Today is the second in our series on Unanswered Prayers. True confession time. How many of you saw the title and the first thing you thought of was Garth Brooks? His song, Unanswered Prayers, written along with Patrick Alger and Larry Bastian, is probably the best known cultural reference to the topic.
But how many have no idea what I’m talking about? I’ll explain. The song tells the story of a man who runs into his old flame at a high school football game. This was the woman that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, and when he was younger, he prayed every night that she would fall in love with him in the same way that he had fallen in love with her. Without her, he was alone and lonely. With her, life would be perfect!
But then, he sees her at this football game, and they look at each other and neither one is too impressed. They don’t have much to talk about, and the conversation is a little awkward. And as she leaves, he thinks, “This was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with?” And he looks over at his wife and is so thankful for the life that he DOES have…not the life that he prayed for.
Which is, of course, the reason for the name of the song: “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.” If his prayers had been answered, he would be with this other woman, and not the woman that really was a better fit for him.
Garth has a good point, doesn’t he? I talked last week about Harry Emerson Fosdick and his writing on unanswered prayers. He has a chapter in his book on prayer in which he asks why our prayers sometimes go unanswered. There are several reasons, and he handles each on in a different section or essay. And one of them is what I would call the “Garth essay.” He suggests that one of the reasons that our prayers go unanswered is that our prayers are dumb. He doesn’t use the word dumb. He uses “ignorant.” But it’s basically the same point that Garth was making. Good thing that God didn’t answer prayer of this ignorant high school kid who had no idea what he was really praying for! Fosdick suggests that sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers because in our ignorance, we are not praying wisely or thoughtfully.
And that’s all well and good for Garth, since he found someone else, but what about when we don’t? What about those of us who don’t get the someone else? What about those of us who feel like our prayers are still unanswered? What if they will never be answered? What if Garth didn’t get the girl of his dreams…OR his wife who came along later? The high school flame says no, and so does everyone else. We feel alone. The song has a happy ending, but life doesn’t always.
The question here is one of abandonment. What about when we feel abandoned in life? We feel abandoned. This isn’t just about high school flames. Maybe we have been married, but find ourselves struggling in that relationship. Maybe we have been married and lost the love of our lives to death or divorce. But this isn’t just about marriage. Maybe we are happily married and can sing the song along with Garth. But marriage doesn’t exempt us from feelings of abandonment. There is something that makes us feel alone, and maybe even feel guilty for feeling it. But there is something that hits us deep down. We wonder if anyone, ANYONE really cares about us.
That’s that feeling of abandonment that is deeper than high school flames. This is about something more profound. Maybe for some of us, we wonder if we are abandoned by God. Eugene Peterson gives us a clear statement of wisdom: “Belief in God does not exempt us from feelings of abandonment by God.” That’s the real problem here. We feel this existential abandonment. A profound emptiness and “left-out-ness.” We feel we aren’t good enough and aren’t lovable enough. Sure, maybe people tolerate us, but we want something more than being tolerated. We wonder if even God can love us.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in a book she wrote back when she was a local church pastor, suggests this. She writes, “Very few people come to see me because they want to discuss something God said to them last night. The large majority come because they cannot get God to say anything at all. They have asked as sincerely as they know how for answers, for guidance, for peace, but they are sill missing those things. They want me to tell them what they have done wrong. They have heard me talk about God on Sundays and they hope they can make use of my connections. Perhaps I know a special technique they can try or – better yet – perhaps I can lend my own weight to the cause, adding the poundage of my prayers to theirs in an effort to force some sound from God.”
That’s where Job was. In today’s passage, we read the words of a man who felt abandoned. Last week, we read the introduction, in which Job didn’t fare too well. His children had died in an accident. His oxen and donkeys and servants were all killed or taken away; thus he had lost all his money and property. If that weren’t bad enough, he got these sores, these boils, from the bottom of his foot to the top of his head. When we left Job last week, he was lying in the ashes scraping his sores with a broken piece of a pot. A picture of abandonment.
After that, his friends show up. Eliphaz. Bildad. Zophar. These friends saw him and from a distance, didn’t even realize it was Job, due to his state. They wailed and cried aloud on his behalf. And then they came and sat with him. For seven days and seven nights they sat in silence with their friend. Maybe, just maybe, Job wasn’t abandoned after all.
And then they opened their mouths. See, seven days and seven nights they sat with their friend. Silently judging him. Coming up with their set of reasoning why all of this was Job’s fault. Last week, I talked about the overarching belief structure of the day, which suggested that if someone was suffering like this, then they were being punished for something that they had done wrong. It was the assumption of Job’s wife. It was the assumption of Job’s friends. And now they voice that assumption. It was just the way of things. Job was punished because of his sins. By the point of this passage, we are on the third round of Job’s friends repeating their evidence that Job has done something wrong, that all he has to do is admit it and God will forgive. They can’t get away from this assumption…and they can’t keep their mouths shut about it.
Abandoned by his friends, as soon as they opened their mouths and told him how wrong he was. Abandoned by his wife, who not only told him how wrong he was, but that he should just curse God and die. He felt abandoned by his children who had died, and his community who had left him impoverished, and everyone who he ever knew and deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, AND HE FELT ABANDONED BY GOD. That is the big one. “Oh that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!…If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.” Existential, ontological, profound abandonment. Job felt utterly alone.
