Thursday, 11 June 2020

'Sometimes wish I'd never been born at all'

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
14th June 2020

Job 3.1-10; 4.1-9; 7.11-21

I was talking this week to the minister of a church in Scotland,
            who expressed their feelings of intense frustration and powerlessness
                        at not knowing what to say or do,
                        to help people in their congregation
            who are suffering from poor mental health, chronic isolation,
                        and other negative psychological effects of lockdown.

Whilst for some people,
            the adaptations that the past few months have demanded
                        have been an inconvenience;
            for others, particularly those
                        who already had physical or mental health problems,
            they have been traumatic.

And the question of how to respond to those who are suffering
            is not easy to answer.
What does it mean to be draw alongside those
            whose experience of life is both difficult and unfair?

Our readings today from the book of Job
            take us into the world of Job’s suffering,
which is both physical and psychological, and utterly undeserved.
            Through no fault of his own
            his life and health have fallen apart.

Job is sitting in solitary desolation
            when his three friends come to visit.

Initially Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar don’t recognise their old friend,
            but when they do, their first response is both helpful and appropriate:
            they draw alongside, sit with him, and weep with him.

The final verse of chapter 2,
            just before the first of our readings for today,
tells us that:
            ‘no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.’

Sometimes sitting in silence and weeping with those who suffer is enough,
            and I suspect it is always a good place to start.

But then, if the person starts to speak,
            the next task is to listen, and listen well;
which is where the friends start to get it wrong.

Job starts to speak at the beginning of chapter 3,
            and we hear his lament at his misfortune.

He begins by cursing the day of his birth,
            by crying out that he wishes he was dead,
            that it would have been better if he had never been born.

We can hear echoes of Job’s lament in the language often used
            by those who suffer from suicidal or self-destructive thoughts.

I don’t suppose either Patti Page or indeed Freddie Mercury
            knew they were quoting Job in their two most famous songs,
but nonetheless their lyrics capture so much of the anguish
            felt by those whose lives have left them full of regret and pain.

In 1960, the post-war singing sensation Patti Page sang,
            (and if you’re of a certain age you can sing along):

I wish I'd never been born
Don't like this life I'm living
My heart is shattered and torn
I wish I'd never been born

And then fifteen years later in 1975, Freddie Mercury and Queen
            sang similar sentiments but in a very different musical style:

Carry on as if nothing really matters
Too late, my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine
Body's aching all the time
…I don't want to die
I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all

Or, as Job put it:
Let the day perish in which I was born (3.2)

In the lament against his life which follows,
            there are conscious echoes of the creation story
            from the beginning of Genesis:
Where God said ‘let there be light’,
            Job says ‘let there be darkness’ (3.4-5);
where God brings life into being,
            Job wishes he had been stillborn.

For him, in the depths of his pain,
            he concludes that this game called life
            is simply not worth playing.

He didn’t ask for it, and he wishes he could hand it back.

Suicide rates remain worryingly high in the UK,
            with men in mid-life the most likely to kill themselves.[1]
The impact of lockdown on the suicide rate has yet to be fully seen,
            but the Zero Suicide Alliance have trained
                        an additional half-a-million people in suicide prevention
            in anticipation of a growing mental health crisis.[2]

From a different perspective,
            next month I’m going to be attending the launch of a new book
            which addresses the controversial topic of assisted dying
                        for those with terminal illness,
and the question of how to respond to those
            who have concluded that life is not a gift that they want to keep
            is one of the key pastoral questions of our time.

I’m not going to dwell on this aspect of things now,
            but just to note that I’ve written on this elsewhere
            if you want to know my thoughts.[3]

However, one thing we can be fairly certain about,
            is that the right way to respond to a person who is wishing they were dead,
            is NOT to do what Eliphaz does next.

He is one of Job’s friends,
            and after a positive start drawing near to Job and weeping with him,
            things start to go in a less helpful direction.

Job’s friends, sometimes called his ‘comforters’,
            represent the theology of retributive justice.

I said last week that the book of Job is a piece of theological narrative,
            exploring through story form what it means to suffer before God.

It does this by pitting different approaches against each other,
            and in the speeches from Job’s friends,
            we find the microscope turned forensically on the approach
                        which says that Job must have done something
                        to deserve this much suffering.

My grandfather was brought up as a Christian Scientist,
            and was taught that illness
                        is a physical manifestation of a person’s inner sin:
            in other words, if you’re ill, you did something to deserve it;
                        and to find healing, you must confess and stop your sin.

I have often thought it entirely understandable
            that he came out of this as a lifelong atheist;
and I’m sure all of us would reject any suggestion
            that suffering or illness comes as a result of our personal sin. 

