Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
Preached as part of Chi Alpha’s “Impossible for God” Series
March 22, 2012
Job 24:1 “Why are times not kept by the Almighty,
and why do those who know him never see his days?
2 The wicked remove landmarks;
they seize flocks and pasture them.
3 They drive away the donkey of the orphan;
they take the widow’s ox for a pledge.
4 They thrust the needy off the road;
the poor of the earth all hide themselves.
5 Like wild asses in the desert
they go out to their toil,
scavenging in the wasteland
food for their young.
6 They reap in a field not their own
and they glean in the vineyard of the wicked.
7 They lie all night naked, without clothing,
and have no covering in the cold.
8 They are wet with the rain of the mountains,
and cling to the rock for want of shelter.
9 “There are those who snatch the orphan child from the breast,
and take as a pledge the infant of the poor.
10 They go about naked, without clothing;
though hungry, they carry the sheaves;
11 between their terraces they press out oil;
they tread the wine presses, but suffer thirst.
12 From the city the dying groan,
and the throat of the wounded cries for help;
yet God pays no attention to their prayer.
When you think of God-forsakenness, what comes to mind? A personal tragedy? A natural disaster? One of the endless horrors that human beings have inflicted upon other human beings? I suppose if you were to look for the ultimate example of God-forsakenness, since the middle of the twentieth century, the example par excellence of God-forsakenness has been the particular horror that we wrought known as the Holocaust.
In the middle of the Holocaust, it would be hard to imagine that there could be any one horror that could stick out. But Elie Wiesel tells of one particularly haunting experience that stands out against an entire background of horror.
One day at Auschwitz, the entire camp was forced to watch the hanging of a child. Wiesel hears someone ask, “Where is God? Where is he?” The child is not even heavy enough for his body’s weight to break his neck and he dies slowly and in agony. Wiesel hears the same man asking, “Where is God now?”
It’s a fair question, borne by a lot of human experience. We see the innocent suffer. The wicked prosper. Power accumulates to the few. Justice is denied to the many. Children starve, women are trafficked. Whole populations are oppressed, occupied, slaughtered. That might not be enough to make you doubt that God exists, but it should make us wonder whether God cares.
The unknown man who speaks in Elie Wiesel’s story voices not so much disbelief in God as a bewilderment as to God’s seeming indifference. Surely, God must do something.
II. THE TEXT
Of course, he would not be the first one to express that bewilderment. In the passage from the book of Job read just a few minutes ago, we encounter that exact same question. Job, for no reason he can discern (actually as part of a wager between God and Satan), is suffering. He has lost his family, his livelihood, everything he held precious. His three friends espouse a popular theology of the time called “Wisdom Theology” which maintained that good things happen to the righteous and wise, bad things happen to the wicked and foolish. If Job is suffering, they reason, he must have deserved it. He must have done something to have brought upon him this misery.
But Job knows he hasn’t done anything wrong. He knows he is righteous and faithful. Therefore, God must simply either not know or not care what is happening. A situation he observes in more than just his own life:
Job 24:1-3, 9, 12 “Why are times not kept by the Almighty, and why do those who know him never see his days?
The wicked remove landmarks;
they seize flocks and pasture them.
They drive away the donkey of the orphan;
they take the widow’s ox for a pledge. …
“There are those who snatch the orphan child from the breast, and take as a pledge the infant of the poor.
From the city the dying groan, and the throat of the wounded cries for help; yet God pays no attention to their prayer.
“From the city the dying groan, and the throat of the wounded cries for help; yet God pays no attention to their prayer.”
It might just as well have been written: From the Concentration Camp, the killing field, the child soldiers’ camp, the dens of the sex trafficker, the dying groan… yet God pays no attention to their prayer.
In all this, there is no doubt of God’s existence, only of God’s care. It’s important to note that believing in God is not the hardest thing. All kinds of people can be convinced there is a creator of the Universe—some principle that lies behind its origins. The First Cause. The Prime Mover.
