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Unanswered Prayers: Theology

Job 38.1-11

It is a familiar scene, perhaps one that has happened in your own home.  A young child is ready to go to bed, has had her nighttime story and a glass of milk.  She says her prayers and sits quietly for a moment as she thinks.  Then with big, innocent eyes, she looks up and asks, “Daddy, why did my goldfish have to die?”

Unanswered questions.  Unanswered prayers.  Over the last couple of weeks we have examined the reality of what happens when we pray to God and don’t get the answers that we long for.  The first week we talked about unanswered prayers for physical health.  And the second week we looked at unanswered prayers dealing with emotional abandonment.  But probably in a three-way tie for first on that list would be unanswered theological questions.

These questions start early:

  • Why did God make the sky blue?
  • Did God invent cars or did people do it?
  • Why did Grammy get sick?

Then it gets a little more complicated when we get older:

  • Why did God make pimples?
  • Why are all the other kids more athletic, smarter, and more popular than I am?
  • What’s going to happen to my friend who is a Muslim when she dies?

Then, as we get even older, we ask more complex theological questions, and seek deeper answers:

  • If God loves us, why are there floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other “acts of God” that cause so much death?
  • Why does the Church seem to treat people so differently than Jesus did?
  • Can I as someone who uses scientific evidence and cold, hard facts believe in a God that I have never physically seen or heard or touched?
  • How could God send millions and millions of people to Hell for simply believing what they have always been taught?
  • Why do bad things happen to good people?

Maybe you have answers for some or all of those questions.  Maybe many of them still echo in your heart and mind as unanswered prayers.

This last one is the perfect segue into the book of Job.  These are the kinds of questions that we have been tackling over the course of the last couple of weeks, as we have studied the book of Job.  For 37 chapters now, we have found countless questions, prayers, petitions, and a whole lot of hopelessness.  But still no answers.  The last question on the list has been the most obvious one in the book thus far: why do bad things happen to good people?  It is profound and painful, both personally and theologically.  How could a loving God allow such evil and suffering in our world?

And over the course of the last couple of weeks, we have heard at least one answer to that question: because those who suffer deserve it.  This is the answer that Job’s friends seem to land upon.  For them, Job is suffering because he has done something wrong.  It is easy for us to make fun of Job’s friends on this side of history, but perhaps that answer is not so foreign to us.  I think there are Bildads and Zophars among us even today.

So, last week, I got this email.  Out of the blue, about the book of Job.  Apparently someone has written a book about Job and this was a generic promotional email about why I should buy it.  But it was the first line of the email that caught my eye: “Job was not upright and blameless.”  If you were here the last couple of weeks, you know that it is first line of the book: “Job was upright and blameless.”  So I had to click on the link and come to find that the author believes that there is no way that Job would have been punished if he really were upright and blameless.  So the book is this justification, it is the evidence against Job – why he wasn’t really upright and blameless.  Fifteen reasons why Job deserved his punishment.  I was astounded.  I had to scroll down to the bottom of the link to see if this book had been written by Bildad.  It is just human nature – then and now – to not understand how someone could have suffered like this and it not be his fault.  The assumption of this book seems to be “we suffer because we have done something wrong.”

And maybe we haven’t written a book, but have we subtly believed the same thing?  For example, how many of us have heard the argument that those who are poor are lazy?  Is this not a Zophar argument?  After all, if they worked harder, then they would not suffer in poverty so much.  The unspoken – or sometimes spoken – assumption is that rich people worked for every dollar that they have, and poor people live in poverty because they have not worked as hard.  They suffer because they have done something wrong.

Or perhaps have you have heard a conversation like I have.  Someone receives a bad diagnosis from the doctor, and we all shake our heads in sadness.  And then someone offers, “I wonder if they would have been better off if they had eaten better.  Or maybe if they didn’t smoke so much.”  Our Eliphaz judgment sneaks out.  They suffer because they have done something wrong.

For three dozen chapters, we hear this argument.  Job refutes it again and again, but his friends are relentless and starting to get frustrated.  In the end, a fourth, even angrier friend jumps in: Elihu.  All four of these “friends” explaining in rather pointed fashion that Job would be better off if he admitted his wrongdoing and asked for forgiveness.  Eventually, they all four say, God will chime in and prove them all right.


And just at that moment, God does indeed chime in.  Finally, we hear a voice from the whirlwind.  It is God, the creator, who has something to say about all of this.  What does God’s answer to Job tell us about our unanswered prayers?  Job struggles with so many theological questions: About where God is and why he (Job) cannot defend himself.  About why God doesn’t use God’s power to stop this.  And at the heart of it, why bad things happen to good people.

To answer this theological question takes a theological response.  And a different one than Job’s friends.  Their theology, and the theology of many throughout history argue from a pretty worldly view of power.  According to this view, power is meant to control and manipulate.  Thus, God as the ultimate power in the universe, is the ultimate controller and manipulator.  Therefore, if there is something that has gone wrong – a blameless and upright person who suffers for example – then God has somehow failed to use God’s power appropriately and effectively.

But what if we saw power differently?  I would suggest that the Bible as a whole, and this passage in Job in particular, offer us a different definition of power.  Instead of defining power in terms of control and manipulation, Scripture more often than not tends to define power in terms of…love.  Of relationship.  Of shared community.  This is why God chooses to covenant with this tiny and powerless family of Abram in the Old Testament.  Why God chooses political outsiders like the prophets to speak on God’s behalf.  Why God comes to “dwell among us” in the form of Christ not into a powerful political family, but to an unmarried poor Mary.  Why God redeems this world not by overpowering it, but dying on a cross to save it.  Power in the Bible is not about overpowering, but empowering love.  And Job’s friends – and honestly a lot of us – still cling to those worldly definitions of power, and don’t know what to do when God doesn’t fix our world for us.

