What follows is the manuscript for a sermon, a proclamation of faith shared with our church family in Saint Paul, on the fifth of February, 2012, in response to my diagnosis of MDS, and prior to my bone marrow transplant at the University of Minnesota, and based on the following texts, from the ESV:
Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.
Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults.
For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Then Job answered the LORD and said: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Seven years ago, I was a youth director for Emmaus Free Lutheran church in Bloomington. I was also a music producer working on a worship album for a national youth conference, and I was overworked. I had been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease two years prior, was a young father to a young boy, and was easily fatigued by too much activity, and too much activity was my life.
I reached a point in the spring of 2005 where I realized I had no more resources. I had run out of whatever was supposed to fill me up on the inside and ministry was very hard. Jen graciously gave me the go ahead for a weekend getaway all by myself. So with a Bible and a handful of books, I set out on a solo silent retreat.
I drove three hours north to Inspiration Peak, and slowly climbed the hill, strangely out of breath right from the start. I tried meditating on God’s Word, but I had been so starved of scripture (of my own doing) for so long, that all that came to mind was Psalm 23. So I recited what I could while I hiked up the hill.
When I got to the top, it occurred to me for the first time that the paths of righteousness along which the Good Shepherd leads his sheep inevitably go through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. That is where the paths of righteousness go. That is where the Good Shepherd leads.
All weekend long I read and prayed with the sense of a great struggle looming just over the horizon for me. And all weekend long, God graciously strengthened faith and extinguished fear.
As I left the retreat center at sundown on Sunday, I decided it was time to break silence. Jen had given me before I left a small book by John Piper called the Job Poems. In the back of the book was a CD of Pastor Piper reading the poems. I put the CD in the CD player and set out to take the back roads into town.
I spent the next 45 minutes a weepy mess, with my moon roof open and my windows down, driving 35 down the shoulder so as to avoid traffic I couldn’t see through my watery eyes.
Towards the end of the book, Job’s six-year-old daughter Jemimah is asking him years afterwards about his suffering. It was because of passages like this that I was the mess I was:
“Do you think God made you so sick?” She drew her breath, and swallowed hard. “I know you’d like to think that there’s a foe that hurts and God that heals. And that would not be wrong; but I have sat and pondered months in pain to see if that is true – if misery is Satan’s work, and happiness is God’s. Jemimah, we must bless the Lord for all that’s good and bad.”
“But, Papa, God’s not mean or mad. He’s not our enemy. He’s kind and gentle, isn’t he?”
“Your mind is right, Jemimah, but it’s small. He’s gentle, kind, but that’s not all. I have some friends who thought they knew the mind of God, and that their view of tenderness exhausted God’s, and that severity and rods could only be explained with blame, to vindicate his holy name.”
“So you think it was God who made you sick?”
“I think God never laid aside the reins that lie against the neck of Satan, nor unfenced His pen to run at liberty, But only by the Lord’s decree.”
“So you think God was kind to make you sick,” Jemimah asked, “and take away your health and all your sons and friends, and daughters – all the ones you loved?”
“Jemimah, what I think is this: the Lord has made me drink the cup of His severity that he might kindly show to me what I would be when only he remains in my calamity. Unkindly he has kindly shown that he was not my hope alone.”
Three weeks later, on the Monday morning after Mother’s Day, I went in to see the doctor for a cough. We found there a tumor in my chest the size of a fist tangled up with my vital organs, shutting down my left lung and threatening to do the same to my heart. By four o’clock in the afternoon I had been admitted for what would be the first of 28 straight days in a hospital bed.
I had T-Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma. A kids cancer, mine at 28. Doctors told me I wouldn’t die, that they could cure me. But they also told me the cure would be such that there’d be days I’d wish I would die. Days I’d wish the cancer had killed me. I’d like to tell you they were wrong about that. They weren’t.
But before I understood how hard it could really be, I sought to affirm for the world my faith in a good God in the midst of it all. I blogged. I wrote letters. I upheld and articulated the belief that God was good and that God was God. God was in control, and could be trusted to work all things for the good for those who loved Him. And I was one of those. I loved Him.