It’s much harder to believe that this God cares about anything we do. This was certainly Einstein’s position. We Christians are fond of claiming Einstein as a believer because he talked about God a lot and even said, “Religion without science is blind; science without religion is lame.” But he also said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”
There is a huge difference between believing in God and believing in a God who cares, who is not indifferent. My old boss was convinced that there was a God, but had a really hard time believing God cared about us. Just looking around at a world very much unredeemed, it can be hard to argue with anyone who came to that conclusion. As Job later says in that chapter: “If it is not so, who will prove me a liar, and show that there is nothing in what I say?”
After all, much of our understanding of God comes from human experience. And our entire lives are dominated by indifference. We buy clothing and never really bother to ensure that it wasn’t made in some sweatshop by children somewhere. We buy technology and never really bother to think about the working conditions of the plant it was made in or whether the tantalum or other components were purchased in a conflict zone and are funding some kind of atrocity. There are whole entire structures of injustice that we say we’re opposed to but in reality are participating in every single day, indifferent to the ways that they oppress others.
Why should God care any more about these things—all the way from heaven—when we, who are made in his image can’t even be bothered to care about them and we’re right here?
Has God merely become the projection of our best intentions? The way we do this with our own clergy or other leaders, putting on to them the virtues we wish we had and then being disappointed in them when they turn out to be just like us? Do we claim God is not indifferent because, given how indifferent we are to most things, we hope that someone is paying attention?
Is it really so hard to believe that it’s possible for God to be indifferent?
IV. THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
Is there really any of us here who in the middle of the night, in the midst of pain, heartbreak, or grief, hasn’t cried out to heaven and heard nothing but silence and wondered whether God cared at all? Oh, we feel bad about it—but the nagging thought does not go away: what if I call out into the void and there is no answer?
Haven’t you ever had that time where you find yourself rocking back and forth in your chair, or curled up on your bed, or just staring off into space praying, hoping, pleading for God to just… show up? Crying out into the darkness and longing for an answer. If you haven’t yet, you will. It’s called the “long dark night of the soul” and is a time we all pass through sooner or later. Often more than once.
I can remember one particular long, dark night of the soul that I’ve had. A long term relationship that had been on the way toward marriage had come to an unexpected end. After months of uncertainty, I was left with nothing. A hollowed out heart and a future in ruins. I was gazing into the void, calling out and there was no response.
The void I found myself staring into are all things that anyone who has been similarly brokenhearted has experienced. The same feelings are often felt around the death of a loved one or some other major spiritual trauma. These moments of God-forsakenness are not limited to the major genocidal crimes of our age.
And in those moments, we, like Job, might wonder whether God even knows what’s happening to us. Or is God really just indifferent altogether?
V. THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD
But is that in God’s nature to be indifferent? How do we even know God’s nature?
In the third chapter of the Book of Exodus, God reveals Godself to Moses and tells him “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings…” (Exodus 3:7 NRSV) Scholars often note that the Hebrew word ידעתי yadati means not just “I know” intellectually, but to know by experience. God doesn’t just know of our sufferings—God knows our sufferings. God experiences our sufferings.
Christ is for us the revelation of God in human form; the Word made Flesh. The one through whom God is made known to us, but also the one through whom we are made known to God. Our sufferings, our sorrows, our pain, is not happening apart from God, God is in the midst of it. In Christ, we encounter a God not distant and removed from our lives, not far on the other end of the line, but present.
When Elie Wiesel watched the Nazis hang that child in Auschwitz, he heard a voice behind him say, “Where is God now?” But what’s even more telling is Wiesel’s thoughts to himself: “And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Here he is—he is hanging on this gallows.’”
Wiesel might have meant that to mean that God was dead, or he might have meant it some other way. But we as Christians can only understand it in one way: Where is God in the midst of suffering, injustice, and pain? Here God is, hanging on this Cross. Hanging on the cross of that same suffering, that same injustice and pain.
All of Job’s complaints about orphaned children snatched away from the breast, about the wicked who abuse the poor and the needy; in every instance and more we may answer the same way: where is God? Naked and living on the street. Huddled around a makeshift fire living under a bridge. Standing in line at the soup kitchen. Being trafficked into slavery. Where is God? There God is, upon the cross.
