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Discovering God’s presence through lament

Author: Bible Society, 8 February 2021

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Demonstrators in Austria ask fundamental questions. Photo credit: Reuters

It is no exaggeration at all to describe Job as the champion of lament in the Bible, writes Dr Jutta Henner. No wonder, given that the blows of fate had hit him so hard.

Dr Jutta Henner

Photo credit: Foto Nelson

The book of Job caught my attention again in late spring 2020, when Covid and the first lockdown hit the world. I learned about the painful and tragic situation of an old couple, friends of the Bible Society, in the midst of the pandemic. The husband, needing some day-care after a stroke, had to go to hospital for some routine treatment. While he was there, Covid broke out and homecare did not work any more; he was released to a nursing home. After 65 years of marriage the couple were separated by force. For several weeks they could not even see each other at all. It was lament that united them. Only when the husband was about to die was his wife admitted for the first time to the nursing home to see him – through a glass wall. Their last encounter was a sad one. Lament became the companion of the widow. A funeral with only five participants, loneliness at her side. She read regularly in the book of Job. Job's words of lament became her words.

The book of Job has offered a vast space for identification to many suffering with Covid: how can they keep faith in such a desperate situation? The breaking of relationships, the loss of perspective, of a job, health or even loved ones have led to doubt and despair, to the loss of any hope and trust. There is no other book in the Bible that takes its reader on such a remarkable journey through the deepest suffering and darkness.

While re-reading the book of Job in the past months my attention turned also to the three friends of Job. They visit him, they sit in silence and they join him in mourning. Then they start to talk: they know how to explain Job's suffering and desperation. They try to give all the terrible experiences that Job had to go through a meaning. They blame Job and make him responsible for his suffering. But they don’t join Job in his lament.

I wonder what was burdening Job more in his tough situation: the suffering that he was going through, or the well-meant words of his friends adding to his despair?

Job is between faith and doubt. There is only one way of expressing his feelings towards God: he laments! He even goes further: he accuses God with strong words. In lamenting, Job is hoping for some kind of reaction or response from God.

It seems as if Job is about to lose also his God, a God who has become for him a silent and incomprehensible God. His traditional faith has been shaken to its foundations. But even now, Job throws his experiences towards his God. Bible readers know that it will take a very long time before God breaks his silence – in a different way than Job has hoped for. God does not explain anything. God does not respond to any of Job's questions. Quite the contrary: God asks Job many questions that can’t be answered and reveals himself in a different way than Job had learned of him before.

Surprisingly, for Job it is enough, and it comforts him in his despair, that God speaks. At the very end of the remarkable story of Job, a story about a journey of faith exploring all depths possible, Job confesses (Job 42.5, GNB): ‘In the past I knew only what others had told me, but now I have seen you with my own eyes.’ Job acknowledges the limits of the human imagination of God. God is not preventing any harm and sorrow, but he is present, even in the midst of unexplainable suffering.

In my last phone conversation with the old widow, she told me that after several months of lamenting she had found peace. She knows now that God was with her and her husband even in the saddest moments of their lives. And she shared that the book of Job that had previously been a strange book in the Bible for her had become a valuable companion in this dark period of her life. She urged me to promote the reading of the book of Job among those in despair and suffering.

Dr Jutta Henner is General Secretary of the Austrian Bible Society

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