Not only that, but there were also expectations, on my part, that God was somehow at work in me, and that this suffering would be the fast track to my sanctification. I had the expectation that complex issues I had struggled with all my life would be neatly resolved and I’d come out looking more like Jesus than ever before. And I wanted that. I really did. I was ready.
And the next nine months changed my life. But not how I had expected.
The treatment ranked in the top ten percent of the most aggressive protocols prescribed at the time. Had I been 20 years older we couldn’t have done it. I manifested nearly every possible side effect. I had panic attacks and depression. I became and am to this day a chronic pain patient. I made regular trips to the ER, spent three of those next nine months in a hospital bed, and most of the rest, in a bed at home.
The hardest part for us was, as the psalmist puts it, hope deferred, over and over again, making our hearts very sick.
There a came a point later that fall when I made a decision. What I could have actually done with this decision I couldn’t tell you. But I can tell you that I was done with whatever God was doing in me. I didn’t care what it was, I wanted out. I wanted the pain to stop, the insanity to cease, and if it meant that I wouldn’t get as polished up as God had intended, that was fine with me. I was done. It wasn’t worth it.
Now, may the weight of this not be lost on you. I may have had some gaps in my theology at this point. There may have been some very significant misconceptions on my part. But what this meant to me on the inside was no small thing. It absolutely broke my heart. I came to understand that I did not have the faith I thought I had. More importantly, the question that haunted me deeply was what now? What does this mean for God and me? If the sheep won’t follow the Shepherd, will the Shepherd still claim the sheep as His own?
Perhaps you know the answer to that question. I think perhaps that I do now as well. But I didn’t then. And it scared me.
What I just described, I’ve since learned, is a common experience shared by Christians of all generations. There is even a name for it: the crucible. The language is borrowed from the process by which precious metals are made pure. The crucible is the container that holds the unpurified liquid metal over the fire in the furnace. Suffering, in scripture, is the crucible in which, instead of gold or silver, it’s our faith that is tried and purified. The apostle Peter writes about it in his first epistle, from chapter one, verses six and seven:
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Our trials and the grief they bring are cast as the means by which God purifies his people, and it’s the genuineness of our faith that is cast as the intended and final product. God is pictured as sitting over His work, brooding over it like His Spirit over the waters of creation. It’s a powerful image used throughout scripture. By the time Peter used it here, it has been seen at least half a dozen times. Among them are these:
“Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.”
“I will also turn my hand against you, and will smelt away your dross as with lye and will remove all your alloy.”
“And I will bring the third part through the fire, refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”
In and out of the fire. Always in the crucible. Always in the dark.
In the psalms we read this in-and-out can happen six, maybe seven times.
Over and over again.
And tradition says the fuller knows the silver’s pure when he can see his face reflected on its surface.
Until that happens, it’s in, and out, in, and out.
It’s a process for which, when you’re the silver, the end can be hard to see.
And when your faith is tried and found wanting, it can feel as if the whole thing’s over. Your faith is dead. You half expect to see the backside of your Shepherd disappearing on the far side of the Valley without you.
This is the crucible. This is the point at which your suffering makes you, as is often said, either bitter or better. Either your heart gets harder, or a little bit holier. What makes the difference? How can you be sure to come out one way and not the other?
I do not know that it’s as simple as I’m about to make it. There’s probably more to it than this. But, nonetheless, I believe the outcome of the condition of your soul largely depends on how you see the heart of God. Is He good? When the house of cards that was your faith falls in the Valley of the Shadow, and you give up for good, will He stay? Are you still His?
How you answer that question makes all the difference.
Suffering scares us. Specifically our own. As long as it’s someone else’s we can think about it theologically or philosophically. But when it’s our own, when we learn firsthand just how awful awful can be, then we’re compelled to think about suffering relationally. We’re driven to think about suffering within the context of a relationship, specifically the relationship that is ours between us and God.
How can he allow such madness? Specifically, why is he letting all this happen to me? Or perhaps you wrestle with it in seeing the suffering of someone you love: if he truly loves him or her, you say, or maybe if he truly loves me, how in the world can he just stand by and watch this happen?
It’s what drove Job to demand an audience with God. His friends had his pain mapped out on a theological level. Job had sinned. He had this coming. Cause and effect, simple as that.