And in that understanding, we come to understand more deeply that the Christ of the Cross cannot be indifferent. Because the Christ of the Cross has made a declaration of solidarity with us into the very longest, darkest nights of the soul. Even unto death itself.
VI. SOLIDARITY AND SALVATION
And in that solidarity there is salvation.
In the middle of my ‘long dark night of the soul’ that I was in after the end of my engagement, it was a moment of distress, when the future has become empty, a waste. The void. And in those moments we gaze into the void and wonder whether anyone hears our prayers
In moments like that, there is also little that can be said. There are a few formulas that people like to use—“more fish in the sea” kind of thing—but in reality, we struggle to find the words that will help someone to heal. (By the way, this is why the Church’s usual response: “God has a plan” or “It’s all in God’s hands” are so obnoxious. In addition to being trite and vapid theology, these sentiments don’t actually help. Better to have kept our mouths shut and just given the person some chocolate.)
In the middle of this void, I got a call from my good friend Lloyd the day after the breakup. He invited me over to his apartment that evening. We went up onto the roof of his building and, with a few beers, we sat and had a conversation. We talked about politics, philosophy, religion, science, television, you name it. The one thing we did not discuss was my ended relationship. But in a way, it was the only thing we discussed. For what Lloyd was really saying to me in all of that was “I know this is terrible and there’s nothing I can say that will change that, but I am here with you.” What that conversation really was was a declaration of solidarity with me. It wasn’t an attempt to fix anything. It wasn’t an attempt to respond to my circumstance by heaping up empty platitudes. It was a solid and unmistakable demonstration of solidarity. And in that moment, though I still had a ways to go, I began to heal.
The solidarity of God heals us in the same way. It doesn’t remove the problem. It doesn’t solve it for us. But it lets us know that in the midst of our brokenness we are not alone—that God is not indifferent. And that can bring healing.
Is it not also the case with people who face a difficult problem or illness, either physical or mental, that when they encounter others who share the same affliction, more healing is possible? This is the whole secret to group therapy: someone who feels overwhelmed by depression or anxiety or arachnophobia or whatever, encounters other people who share the same affliction. In that moment, the afflicted comes to understand that they are not alone in their sufferings. Other people know how they feel. Other people have come to experience the same phenomenon. And in that realization there is tremendous release and healing can really begin to take place. The healing does not come from people untouched by the brokenness; it comes from those who share the brokenness.
The cross has power not because it is magical or because it simply represents some divine plan to solve the problem of who would pay to atone for the sins of humanity. It has power because it represents the brokenness that we humans know all too well. The cross need not be explained to us. We know what it is: it is an instrument of injustice, of violence, of rejection, and death. In short, it is the human experience. The power of the cross comes in knowing that even in the midst of that profound brokenness, God is with us. God, through Christ, declares solidarity with us in all our brokenness and in that realization, we find healing and salvation.
If God be in the midst of the cross, there is no brokenness that we can experience where God cannot be found. If God can be found in all our brokenness then we can find healing in precisely those places where we would imagine it least possible. If we can find it in those dark corners of our existence, then we have truly tapped into the nature of our salvation. We as individuals—broken, sinful, fearful—are saved by the experience of the solidarity of God.
Jesus’ name means “Yhwh is Salvation” but the nature of that salvation is truly made known to us by Jesus’ other name: Immanuel “God is with us”.
There are going to be plenty of times in our lives where we will stand on the precipice of the void. Times of sorrow, times of injustice, times of anxiety and doubt. We will cry out and our words will vanish into nothingness. And it will seem as if God were indifferent to our sorrows.
But in those times, we are not alone. Standing beside us, in the midst of it all, is one who knows our sufferings, who knows our sorrows, who knows our pain, who weeps our tears. Who does not offer us easy answers or simple platitudes; who does not offer quick fixes or magic bullets, but who stands beside us on the wilderness road, who pulls us close in the darkness and says, “I am with you.”