship with God is a recognition that God is God and we are not….Desire much, pray for much, but demand nothing. To trust God means to demand nothing.’ Crabb quotes a noted saint who on his deathbed was asked how he handled the fact that God was allowing him to die despite the prayers of thousands for his healing. He replied: ‘When I am in the presence of God, it seems uniquely unbecoming to demand anything.’

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