Job took issue with that and said, I don’t care to argue this with you; I want to argue this with God. If God has an issue with me, I want Him to tell me about it. I want Him to give me an answer for why I’m suffering the way I am.
Suffering is this relational issue. It’s an offense. Either I’ve done something to really tee God off, or He’s got to answer for why he’s letting me suffer the way he is. Either way, it’s between Him and me. And I want to know, at the heart of it all, how are things between us? Are we good?
All this is to say there are essentially two questions that are raised by or asked in the crucible of suffering; two questions that wait for answers; answers that will determine whether or not the suffering will be worth it in the end, whether or not this pain will mean anything at all. And if the pain is worth it, if it means something, it can possibly be borne with patience. So these two questions matter very much, and they are these:
Is the heart of God good?
And is the heart of God good for me?
I am tempted to answer these questions with two other questions and be done with it. And if I were to do so, those questions would be these:
Have you seen Him?
And are you His?
If you can answer yes to the second set of questions, you’ve answered yes to the first, and the pain is worth it. It can be endured. Amen.
But if I ended that way, I would be ending too soon, and wasting the opportunity to elaborate on some very, very good news.
So, the first question again: Is the heart of God good?
There are various ways to answer this question, and the best of them demand a pull-all-the-stops, fully orchestrated three-day celebration with singing at the top of our lungs and dancing like there’s no tomorrow. But (my sincerest apologies) I’m a one-man show. And, when you’re in the thick of suffering (and we’re concerning ourselves with speaking into such a situation) a party is not going to land well.
And God gets that. So he’s given us inspired literature like Lamentations 3, the chapter from which one of our readings came today. I remember this chapter capturing my attention when I was 15 years old. It was melancholic, and poetic. Some said it was written by my namesake. In any case, the chapter begins with this:
I am the man who has seen affliction.
In the Old Testament, as God was revealing himself to and through the nation of Israel, it was the Hebrew prophets who had the inside scoop on the heart of God. The writer of Lamentations was one such prophet. And he writes at a time when his people are reaping the painful consequences of their poor decisions.
They had dismissed and dishonored God, and rejected his life-giving rule in their lives, and as a result their lives got very hard. They’d been recently conquered by the Babylonians and were now in exile. Conquest and exile were the fate most feared by Israel. Conditions were beyond miserable. And it’s from that context that the prophet laments what he essentially calls the heavy hand of God on him and his people. The following is taken from the verses preceding the passage we read earlier, and this, spoken of the LORD:
3 Surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. 4 He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver; he has broken my bones; 16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; 17 my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is;18 so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.”
This is something we must reckon with. It must be accepted, yes, with much struggle, but eventually with much comfort, that while God does no evil, He is in a way behind the hurts we suffer. God not only lets us suffer, says the prophet, he facilitates it. A faith that doesn’t take this into account is a faith that is fluffy and unbiblical, and will tragically fall like a house of cards in the face of suffering.
In verses 37 and 38, the prophet asks:
37Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? ?
There are some who would like to let God off the hook when bad things happen. They want to wash God’s hands, say he had nothing to do with it. It would appear here that God doesn’t want off the hook. He is involved. He is behind the bad things.
But it’s this very involvement, what we call His sovereignty, which becomes the basis for the working out of what the prophet might call the deeper reality at the heart of God; and it’s this deeper reality that gives the prophet hope in the midst of his pain (look at verses 21 through 23):
21 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: 22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; 23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
And then this, ten verses later, 31 through 33:
31 For the Lord will not cast off forever, 32 but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; 33 for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.
The deeper reality, says the lamenting prophet, is the LORD’s steadfast love, his hesed. The pain will come to an end, but his hesed never does; his mercies never cease.
Though he causes grief, he has compassion. In the abundance of his steadfast love, love that stays fast, he does not afflict from his heart. He may hurt with his hand, but his heart for us is love, always love, says the prophet. And therefore, we have hope.
This is a mystery, and it’s hard to understand. But it’s there. And it’s not just in the book of Lamentations, it’s all over the place. We’ll look at a passage from Job 19 in a moment, but first, to try to understand this a little, let’s consider a vastly inferior shadow of this from the imperfect paradigm of parental discipline.