But look again at God’s response to Job.  Instead of explaining why bad things happen to good people, God gives Job a roll call of nurturing love.  Using examples from creation, God speaks of birthing the sea.  Lovingly swaddling the clouds.  God is a loving Father to the dew, a Mother to the snow.  Instead of overpowering, God’s words to Job are words of empowering.  Perhaps my favorite example from this passage is the ostrich:

The ostrich’s wings flap wildly,
    though its pinions lack plumage.
14 For it leaves its eggs to the earth,
    and lets them be warmed on the ground,
15 forgetting that a foot may crush them,
    and that a wild animal may trample them.
16 It deals cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own;
    though its labor should be in vain, yet it has no fear;
17 because God has made it forget wisdom,
    and given it no share in understanding.
18 When it spreads its plumes aloft,
    it laughs at the horse and its rider.

[Job 39.13-18]

The ostrich is a mess.  He is a bird who cannot fly.  She lays her egg on the ground where it can get stepped on.  The ostrich has no wisdom or understanding. It doesn’t take much to figure out who the ostrich might be a metaphor for.  Job and his friends think they have all the right answers, but when it comes down to it, they are a mess, too.  And yet, just like the ostrich, God cares for them, loves them, nurtures them, empowers them.

The passage seems eerily similar to another passage about a bird from the New Testament:

 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,[j] or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” [Matthew 6.25-26.]

In the end, God cares for creation and God cares for us.  This passage of Job is about the foundational power of the universe – love.  Throughout, we see examples of that relationship, that love.  In fact, throughout these 35 chapters where Job and his friends are arguing about the nature of God and the work of God and their unanswered prayers, every time they refer to God in a generic form: “El, Elohim, Shaddai, Eloah.  But then, in 38, the author shifts the language to refer to God as Yahweh – the personal name of God.  Now, it is personal.  Now, it’s relational.  The Yahweh who held the Israelites by the hand and walked them through the wilderness.  Who lovingly cared for them.  Who lovingly created the earth and heavens and the ostrich, loves them as well.

And maybe that is the answer that we are left with today.  When that child looks up into our eyes and asks why their goldfish had to die.  Or that teenager looks down into our eyes and asks why they don’t have any friends.  Or that friend looks at us with tears in our eyes and asks some theological question that we stammer and struggle to answer.  When the unanswered questions of life hit us square between the eyes, maybe the first answer always needs to be the same it is in the book of Job.  And every other book of the Bible.

God is love.

The ultimate power of the universe is love, and the universe was created from and by and with that power.  So while we might not have all the answers, we, too are empowered to love.

Once again, I turn to Harry Emerson Fosdick to guide us through the morass of our unanswered prayers.  When our prayers go unanswered, Fosdick turns the question back on us and asks, “is God empowering you?”  He writes that there are three ways that God cooperates with humanity: prayer, intelligence, and work.  And one of the reasons that our prayers sometimes go unanswered is that God is inviting us to cooperate in one of the other two areas.  For example, Fosdick asks what parent would oblige when a child says she doesn’t want to do her homework but go play instead?  If it is within our power to work for a solution, then God is empowering us to do that, not simply answering our petition so that we can go and play.  Or what about intelligence?  What ship’s captain would suggest to the crew that instead of using their intelligence and knowledge to steer the ship, they should just pray to turn starboard?  When our prayers go unanswered, writes Fosdick, the first question is whether God is empowering us to bring the solution we desire.

Surely you’ve heard the old story of the man whose house was flooded and he climbed to the top of the roof to escape.  There he prayed for God to rescue him.  A boat came by, and the man refused the boat.  “No, I have prayed for God to rescue me.”  Then a helicopter came by, and the man refused the helicopter.  “No, I have prayed for God to rescue me.”  Finally, the flood waters overcame him and he died.  Surprised and angry, he marched up to God in heaven and demanded why he didn’t respond to his prayer to rescue him.  God, of course, smiled as he said, “well, I sent you a boat and a helicopter.  What more did you want?”  God empowers us through the power of love.

But that doesn’t mean that we must never pray.  Fosdick writes this in his conclusion to the chapter.  With apologies for the gender exclusivity of the language: “Even when God cannot answer affirmatively the man’s petition he can answer the man.”  God always answers us.  Maybe we don’t get the theological clarity that we pray for.  Maybe the answer is that it us up to us.  Maybe the answer is that we must wait and be patient.  Maybe like Job, the answer is that we need to open our eyes to God’s nurturing power beyond our understanding.  But God always answers us, even if God doesn’t answer our prayers in the way that we desire.

This was the conclusion of Julian of Norwich.  She was an anchoress who lived during the Black Plague in Europe.  All around her, good people were dying.  Children were dying.  Her friends were dying.  There is some evidence that she herself was living in quarantine when she wrote her book Revelations of Divine Love.  In it, some of her most powerful words were recorded: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well….For there is a Force of love moving through the universe that holds us fast and will never let us go.”  In the midst of utter powerlessness and hopelessness, she saw the power of God at work.  The force of fierce love.  The strength of unending nurture.  The power of Presence.  She didn’t get all her questions answered, at least not in this life.  But she learned enough to proclaim, “All shall be well.”  May we proclaim likewise.

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