What I despise most about myself is my aloofness. I pull back when I should reach out. Afraid of rejection, I hide away from the friendships in which I may be truly known. Stung by some minor offense, I react with a cold shoulder. This scares me most in how I relate to my kids. I can be cold, withdrawn, and emotionally absent, taking care of their needs, but—when stressed or frustrated by something they’ve done—I pull away, not engaging, not comforting, not being present. A silent judge, testing them.
By God’s grace, this is not all of who I am. But I see it. In myself, in the patterns I’ve inherited from family. It is part of who I am. It is all I would be without the grace of friendship, with God, with all of you, with many others. It is those relationships, I know, that make me who I truly am. Still, I am too aloof.
I don’t want to burden you with too much of my inner monologue—it’s probably boring, or strange. Too much information. But I share this because when I read Job’s words in chapter 23, I felt convicted. It struck me that this is exactly how Job thinks of God in this chapter. Job as a child longing for love; God as an aloof and brooding parent. A silent judge, testing him. That scares me. Is God like the worst picture I have of myself?
Last week, Isaac introduced the book of Job and we read about Job’s calamities. Now, in chapter 23, Job has sat in dust and ashes with his friends for days. Each of these companions tries to convince him that he is just a little bit to blame for what happened. Or if not that, then they encourage Job to embrace his suffering as a test. “Do not despise the discipline of the Almighty,” his friend Eliphaz says (5:17). (Just to give a sneak peek here, when God finally speaks at the end of the book, she condemns everything Job’s friends say.)
In his responses to these efforts, Job lurches between moods; first angry, then depressed, then longing for intimacy. He initially retorts furiously to his friends—the best is from chapter 13, verse 4: “as for you, you whitewash with lies; all of you are worthless physicians.”
Other times, he rages at God for endlessly testing humans. At one of these times he turns the Psalm we read last week on its head. In that psalm, psalm 8, we read these tender words—“what are humans that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them.” God, who am I that you should love me so well? Job asks the same question, but in desperation. In Job 7:17 he flips Psalm 8 upside down: “What are human beings that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while? Let me alone until I swallow my spittle?” (7:17-19) To Job, God’s attention doesn’t look like care, it looks like torment. To him, God is like a parent who makes every activity a moral exam, a learning experience, a judgment. Or like a friend whose request for a favor is a way of testing your love. I get the sense that Job can endure his suffering, but not this sense of suffering as a test. He just wants to be left alone.
But, like children or friends who are sick of being put to the test, Job’s desire to be left alone is also a desire to be together. Job wants to be with God. He wants intimacy. Not the intimacy of constant testing; the intimacy of care and conversation. Job desperately wants to talk to a God who has left him in silence. But he can’t, and that’s the deepest suffering of all.
Listen to the longing in this verse from today’s reading: “O that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!…he would give heed to me.” But in the moment at least, God is withdrawn and aloof. “If I go forward he is not there, or backward…I cannot perceive him,” Job says. Job doesn’t doubt God’s existence; Job doubts God’s love. He doubts whether it’s possible to have the kind of intimacy he longs for with God. And how could he? How can we? There is such a mismatch between God and us. “I cannot see God” Job says, “But he knows the way that I take.” God’s knowledge of us isn’t a comfort, for Job. Just the opposite. God watches and judges and Job can do nothing about it, cannot even speak to this silent presence. “What he desires, that he does,” Job says, “Therefore I am terrified at his presence; when I consider him I am in dread of him…God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.” And so at the end of this reading Job once again longs for an end to this relationship. He wants to flee those silent eyes, avoid that accusing stare. I hear the final verse of this chapter as a plaintive whisper: “If only I could vanish in darkness!”
When I first read these verses on Monday they cut me like a knife. I imagined my son Leo speaking them, to me. When Leo is overcome with frustration he lashes out, usually at me or Julian, and at those times I just walk away, emotionally evacuating the situation so I will not be tempted to an angry response, and saying something like “we can play together again when you’re ready to be kind.” And then his anger and fear come together inseparably. “Daddy come back, Daddy go away, Daddy hold me.”
And in those moments I don’t know how to connect, how to go back, how to have the intimacy he longs for. I want him to feel secure in the knowledge that my love isn’t conditional, that I am not testing him, but it so hard. For him; for me.
Job’s suffering is so far beyond what my comfortable life has secured for me. I know nothing of the deepest miseries of poverty, war, abuse, and disease. But Job’s laments give us a picture something we all participate in: our painful distance from each other and from God.
Job longs to hide himself in darkness. In a garden at the beginning of time, Adam and Eve hid themselves, fleeing the God who had walked with them every evening. They hid themselves, too, from each other, ashamed of their nakedness.
We are the inheritors of a lost intimacy. We hold back, afraid to be ourselves not just with God, or with children, but with everyone. We do have moments of connection, moments where we see ourselves truly and see others as they are. That feeling at the end of a joyful meal, or an intense game that makes you forget everything but what you do together, or summer camp as a child, or a nights sky. Sacramental moments where God draws close in bread and wine and wonder and friendship. You glimpse something and then feel a beautiful intimacy slipping away, like sand running down between your fingers.
Strangely, perhaps, Paul notices this in his famous love chapter, 1 Cor. 13, read so often at weddings: “now we see in a mirror, dimly,* but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (13:12) It is easy to miss the painful longing in these lines. Now, we see dimly; now we know each other only in part. Now, we turn away, unable to say the thing that must be said, unable to receive with grace the truth another person offers us.
This is one way of picturing what Christians have called “the Fall,” one way of naming what we call sin. Like Job, we live in the aftermath of a disharmony that we did not cause and yet for which we are nevertheless responsible. As the philosopher Stanley Cavell puts it, “We are endlessly separate, for no reason. But then we are answerable for everything that comes between us.” Maybe I’m over-psychologizing Job or something, but this is part of the pain I hear in his lament. He longs for an intimacy that he cannot grasp. He aches to walk in the evening with his redeemer, as Adam and Eve did in that time before.
Job didn’t cause his suffering. He didn’t by himself break the intimacy. His suffering isn’t something you can pin only on him. And so God isn’t trying to teach Job something. That would be what God is like, if God were like us, or at least like me. That would be the God who waits in silent judgment, cool and aloof, seeing if Job will say the right words, learn to act as God wants him too. But God is not like a human teacher. And that truly is good news.
Job’s suffering isn’t for anything, it’s not good, in and of itself, it’s just a kind of emptiness. That’s what Job’s friends don’t get. That’s why the voice of God from a whirlwind at the end of the book condemns them.
But Job is answerable for his response to all that he suffers, as are we. And Job answers his suffering by crying out to God with all this anger, fear, and longing.
The psalm for today is psalm 22, which begins with the words Jesus cries out on the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus stood where Job stood, in dejection before a God who seemed to have abandoned him. Jesus stands in our place, joining us in our dejection, our rejection. He joins us in our forsakenness, our inability to create the intimacy we long for.
My prayer is this—let us cry out as boldly as Job. Let him be our example. Let us lament as fiercely as Jesus. Let us clamor for God’s attention, so that God would flood us with the Spirit’s presence and wash away all the barriers between us and restore the intimacy for which we long. And may the Spirit answer our prayers just as surely as she raised Jesus from the dead.
 Cavell, The Claim of Reason, 369