Years ago, when our firstborn was growing into his new role as big brother, he would occasionally walk through a room where his little brother was trying to stand, and he would intentionally deck him, leaving his little brother sprawled out on the floor in tears.
If I happened to see this, I would tend to number two, then carry number one to his room, sit with him on his bed and explain to him that what he did was wrong, and then I’d spank him. One little, mildly painful swat to the bottom. While I understand this could be topic for conversation, it’s what happened next that I’d like you to see.
He would cry. And he’d turn his face to me, and with his two small hands on either side of my own, would look me in the eye and say through his tears, Daddy, are you sad that I’m sad?
And occasionally, particularly this first time, as I was a young father who very much didn’t like what I had to do, I actually was crying too. So I’d say, yes, son, Daddy’s sad that you’re sad.
And then he’d wrap his little arms around my neck, and we’d both cry together until neither one of us was sad anymore.
The prophet says in Lamentations 3, our Dad is sad that we’re sad. He may hurt with his hand, but He loves, always loves, from his heart.
The comparison to parental discipline isn’t perfect, as it’s clear in scripture that suffering is not always, nor is it even most of the time, an action of God in response to something we’ve done wrong. Yet the comparison is elsewhere made, especially so in Hebrews 12.
We won’t look at that here, but it’s worth saying that regardless of whether pain comes as some sort of disciplinary measure or not, the effect that suffering can have on the heart is nonetheless similar to the effects of good discipline: it is a formative experience. Suffering forms us. And in the Bible, everyone from the prophets to the apostle Paul says that suffering entrusted to the care of our divine father always forms us for the good. It forms us for the good because the heart of God is good. And he has made and is making us in His image. The silversmith sits until he sees his face in the silver.
In Job 19, we find a passage so similar to Lamentations 3 the comparisons are readily made. Starting with verse 6, a smattering of phrases reveals a man who feels as though God has turned against him. Listen:
6 know then that God has put me in the wrong and closed his net about me. ?7 Behold, I cry out, ‘Violence!’ but I am not answered. ?8 He has walled up my way, so that I cannot pass.?9 He has stripped from me my glory. 10 He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone, and my hope has he pulled up like a tree.
Much like the prophet in Lamentations, Job laments the heavy hand of God, going so far as to say God himself pulled up his hope like a tree. Yet, further in the chapter, he articulates a hope so certain he feels it physically as he shares it. From verse 25:
25 For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. ?26 And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, ?27 whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!
Job describes the hope in the hearts of all the Hebrew prophets: the Redeemer, the Coming One who will make all the wrongs right. The One who will satisfyingly make sense of the mess. The one who will make all the pain worth it in the end.
Job says, he lives, and after I die, I will yet, in my body, see God, with my very own eyes. And as he speaks this hope out loud his imagination is so on fire with the feel of it he says his heart is fainting.
My Redeemer lives. Job spoke those words on one side of an event that gives them meaning in ways Job could only anticipate. We live on the other side of that event where we can remember and actually know with certainty just how true they are.
Is the heart of God good?
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus answers that question with a resounding YES!
The world sees suffering and asks, “Where is God?”
We see suffering and answer, “Emmanuel.”
God is with us.
We have a Wounded Shepherd. Wounded because he bears our own wounds. A Shepherd who stays with his sheep. We see Jesus weeping at the grave of Lazarus; we see Him sweating drops of blood on the ground at Gethsemane; we see the Good Shepherd laying down His life for His sheep, and we say God is with us.
He is with us. He is sad that we’re sad. He knows what it is to hurt. And He knows how to redeem it.
One could say he specializes in making the pain matter; that he alone truly knows how to best bring good from bad.
So is the heart of God good? To the extent that Jesus reveals the heart of God, which the new testament writers say is the fullness of God in every way, we can only say YES, the heart of God is very good.
But is the heart of God good for me?
That all depends.
But it only depends on how you answer the next question, and not how you answer it with your words, but how you answer it in your bones. It’s how this question is answered deep inside you that counts.
You ask, is the heart of God good for me?
And I ask, are you His?
Are you His? That’s the question. Do you belong to Him?
Because if you’re His, you’ve got nothing to worry about.