However, I don’t think we can entirely dismiss Eliphaz,
            because his speech reflects a human tendency that we are all prey to:
            that of trying to fix things when they’re broken.

His beguiling logic captures the cause-and-effect that we all instinctively seek
            in order to offset problems and resolve situations.

He says:
‘Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?..
 As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same’

He sets himself up as the one
            whose job is to save the situation,
            to work out what’s really going on,
and then to voice that
            to try and make things better.

Eliphaz is the person who, full of well-meaning concern,
            tells someone in pain and suffering
                        that ‘these things happen for a reason’;
he’s the person who tells someone in grief and loss
            that ‘God takes first those he loves the most’.

And whilst I wouldn’t want to deny
            that for some people there can be a genuine comfort in such sayings,
I think the book of Job is challenging their ability
            to offer an ultimately meaningful approach to suffering.

Job is a story that is intentionally subversive of this way of thinking,
            and as the friends’ speeches develop,
their attempts to seek meaning in, and reason for, Job’s suffering
            repeatedly founder on the rocks of Job’s righteousness
            and his unwillingness to play the game
                        of reason-seeking or blame-sharing.

And I find myself wondering how do we respond, how do I respond,
            to those whose lives I do not share,
            but whose suffering I get to witness.

In the light of the Black Lives Matter campaign,
            I have to ask how do I, as a white person,
respond to those whose lives are deeply affected
            by their experience of both personal and systemic racism.

If you, like me, share this concern,
            then we need to heed the warning of Eliphaz.

The temptation is to keep talking
            when we should really be keeping quiet and listening.

The temptation is to demand that the person who is suffering
            does the hard work of explaining their pain to those watching on.

The temptation is to try and fix the situation,
            not by doing our own hard work
            on our unacknowledged biases and prejudices,
but by explaining to our black and minority ethnic friends
            that the situation isn’t really the same
            as they say it is from their experience.

Perhaps it is time to listen to the one suffering again?

Our readings pick up the story in chapter 7,
            where Job makes a significant move.
He stops speaking to himself, and starts speaking to God.
            This is one of the turning points of the book.

In chapter 3 where we left him,
            he was cursing the day of his birth.
But by chapter 7 he is holding his complaint before God.

His words begin as a shriek of suffering directed at God:

16 I loathe my life; I would not live forever.
            Let me alone, for my days are a breath.

But then we get an echo of one of the Psalms of David
            as Job drags theology kicking and screaming into his complaint:

 17 What are human beings,
            that you make so much of them,
            that you set your mind on them,
 18 visit them every morning, test them every moment?

Job cannot fathom why God would even be bothered
            to test him in this way,
            if that is indeed what is going on.

After all, in Psalm 8 those exact same words
            follow one of the great scriptural affirmations
            of the awesome majesty of God (Psalm 8.1, 3-4)[4]

Job’s question is profound: if God is so great,
            why would God bother test humans to destruction?

And so Job rejects Eliphaz’s suggestion
            that there is divinely ordained meaning in his suffering.

He similarly goes on to deny the suggestion
            that his suffering is punishment for sin.

Addressing Eliphaz’s version of God-the-punisher, he says,

20 If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity?
            Why have you made me your target?
            Why have I become a burden to you?
 21 Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?

The book of Job invites its readers to reject a view of God
            who causes suffering for some inscrutable reason that we cannot fathom,
and to reject a view of God
            who causes suffering as punishment for sin.

These do not stand in the light of Job’s righteousness.

And they do not stand in the light of the cross either,
            as God’s son faces undeserved suffering and death.

An understanding of Job helps us understand the cross of Christ, where Jesus suffers
            neither because God ordains it for some unfathomable reason,
            nor because God is seeking to punish Jesus for sin.

Rather, Jesus suffers because we suffer.
            This is what it means to be human,
            and Jesus is God entering into the depths of humanity.

And so we leave Job, for this week, facing his suffering alone.

He concludes his speech:

‘For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be.’

Eliphaz’s attempt to fix Job have failed.

His suffering cannot be explained,
            and it cannot be explained away.
But neither can it be minimised.

And Job concludes by handing the responsibility
            for his continued existence back to God,
not asking God to undo his misery,
            or to fix it, or even to explain it.

He simply acknowledges God’s presence in the midst of his pain,
            as he moves into a place of utter honesty with God
            from the depths of his suffering.

And here again we see an echo of the cross,
            as God is present with us in the midst of our pain,
inviting us to a place of honesty before God
            from the depths of our humanity.

[4]   O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
                You have set your glory above the heavens.
 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
                the moon and the stars that you have established;
  what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
                mortals that you care for them?

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