God’s Fixed Courtroom

BY BRUCE HILLMAN

“When his life was ruined, his family killed, his farm destroyed, Job knelt down on the ground and yelled up to the heavens, "Why God? Why me?" and the thundering voice of God answered, ‘There's just something about you that pisses me off.’” ― Stephen King, Storm of the Century: An Original Screenplay

A crisis of faith always occurs when we begin to believe that God has betrayed us. When the good God we know becomes the harassing God of experience, doctrine and life clash in an explosion of frustration, doubt, anger, hurt, fear and hopelessness.  Job expresses it best:

“I loath my life: I will give free utterance to my complaint, I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God, “Do not condemn me, let me know why you contend against me (Job 10:1-2).”  The desperation of Job’s situation has stripped him of all his comforts and distractions. With his family dead, his fortune gone and only a few well-meaning but legalistic friends left, Job’s real crisis is more basic: “But how can a man be in the right before God (Job 9:2)?”

Job’s question is not without context. We already know what God knows, “Job was a man blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil (Job 1:1).” And Job knows it too, often and again throughout the book he maintains his innocence, “I am blameless, I regard not myself; I loath my life (9:21).”  The question that Job asks—how can a man be right before God? is a poignant one. It’s more practical than it sounds. He’s not asking about justification, he’s asking about peace. Job just wants to live in peace. He’s not really sure there is a heaven or hell (10:21-22) but he’s sure that God blesses the lives of those who trust in him. At least that was his assumption. But that hasn’t worked out. Now, apparently betrayed by God Job wants to be just left alone: “Why did you bring me out of the womb?...Are not my days few? Then cease, and leave me alone, that I may find a little cheer” (10:18a, 20).

Have you ever been in the place where you believe God exists, but you’re not sure he’s the God you thought you knew? On the one hand you know what you believe about God is true, but on the other hand, there is a dark little voice you’re afraid might be true: “What if God isn’t really who he says he is? What if he doesn’t exist?” Maybe everything I’ve been taught is wrong?...If you’ve been here you’ve visited Job’s courtroom, a courtroom where the jury on God’s goodness is still out.

In theology we have a special name for this type of situation, we call it theodicy and it means, “the justification of God.” Theodicy makes the audacious claim that God must justify himself to us and should give an account for his actions. And Job is the first theodicist. But he also very aware of a major problem: that anyone who takes God to court will loose.  For in the courtroom God is the judge, he is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-wise. Even if your complaint was correct, even if you were in the right, Job complains that you can’t win, the Court of God is fixed, “How then can I answer him? Though I am in the right, I cannot answer him. I must appeal for mercy to my accuser. If I summoned him and he answered me, I would not believe that he was listening to my voice. For he crushes me with a tempest and multiplies wounds without cause. He will not let me get my breath, but fills me with bitterness. If it is a contest of strength, behold, he is mighty! If it is a matter of justice, who can summon him (9:14-20)?”

For Job, his suffering is evidence of God’s great betrayal. He seems to be O.K. with the idea that he may have fallen out of favor with God on a personal level. But what ultimately bothers Job is that God has failed to be God.  Job recognizes that, “Your hands fashioned me and made men, and now you have destroyed me altogether (10:8).” In other words, because God is the creator he has a responsibility to his creation—a responsibility to take care of them even if they are less than perfect. God’s power and goodness require him to be responsible. And Job knows this, and he holds God to account. But in the end he realizes he has no right to complain or to bring charges, “If I am guilty, woe to me! If I am in the right, I cannot lift up my head, for I am filled with disgrace and look on my affliction (10:15).”

And yet, despite these honest feelings of betrayal, Job hopes in what he knows more than what he feels or experiences, “But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God…though he slay me, I will hope in him, yet I will argue my case ways to his face (13:3,15).”

What can we learn from this? Many things indeed, but I’d like to focus just on one.  Sometimes we too find ourselves in Job’s courtroom where we feel that we are victims of God’s injustice. And we cry out for justice from the God we think has slain us. At the same time, we know things are not so black and white. Oftentimes our spiritual lives are far more complex than we assume, a competing collection of things we know and things we feel, of things we hope in and things that are. It is not always easy to discern what is “real” or ‘true”, especially when we are in trouble.

But the good news is that God’s Courtroom is fixed. I hope what follows does not sound platitudinal, as if it dismisses the genuine and honest cry of sufferers. The Church does not need platitudes and clichés as a response to suffering, and it does not do favors to the brokenhearted by offering cheap solutions. The Bible itself takes suffering very seriously and complexly. Books like Job and Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and the Psalms do not presume to offer quick, terse answers to these deep questions.

But…all these questions find their answer in Christ. That is not a platitude it is a contextual center, a GPS location in the map of suffering. Just as all roads lead to Rome, all suffering leads to Christ. God’s Courtroom is fixed in the very real sense that Christ has suffered too and that such suffering has been for us. That suffering has not only merited us our salvation and forgiveness of sins, it has gifted us the presence of the Spirit who helps us in our weakness, it has given us adoption as sons and daughters, it has sanctified us and given us new life. In Christ all things are being made new. The coming Kingdom of God announces the good news that suffering is being put away, that God and man will dwell together and that there will be no more crying or tears anymore (Rev. 21:4). If you find yourself in God’s Courtroom, be joyous that the verdict is fixed. And be joyous that next to you in the dock is the Son of Man.  Dorothy Sayers said it best in her,  Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World. She understands that we may never know the specific “why?” to our suffering (Job never did either) but this sums up nicely why the “why?” matters a little less than we might think. In the end, the answer to Job’s suffering and ours, is that God is making things new, that God has condemned suffering to die, and that he shares in our sufferings as the suffering God:

“For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not extracted from Himself. He has gone through the whole human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”

Amen. 

Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.

Twitter: @HillsideLBC