The Good Shepherd can be trusted to shepherd his sheep. And his Father can be trusted to care for his own.
And His Spirit can be trusted to let you know you belong to Him.
Our passage from Romans 8 speaks of this. In John 10, Jesus says his sheep hear and know his voice, and they follow him. Here in Romans, the apostle Paul says it’s the Holy Spirit that communicates that deep sense of belonging.
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…
The Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, Abba.
The Aramaic word for Daddy.
The Dad who did not spare His own Son, who with Him promises to give us all things, who assures us nothing can separate us from His love.
This is the God we are surprised to find in our pain. Our pain says we should find a God who thunders and smokes, where men and animals die as they set foot on the mountain. For a God who allows such suffering as we encounter in this life must be scary indeed.
And at first He does scare us, and right he should, for, as the prophet asks in Lamentations: “what living man should complain when punished for his sins.” And in suffering we feel the weight of our sinfulness perhaps more strongly than we do when we’re well.
But when the smoke clears, and, instead of finding ourselves alone in the middle of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where we expected to be, we find ourselves mysteriously on top the mountain of God with God himself, we can’t help but laugh a little when we realize we’re not dead, much more the fact that the Father himself holds us in his arms. He has invited us to a banquet, for his Son has made us co-heirs with him in his kingdom, and we are going home.
Ours is a fairytale ending. In our flesh, we shall see God and we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. The silver is pure. The coals in the furnace are cold. The crucible is broken. And there is no more pain. There are no more tears. There is no more death. And it is just the beginning.
We are to consider the sufferings of this present time, which may be substantial, not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us. That is what Paul says.
First John 3 says he who hopes in God in this way purifies himself. This hope in him has a purifying effect. Like the crucible in the flame.
This kind of hope is what I’m banking on.
I was devastated years ago by what felt like the loss of my faith, the death of the faith I thought I had. I was surprised to find God still there when the air cleared. For Him, nothing had changed. He saw what faith I had all along. This, this me with the diminished faith, this was the me He loved. This was the me He wanted, the me He died for. And His pulling back the curtain on my Wizard of Oz faith display was one of the kindest things for me He’s ever done. For one can only truly begin where one really is.
And the apostle Peter would suggest it is not the greatness of our faith that matters to God, but the genuineness. And I’d rather know with certainty, that what little faith I actually have is real, than merely hope the great faith I think I have is great. God has been kind to me in this regard.
The treatment that saved my life seven years ago broke my bone marrow. It no longer does for me what I need it to do. I have treatment-induced myelodysplastic syndrome, and will need a bone marrow transplant to keep it from becoming an incurable cancer.
When I was diagnosed last fall, my doctors at the U wanted to begin with a transplant immediately. We had just lost Jen’s dad in a car accident and were in no condition to subject our boys to my absence just yet. We asked for a plan B, and they graciously gave us one.
And that was to do three months of a mild chemotherapy to clean up my marrow prior to transplant. I finished my third month of that one week ago, and with remarkable results. I will now need less chemotherapy going into the transplant because of it.
I have one more bone marrow biopsy at the U as part of the work up week prior to my transplant. At that time they will test me in every possible way to make sure I’m eligible for what’s planned. If all is good, I’ll be admitted for what will most likely be, if all goes well, a four to six week hospital stay.
Treatment-induced MDS is difficult to cure, and while all transplants are tricky, the particular one I’ll receive lies in the riskier realm, as the incoming stem cells are taken from an unrelated matched donor. The time until full recovery is measured in years. And the potential difficulties along the way are many.
We’ve been here before. We know sickness, even this particular kind of sickness, very well. It will be a new experience in many ways, we didn’t have three boys before, but being sick will not be one of them.
Perhaps I sound resigned, morose, some say despairing. I am not. We have prayed with genuine faith for healing. In part because of the ministry I’ve done in years past, there are near thousands of people praying for me on a daily basis. We’ve seen many of those prayers answered. As such, we feel very upheld by those prayers and by the God who hears them, and we believe he can and does heal, could do so at anytime, and promises that healing will come for us all eventually.