Job is kind of a depressing book, isn’t it? Look back on the passage today and show me where the hope is. Where the good news is. His children are gone. His wife has given up on him. His friends are taking turns telling him how bad he is. And at the end of the passage, he admits that he feels totally and utterly abandoned by God. Where is the good news? But flip up to the beginning of the passage. I am going to take a wager here at what the good news of this passage might be. I’ll bet you didn’t even notice it. I know I didn’t the first hundred times I read the passage. It’s the first three words:
“Then Job answered.”
That’s it! That’s the good news in the midst of unanswered prayers. When God is not speaking like we want him to speak. When we cannot see God to the front or the left or the back or the right. When God doesn’t answer our prayers like we want him to answer them. But we still have a voice. God gives us a voice. Then Job answered. Job has an answer for the incomplete theology, or for the lonely hours, or for the pain. Say it. Speak it. Answer it. Maybe Job was whiny, or childish, or untrusting, or impatient, or angry, or dead wrong. But he didn’t sin with his lips. Job answered. He spoke. He. Never. Stopped. Praying. His friends told him he was blaspheming God. His wife told him to curse God and die. But he didn’t listen to them. Look again at how we got to this passage: Eliphaz speaks. Job speaks. Bildad speaks. Job speaks. Zophar. Job. Eliphaz. Job. Bildad. Job. Zophar. Job. Eliphaz. “Then Job answered.”
That’s it! The Good news in the text is that there was this little bitty shred of hope in the heart of Job. If he was really completely abandoned, he would have given up. There’s no one to hear his complaints, right? But he didn’t. He. Just. Kept. Praying. He didn’t give up on God because deeper than deep down, he knew that God hadn’t completely given up on him. He knew, deeper than deep down, God. Is. Always. Listening.
Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew word “siyah” – usually translated complaint – connotes much more than petty whining or grumbling. It is indicative of a form of deep prayer. The Psalms use this word and this concept. Several Old Testament narratives speak of individuals who offer “siyah” before the Lord. And throughout Job, this word or this idea to refer to a bitter and heartfelt complaint that is at its heart a prayer to God. It is a way of describing a deep and complete honesty before God. The heroes of the faith all engaged in siyah: Hannah, David, Elijah. The first words reported from Job’s mouth were cursing the day of his birth. And when Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” he was engaging in siyah.
Why is this good news? Because it reveals Job’s trust. Think about it. I don’t know about you, but if I am hurt by a stranger, I shrug it off. I don’t say anything. Okay…who cares? But if I am hurt by a friend, I am much more willing to complain or protest to a friend that I have known for a long time than one I just met. Why? Because I know that I can trust the relationship because it is deeper and more sustained and has been through more ups and downs. I can be honest because they aren’t going to disappear or run away when I tell them my true feelings. The measure of true faith in a relationship is the ability to complain or protest or lament when you are hurt or angry. Deeper than deep down, Job prays this prayer of trust.
Complaint can sometimes be the sincerest form of prayer. A heart of siyah the deepest practice of faith. There is power to complain about our griefs, our struggles, our lives, our world, and not think that we are going to be struck by lightning because we doubted or questioned God. R.B.Y. Scott writes of Job, “Here speaks a free religious spirit, untrammeled either by orthodox religious belief or by dogmatic atheism…(revealing) the profoundest kind of religious faith…a sublime confidence that to ask ultimate questions of God is not to turn away from him but to draw nearer to him”
“Then Job answered.” Deeper than deep down, he knew he wasn’t abandoned. God. Was. Listening. Here’s the good news when it feels like we are abandoned. We still have a prayer. We still have a voice.
Job reminds us that complaint is an act of faith. Anger is an act of emotion, and emotion means we haven’t hit rock bottom yet. Hope is hard to find in the book of Job, but it is there. It is there in the trust and faith that Job has to acknowledge that God has not abandoned him. He is lonely, but not alone. Assaulted, but not abandoned.
She left the football game that night lower than she had been in a long time. Not since her divorce had she felt this alone. She had seen an old high school flame at the game, and while he was always more interested in her than she was in him, it still hurt. There he was with his beautiful wife, and here she was alone, at another high school football game: “nachos for one.” How depressing.
By the time she was home, the depression had turned to anger. She was angry at him. Angry at her – even though she had never met her. She was angry at the people in her Sunday school class. She made the mistake that week of sharing her pain, and everyone just gave useless suggestions and empty cliché answers. “You’ll find someone else. Why don’t you quit moping around and put on your nicest dress and go to the football game on Friday? Just keep praying, sweetie…you have been praying, having you?”
When she opened the door, her anger had reached a fever pitch. She stomped around her dark apartment, angry at everything. She tore up the program from the game. She found her Sunday school quarterly and tore it up, too, for good measure. She stopped short of tearing up her Bible, but the thought did cross her mind. She was angry and everything and everyone…even God. It was the first time that she allowed herself to admit it. She was mad at God for not answering her prayers. Then, the kid gloves were off. She called God every name in the book, yelled and screamed, and begged for answers. She had never said these things to God before, but now something had released in her. She was sure her neighbors were going to call the cops on her, but she didn’t care.
When she was done, she collapsed in the ruins of her apartment. With smiling faces of the high school linebacker corps torn in half looking up at her, and the Smyth and Helwys commentary on Galatians in tatters, she sat exhausted. The anger was still there, but so was…a peace. There in the darkness of the night, she felt a peace that she hadn’t felt when she was playing nice with God. She still felt lonely, but she didn’t feel alone. She felt assaulted, but not abandoned. It still hurt, but she somehow knew that there was Someone who shared the hurt with her. She still didn’t actually hear a voice, but somehow she knew that Someone had heard hers.