This week, we’re greeted by two familiar texts that are favorites to many. Psalm 23 might be the only complete chapter of the Bible we have memorized. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” For many of us, this text has added significance because it’s a text we turn to for comfort in our darkest hours, when we ourselves are traveling through the valley of the shadow of death. These words are promises of God that we cling to when we feel burnt out and beaten down.
The words of this Psalm help to restore our parched souls that desperately search for the water by which we will no longer be thirsty. Sometimes we say these words, and immediately we know them to be true. We’ve been off on the wrong path, but our Lord can guide us back to safety. We are surrounded by evil, but we no longer fear because our shepherd holds the rod of correction and the staff of protection. We hunger for the bread of life, and God provides for that need at the table of fellowship. We may feel alone and exposed on a treacherous road, chased down by temptation and accusation, but we delight in the promise that God will only let goodness and mercy pursue us. We don’t need to fear out on our own, because we have a dwelling place in the house of the Lord.
There are times when things around us seem to change, just because we took the time to bask in the promises of God expressed in this Psalm.
But what happens when our life experience betrays these promises? What do we do when we feel like a sheep that has wandered off without its shepherd? Or worse. What happens when the shepherd of correction and protection seems to turn on us and fence us in, rather than giving us free reign in his fields? What do we do when the comforting promise of a table in the presence of enemies becomes all too true because our friends and family have abandoned us, leaving those who hate us as our only houseguests?
That was the experience of Job, a man who was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” Things had gone well for Job for a long time. He had seven sons and three daughters and seven thousand sheep. Surely, he had to employ quite a few good shepherds to care for them! It was said that Job was the greatest of all people in the East. He was rich, wise, and faithful to God. His whole life revolved around devotional activity meant to protect him and his family from any accusation from God of wrongdoing.
But one day, things changed for Job. Unbeknownst to him, the heavenly court was convened to decide on the question of Job’s true character. The Lord, the chief justice of the heavens and earth called upon a spy and prosecuting attorney under his employ and asked, “what do you think of my servant Job? Surely there is no one like him. He is a pristine example of one who lives according to my standards of justice and righteousness. If only all the other humans I created were as faithful as Job.” But God’s prosecutor wasn’t so sure.
The accuser said before God, “Do you really think Job performs all those sacrifices because of his love for you? He only does it because he receives good things as a result. You have protected him so that nothing bad can happen to him. If you took away your blessings and protection, Job would stop blessing you. In fact, he would curse you to your face.”
God wasn’t so sure, but he wanted to test this hypothesis. So this heavenly adversary was permitted to go down to earth and take away everything Job had—his sons, daughters, sheep, and every one of his possessions. The only thing that God wouldn’t allow to be taken from Job was his life.
Initially, Job accepted this first experience of suffering in his life in stride. When his wife told him to curse God and die, he responded, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” He knew with his head that life is a mixed bag, and you can’t expect prosperity all the time. Even his friends were supportive at first. They sat with him for seven days and seven nights, not speaking a word.
I’m sure all of us have had that experience, sitting with a family member or friend in a time of grief. At first, when things don’t seem real, when the grief hasn’t fully set in, things seem okay. Words of consolation and comfort are accepted. All someone needs is to know that they’re not alone. Perhaps in those still, quiet days of grief the friends offered the words of the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Then the floodgates open. Job speaks up out of the depth of his grief and curses the day he was born. He wishes things would have gone differently, that he would never have been born. No longer do the good days outweigh the bad in Job’s grief-stricken mind. Job had thrived in the protection of God, and now he feels fenced in by God’s judgment. Job cries out, “Why would God do this to me? Why would God allow this to happen? Maybe I would be better off if God just left me alone.”
The words of the Psalmist are no longer comforting to Job. God’s promise to never abandon him becomes a punishment.
We too know this stage of grief. We’ve said those words or heard them from someone we love. If we’re smart, we don’t try and come up with a reason. We comfort and support the best we can through our presence more than through any words. We try and meet the needs that the person who is suffering can’t attend to themselves.
Maybe, later on, they’ll be able to find God in their pain and suffering. But in that flood of grief, answers are nowhere to be found. It may even feel like God is absent or cruel. The good shepherd of Psalm 23 has either turned into the cruel shepherd or the absent shepherd.
In these moments, the 22nd Psalm feels more accurate: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? O my God, I cry day by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”
If you’re familiar with the story of Job, you know that his friends didn’t handle this stage of grief particularly well. Rather than continuing to comfort their friend, they became frustrated with his attacks on God’s lovingkindness. Rather than joining Job’s defense against God, they found themselves trying to defend God.
They were sure that God wouldn’t punish someone who didn’t deserve it. They thought Job had earned his prosperity through righteousness, through his tithes to the church and prayers. Now, on the flip-side of such blessing, they were certain that Job must have earned his punishment. He must have sinned. That’s why God abandoned him, they thought. If Job would just pray harder, give God everything he had left, and confess unknown sin, God would turn away his anger. Instead, they thought Job was making things worse by complaining.