But we are hopeful realists, who live and pray what Paul Miller calls the desert way. We hope for what is not yet, while we work with what is. And what is, is that this could be very difficult. We could be spared the dark days. The actually has the potential of being easier than before. But this could also be very hard.
However, whether one or the other, we deeply believe that no matter what happens, with each comes the possibility that we might see God.
Whether it’s in my healing immediately, or eventually; in the miracle of health, or the miracle of his sustaining presence in our pain, we believe that God is somehow to be seen in this. That ultimately, this is what all pain is for: that men might seek and see God, and in seeing God, truly live.
And it’s on that note that I’d like to end by bringing our attention back to the book of Job.
Job sought God for an answer and got God for an audience. He sought God for the comprehension of his pain. He got God as a companion in it.
Job sought God with his words. Job saw God in a whirlwind.
My question for Job is, is it enough to see God? Is it enough to see God in the whirlwind? To see him in the very thing that caused you so much grief?
In Job 42, God has just answered Job out of the whirlwind, out of the very thing that 41 chapters earlier had took the lives of his ten children. God appeared to Job in this whirlwind, and God has answered Job’s countless questions with a non-answer. With questions, questions, and more questions. Questions that probe the unfathomable depths of God. Questions that expose Job’s utter ignorance in matters pertaining to God and his providential care of his creation.
Job’s mouth is stopped. When he is finally given the floor in chapter 42, he says but very little, sounding a bit like a man gone mad, answering God with one breath and quoting God with the next. This is what he says in the first 6 verses of chapter 42:
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”
Then he quotes God: “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
“Therefore,” says Job, “I have uttered what i did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
Again, he quotes God: “Hear, and I will speak: I will question you, and you make it known to me.”
Then Job, a worn out worm of a man, speaks his last recorded words in this book:
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
“I had heard of you, now I see you. So I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Now this might seem an awful way to bring the conversation to a close, but what can be said, is that Job is clearly humbled by the sharp contrast created by the God he now sees with the apparent weightlessness of his words before this God. Compared to the wisdom and knowledge of the God he sees, his words are such folly he despises himself for having spoke them.
Now, this doesn’t take into account that Job is, in the next verse, commended by God for having spoken well of him, but it does provide the context for Job’s repenting in dust and ashes. and it’s here that a certain strand of scholars would suggest that there is more for us to see.
There is an ESV footnote that suggests another reading of “I repent in dust and ashes” could be “I am comforted in dust and ashes.” I am no scholar, but what I can understand from these notes is that the word translated repent is a form of the same root word that is used to describe job’s friends intentions to “comfort” job in the beginning of the book, in chapter 2, verse 11.
Let me just read this paragraph from the ESVs introduction to the book:
the most important key word in the book is the term “comfort”; the book shows where true comfort is to be found. in 2:11 job’s three friends come to comfort him; in 6:10 job takes comfort in not having denied the words of the holy one; in 7:13 job claims that God will not allow his bed to comfort him. in 15:11 eliphaz claims to be offering the comforts of God, while in 16:2 job calls his friends miserable comforters, and in 21:34 he declares they are trying to comfort him with empty nothings. in 21:2 job sarcastically offers to his friends the “comfort” of hearing him out. the key comes in 42:6: now that God has spoken, job can say that he is “comforted in dust and ashes.” when job’s relatives and friends come to comfort him in 42:11, this is probably ironic: job has already found the comfort he needed in the vision of God’s unsearchable wisdom.
We live with Job in the land of Uz, where our pain becomes the opportunity to seek and see the God called Abba. And like Job, we can cry out for a glimpse of that God that makes it possible for us to find comfort in the very thing Satan’s designed to rob us of that comfort. That glimpse will someday turn into a gaze. And that gaze is promised to all who are His. And it is promised to make the pain worth it in the end.
And may I end with this, in the voice of Job, from the last page of Piper’s Job Poems:
Behold the mercy of our King, who takes from death its bitter sting, and by his blood, and often ours, brings triumph out of hostile powers, and paints, with crimson, earth and soul until the bloody work is whole. What we have lost God will restore ~ that, and himself, forevermore, when he is finished with his art: the quiet worship of our heart. When God creates a humble hush, and makes Leviathan his brush, it won’t be long before the rod becomes the tender kiss of God.