I was reading an article by Gordon Grose in this month’s Christianity Today about how a commonly-celebrated passage in the book of Job doesn’t actually read the way it’s commonly translated. Grose notes that this misreading of Job changes the meaning of Job, but it’s bigger than that. It actually changes how we view our faith, and how we consider praying powerful prayers.
You know the story. Job is an “upright and blameless man, ” blessed by God with the good life: a nice house, a large family, and lots of wealth. Satan asks God for permission to test Job, and God consents. Satan then takes away everything Job has: his possessions, his family, and his way of life. In his destitution, Job is surrounded by his “friends”, empty comforters who condemn Job for what, to them, seems obvious, hidden sin. In the midst of dialogue between Job and these fair weather friends, Job speaks the classic words of faith that we know, or what we thought we knew: “Though He slay me, yet I will hope in Him.”
As I read this passage in the past, I believed the story of Job revealed to me one man’s supernatural, extraordinary faith, faith that persisted when everything was taken from him. I believed, as so many, that when I faced horrible things in my life, my response should be mustering up the faith of Job, faith that flew in the face of my current, tragic reality, superhuman faith that not only transcends my circumstances, but seems to transcend my very present reality.
The only problem is that’s not how the phrase actually reads. Grose notes that the original Hebrew actually translates the passage, in its entirety, as Job railing out to his criticizing friends, “Keep quiet, I will have my say; let what may come upon me. How long! I will take my flesh in my teeth; I will take my life in my hands. He may well slay me; I may have no hope; Yet I will argue my case before Him.”
This one phrase not only makes more sense within the text, but changes our view of Job’s attitude altogether. Instead of claiming steadfast hope in God, Job is demanding an accounting from Him. He knows those who appear face-to-face before God don’t fare well–think those Nazis who opened the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark–they are usually obliterated in their own sin as they stand before a perfect, holy God. Job knows this well, yet he wants God to explain to him why God would allow him to suffer despite being a righteous guy. And, even if he is obliterated, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style, in the process, Job is saying he will seek an accounting from God.
Here’s the amazing thing: God actually answers Job! Instead of slaying Him, God answers Job in the only way Job’s human-sized brain will understand- by explaining through a series of unanswerable questions about God’s creation that God is God, that He is awesome, that His ways are beyond our comprehension, and that He is good. In the face of this withering, yet loving response, Job repents and accepts God’s sovereignty. And, God commends Job for coming to Him, for crying out to Him, even for demanding an account from Him. God rebukes the other guys, saying they have not spoken of God rightly, as has Job. God affirms Job, not them.
Yet another untold piece of the story is that Job is healed. Even though Job is “upright and blameless,” his response in the face of suffering clearly indicates he believes his righteousness entitles him to only good things in life. Like the older brother in the prodigal son parable, on some level Job believes he is owed good things from God because of his upright conduct, rather than those things being the gracious unearned gifts of God. Job needs healing from feelings of entitlement and manipulation, as do we all, and God uses the cauldron of suffering to heal us of them, as He must for all of us.
So, why is this awesome, and what does it have to do with praying powerful prayers? I have walked with members of our community who have lost family members, often in sudden, tragic ways. Some are walking through loss as I write. Others have lost jobs, been rejected by friends, had children go astray, been wrongly accused, and other horrible things. In those moments, it is terribly unsatisfying to be told, “Simply muster up the faith of Job. Keep a stiff upper lip. Your faith should transcend your horrible circumstances.” God never asks us to be so insincere, so inauthentic with our emotions, our grief, or our pain. Instead, He invites us to come to Him in prayer, to cry out to Him, to ask Him “why?” even when there’s no conceivable way we’ll understand the answer. Nevertheless, He tells us to come, to run to His arms, to seek comfort in the fact that we are His beloved, and even though we live in a broken, fallen world where bad things happen to both the righteous and the unrighteous, we never have to fear the ultimate outcome, never have to fear the empty void, never have to fear we are not deeply, eternally loved by a God who is in complete control.
Faith isn’t holding it together when all around is chaos; it’s crying out and running to the One who gives peace in the midst of chaos, and gives strength in the midst of weakness. Powerful prayers are often cries to the One who listens.