They didn’t think God could handle the shouts and accusations of poor little Job. They thought such vain words would only lead to further punishment.
In the end of Job’s story, God’s verdict wasn’t favorable to those who had abandoned their friend. God told them, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. You are the ones who need to make penance for the suffering you have caused.”
In doing so, God took the side of the accused and not the accuser. God took the side of those who cry out to God out of their grief, and not those who always speak lofty and true words about God’s glory. God reminds them that the right words spoken at the wrong time are the wrong words.
God gives us permission to not only pray to God in the comforting words of Psalm 23, but also out of the pain of Psalm 22.
In our moments of unspeakable grief, God gives us permission to cry out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
As we witness atrocities and terrors around the world, God gives us permission to ask, “Where are you, God?”
As we reflect on the pain evils done in God’s name and the evils some have accused God of committing, God does not ask that we come to God’s defense. The faithful response is not to say that “God must have been punishing sin,” but rather that God is on the side of those who suffer. God is on the side of those who are abandoned, even when they feel abandoned by God.
How do we know this? Certainly we know it is true in the story of Job. But even more so, we know this because of the one who was sent from God to suffer with us, to become death so that we would be saved from death, and to become a curse for us.
We know this because Jesus himself cried out in the words of Psalm 22 at the hour of his death: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Job’s friends knew God as high and mighty, as the one who appoints goodness for the righteous and suffering for the sinner. Job’s friends knew God as the hired hand, who took care of the good sheep who stayed in the fold while letting the wanderers experience the pain of their own decisions.
But we know God as the good shepherd, and the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
In Jesus Christ, God looks at Job and says, “let me come and join you.” God looks at his people who are suffering and says, “let me take your place.” In Jesus, the good shepherd becomes the sheep who is mauled by the wolf who seeks to scatter the flock.
Through Jesus Christ, we know God not as the one turning the dials of suffering, but as the one who knows our suffering because he himself has experienced it.
And only because God has suffered for us can we then be asked to suffer for one another. That’s what 1 John 3 tells us, “we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
That’s what God asks of us who are the friends of Job, the friends of the one who suffers: to suffer with them. As God has laid down his life for his sheep, we ought to lay down our lives for one another. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we give our lives over to death.
In some way, that might be easier! We know how to die for something, but Jesus has already done that for us. We’re asked, instead, to live for something. The sacrifice asked of us is obedience and faithfulness. God doesn’t ask that we give our lives over to death, but rather that we give our whole lives over to the love of God and our neighbor. God asks us to lay what we have at the feet of others, pouring ourselves out for them.
At the end of the story of Job, this is in fact the mechanism God uses to restore Job’s life. Job 42:10–11 says, “the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring.”
This is how God restores the lives of those who are suffering, by friends who don’t lift up lofty words but rather pour themselves out at the feet of others. That’s the kind of selfless action modeled in Jesus and his disciples. It’s embodied in the practice of foot washing, where Jesus takes the position of a servant who cleans the smelly feet of those who have traveled through dusty roads in their sandals. It’s embodied in the radical giving of Mary, who took and broke a pint of costly perfume and poured it over Jesus’s head. It’s shown in the woman who gave her last two coins, everything she had to live on, to God in her temple offering, even though she knew it would be misused. This kind of radical self-giving is the call of Jesus to his disciples, as they abandon everything to follow him.
And yes, this self-giving love of God is shown in Jesus who takes the position of a shepherd, the smelliest and most despised of positions in the ancient world. It’s shown through Jesus who cares for even the dirtiest of sheep and brings them into his fold.
God doesn’t stand idly by in the heavens while his people suffer. In Jesus Christ, God comes to us to shepherd and guide us through the darkest valleys of life. Even when we cry to God out of the depth of our grief, accusing God of abandoning us, God remains the calm, caring shepherd who leads us to water.
Do you feel like Job today, abandoned by God and barely clinging onto life? I pray that you would know the comfort of God, who pursues you with goodness and mercy in your frustration and pain. The God who created us leads us to lush green pastures when we need to recover.
Do you feel like one of God’s prized sheep today, feeling good about your own life? You may be laying out in those green pastures right now, grateful for where God has placed you. You may want to stay put and enjoy the lush grass in front of you. But God calls us out of our comfort, to follow the good shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep so that we might lay down our lives for one another. God is calling you to find a Job in your life, a fellow sheep who is off on their own. Sit with them. Comfort them. Lead them into the fold. Tell them about their shepherd who knows their grief and pain. Lay what you have at their feet, so that they might be restored to life.
No matter where you are in life right now, or where you find yourself in this story, know that God the Father loves you and calls you home. God the Son is your shepherd, leading you to the waters of life. And God the Spirit surrounds you with grace, mercy, and love this day and forevermore. Amen.
Featured Image: Mauve, Anton, 1838-1888. Landscape with Shepherd and Sheep, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51139 [retrieved April 21, 2018]. Original source: http://www.mfa.org/.